Thursday, April 26, 2012

Cross-training is essential for overall fitness

I write an interactive fitness column for one of my local newspapers in which readers submit their fitness questions. Below is a column recently published on the topic of cross-training. Some of you have asked me to share . . . so here it is! And, if you have any questions to submit, I welcome them! Please post your questions on my Facebook Page, "Triathlon Mom" Thanks for reading. Train safe and be smart!
Q: “Most race training guides recommend cross-training. What are the best cross-training routines for runners?” — Christine W.; Franklin, MA
A: As a multisport enthusiast, my immediate reply is “Triathlon!” Fortunately, this is not merely my biased opinion but also a fact supported by numerous sources that site cycling and swimming as top cross-training alternatives for runners.
Put simply, to be a better runner, you have to run. However, in, running coach Nancy Howard says that “cross-training should be part of every fitness plan because it helps reduce the risk of overuse injuries, improves muscular balance, targets your muscles in new and different ways, and aids in muscle recovery.”
Specificity, or how specific a certain exercise is to running, should be your top criteria when choosing an effective cross-training exercise, notes an article in Cycling, deep water running or aqua-jogging, cross-country skiing or using an indoor cross country ski machine such as a Nordic Track, and using the elliptical trainer are activities that utilize the muscles, connective tissues and joints in a manner similar to running but with lower impact on the joints.
Complementary cross-training activities, such as swimming, rowing, stair climbing, plyometrics, and walking, use the primary running muscles in alternative ways and engage additional muscles not typically used in running. This diversity will allow you to build greater muscle strength and balance, which reduces your risk for injury.
Given that cycling and swimming are two of the best alternative exercises for runners, taking a break from a strictly running-based program to train for a triathlon would not only complement your running, it would also add variety to your workouts and keep burnout at bay.
Weight lifting is another important piece of the cross-training puzzle. According to, lifting heavy weights uses more muscle fibers and increases strength, making you more impervious to injury, and allows your legs to apply more force to the ground in a quicker time frame, which means you will get faster. The article goes on to state that runners should “perform exercises such as dead lifts, pull ups, military press, bench press, squats, lunges, and overhead press that focus on multi-joint, compound movements that build functional strength.”
Adding yoga to your workout regimen also will prove beneficial in all facets of your life. This mindful practice, performed in a responsible and respectful manner, increases flexibility, strength and balance, sharpens your focus, fights fatigue, reduces stress, improves oxygenation and circulation of blood, builds a stronger mind-body connection and fosters a sense of overall well-being.
In short, running too much, pushing the mileage envelope, can lead to injuries. By adding alternative workouts to your schedule you give your muscles and joints a break from the pounding that’s associated with running while still burning calories and developing cardiovascular fitness. Aim to add up to three cross-training sessions each week without compromising scheduled rest days, which are as vital to your training as your workouts are.
By mixing cross-training workouts with running you can elevate your races to the next level and ultimately become a better runner.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

The path not taken

With the exception of one 10k race in the late 90's, when I woke to the sound of rain pounding on the roof and decided to stay in bed (and later found out the race ended up being cancelled anyway), and one other race I deferred due to injury, I've never bailed on a race.

I consider it one of the hallmarks (aka: stupid traits) of endurance athletes to stick to it when the going gets tough and to gut it out under less then ideal circumstances. I've raced when I've been exhausted, sick, unprepared and even injured. I've pushed through swims in near-freezing temperatures, cycled in thunderstorms and run in torrential downpours that flooded streets.

So, in hindsight, I am feeling more than just a little bit lame for skipping out on my scheduled trail race today--my first-ever trail race and one of my bucket list items.

Aware of my interest in trail running, a friend told me about "Race for the Birds" (, a 4+ mile or 7+ mile trail run to benefit the Potomac Valley Audubon Society’s environmental education and outreach programs. The race, held at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service National Conservation Training Center in Shepherdstown, West Viriginia, on trails traversing forests and fields along the Potomac River, a venue not normally open to the public, was to be my first trail race.

image of runner

I was totally excited about the opportunity. I liked the mileage, the distance, the date and the location, and the fact that I had a friend willing to share the adventure with me. Before long, another friend signed on and the three of us were looking forward to a fun and fit "girls day out."

Alas, a perfect storm of "extenuating circumstances" combined to squash this race, an event that somehow, despite all of its appealing qualities, always seemed difficult to pull together, organize and commit to. It was a race that sometimes felt like it was "not meant to be."

The biggest obstacle for me was an IT band injury that's had me benched from running for most of the past three weeks. I'd downgraded my expectations from completing the longer run to hoping I could manage the shorter distance, walking if necessary, though I didn't completely trust myself to stick to that plan. Nevertheless, it wasn't cause enough for me to abandon the race.

However, since I would not be able to "race" in earnest, I started to feel guilty about leaving my husband to juggle logistics and transportation for two away lacrosse games, team pictures and a major school event just so I could "take a walk in the woods" and have lunch with friends.

The weather was the final nail in the race's coffin. Mid-week reports called for an 80% chance of rain and T-storms. This trifecta of conflicts was weighing on me. But, still, I was hopeful and willing to wait until the last minute to make the final call. My running mates? Not so much.

My friends also had obstacles to contend with, including health and training issues, and family obligations of their own.

Though my husband supported my venture and was prepared for his role as taxi driver and cheerleader, and I was prepared to drag my injured IT band to WVA for this trail run/walk, in the rain if need-be, I wasn't prepared to go it alone. Without the additional lure of a day out with the girls, without the companionship of my Thelma & Louise, it was just too much. Too many obstacles, too many negatives. The scales were tipped against this race and a group decision was made to bail, a decision I agreed to when the hammer finally came down.

But, looking back, I wish I'd had the fortitude to stick to my guns. To race against the odds, and in less than ideal circumstances, is part of the adventure and what makes each experience unique. Of course being prepared, being in good health and having optimal weather on race day is preferred, but it's the little kinks that often add a dash of flavor to the journey and reveal an athletes true stripes.

And guess what? I checked the weather this morning and it was 60 degrees and sunny in WVA. And, my knee is feeling no pain after a short brick run yesterday. So, perhaps the race that "wasn't meant to be" might have been destined after all.

And still the trail beckons . . .

Friday, April 20, 2012

Smack my mouth

"Well, smack my mouth!"

I have a family member who, culling from her family's southern roots, uses this expression. I love it; it cracks me up every time.

So, naturally, it was the first thing that came to mind when today, following a 15-mile ride + 1 mile brick, I uttered these words to my husband:

"I think I actually enjoyed the run more than the bike."

Say, what?!?! I didn't really just say that, did I?

Whatchoo talkin 'bout, Willis!

You see, running is the bane of my triathlete existence; my absolute Achilles heel. Running vexes me and challenges me, injures me and inspires me. I tend to view it as the "necessary evil" of triathlon.

But today my husband and I were running an intel mission, riding the course of our first race of the season--a new one for us. I'd been looking forward to it all week and expected it to be great. It wasn't.

For starters, it was hillier than expected (touche!). But the road conditions were poor, shoulders crumbling and non-existent, and the traffic was plentiful; large, loud and uncomfortably close. We thought we'd ride the loop twice. Once was enough.

But the run was different. I've been benched for the past week after an IT band injury reared up a month ago at a race. I thought it had healed, but an "easy" 4-mile trail run last Friday set me back again; climbing stairs became my biggest challenge in the days that followed.

So, another week of rest and I decided to attempt a tiny brick after my leg muscles were thoroughly warmed up. An easy 1-mile run was the test. And it felt so good! And it was fast! And 10 hours later I still feel good; my knee is blissfully silent.

Today's ride made me feel like this:

But the run made me feel like this:

Don't get me wrong; running is still the bane, the Achilles, the evil, but today it was my freedom, my fun, my victory. This is probably the first and only time I will ever say these words so I will say them again: "I enjoyed the run more than the bike."

Well, smack my mouth!