Different Terrains

What is cross training and why is it useful to runners?

When a runner trains by adopting another kind of fitness workout such as cycling, swimming, a fitness class or strength training, to supplement their running, he is said to cross train. It isn’t always enough that a runner logs in their weekly and monthly mileage by adding more miles to their run everyday. It is equally important to ensure that muscles that are not used in running are utilised to ensure an overall build of strength and flexibility of the body that helps to notch up endurance and stamina during actual runs/ races. This also prevents injuries due to muscle burnout and brings in a variety fare to your running. No one likes monotony, right?

Benefits of cross training:

Runners have their obvious strengths: power, endurance, tenacity. But within those strengths lies the potential for weakness: quads that overpower our hamstrings, neglected upper bodies, and poor flexibility—qualities that could lead to problems.

Choosing the right fit.

Choice of a cross training option should be viewed from a runners perspective only. Choose the one that keeps your heart rate at 70% or above your max rate. The workout should be hard but comfortable. Ideally if you are running 3-4 days a week, substitute one running day with a cross training day. On a 6 day workout week, if you spend 2-3 days strength building and 3-4 days running, switch over to cycling or swimming or training on an elliptical, or even Zumba for one day of the week. Cross training helps prevent injury as long as your approach is healthy and not too aggressive.

Yoga is another excellent method of cross training and it can bring in great stability & flexibility to your body .This aids running immensely and has proven benefits. Swimming helps in increasing the oxygen capacity of your lungs and builds in great endurance. Being impact free, it offers you to rest your weary legs from pounding the road all through the week. Using your entire body for swimming allows other muscles to be worked on, achieving optimal fitness for runners.

A new entrant into cross training that has caught the imagination of the running fraternity is pool running or aqua jogging. This can either be done in an open pool or in an pool-like-equipment with gadgets measuring the workout. Impact free yet powerful, you can even carry out your interval workouts effectively in the pool instead of on the road, thus giving a much needed respite to your tired legs and experience the joy of building endurance.

Crossfit and plyometrics are a few other forms of cross training that are yet to catch the fancy of runners in India. They are high intensity, short burst workouts that vary by the day and are extremely effective for short distance and sprint runners. Plyo workouts graduate from a slow to a medium to a high intensity cardio movement, while crossfits are killer workouts that aim at a runner exploding at the start.

In the words of Raghul Trekker, coach of Dream Runners & two time Iron Man of India " The best time to cross train is the off season where one can take time off from running altogether and cross train for a month or two. Other best times are recovery weeks or recovery days. Also when a runner is injured, cross training can help them maintain fitness and recuperate in a healthy fashion."

Summarising, the options of cross training available to an endurance runner like you n me are

  • a. Cycling
  • b. Swimming
  • c. Yoga
  • d. Plyometrics/ Crossfit
  • e. Aqua or pool running
  • f. Strength training
  • G. Walking / beach walking

Are you wondering then how do triathletes cross train? I picked our other triathlete Dr. Partha for some sound bytes . "Cross training for a triathlete is just alternating hard training between each of the disciplines of swimming, cycling and running. It does make me feel good when my fellow runners are awed by the fact that after a killer interval workout running, I am headed out for a swim in the evening. On a more serious note, crosstraining keeps me injury free and improves my cardiovascular fitness to a level where running alone would not get me."

So choose your preferred cross training routine, find a group you can workout with, ensure you slip that into your training plan and follow that diligently.. results of this would be yours to see.

Psst: My preferred choice has always been cycling. What’s yours?

Go up the Hill, come down a Mountain!

Going from run-of-the-mill poetic and prosaic deliveries that could entertain and dilute your focus, here’s a rapid fire FAQs and Caveats straight from the Swiss Alps to the La Palmas to our very own Ladakhs - with avid Hill runners like Ashok Daniel from Chennai, ( a Lawyer with a self-professed running problem to boot! J) who has done over 60 Hill Ultras ranging from 50 kms to 175 kms which have taken him anywhere from 16 hours+ to upwards of 45 hours to nail them – who’s giving you a literal ‘run-down the hill’ prepping you for that next Hill marathon this summer or next…

What is Hill Training?

Training on hills improves leg-muscle strength, quickens your stride, expands stride length, develops your cardiovascular system, enhances your running economy and can even protect your leg muscles against soreness. In short, hill running will make you a stronger, faster and healthier runner. And for many of the mountain lovers amongst you, gives you a much deeper connect with the hills, besides upping the pleasure quotient, whether you are racing or training.

When can you start training in the Hills?

It can take a couple of years of consistent running on the plains- to transition from road running to do some serious running in the hills. The transitioning process should be gradual to avoid injuries as different muscle groups are required to maintain stability, ankle flexibility and balance, where intense core work outs besides specific routines can help.

Caveats- when you train and run the hills:

Slow down your Pace:

This is what seasoned hill runners do as against amateurs who don’t like to slow down their pace resulting in early fatiguing and very sore muscles later.

Watch your Posture:

  • You should train your body to remain upright both up and down the hills.
  • Keep your core muscles tight and hold your head up, allowing your shoulders to go back and your chest to remain upward.
  • Your body may try to roll forward when going up the hills and slightly backward when going down the hills. You should correct this and keep your body as upright as possible.

Control Stride Length:

  • You want to keep a steady rhythm when running hills, but you have to create this rhythm with shorter strides.
  • Stretch your legs out more- and you burn out faster-both up and down the hill.

Keep the Downhill Rhythm:

  • If you aren’t experienced with large hills, you may have a sense of free-falling that brings fear on the downhill.
  • Remember, slower strides will help keep that sense of control.

How different is Hill Running from normal trail running?

Mountain races are a lot more technical and steeper than regular trail races and hence require one to develop a varied skill-set to tackle and conquer. Intense lateral movements forces one to develop agility to hop and skip over boulders and rocks. It demands a lot more attention, precision and daring.

Which pair of Shoe do you dig into?

Go for shoes that offer enough protection to help you be nimble-footed.

Most hill-trail shoes come with a rock-plate to avoid sharp rocks while offering good grip on any surface.

What are some of the favourite hill-trails you’ve conquered?

Ultra trail du Mont Blanc (UTMB) - 172 km long with 10,000 metres of ascent- as good as Mt. Everest conquest! Gives one a perspective of three countries France, Italy and Switzerland and taking in the amazing natural beauty while attempting it.

Transvulcania in the Island of La Palma, Canary Islands: 74 Km race with a 4500 mtr ascent, stunningly beautiful and brutal with a 50 Km climb and a long technical descent in the last section. It takes you through volcanic craters giving one a feeling of running in Mars!

Well, we have some exciting Mountain runs like theLadakh Marathon, running at 3500 mtrs above MSL, which comes up in September every year, requires one to do an acclimatization stay of close to a week before the race day. Am told by one of my team members, Boomi who attempted it last year- that many participants are brought to a crawl by the time final ascent stares at you!

Well, no wonder some celebrated wit said- If you start feeling good “during” an Ultra, don’t worry you’ll get over it!

But then, Pain is temporary; Pride Lasts forever!- sums up the feeling after conquering the mountains!

Trail Run - A Zen Experience

Unlike running on a tar surface amidst the noise and buzz of a city, trail running lets the feet accustom itself to uneven paths and forces the mind to focus on maintaining balance. The picture of running amidst greenery, breathing fresh air and smelling the forest immediately percolates our thoughts. A Zen like experience, that combines running against the elements of nature, just as Santiago did in the novel ‘Old Man and the Sea’. For us Indians, the picture gets enhanced as a 70MM shot of Mani Rathnam with the Himalayas on the backdrop.

Little do we realize that trail running is actually more tedious and energy consuming than running on the roads. So much so, that most serious marathoners run on trails to improve their timing. The low impact of the soft surface feels like Mannah compared to the hard tar surface. The challenge of the unknown keeps the brain active and definitely will move us away from the mundane long city runs. But running is running and the good news is that we do not have to choose between trails and roads.

Last few years has seen the skyrocketing of trail running events. Some of these are serious sporting events while the others want the runners to enjoy the scenery, some are held on high altitudes while others on plain rocky surfaces, some runs follow the traditional marathon distance of 10K, 21K, FM and Ultra marathons while others let the trail mark the distance. Irrespective of whether the trails-run is held in the cool weather of the Nilgiris, the extreme cold of the Himalayas, the hot sands of Rann or the Red Hills on the outskirts of our own Chennai, all trail-runs promise a different and more challenging running experience.

The fact that the soft surface helps prevent running injury is another benefit of running on trails. Trails are usually uneven surfaces covered with rocks, tree roots, loose soil and sometimes if you are lucky small streams. These can be the cause of an injury and it is important to have 100% body awareness while running on a trail. This greater body awareness will help you improve your PB in races and make you more conscious of your surroundings.

Uma (Dream Runners) an ardent Marathoner is a big fan of the Kolli Hills trail. ‘Val Vil Ori Ultra Run’ is conducted every year on these hills and the participation is restricted to a selected few. The nice thing about this trail is that the surface is tarred and comparatively smooth, even though it runs through some breathtaking scenery with wild animals crossing the path. The runners can experience the sunrise while ascending the hills. While it is a meditative experience for runners like Uma, (who throw away their Garmin watches on these runs) it is serious training ground for others. “This trail run is used as a practice ground by many to train for the ‘Comrades Marathon’, says K.V.Krishna (Bessie Dreamers).

The Chennai Trail Marathon is held on an uneven dirt track along the Cholavaram tank near Red Hills. This is a timed event, running in the gruelling sun on a rocky surface is quite a challenge. Conducted by the Chennai Trekking club, this run has the traditional 10K and 21K and also a 50K. The run is quite popular among Chennaites and lets one experience the rustic outskirts our own city, while putting the body through the rigours of a really tough workout. This is a perfect training ground for Ultra and Full Marathons.

The founder of CTC, Mr. Peter Van Geit feels that trail runs are a meant for runners to get closer to nature. However, he also feels that trail runs are ideal for marathon training. “It takes almost 6 hours to run a marathon and requires mental preparation. Trails are ideal for such training” says Peter. CTC also conducts the Javadhu hill run, the registrations for the same have soared over the years.

Two of Ashok Daniel's ( Cool runners ) favorite trails are the Javadu hills and the Malnad Ultra. Malnad Ultra is accepted as a qualifier for UTMB. The 50 K, 80 K and 110 K trails run through coffee estates at elevations between 3000 and 4100 ft.

Zen or serious training, trail runs are worth experimenting with. Whether you plan a short vacation to Jawadhu hills or run the Kaveri Marathon from the Ranganathittu Bird Sanctuary, do the 10 K or the run an Ultra, run alone or with friends and family, you are assured of an experience that will last a lifetime. What are you afraid of, afterall its only dirt.

Runner friendly doc
- Structuring a training plan

The season has begun with a little nostalgia about the weather in December and a lot of hopes of running faster or stronger with no injuries towards that pb. Whether you were running with a plan or you were running for the joy of running, whether you hit your targets or you were sidelined by injury , the start of the season is the best time to look back, analyse and plan your next season to fill in the lacunae.

First things first, if you were injured find out why. Consult a doctor, identify your problem and solve it. Don't wish it away or pretend it didn't exist. All it could require is a change of shoes or a little bit of strengthening, so commit yourself to sorting and not skirting.

Well, blissfully no; half your life’s mysteries and challenges, Almighty doesn’t love to take away!

But how do you structure your training plan?

The first step is to identify your target races. You would want to choose a shorter distance early on in the season. First to improve your speed and also to avoid long dehydrating training runs in terrible weather. The second half of the year is when you want to ramp up your mileage and go for the longer distances. Once you have identified your races, you slot out your training phases.

Base phase- This phase must form the first half of your training period. Characterised by slow ramping up of mileage with short hard runs to improve your pace, running form and strength. Also weave in some hill repeats, strength training and cross training like cycling and Aqua jogging. This is the phase to up your mental fortitude for the next hard segment. Recover adequately and keep the hard efforts for shorter time and distance.

Build phase- By the name, this is the phase where the training volume increases. Also try to follow a 3 week buildup with a one week recovery. Interval training, tempo runs and fartleks should make up about 30% of your mileage. Concentrate on hydration, recovery and nutrition.

Peak phase- This forms the last 2 to 3 weeks of your training program before your taper. Depending on the distance you are training for, this is the time for maximum mileage, hard race-pace intervals and maximum training stress.

Taper- The most important phase of your prep for a race is the taper. The period of taper varies from about a week for a 10k to 3 weeks for a marathon. This is the time for the body to recover and be race ready. Simple aerobic runs, short race pace efforts to ‘learn’ the pace, adequate rest, hydration and nutrition and simple cross training makes up the plan. Massages and other recovery tools like foam rollers and yoga are a huge benefit. The mind and body become race ready with no fatigue and a ready to go attitude.

Recovery- This is the most neglected phase of training. All races need a recovery period which can vary from a week to even 6 weeks depending on distance and age. Take some time off, easy running, cross training and generally taking it easy is something we have to teach ourselves to do. Though it seems like you are losing fitness, you are actually getting back to a solid foundation for the next training segment. It forms a part of the base for the next segment.

The duration of all these phases depends on your target race.

Happy structured running