At Cross Purposes (The Long Run 2011 Mar)

crossAs a runner, when you think of cross training, what springs to mind? Cycling or swimming, surely. After that, probably some form of rigorous hiking, say a slog up the infamous Manitou Incline. For you gym-goers, perhaps the spinning bike, elliptical trainer, stair stepper or rower is your cross-training bliss. As runners, we are ever watchful of our cardiovascular fitness. And we should be. It is our bread and butter, after all. But one can’t live by bread alone.

Being a writer for the Long Run, it makes sense that I’m a runner. For ten years I’ve mixed in running circles. During that time I’ve discovered that runners are very fine folks: bright, healthy, happy people with an infectious verve, and really quite sane–refreshingly sane–despite the claims of non-runners who don’t get us. But I would be remiss if I didn’t bring up something I’ve frequently observed about runners that has left me scratching my head. With runners, I have sometimes detected a note (and occasionally a thunderously struck chord) of cardio-snobbery, a kind of air that looks down its sun-blocked nose at weight training. Perhaps it’s largely the fault of weight training’s farcical media image: an image that has tried, with the aid of legitimate fitness crusaders, to distance itself from Muscle Beach, but is still, I contend, essentially alpha male, eternally teenage, steeped in testosterone, vain, and able to lift a Volkswagen while at the same time unable to run around it. Rather like Neanderthals, weight lifters have never quite cast off the primal yoke and gained the respect of enlightened modernity. (A glance at the latest line-up of grocery store muscle magazine covers may provide a clue as to why).

Being a writer for the Long Run, it doesn’t necessarily make sense that I’m a weight lifter. And yet it is so. I’ve lifted weights uninterruptedly for 18 years. Having heard my share of gym talk, I can say that hard-core weight trainers are apt to view runners as willowy breatharians who would not only be crushed to death by the workloads under which a weight lifter daily labors, but who lack even the strength necessary to change a tire (assuming they even deign to drive an automobile) or turn a wrench on a stubborn nut.

Touché.

And so I find myself feeling somewhat like H.G. Wells’ time traveler, caught between the Eloi and the Morlocks of the contemporary fitness landscape. And since I can’t flee to another time (say, 50 years in the future when fitness routines seamlessly meld the virtues of weight-training and running), I—and other hybrids like me—must work the ground between these two fitness subcultures who sometimes like to hurl poisonous barbs at each other.

So who has it right? In my view (and in the view of many experts) both sides are right—at least insofar as they regularly embrace the practices of the other side. Here we do well to remember the term hybrid vigor. Originally a term used to talk up the virtues of genetic variety, the term has wide applicability. Applied to sports physiology, it speaks to the healthfulness of mixing it up—and I don’t mean mixing up barely differing forms of cardio training. Now if we put the term hybrid vigor in one corner of the training philosophy ring, who do you suppose we’ll find in the opposite corner? Here our good friend specificity of training is ready to rumble. Specificity of training. It sounds complicated but it’s not. In fact, it’s charming in its simplicity. If one wants to excel at something, one does that exact thing again and again and again until it becomes easy (or until it feels like Chinese water torture). Want to run a fast race on the weekend? Spend your weeks running fast. Do anything else and you are just wasting energy and time required for…you guessed it, running fast. My gut feeling is that specificity of training can be maintained for a limited period of time: for a cross-country season, say. And maybe it can even see a naturally gifted runner through a high school and college career. But for one who means to take running into his or her thirties and beyond, specificity of (cardio) training paired with the cumulative neglect of an aging musculoskeletal system is an unwholesome and unsavory recipe. I personally know runners in their 40s and 50s whose cardiovascular systems are vastly superior to my own (and to those of runners 20 and 30 years their juniors) who are literally on their last legs owing to bad knees caused by, I believe, weak quadriceps, patellar tendons and patellar ligaments. (This is the equivalent of a high-performance motor on a rusting chassis.) Many more runners are plagued by hip and lower back problems most likely stemming from weak glutes or core muscles. None of this even mentions osteoporosis, the onset of which can be significantly forestalled by a steady regimen of weight-bearing exercise.

I have heard serious runners object to weight training on the grounds that any extra muscle weight they carry equates to lost seconds of race time. My personal experience is that even significant gains in strength do not necessarily translate to gains in muscle weight. They haven’t for me. If weight training has ever detrimentally affected my running performance, it has been on account of its energy demands siphoning reserves necessary for fast running. Thus I don’t advise weight training in the several days prior to a race.

I’m arguably a better runner because of weight training. And even if I’m not, I’m certainly a healthier runner because of it. For a sensible strength training routine, visit http://www.fitnesssports.com/Strengthtraing.html

(Comment: This article had potential with the Eloi/Morlock analogy but went too far in relating the animosity between the two parties. My point might have been made without graphic accounts of the more juvenile forms of virulence to which I have on occasion been privy. In recent years I have found that far less strength training than suspected is necessary for optimal health and injury prevention.)

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