Cross-Training for Runners

by Dr. Jeffrey Ross, D.P.M., F.A.C.F.A.S.

When cross-training comes to mind, what types of exercise or equipment do you think about? Swimming or aqua running, exercise bikes and “spinning”, treadmills and elevated speed walking, stair steppers, and now the latest craze, the elliptical trainers, are all possibilities. How many have you tried? Do you even know what they are? You may have seen a variety of designs on television, and if you belong to a health club, then you’ve probably seen them.

I discovered them about a year ago when I went to my health club’s exercise and weight room after a run. I was looking for an alternative to the stair stepper, which I felt put stress on my knees, Achilles tendons, and the balls of my feet. I saw this interesting machine called the “elliptical trainer.” It looked pretty simple, and the pedals were fairly large to stand on. As I watched others exercising on the machine, I noticed that their feet and legs never experienced any impact. That immediately got my curiosity going! I also saw that the movement on the machine was similar to running or climbing. I’m a runner who also likes to cross-country ski, but this seemed to be easier than both. All of the participants appeared to be working up a good sweat, and they were all either watching television or reading the newspaper. I liked that just as much.

So I did a little checking to see what I could find about this new cross-trainer program. According to research from the University of Wisconsin, when comparing an elliptical trainer to a treadmill, there was no significant difference in terms of oxygen consumption, caloric expenditure, and heart rate. The big advantage that the elliptical offers, however, is that it reduces the impact to less than half what the treadmill produces.

For runners who have suffered overuse injuries, i.e. knee, hip, low back, ankle, Achilles, heel, and foot, exercising on an elliptical trainer may be just what the doctor ordered. In the rehabilitation phase of your recovery, these machines can offer a safer, yet excellent “training effect.” I have recommended it to many of my patients and I love to follow my own running with a half hour program on the elliptical. It’s a fantastic way to “cool down,” yet keeps the heart rate going while simultaneously lowering the impact trauma to the muscles and joints. It allows for a nice, rhythmic body movement, recreating the same motion as running while providing for an even stretch of the lower leg muscles. When you finish, you realize you’ve accomplished a lot, but your body is not wasted.

Should you get one for your home? Not unless you’re ready to part with some money. Ellipticals are not cheap. The American Council on Exercise showed that the most expensive models hold up better and outperform the cheaper models. They showed the Nordic Track-Ellipse to rank highest, yet Consumer Reports found it to fail in terms of durability, and do not recommend it. The Precor model at my health club has been there for a while, and it continues to perform well. So if you’re looking for an alternative or addition to your running, think of this new exercise machine. I’m sure you’ll enjoy it and add it to your routine.

Looking for something different in your running routine? Getting bored and want to spice up your life?

The American Running and Fitness Association recommends “Twofers”. This program addresses two or more training objectives in one activity. It provides a variety of exercises, more balanced training, and more completed physical development. The Twofer workout addresses cardiovascular exercise, flexibility development, sprint training, strength development, and speed improvement. Begin your workout, jog or run with five to ten-minute warm-up. Then, while continuing to run, perform an exercise – arm swings, heel ups, high knees, high knees with heel ups, high knee carioca, backward heel ups or sprints – for at least 15 to 30 steps. Complete two sets of each exercise, with a running break in between, and then move on to the next. It is not necessary to perform all the exercises in one workout. You might want to mix it up on different runs. If you’re doing a routine three to six-mile run, you might want to do this program toward the tail end of your last mile. It makes for a great finish to your workout.

The intensity of the exercises stimulates a form of interval training and can accent your workout and improve performance. So when you find yourself out there all alone, with no Walkman to listen, try the Twofer.

Dr. Jeffrey Ross is a Podiatrist, M.D. in private practice in Houston, TX. To book an appointment with Dr. Ross or find out about his services he can be reached at 713.791.9521.