It’s rare for us to have a client who doesn’t cross-train. Most runners do something in addition to running, whether it’s yoga or Pilates, kettlebells, working out with a trainer, or even just going for a swim once a week. Sometimes these cross-training activities are beneficial and sometimes they interfere with healthy, enjoyable running.
So how do you tell the difference between helpful and harmful cross-training? By asking one key question: does this activity involve moving my pelvis? It all boils down to that.
The single most essential element of healthy running is proper movement of the pelvis in the transverse and frontal planes, meaning it turns a bit and it tips side-to-side like a seesaw. If you spend your cross-training time doing things that hold it still while you move other parts of your body, you’ll be more likely to overstride and heelstrike, running more slowly and stiffly and courting injury. It doesn’t matter if your cross-training activities strengthen or mobilize muscles or joints that might contribute to your ability to move your pelvis, such as working your obliques and mobilizing your hip joints. If you hold your pelvis still to do that strengthening or mobilization, you are training yourself to hold your pelvis still.
Your nervous system learns movements, not muscles. If you learn and practice and perfect the right movements, then all the right muscles will be strong and you’ll have the mobility you need for great running. If you learn and practice and perfect the wrong movements, even if they strengthen the right muscles, the strength will be useless or worse because you’ll do what you’ve trained yourself to do: use it to move wrong.
So with that in mind, here’s a list of common cross-training activities and how well they meet this criterion:
Yoga: like running, yoga creates movement in the sagittal, or front-back, plane by developing your capacity to turn and bend your trunk. It helps you improve mobility and strength of your hip joints and trunk (or “core”) in the context of movement of your pelvis, particularly in sun salutations and the warrior poses. It’s even better if you make a point of allowing your pelvis to move and paying attention to all the different kinds and sizes of movement it makes. A moderate amount of yoga tends to be good for runners.
Pilates: this popular form of cross-training involves little to no transverse or frontal-plane movement of the pelvis. Except when adapted by running-savvy teachers, Pilates exercises tend to involve creating situations where the pelvis naturally should move in these directions and then working to prevent it from doing so in order to strengthen the stabilizing muscles. Runners who already have good form will find they already have strong stabilizing muscles, and runners with poor form and possibly low strength in the stabilizers will not improve their form by spending an hour or two a week focusing on holding their pelvis still.
Swimming: this depends on what stroke you use. Freestyle (or “crawl”) is wonderful for runners since it helps you feel how to line yourself up from foot to head, discourages lifting your chest, and if done properly involves rolling side-to-side in the water, turning your pelvis and lengthening first one side and then the other. Other strokes that don’t involve turning in the water, such as breaststroke and butterfly, are not beneficial.
Cycling: many runners cross-train on the bike because they can get a good cardiovascular workout and also work their legs in a way that’s somewhat similar to running without impact. But the pelvis doesn’t move significantly in cycling; that’s one of the reasons it’s so hard to run off the bike in a triathlon. There are other problems too, involving the flexed hips and trunk position and immobility of the upper body – it’s just plain lousy for your running form. If you’re not specifically training for triathlons, stick with swimming and skip the bike.
The elliptical trainer: this is possibly the worst cross-training choice though the reasons why don’t primarily have to do with the pelvis. The pelvis does move and if you’re determined to climb on one of these machines, you may as well at least pay attention to the kinds of movements your pelvis makes. That may be the only part of your body that will move naturally on an elliptical, and even that depends on letting your heel lift when your foot is behind you, like in cross-country skiing. Please, do some yoga, go for a swim, or at least switch to the stair climber, which carries the movements of your trunk through your limbs in a much more natural, healthy way.
Strength training: the devil is in the details. Strength training on machines doesn’t move your pelvis and is not good for your running. Using free weights is better but it still depends on whether you do a lot of exercises that keep your body square or not. Strength training that involves balance, diagonal or spiraling movements, and turning is of course great for your running – a great core exercise, for example, is standing and using a cable to create resistance while you turn. This moves your pelvis a lot! Lunges are better than squats, and doing what’s generally known as “functional fitness training” tends to fit the requirements of runners quite well. You can evaluate all the trendy new workout equipment this way – kettlebells, TRX, etc.
Do you have a different kind of cross-training you like to do? If so, what is it and how does it meet the “pelvis movement” criteria?
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Jae Gruenke, GCFP, is a running technique expert and Feldenkrais Practitioner. Known as a “running form guru,” she is the Founder and CEO of The Balanced Runner™ in New York City and The Balanced Runner UK. She has helped runners from beginner to Olympian improve their form to become pain-free, economical, and fast.