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7 Top cross training sessions for ultra runners

22-Sep-15

Last updated: 15-Nov-18

By James Eacott

Historically, ultra runners only revert to cross training when an injury deems it necessary. However, the benefits of cross training are becoming more widely recognised in the ultra-community. James Eacott tells us why he is a massive proponent of incorporating cross training into every ultra runner’s schedule – injured or not and maps out seven top sessions.

It used to be “common knowledge” that the more you ran the better you’d become. Not anymore. The science behind training has developed considerably over the past decade and more intelligent training methods are resulting in less injury and faster performance gains. Although some can cope with a high volume of running, most of us can’t. Targeted, well-structured run sessions combined with cross training make for a well-balanced, competitive ultra runner who, most importantly, has a long career ahead of them.

There are a myriad of cross training options available, and I’ve detailed a few of the key ones below along with some sample sessions.

 

Photo credit: Newsbie Pix www.flickr.com

Cycling

Probably most popular among ultra runners, cycling offers many benefits to those injured from running. This is largely due to the low impact movement but also because it’s great for building leg strength and a strong heart and lungs.

Focus on the push down as well as the pull up phase of the pedal stroke in order to recruit quads, hamstrings, calves, glutes and hip flexors.

Pros
Quadriceps strength
Cardio development
Low impact

Cons
Need to spend longer on the bike than running to reap the same aerobic benefits.

Example session – 70 minutes

  • 15 minutes warm up
  • 1 min sprint / 1 min recovery X 5 reps (10mins total)
  • 4mins @ 65rpm with a high resistance / 2mins recovery X 3
  • 4mins 110rpm with a low resistance / 2mins recovery X 3
  • 10mins cool down
  • Notes: This session will work your cardio system (during the high cadence intervals) and develop leg strength (during the low cadence work).

 

Photo credit: Whereisemil www.flickr.com

Swimming

It was only once I started competing in triathlon that I saw the benefits swimming brought to my running. I raced the Everest Trail Race in 2014 after spending a few months swimming as part of my triathlon training.

The altitude in Nepal didn’t hurt me as much as it did others. Although that could be down to a huge number of factors, I personally believe it was in part due to my time in the pool. To me, it makes sense that exercising while restricting oxygen intake will increase the ability of your lungs to process oxygen when it does have it available.

Pros
Great for preparing to run at altitude
Gives you a more ‘balanced’ body (who among us couldn’t do with a little more definition around the shoulders, back or stomach?!)
Superb for cardio development
Non-weight bearing

Cons
Doesn’t do much for leg strength (though a few lengths with a kick board will do wonders for your hip flexors).
It can be hideously boring! Structured sessions will eradicate this, though.
Requires sound technique to be truly enjoyable.

Example session

  • 200m warm up (as 50 front crawl / 50 back crawl X 2)
  • 10 x 50m increasing the number of strokes before breathing with each rep. So, in the first 50m, breathe every stroke. In the second 50m, breathe every 3. In the third, breathe every 4. And so on. If you can make 10 you’re doing very well!
  • 3 x 200m easy front crawl with 60s rest between each.
  • 100m cool down

Notes: Bilateral breathing (breathing every 3rd stroke) is a great workout for your lungs. This session will push the envelope by getting you to breathe every 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 and even 10 (if you make it that far) strokes. Do what you can, and remember to exhale when your face is under water.

 

Photo credit: Steve Burt www.flickr.com

Rowing

Anyone who’s ever sat on a rowing machine will tell you how difficult it is. To row properly – and by that I mean sitting up, strong core, pulling the oar to your chest and not rattling the chain as you move forward during the recovery – is flippin’ hard work. But boy is it a good workout. No muscle is left free to relax.

From your calves, quads and hamstrings through your glutes, lower back and core up to your shoulders, chest and arms, rowing targets more muscles than any other individual activity.

YouTube proper rowing techniques before you start. If it feels hard, you’re probably doing it right! Here is a great link to get you started.

Pros
Great all over strength-building: quads, hamstrings, core, back, shoulders and arms.
Very good for fat loss.

Cons
Sore bottom
Like swimming, it can be boring!

Example session

Endurance and squat combo, great for both strength and aerobic development:

  • 5 minutes warm up
  • 16 minutes row steady / 20 bodyweight squats
  • 12 minutes row steady / 40 bodyweight squats
  • 8 minutes row steady / 60 bodyweight squats
  • 4 minutes row steady / 80 bodyweight squats
  • 5 mins cool down

Notes: You’ll have just found your rhythm on the rower, so having to jump off and perform bodyweight squats will be mentally tough and should destroy your legs, but make them bomb proof on the trails.

 

Photo credit: E'lisa Campbell www.flickr.com

Strength and Conditioning

Above all else, I put S&C at the top of the list for inclusion in an ultrarunners cross training schedule. In my opinion, it’s absolutely imperative to complete 2 x 30 min sessions each week as a minimum. I have personally seen great improvements in performance through relying on S&C.

As an example: I completed in the North Downs Way 100 ultra two years in a row. My training was significantly different the second time around. In the second year, my run mileage was nearly half that of the first year (peak week was about 60 miles, longest run only 20 miles), but I spent three hours a week in the gym strength training. I knocked nearly four hours off and, although better pacing and nutrition would have been part of that, I attribute a huge portion of this to time spent in the gym.

This is easily explained. During the latter stages of an ultra, what aspect of fitness is struggling? You’re unlikely to be breathing so hard that your cardio system is slowing you down. You will be aching, your muscles will be tired and your joints will be sore. This will result in poor form and a decrease in speed. Spending time strengthening muscles and tendons will pay dividends in the second half of an ultra as you continue to run with good form, strong posture and efficiency.

Pros
Develop good posture and strong tendons – crucial for running strong late in an ultra.
Rehabilitation / prevention from injury.
Strengthen muscles and tendons around joints: ankles, knees and hips particularly.
It’s sociable and mentally very easy to lift weights!

Cons
Eats into time when you could be outdoors cruising beautiful trails.
Can result in injury if performing complex lifts with incorrect form (but so can anything).

Example exercises

  • Squats
  • Dead lifts
  • Lunges
  • Step ups
  • Glute bridges
  • Hamstring curls

Notes: To begin, start with 3 sets of 15 reps with 60s rest between each set, and 2 minutes rest between each exercise. Gradually increase the weight, reduce the reps and increase the rest between each set.

Check out the first in our video series of Cor’s Core.

Elliptical

I’m a big fan of the elliptical. Ian Corless highlighted the benefits to me a few years ago. I spent many an hour sweating away on this seemingly female-dominated piece of gym equipment. I have no idea why men are afraid of it, my hamstring and glute strength developed rapidly in just a few weeks.

Pros
Fully body workout
Low impact, but still weight-bearing
Focusses effort on hamstrings, glutes and hip extenders – predominant running muscles.

Cons
Sweat sweat sweat…you’ll pour!

Example session

  • 20 minutes bike
  • 20 minutes elliptical
  • 20 minutes stepper

Notes: Simple as that…try it, you’ll be jelly-legged after!

Stepper

Like the elliptical, dominated by women. Like the elliptical, I have no idea why! Probably because us men are too embarrassed to admit that five minutes on the stepper ruins us. Compared to the elliptical, the effort is focussed more on the anterior muscle chains i.e the quads and hip flexor. Combining the elliptical and stepper provides an incredible workout for every muscle in your lower body and I guarantee will make you run stronger in the latter stages of an ultra.

Pros
Fantastic prep for a hilly ultra like the UTMB, Everest Trail Race or Jungle Marathon.
Improves climbing ability.
Targets quads and hip flexor.

Cons
Unrelenting – there is nowhere to hide on a stepper!

Example session
See above!

 

Photo credit: Tim Samoff www.flickr.com

Yoga

I haven’t personally immersed myself into the yoga scene, though this is purely due to lack of time – it’s high on my list of activities to get involved with! However, I know plenty of runners who preach its benefits. Along with improving core strength, flexibility and spinal mobility, yoga also teaches breathing control. Development of all 4 of these components will see improved running economy, efficiency and speed.

Pros
Sociable
Relaxing
Core strength
Improvement in flexibility
Super for strengthening tendons

Cons
Takes time away from the trails
Price of paying for a class
Feeling a little bit of a numpty at first

Example session
If you’d like to try some yoga moves before heading to your leisure centre, have a look at these videos focusing on yoga moves for runners!

 

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Read about our favourite top 10 ultras.

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