Back to Fitness: Mix It Up!

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By John Andersen

Many times, the best insights come from personal stories. Even though all aspects of someone’s specific story about a life event, etc., may not apply to someone else’s situation, there is often that one thing that resonates and stands out as significant.

Over time, as I pursue fitness and athletic goals, listening is probably one of the most important skills I have gained. You can learn something from just about anyone—experts, mentors, friends, and newbies—if you are willing to listen, and this is especially true when it comes to pursuing fitness goals. I hope that one thing pops out for you as I share my stories on this column.

Last month, I completed my first 100-mile trail run, out in the Bighorn Mountains of northern Wyoming. I hesitate to share this accomplishment, as I realize most people are quickly going to denounce it as extreme and crazy. And stupid! My mom thinks I have completely lost my mind.

But everything is relative, right?  It’s taken me years to get to the point of attempting such a distance, and believe it or not, I felt pretty much fine the day after! It is truly amazing what our human bodies are capable of, given enough time, training, and adaptation. But you also have to reset your limits every once in a while. Running 10 miles used to sound crazy to me!

What I want to share in this column, however, is about the training that led up to this race.

You might think that training for a 100-mile foot race in the mountains would require, well…a lot of running! Yes, I did run quite a lot compared to your average runner.  However, I didn’t do much more running than many marathoners do. I did a lot of “cross training.”

I’m guessing that if you’re reading this, you’re interested in improving your fitness. To some degree, you have also probably explored some of the many ways to do so—walking, running, swimming, cycling, group classes. Humans have pretty amazing bodies and, generally speaking, improving the function of one part your body improves the whole.

So, back to my personal example of a long-distance runner. Trail running is my true love, the thing I want to dedicate most of my time to.

For years, running was all I did. I figured the only way I was going to get better at it was to do it more. To some degree, that is true, especially in the first several years of “building a base,” where runners are generally getting bones, tendons, and ligaments up to par with their minds and quickly-adapting cardiovascular systems.

When I signed up for this 100-mile race, I wanted to try something different. There was no way I was ever going to be able to “just run” enough miles to make me as strong as I needed to be to carry me through 24 hours of continuous movement in the Rocky Mountains.

For years, I have heard and read about the importance of cross training and strength training as an athlete.  No matter the sport, strength training seems to be a core part of any training program. Well, except for the recreational runner, that is! For this training cycle, I decided I was going to run less and add in cross training and strength training.

I traded two days per week of running for two days of cross training. I would go to the gym, swim, and mountain bike. I committed to this new “plan” for the entire 6-month training cycle and the results were fantastic. I got noticeably stronger and more stable. Because I was running less, I ended up enjoying running more. I was less fatigued and my recovery noticeably improved. I had a great race and met my goals.

I realize that I am making some pretty vague statements and conclusions here. What I realized is that as we decide upon our fitness goals, whether broad goals such as “20 pounds of weight loss” or specific goals like “break 90 minutes at the 10-miler,” there are a number of ways to get there.  Each of us only has so much time and energy to allocate to fitness, and we must decide carefully “what will be the best usage of this time?”

Traditionally, runners would just run, and cyclists would just cycle, etc. However, over time, adding different forms of exercise into your training program can produce real benefit, whether you are a beginner or a pro.

Here are some specific takeaways from my cross training and strength training for a running-specific training goal:

Doing different forms of exercise definitely made me enjoy running more.

At the time, some things like swimming and upper body exercises seemed to have zero application to my running. Looking back, these were so important! I realized I had neglected my upper body in my focus on running and being more balanced felt great.

I never liked swimming. I swam every single week, but never started liking it one bit. But it became a crucial changeup in my training and paid huge dividends.

I recovered better throughout all parts of the training cycle.

I started engaging with more people. I made some biking friends. I made some swimming friends. All encouraged me in my primary goal of running.

The takeaway is, simply, as you start finding your way back to fitness consider mixing it up!  Use your body in a bunch of different ways. Break up the stress and strengthen many different systems. Any exercise is good exercise, and any exercise becomes beneficial to your preferred form of exercise.

We all want to be healthy into our Golden Years and finding sustainable ways to keep our bodies active is an important part of that. Start exploring different forms of exercise, and even if you don’t necessarily like them, give them a try from time to time. You may be surprised and refreshed.

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