The Best Cross-Training for Runners

The Best Cross-Training for Runners

Endurance athletes are always talking about cross-training: the benefits of it, the types of things one should and shouldn’t do. Most runners seem to prefer biking, maybe swimming, some even a bit of yoga. I want to present what I believe to be the optimal cross-training exercise for endurance athletes.
Bikram Yoga.
Bikram yoga is a unique style of yoga in an extremely warm room (think 100 deg F). It is a 90 minute class that consists of the same series of 26 postures, including two breathing exercises. The first series of postures are standing and balancing, often on one leg. These activate the glutes, most especially the glute medius, quads, calves, and open up the front body. The second series is for the entire back body…i.e., the glutes, hamstrings, lower back, neck; an area which is easily missed by most traditional exercise. Another set focuses mainly on the spine, while adding in the quads, and other larger muscle groups. Along with each exercise, the core and the lungs are of worked out.

What makes bikram so perfect for endurance athletes?
Besides the fact that all the muscle groups are utilized…the front and back body as well as the core and breath, I believe yoga is optimal to strengthen the body through an elongated and stretched position. Not only does this develop strength more specific to running, it is also better for the health of your body.
In essence, running develops very little specific muscle strength. Neither does biking. Or swimming. Really? Yup. Neither does it open up the body, nor does it help prevent injury. So many times I have treated elite or sub-elite runners that can’t do a simple quad or core exercise. They only know how to use the body to run. Yet the body could run faster if it developed further in other ways.
The problem is, cross-training with another sport is also not very functional for running or triathlon. What do we mean by functional? We mean that another sport does not necessarily carry over into your running or triathlon to enhance it. The main thing these sports do is increase your aerobic capacity and endurance. Great benefits, but not enough. Yoga, especially Bikram, not only strengthens, but teaches you how to engage muscle groups appropriately, as they should be engaged in running as well.

In my estimation, the biggest issues most runners face are the following:
Problems stemming from tight hip flexors, hamstrings, ITBands (lower back pain, knee pain, and ITB syndrome), weak glutes or glutes that don’t ‘fire right’, a weak core,  a weak lower back, and tight calves (leading to calf, foot or achilles pain). All of these areas are addressed ad nauseum in Bikram postures.

The heat: As an added benefit, the heat is optimal to help an athlete accommodate to higher temperatures, especially given training season is generally in the summer months. In this way it also helps prevent heat illness and optimize recovery in the heat.

The breath: Most runners breathe extremely shallow, mostly from the chest, and inspiring from the mouth. This is not optimal for delivering oxygen to the muscle tissues. Bikram teaches breathing initiating from the core instead of the chest, and coming in the nose instead of the mouth. This is the best way to shuttle oxygen to the lungs so that oxygen-rich blood can be carried to the working muscle. Talk about blood doping. If you don’t currently breathe this way, you may get some Lance Armstrong-like advantages naturally by simply breathing correctly.

The time: For endurance athletes, 90 minutes is a great length of time for the body to work.

The balance: One of the greatest advantages of Bikram yoga is working on balance. Think you don’t need balance to run? Think again…The more time you spend on one leg and pushing off one leg, the more you need balance. The standing single-leg postures are perfect for balance and strength within the single leg stance position. Learning how to fire your glutes, your core, and activate your body will give you a stronger and more stable platform to push-off of

People speak of one main caveat: The uneducated are quick to point out that you run the risk of overstretch because of the heat. This is an unfounded myth. The body can’t possibly unless you push into pain. Not discomfort mind you, pain. Bikram is uncomfortable. Running is uncomfortable. If its not, you aren’t pushing yourself. But it shouldn’t be painful.  IF you feel pain, stop. Otherwise you are not going to ‘overstretch’.

Bikram yoga is a perfect cross-training partner, IF you do it right. It will take awhile to understand all the positions and how to do them right. Listen intently as the instructor gives cues and go easy in the beginning. The heat will likely overwhelm you the first, second, even third try. For endurance athletes the tendency is to push hard. I promise, you don’t want to do that until you accommodate the first few lessons. Don’t be prideful here, just hold back until you know what to expect. Bring tons of water and make sure to drink plenty of water to recover after.

Give it 2-3 classes before you judge. You dont have to be flexible, you just do what you can in a position and the strength will come no matter what the limits of your flexibility. I promise, it can be as addictive as running. You just have to open your mind and give it a try. You can really transform your body and your breath unlike any other exercise.