By now, anyone running the 2014 Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon should be well into their training plan. I’m in the sixth week of mine, and I’m grateful that everything is going much better than I expected.

My average mile split continue to decrease, which is particularly remarkable given that my distances are continuing to increase! After my first week of training, my long run pace was 9:08 min\mile. Five weeks later, I pulled off a 8:29 min\mile pace!

I’m staying relatively injury-free too. The periodic bouts of runner’s knee with which I’ve dealt over the past few months have been minimized with lots of ice and stretching. Luckily, I’ve been able to avoid the dreaded curse of plantar fasciitis that seems to be afflicting far too many of my friends during this season of training.

I’ve never had this much success with reducing my mile times and staying injury-free during a season of training. What have I done differently this year?

Cross-training!

If I had a dollar for every time I skipped my cross-training days during my training for the 2013 Rite Aid Cleveland Half Marathon and my first marathon last fall, I’d be a rich man. Part of this was because I didn’t belong to a gym and had no access to equipment, but most of this was due to sheer laziness on my part.

I love Daddy's cross-training days!

One of the few pictures from cross-training in 2013.

This year, I’ve been very diligent with my cross-training. My training plan has me running three days per week and cross-training three days per week. On my non-running days, I’ve rode the exercise bike, done yoga, used the elliptical, lifted weights, or taken Butters on a walk. The results have paid off in my times and in my overall well-being!

Why is cross-training so important?

Cross-training keeps your muscles flexible and loose on days on which you don’t run. Many runners complain that it can be hard to get going and that the first mile or two can be torture. I had that problem a lot during training for last year’s half. This year, I haven’t had that problem, even when I did long training runs outside in 20 degree temperatures.

Cross-training helps strengthen your muscles. Feeling your leg muscles get weaker towards the end of a training run can be discouraging on several levels. In addition to making the run difficult, muscle fatigue during training runs can allow doubt about race day to creep into one’s mind, especially if one’s training plan has a significant mileage gap between the last training run and the distance to be run on race day. Cross-training will strengthen your legs and minimize the likelihood that your legs won’t carry you to the finish line on race day.

Building in time for cross-training in your schedule helps ensure that you receive the same mental benefits from exercise that you receive on your running days. I’ve said this many times before, but one of the most depressing things that happened to me when I took two weeks off after my first marathon is that the 10+ hours that I previously spent training became immediately filled up with work and other stressful life commitments. Because I wasn’t exercising and didn’t fill up my former training time with other life-giving activities, I found myself feeling more moody, short-tempered, and irritable. Many runners are well aware of the physical benefits of exercise, but the mental benefits are almost as important and are often overlooked.

What are some good activities that runners can do on their cross-training days? Here are three examples:

Walking can be a great way to spend time with loved ones and pets and to keep your legs loose. The weather is gradually warming up in Cleveland, and going for walks a few times per week can help you burn off some calories and keep your legs ready to deliver when it’s time to run again. Hal Higdon’s half marathon plans highlight running as a good cross-training activity, and he suggests going for about two miles. I think that’s a solid distance!

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Went for a great walk with Sheila and Butters last Friday in the Cleveland Metroparks Rocky River Reservation!

 

For the TV buffs, riding an exercise bike or using an elliptical machine can allow you to enjoy your favorite games or shows while getting your workout in at the same time. You wouldn’t know it from my bracket results, but I’ve watched more college hoops this year than I have in years because I’ve spent so much time on the exercise bike and elliptical. Riding an exercise bike or using the elliptical for at least 30-45 minutes on your cross-training days can help strengthen your muscles and keep them loose.

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Yoga is a very underrated form of cross-training. Although it’s usually heralded for its mental benefits, yoga keeps your muscles limber and fresh and allows you to stretch out some areas that don’t often get stretched by traditional stretches. One nice thing about yoga is that it can be done at home, thereby eliminating the need to find child care, buy a gym membership, or drive to the gym on cross-training day.

Sheila and I have been doing yoga at least once a week when our work, teaching, and school schedules don’t allow us to hit the gym. Butters always wonders why we’re on the floor but not playing with him!

yoga butters

Many of my male readers may be glossing over this section. Let’s face it—you don’t see too many guys doing yoga. Fortunately, that trend is gradually changing. Athletes ranging from Shaq to Ray Lewis do yoga on a regular basis, and the entire Seattle Seahawks football team did yoga together on their way to a Super Bowl title. Anyone who watched the Super Bowl saw that the Seahawks were an extremely explosive and powerful team. Wouldn’t you like to have that type of power and speed on race day?

Also, guys, c’mon–you know you want to see your girl in yoga pants. Don’t be the guy sitting on the couch watching TV, eating junk food, and ogling your significant other when she comes back from a yoga class. Be the guy who suggests that you do it together at home! They even make black yoga mats, so don’t worry about losing your man card.

Although it can be tempting to allow cross-training days like rest days, don’t. Treat your cross-training days with the same seriousness as you treat your run days. Your times will decrease, you’ll be stronger, and you’ll be a healthier and happier individual!

What types of cross-training activities do you like to do?

How has cross-training helped improve your running?