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The first time I ran a 5K, I learned that you cannot judge the speed of a runner by the appearance of physical fitness. A person may not look like they spend a great deal of time in the gym, but they run like the wind when the gun goes off. Running is truly the only activity that can improve your running. However, cross training is important for runners to keep them injury-free and maintain balanced overall health.
I believe the number one cross training activity runners should practice is stretching. To remain free of injury and to improve performance, a thorough stretching routine is essential. After a long run of 13 miles or more, the last thing you want to do is to put in a stretching session. You probably want a shower, some protein and time to chillax! You may want to schedule your extended stretching routine on your rest day. At the very least, add a 5-10 minute stretching routine as part of your post-run cool-down. It should include stretches for your glutes, hamstrings, quads, IT band and calves. Also, consider back flexibility and upper body in your stretching routine. Upper body arm swing and posture are still working hard when you run, even though most of your power is generated by the legs. Yoga is a fantastic stretching alternative to schedule for your days off running.
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A compliment to running is swimming. Swimming can provide a break for the joints because it is non-impact. It is an activity that can keep you moving when you are injured. Swimming laps will strengthen the upper body, which is often overlooked by runners. Deep water running can enhance and strengthen the motion of running, given the resistance of the water.
Cycling is another low-impact activity that is complimentary to running. You can see why avid runners tend to gravitate towards triathalons! Because the quadriceps and muscles of the shin are slower to develop in runners, cycling can help balance out the leg muscles. Some running experts advise cycling the same day as running since it is too strenuous an activity for an off day. So, run first and cycle after. Never replace a rest day with a cross-training activity. Give your body a break!
Walking is an overlooked activity for runners, but it is a great low-impact version of what we seek to improve. The same muscles are used to run as to walk, so a long walk is a nice way to recover the day after a race. You can still get a decent cardio workout with a brisk walk on your non-running days, allowing your joints a break from a pavement pounding run.
There are several other options for cross training, such as rowing, stair climbing, plyometrics (jump training), or using an elliptical or Nordictrack that can get your heart rate pumping. Weights or resistance training are complimentary in building upper body and overall strength. However, remember that a heavy weight lifting routine could be counterproductive to your goals in running. My personal routine is currently focused on weight training and speed training. I have a scheduled date when I will back off the weights and shift back to a running focus, building distance for the next race season.
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I want to repeat that cross training should not replace a rest day. Try playing around with replacing a regularly scheduled day of running with a different activity. You will challenge your body, and perhaps break through a plateau you have been fighting. It could be just exactly what you need to reach that next PR!