Sunday, August 26, 2012

#412: Cross Training (Bells, Bands, and Balls)

Water jogging: zero gravity = zero impact
Cross training for a runner is the fitness work you do outside of running. Maybe you do it on an off day while your running engine is recovering. Maybe it's another form of cardio exercise like cycling or water jogging (my latest obsession and one of Mrs P's favorites.) Then there's always the weight room. Strength training for runners is a little controversial. There are concerns that too much muscle mass will slow a runner down and that too much lower body strength work will keep the most important running muscles from recovering before your next time on the road. 

I respect my body's need for recovery, and rarely run two days in a row. If I want to hit my lower body with the weights, I try to to it on running days, after my road work. I can't lift as much weight this way, but I feel like it gives my old wheels the best workout and the best chance to get ready for my next run. I'm always interested in learning about new modes of cross training, and Coach Carrie is introducing me to a whole bucket load of them.

Barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells: they're all iron weights that you swing, press, lift, or pull to build muscle strength and endurance. I've always liked the first two, but am just learning about the beauty of the kettlebell.

The kettlebell is a primitive looking gizmo of cast iron with a with a flat bottom and a heavy handle on top. Russian athletes have been using them for centuries. In the 1960s, they were introduced to the United States, and are gradually becoming a part of every serious trainer's arsenal. Coach uses them as part of a brutal High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) workout that involves sets of kettlebell exercises punctuated by hill sprints to build speed and strength while keeping the heart rate pounding for 20-30 minutes. Believe me, if you're doing it right, that's all you can take. There's a lot of technique involved in using the kettleball, so I strongly suggest you get help from someone who knows what they're doing before you plunge in.

 I learned about resistance bands and tubes at PROMATX, my first gym, and I even have a rig set up on the back porch for one. You might think pulling on a big rubber band is a pretty wussy workout. You would be wrong.

It's a gym you can carry in your pocket.
Resistance bands are inexpensive, portable, and more versatile than any other exercise mode I can think of, (other than pure body weight exercises.) You can use hook them to a wall, wrap them around your foot, pull with them, push against them,  and stretch with them. You can create workouts that give you a real pump and burn based on hundreds of reps, not just dozens. They are a great switch from the other more macho workouts, and they will leave you panting and pumped. They're also less likely to hurt you when you get tired, but the still need to be respected. Form is just as important with a resistance tube as it is with a 300# squat.

Balls, specifically the Swiss Ball and the classic medicine ball, are especially good for building core strength and flexibility. 
An illustration of the importance of form...

Swiss balls are ubiquitous. This big bouncy beauties turn up in the weight room, the yoga studio, and the Pilates classroom. They can provide an inexpensive home workout, but be warned, they take up a lot of space, and your dogs may find them irresistible. Also called "fitness balls," they can be used to intensify almost any exercise or stretch by forcing you to engage your core to keep your balance on top of the thing. Careful though: They are not indestructible, and putting too much weight on one can result in a catastrophic failure that sends you crashing to the floor. 

Grandaddy about to bite it in some old-school dodge ball.
When I heard the words "Medicine Ball," I always thought of those big leather balls with the stitching on the side that people used to throw back and forth in the Gay 'Nineties. Today, Medicine balls are tough, resilient, heavy buggers that you can throw, swing, press, bounce against the wall, carry while you run, and balance on top off while you do pushups. They come in different weights, sizes, and designs. Some look like basketballs, and others have handles molded in. 

Not your father's medicine ball
Coach likes to add them into other exercises. One day, she had me out in the sun doing step ups on the bleachers while pressing a Medicine Ball over my head each time I got to the top. I was a little bit delirious after 25 reps of that one. But pressing through to the end taught me just how much fatigue and adversity I could overcome. That's a lesson every runner needs.

Cardio cross training is about maintaining conditioning in your heart and lungs without overtraining the muscles you need for your primary sport. I try everything. I encourage you to do the same. Get in the pool. Catch a group exercise class. Check out Zumba or TRX, or spinning. Or hit the road for a good strong walk or a bike ride. There are endorphins out there to be had, and you can get them flowing lots of ways. I'm finding that cross training isn't just fun and a great way to meet new people, it's also making me a stronger, faster, more mentally tough runner. 


Full Disclosure: Pennsy is a member and
 employee at the North Lexington Family YMCA
Unsolicited commercial announcement: here's a great place to cross train in the Bluegrass, if you're interested... Just sayin'.

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