Exercise physiologists and coaches will say to get better at running, one must run. This is called the specificity of training. To see improvements in run performance, runners must train according to the task by increasing weekly mileage (Loy et al., 1993). Traditional marathon training plans for recreational runners last approximately 18-25 weeks and consist of 4 to 6 days of running up to 25-50 miles or 40-80 km per week (Chorley et al., 2002). Consistent endurance training in higher mileage running facilitates physiological adaptions that allow for a sustained submaximal work effort for a longer period of time (Gibala et al., 2006). Unfortunately, higher weekly mileage places a runner at risk for injury. According to Van Middelkoop and associates (2008), running injury rates increase with weekly running distances beyond 32 km/week. This is only 19 miles a week of running! Okay, who has trained for a marathon and ran much more than 19 miles a week in training? I am going to assume most people, especially as the long run distance ramps up, not to mention many (not all) training programs run up to 20-22 miles as a long run. Never mind the weekly mileage to support that long run. The problem is that some people are injury prone to begin with, regardless if their body has been loaded with the appropriate training distances at appropriates time by a knowledgeable coach. The bottom line is that some people cannot take the ground reaction force, the pounding of the pavement sustained in endurance running. With that being said, alternative training may be the way to go for some.
If you are recovering from an injury or want to substitute some run miles with cross training that can actually benefit your run performance, this is the blog post for you! Runners tend to go to swimming and cycling to substitute their run training, but if it is not done at a great enough intensity, it cannot work as a substitute for run mileage but a supplement. Substitute meaning instead of running and supplement meaning in addition to running to maintain current fitness. When injured, some runners go to water running, which has been shown time and time again to allow runners to maintain their cardiorespiratory fitness achieved through their run training. This allows you to continue training with 85% less force to the body, but the viscosity of the water creates resistance, to make you still “work”. But come on, it is super boring!
So let’s take a moment to look at some research to see what else you can do to substitute running miles to improve run performance variables while decreasing run mileage volume. I personally love the StairMaster Gauntlet machine most gyms have. I’m not going to lie, the number one reason why I love it is because it gives you a bird’s eye view of the gym room floor and produces optimal people watching. In a 9-week study conducted by Loy et al. (1993), study participants endurance trained on the StairMaster Gauntlet, four times per week for 30-45 minutes at 70-80% maximal heart rate. At the end of the 9-week training, the participants ran a 1.5 mile time trial and researchers observed a 12% increase in Vo2max and an 8% faster finishing time compared to a 1.5 mile time trial conducted at the beginning of the study. So let me crunch some numbers for demonstration purposes. If someone ran 1.5 mile time trial at a 7:00 min/mi pace, they would have good chances of improving their pace to a 6:27 min/mi pace after 9-weeks of climbing the StairMaster for 30-45 minutes, four times per week at 70-80% maximal heart rate. That is pretty good considering none of these subjects ran. Now this study was in fact conducted on non-runners, but I think it is a strong argument that, some run miles can be substituted for StairMaster Gauntlet climbing in injury prone runners to eliminate the ground reaction force, yet at least maintain cardiorespiratory fitness. Also, as a side note, I personally ran my fastest marathon without speed work, but did 40 minutes on the StairMaster Gauntlet, 2-3 times a week. This folks was long before I studied running, performance, or knew anything remotely close to what I know now. Just because it worked for me, doesn’t mean it will work for everyone. Consider that my disclaimer.
A lot of published research on “endurance athletes” is conducted in cycling, instead of running studies. Research by Silder and colleagues (2011) has demonstrated that lower extremity musculature in run/cycle are the same and strength gains in one discipline will transfer to the other. As previously mentioned, many runners substitute running for cycling, but intensity of the activity will determine gains in cardiorespiratory fitness, impacting performance variables. In a 2-week study by Gibala and associates (2006), researchers found that cycling for 30 seconds at maximal intensity for two days with four repetitions, two days with five repetitions, and two days with six repetitions, with four minutes of recovery between reps improved the subjects 30 km time trial by 10%, compared to a 7% improvement in a group of cyclists that cycled at 65% Vo2peak for 90, 105, and 120 minutes for two training days at each time interval. That may not seem like a huge difference, but the most astonishing take-away from this study is that the sprint cyclists total training time over the two week study was 18-27 minutes, including recovery time, whereas the total training time for the endurance cycling group was 630 minutes! I have employed this time saving tactic in some of my run training programs with great success. Again, just because it has worked for some, does not mean it will work for all. Consider that another disclaimer.
This blog post does not imply that using the Stairmaster Gauntlet and sprint cycling is all you need to do train for a marathon. Instead it offers alternatives to substituting some run miles in the injury prone runner or cardiorespiratory maintenance in the off season. Nor does this blog post imply that there aren’t other cross-training activities to supplement and/or substitute run training. Lots of research exists to also support maximal strength training and plyometrics to improve run times. Both yoga and Pilates have a place in marathon training as well as a supplement. All possible subjects for future blog posts of course.
Runner Image: Ricky Roane, Ultra Runner
Chorley, J. N., Cianca, J. C., Divine, J. G., & Hew, T. D. (2002). Baseline injury risk factors for runners starting a marathon training program. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 12, 18-23.
Gibala, M. J., Little, J. P., van Essen, M., Wilkin, G. P., Burgomaster, K. A., Safadar, A., … Tarnopolsky, M. A. (2006). Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: Similar initial adaptions in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. Journal of Physiology, 575(Pt 3), 901-911.
Loy, S. F., Holland, G. J., Mutton, D. L., Snow, J., Vincent, W. J., Hoffman, J. J., & Shaw, S. (1993). Effects of stair-climbing vs run training on treadmill and track running performance. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 25(11), 1275-1278.
Slider, A., Gleason, K., & Thelen, D. G. (2011). Influence of bicycle seat tube angle and hand position on lower extremity kinematics and neuromuscular control: Implications for triathalon running performance. Journal of Applied Biomechanics, 27, 297-305.
Van Middelkoop, M., Kolkman, J., van Ochten, J., Bierma-Zeinstra, S. M. A., & Koes (2008).
Risk factors for lower extremity injuries among male marathon runners. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 18, 69