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Cross Training

Cross training with my son - low impact, low key, but vital.
One lesson I learned from this past year is the importance of regularly cross training to  improve fitness, prevent injury, and enhance recovery.

When I began running trail races as training runs for road marathons, accomplished ultra runner & cyclist, Gary Gellin, encouraged me to buy a mountain bike.  This was in the first few miles of my first 50 miler, the White River 50 Mile Endurance Challenge.

At first, the suggestion seemed counter to my western mentality geared toward specificity.  Naively, I assumed I could rely on my youth and road speed to drop Gary and finish strong.  Instead, the much more experienced Gellin dropped me.  Needless to say, I bought a mountain bike as soon as I returned from the race. 

As I considered the cross over that occurs between other athletic activities, Gary's suggestion didn't seem all that counter at all. In fact, as a teenager I began running to get in shape for basketball.  While it ultimately led me to begin running more and balling less, running helped me have the endurance to run up and down the court for an entire practice or game.  Similarly, many of the best high school runners I coach come from a soccer background.  Running around on uneven grass for 90 minutes tends to strengthen the lungs and lower legs. 

Felt like a total newb, but enjoyed the change of pace.
Given that I don’t really live near much single-track or mountains to climb and descend on foot, biking seemed like the most logical way to strengthen my quads for climbing and descending in trail running races while also training my eyes and body to shift and adjust to the technical terrain below.  I began commuting to and from work and just about everywhere else I could reasonably ride.  This not only saved time and money as I was able to get through congested stoplights faster than if I were in a car, but it also helped warm my legs up on my way to work, on my way home for lunch, and before and after my afternoon run.     

I enjoyed cycling so much that I signed up and trained for a mountain bike race in my area the EchoRed2RedXC.  The fact that I had never done anything like it and that there would be plenty of accomplished riders to destroy me was actually comforting.  There were no expectations and I was simply able to do it for the fun of it.  It was also one of the few endurance events in the area that I wasn't a part of organizing or directing so that lightened the load as well.  I was able to simply kick back and enjoy the event.

In addition to the cycling, I took advantage of the indoor pool and hot tub at my local gym, the Columbia Court Club, to warm up from cold winter runs, stretch out, and recover. 

I was trying to replicate my college days in Hawaii.  During the 2.5 years I lived & trained there I ran twice a day and swam in the ocean after each run.  My only forms of transportation were my bike, my feet, or my thumb if I needed to get into town.  My mileage was higher than it has ever been and I was injury free.  I believe that the varied terrain and time in the ocean helped me to remain healthy while training at high volumes.    

Photo by Paul Nelson.
In 2013, during the time that I was biking & swimming regularly, I began running better than ever before.  I won races, set course records, and recovered well between events.  While these performances were certainly influenced by high levels of competition, favorable weather, and improved nutrition and gear, I can’t discount the added strength, comfort, and confidence I had while racing on trails during the times that I was regularly biking & swimming.  I arrived at the starting line healthy and excited to race.

Conversely, I learned through a few unfortunate experiences that when life got too busy and I wasn’t able to bike and swim as much, I got to races broken down, tired, and unmotivated.  I tried to compete, but my legs and mind had nothing left in them.

While there are several lessons to be learned from my experiences this past year, one lesson I learned is to regularly cross train as a means of improving performance, preventing injury, and enhancing recovery. 

As I ran my last race of the year, despite thoroughly enjoying the time away with my family and friends, I knew I was ready for a break when rather than engaging and competing, my mind just wandered.  Neither my mind nor legs would fire.  Multiple times throughout the course of the race I thought, “I wish I had my bike.  This would be a really fun place to ride.”  As we neared the end of the race, I no longer wished I had my bike, I just wanted to swim.

No more nudging was necessary.  I went directly from the finish line to the nearest pool I could find before returning to eat and hang out.  I took the next few weeks completely off and did nothing but biking, swimming, & hiking for about a month. 

I resumed running this past week and feel energized and refreshed.  I intend to continue to ride, swim, and do a body-weight circuit as often as my schedule permits throughout the year.  And while I’m doing that, others will be skiing, climbing, and exploring, preserving and strengthening their legs so that we can hopefully run like Gary when we are his age.


Recovery is essential to improve one's fitness.  It is during recovery time that our bodies absorb the strength for which the workouts are designed.  Every training plan should plan for both training and racing coupled with deliberate recovery time.

However, due to the vast differences that exist among people, not every training/ recovery plan will look the same.  Rest and recovery are relative.  For some athletes one of the best ways to recover is to go for another run or walk or to cross train either on the same day or the following day. For others, recovery will mean a day or two completely free from training.  They depend on the distance one is training for, the age and experience of the athlete, and what the goals of the training are.

When training for shorter distances/times (5K - Half Marathon), athletes often prefer to recover between each workout so that they feel fresh before the next intense session.  Conversely, for distances beyond two hours some workouts, weeks, and segments of the training (like long runs & back-to-back long runs) are specifically designed to not allow the body to fully recover.  The goal is to feel fatigued to prepare the body and mind for the impending fatigue one will encounter in the actual race. Both appraoches have their merits and both have just as much to do with psychology as with physiology.

I encourage my athletes to take time off after each competitive season or BIG goal race. When they ask how long they should take off I encourage them not to resume training until they miss it so much that they are ready to be consistent until the end of the next season or training block.  For some, this means a week. For others, a month or more. Some may ease their way back into running by doing some active recovery through cross training (biking, swimming, skiing, climbing, aqua-jogging, elliptical, yoga, hiking, etc.) while others will jump right back into running once they feel recovered.

This time off from intense training is just as important (if not more) than time on the feet. During this down time I take time to evaluate the previous season and to set goals for the coming season of base training and the following season of racing.  I encourage my athletes to do the same.  I also like to use this time to read books and articles to inspire me and keep my mind fresh.  I encourage my athletes to do the same.  I find that a week or two a year is usually plenty of time off and it seems to help me avoid more serious injuries, fatigue, illness, and staleness throughout the year. 

Daily Nutrition

When asked to share nutritional advice I typically turn to these time-tested truisms:  

Increase activity level = increase resting metabolic rate.  Ironically, the less I run, the more I eat.  Whereas, the more I run (particularly if I am running more than once a day) the less I eat because I am either running, preparing to run, or not ready to eat a complete meal because my stomach is still settling from a hard workout.  If you are working out once a day, consider adding a second workout.  If you have the flexibility to determine when you workout morning is always preferable (it gets the metabolism running and keeps your resting metabolism higher all day).

Get out early and start moving.
Eat for fuel, not for taste. Due to the instinct to turn to the the first thing I see, I like to stock my fridge, cupboards, backpack, and desk with healthy foods (fruits, vegetables, nuts, high fiber grains, Greek yogurt, etc.).  If I am able to curb my appetite with light, power-packed foods rather than artificially sweetened alternatives I feel better, sleep better, and usually perform better.  

Keep it simple.  Photo by Ashley Bennett Belka

Never fill up where you fuel up your car.  The garbage-in-garbage-out philosophy applies to convenience stores and gas stations.  Most items sold at these places are high in fat, sugar, and preservatives.  They do not constitute a meal and should be avoided.

Breakfast is HUGE!  Another way to get your metabolism fired up is to consume a major portion of daily caloric intake within the first hour you are awake (Racing Weight, Fitzgerald).  Rather than wasting those calories on empty calories like coffee sweeteners or cream, make breakfast a powerful meal.  It doesn't have to be complicated, but I feel that when I fill up on a balance of fruit, protein, and fiber I have the energy and stamina I need to get me through the morning (and it usually works its way out of the system by the time I work out in the afternoon).  

I eat three commons breakfasts to supply me with energy and nutrients I need to get me through the day:

1). My Health Eats Oat Pro 3 with blueberries, almonds, and almond milk with a glass of orange juice.

2). Greek Yogurt Parfait: 1 apple, 1 cup non-fat, unsweetened Greek yogurt, 1/4 cup granola, 1/4 cup blueberries, 1 tbs flax seed and/or chia seeds, hand full of Craisins, and a glass of orange juice.  

3). Omelette: Four eggs, spinach, ham, bacon, and cheese drowned in tomatillo salsa.

This is a lot of food, but it is packed with protein, fiber, and healthy carbs. It also keeps me full until it is time to eat a simple lunch a few hours later.    

Eat like the rest of humanity.  Just because we live in a world of plenty with fast food and pre-packaged morsels does not mean we have to buy into it.  In fact, most of the world doesn't.  Most of the world still lives off simple grains and legumes.  Look at the list of the best runners in the world and ask yourself how often they eat Big Macs or visit their neighborhood Starbucks.  

The truth is, most of them live in places where subsistence farming and horticulture are still the norm. They eat beans, lentils, rice, corn meal, ugale and Chia.  To these staples are added fresh fruits and vegetables. When meat is available and affordable, it becomes more of a side rather than the main dish.  In most cases, the bulk of the protein comes from milk and a combination of cereal grains and legumes.  Anything you eat with this stuff will work it's way out in short order, but not before your body absorbs the much needed iron and fiber that they provide.  

Fill up on nutrient rich soups and salads.  Due to the low fat, high nutrient ratio of most fruits and vegetables it is possible to eat a lot more of them (in volume, not calories) than high-fat meats, high-fat dairy products, and pastries.  By filling up on fresh fruits and veggies either alone or in soups or salads it makes it less likely to overeat less healthy foods.     

Homemade Chicken Noodle Soup: Photo by Anna Lee Landin

Fill up on fresh greens.  Photo by Anna Lee Landin

Reward yourself with a healthy high protein, post work-out/race meal.  When I know I have a big race or workout coming up, I like to know that I am prepared for it.  One way I like to gear up is by preparing for the recovery.  As an incentive to push through the doubts and pains while hitting  my paces or covering the distance I like to know what I'll be eating afterward.  It can be as simple as knowing I have a bottle of Ultragen or a tube of Trail Butter awaiting me in my car or bag, or it might be something more like fish tacos or steak fajitas waiting at home for dinner. Occasionally, it might even mean I reward myself with dark chocolate and sea salt covered almonds for dessert. 

These incentives work for me because I know that they will taste so much better knowing that I earned them than they would if I had eaten a treat or drank a soda an hour earlier and I'm simply eating because I have nothing better to do.  

These are some of the things that work for me.  When in doubt, don't eat it (or be willing to run the extra miles before and after to make up for it).