Cross Training Workouts should be a part of any runners training program. Cross Training Workouts for Runners provide a more holistic approach to training. By holistic, I mean that we learn to use different muscles, different combinations of muscles and ligaments, different patterns of movement (biomechanics), different mental proprioception, and challenge the body in different ways. Essentially, we keep it interesting and I believe that the athlete becomes more well-rounded.
It is really tempting to simply want to run as the sole activity of training. It makes sense right? You are a runner, and to get better at running, we have to run. However, cross training workouts are the difference between what we want and what we need.
This is about listening to your body. Whilst engaging in various forms of cross training does not use the same biomechanical patterning as running (as in a running ‘stride’ or form), the heart is still beating, and therefore you are still improving the amazing engine that is your body.
“Life begins at the end of your comfort zone”
– Ryan Sandes (Pro Salomon Trail Runner)
Trying a new form of training can be daunting. You can feel vulnerable from the feeling of ‘newness’ after being comfortable in one or a few sports for a while. I personally hadn’t been on a mountain bike or road biking (other than commuting) for a while. Today I decided to take what is a very dodgy, extremely old model mountain bike that I use as transport in Boise and go for my first mountain/road bike ride. Why? I felt like it and I had a curiosity to explore the contagious stoke that the biking community of Boise and Idaho have. I am having a small break from running for physical and mental health purposes. I also wanted to challenge myself a little bit.
It was a blast. I caught the bug, and I will be trying it again. All it took was one ride. I truly believe this is the same for others, so I encourage you to try a cross training workout next time you are unmotivated to run, feel a little niggle occurring or simply want to experience something else (and still keep the heart beating). I even got to experience the beautiful golden hour in the Foothills of Boise. See my photo below.
This is my favourite photo I have ever taken. I’m not entirely sure why, and it was a bit rushed honestly. My hands were freezing and my heart rate was through the roof after climbing a hill in the cold air. It was exhilarating though. I think it is the colours and obscurities of the sunlight.
Cross training benefits are numerous, particularly the benefits of cross training for runners.
“The Struggle was real, but every second was worth it”
-Nouria Newman (French Slalom Canoeist, Red Bull)
When runners get injured (and I am speaking for myself here too), it can be quite amusing to observe their habits of self-diagnosis before they actually get a diagnosis. Often they’ll use Dr. Google, the usual rehab methods involving tape and ice, maybe they’ll even be wise and take a few days off. However, we can prevent injury often by cross training, and learning to move our body in many different ways, utilizing many different muscles, in different coordination and patterns of movement.
To put it simply, we allow our body and mind a break from the repetitive movement of running. Often this allows the muscles, ligaments and tendons to heal a bit so you’re better prepared for your next run.
My mum who is a sports medicine physician in Australia once shared with me some very wise words about cross training for running. The heart is still beating. It doesn’t know the difference between a long swim, long run or long ride. She explained this to me whilst I was recovering from one of many sprained ankles. Whilst our musculoskeletal patterning may differ, we are still getting a very valuable training effect.
We are also training our mind differently. We are building mental toughness. For example, when I choose swimming as a cross training workout, I am inflicting myself (or am I actually benefiting myself?! That’s the paradox!) staring at some pool tiles and a black line for a significant amount of time. This is difficult when I have the privilege of looking at stunning mountain or seaside landscapes when I run outside.
Personally, my biggest cross training benefit has been the comfort I have in knowing that if I get injured, I am fully capable of throwing myself into a variety of other sports. In these sports I am distracted from my running injury, yet finding joy in a new and refreshing activity. Again, this is why I’d encourage you to integrate cross training workouts into your running schedule.
Below is a list of cross training examples I can think of. Maybe you could integrate a cross training session in instead of a second run, or even in replacement for a recovery run. Looking to increase endurance training load? Why not pop in a cross training workout.
“This is your life, live it with passion”
-Thabang Madiba (Salomon Trail Runner, South Africa)
Cycling as Cross Training For Running
The hardest part about going for a road bike is simply getting on the bike in the first place and starting (at least I find). Whether it’s the cold, the heat, or preparing the bike for the ride. As always, be cautious of vehicles, animals, pedestrians, weather conditions etc. I suggest doing a hilly route and sprinting up the hills, floating the flats, and relaxing on the downs for a solid endurance workout.
Spin biking can be a blast, especially with music. I like to create playlists where each song/track has a specific workout purpose allocated to it. For example, there is a mix of sprint songs, high RPM (revolutions per minute) songs, out of the saddle climbing songs, and in the saddle climbing songs, plus recovery songs. It can make for a great workout. If you have the option, you could even try a spin class for some extra motivation.
Mountain Biking as Cross Training For Running
Mountain biking as cross training for running is great as it challenges your proprioception and reaction time, along with continual changes in leg and body movement to navigate the natural changes/variations on the trails. The uphill climbs can really challenge you, as often you’ll be navigating around rocks, facing patches of sand or mud, or avoiding other cyclists and pedestrians (if you’re unlucky). The downhills are simply a hoot.
“I think the mountains have helped keep me alive, keep me going, and keep me focused on this is what I’m doing right now”
– Jim Morrison (The North Face Mountaineer and Brand Ambassador)
Swimming as Cross Training For Running
Swimming is one of my favourite forms of cross training for running. I feel like it works every part of your body, and challenges you to control your oxygen capacity and therefore the breath. To work with the breath when physically exerting yourself is very humbling, and in its own unique way, grounding. The silence of being underwater, and swimming being a solo activity, is also quite meditative. There are so many swim workouts searchable online. I like doing a warm up, cool down, sprint and distance mixed sets, and in the pool fartlek style workouts.
Elliptical as Cross Training For Running
The elliptical trainer is one of the simplest forms of cross training for runners as almost every gym has one, and it doesn’t require you to own any extra equipment. It’s also quite similar to the action of running, without the impact. Many runners I know and train with will supplement running with a session on the elliptical.
Nordic Skiing as Cross Training For Running
This is a challenging cross training activity but the benefit is the miraculous fitness benefits you’ll receive from investing time into skate or classic cross country skiing. It is truly a total body workout. Some of the highest recorded VO2 max levels come from nordic skiers. They have to use both their arms and legs uphill, ski downhill without edges, sidestep corners and maintain a very good sense of balance. Also, altitude is often involved, which means altitude training benefits as an extra.
I guess what I am trying to communicate, or the moral of this post if you like, is don’t be afraid to try something new, or take some time off if you need it. Running will always be there for the most part. We don’t want to be risk-averse, as this doesn’t equal an enriched and life fully lived. If we don’t take a risk here and now, we can’t expect to learn new things about ourselves.
Running Nutrition: A Guide to Fueling for Performance
Fueling to perform at your physical and mental best is a very different cup of tea than simply fueling to be a healthy individual. Running nutrition is one crucial piece of being a good runner, and we are constantly learning new things in the area from both scientific research and from tuning in with our own body.
A couple of things inspired me to write this post. The first was my teammate Bella (@bella_brickner), who wanted some ideas on what to eat before running (we often run in the mornings together), and asked me what my personal race nutrition strategies were. The second was experiencing some altitude effects on a recent ascent and descent of Mt Superior in Utah I completed. To be the complete athlete, you can’t skimp on nutrition. It’s fuel. There are a lot of diets out there (not the kind that involves needs based on food allergies or intolerance purposes) – keto, paleo, gluten-free etc, however, whilst these may work for the occasional athlete and ones we hear promoting their nutritional choices on social media, more often than not, a well-balanced and diverse diet will suit best. A good friend said if you’re driving yourself crazy planning and overthinking food, you’ll often make worse choices in the long term because it’s not sustainable to be in that mindset. I’ve learned this the hard way as a younger athlete, but lessons are there to be learned. The earlier, the better.
What to eat before running?
Nutrition can improve an athlete’s performance immensely. For example, maintaining optimal fluid balance levels, and providing the body with more fuel (carbohydrate) to perform better and help with “lactate accumulation from anaerobic efforts”. Anaerobic meaning the high-end, very high-intensity efforts.
I always eat before I run, normally a bowl of cereal or toast. It tides me over to breakfast, I don’t get distracted mid-run by sudden onset hunger, and I feel more energized. After all, if it is a morning run, you’ve fasted all night, so your body will thank you when you give it a little boost. Thus, I tend to get up a bit earlier to have some digestion time and sip my coffee or tea.
It’s recommended that you eat before you run if the session falls into any of the following:
Over 60 minutes in length
A long run of some sort
Training at higher altitudes
You have multiple sessions or events across the day
Note: This list is not limited to the following, just a quick guide.
I typically eat any of the following before a run…
Dry oat, quinoa, or wheat-based cereal. My favorite is pumpkin and flaxseed granola (you can often get this in the bulk food section or Nature’s Path brand in a box, which you can get at Winco, Wholefoods, Albertsons, Trader Joe’s etc). I eat it dry because the extra liquid or dairy can sometimes cause stomach upset). You could even make your own.
Cornflakes or oats with almond or another type of non-dairy based milk. In my overall eating habits, I normally have a mix of dairy milk for some things, and non-dairy based for others just to ensure my calcium levels remain in check. Before a run, I go for a non-dairy based option. I don’t need to explain why!
Whole-wheat or white toast (Sourdough is the better option here) with jam/jelly or peanut/almond butter. Here you get a little bit of protein and healthy fats mixed in with the necessary carbohydrates to top up the muscle glycogen stores pre-run. Being very easy to make, it’s a no-fuss option.
Rice cakes with nut butter, jam/jelly, or honey and butter. If you’re celiac, gluten-free, or don’t typically pick a bread-based option pre-run, rice cakes can be a good alternative.
2+ hours before:
You can generally eat a more substantial meal if you have more time before you head out for a run. Some of my favourite options are:
Oatmeal with banana, peanut butter and cinnamon. This is my pre-race go to meal, as I can replicate it at home, and it is always at the event hotel buffets. I’ll generally do 1-2 cups of oatmeal, a scoop of almond or PB, slice the banana on top, and dash with cinnamon/maple syrup. It’s delicious, and it ticks the boxes in terms of endurance training based nutritional needs.
Scrambled eggs on toast (maybe with some sneaky sides like avocado, mushrooms, salsa, arugula or spinach)
Bagel with cream cheese/nut butter/avocado etc – Bagels are a great source of quick carbohydrates and with the amount of bagel flavor varieties on market, there’s something for everyone.
Want to know some handy tips and tricks for your next grocery shop? Check out my post on Grocery Shopping For Runners – Click here.
What to eat the night before a run?
Deciding what to eat the night before a run will be dependent on what type of running session you have the next day. If it is a more endurance-based session, make the ratio of carbohydrates to other components on the plate slightly higher.
For a shorter, intensity-based session, you can keep it a bit more balanced.
My all-time favorite dinner time meal if I have to run early the next morning is homemade pizza with a side salad such as Caesar Salad, see photo below. Yes, there is a glass of pinot grigio to accompany because we all need a bit of fun and indulgence- Barefoot does an affordable, decently tasting option. This hits my CHO, Protein, Fats, and taste requirements on all levels.
Home-made Pizza Night + the works!
The great thing about the meal a night before a run is that you don’t have to stress as much about pre-planning it, due to the digestion time you’ll have. The morning is slightly different.
However, if we are discussing a pre-race dinner meal, I follow the KISS method (Keep it simple stupid). What works best for me personally is:
Rice (white, long-grain) – I want a source of carbohydrates that doesn’t upset my stomach but gives me a good bang for my buck. I was told by my sports dieticians in Australia many times that Rice has more bang for your buck than pasta. I stick true to this.
Shredded chicken with light seasoning, or canned lemon tuna in oil. I like to keep my proteins on the lighter side of things.
A mix of roast vegetables. I chop up a bunch of broccoli, beans, a variety of purple, white and sweet potatoes and mushrooms, drizzle with a bit of olive oil, salt, and bbq seasoning, and chuck it in the oven.
I throw all these ingredients together, and sometimes have a side of Italian season, sweet chili sauce, soy sauce (it just depends on the mood I’m in).
Remember to practice your meals prior to race day, as this is the best way to avoid stomach upset. You can afford to have a few uncomfortable sessions here and there, to learn what works for you, rather than make a mistake on the important event day.
What to eat after a long run, and what to eat during a long run?
A long run can be the most energy-draining session of the week, especially if you’re running beyond the 80-90 minute mark, where the body’s glycogen stores are depleted. It is recommended that the athlete intake some form of carbohydrate and fluid to rehydrate if running longer than this. SDA states that generally, you won’t need fuel (CHO) “during exercise sessions lasting less than 60 minutes.”
So why do we need to top up our carbohydrate stores after the 80-90 minute mark?
Keep blood glucose levels on track as this “fuels your muscles and brain during exercise”
“Get the most out of your training session by sustaining intensity for longer”
Curb simple sugar cravings later in the day, as the metabolism is likely to be high for the rest of the day post long run
Many runners don’t top up their carb stores, but establishing a common practice or habit could benefit you in the long term, and create a more tolerant stomach. Food for thought. This reigns especially true if you are training for a half marathon distance or further, where taking on fuel whilst on the run is essential.
Hiking up Mt Superior, Snowbird, Utah
Some quick carbohydrate top up food ideas that I have tried and tested:
CLIF Shot Bloks– There’s no crap in these, no preservatives or additives, which is a must for me. They come in lots of flavors and you can get caffeinated bloks too. My favourites are the ginger ale, citrus flavor, or orange flavor with caffeine. There are 33 calories per blok, and I tend to pop 3 bloks before I run, and 3 at the 80-90 minute mark, and I’m right to go.
Chopped up CLIF Bars– I also enjoy CLIF Bars because there are no preservatives or added artificial ingredients. These bars pack a punch in terms of energy provision and can be hard on the gut if digested all at once, without water. That’s why I chop them up into around 6 smaller pieces. I used this nutrition method on a half-marathon XC Ski race, and a 22km hilly trail race, and never had a stomach upset or issue. My favourites are the Cool Mint Caffeinated bar or the White Choc Macadamia flavor (non-caffeinated).
Tailwind Nutrition Endurance fuel – I love putting this in my water, no preservatives or nasty added ingredients. My favourite is the lemon flavor. Not only does it hydrate and replace necessary electrolytes, but there is 25g of Carbohydrates per scoop. Tailwind recommends: “For endurance workouts, mix 2-3 scoops per 24 oz of water per hour.”
Banana Chips– you can get these at pretty much any good supermarket. Think Trader Joe’s, Winco, Albertsons, Wholefoods, Safeway etc. I’ve included the link to Bare Snacks simply Banana Chips if you want to bulk order them online.
What to eat after a long run
Every runner I know looks forward to the post long run refuel. Many of us finish this final session of the week on the hangrier side of things. I have a few key go-to’s which really hit the spot. I’ll generally choose one over another based on what time of day it is. For example, if it’s closer to brunch/lunch, I’ll make a savory option, whilst if it’s in the morning a sweeter option works better for me.
Oatmeal with the works.
Mixed in egg whites x2 (yes, it does work, it doesn’t taste bad, and you’re gonna get some extra protein for your fatigued muscles)
If you’re not into trying what I just mentioned above, you could always stir in a scoop of protein powder. Just watch that it is in accordance with WADA (World Anti-Doping Guidelines) in your sport. You can check your substances on GlobalDro. Just be aware, that sometimes substances can be contaminated.
Peanut butter or almond butter stirred in.
Fruit: Chopped banana and berries on top – I like to always keep frozen berries and bananas in the house
Finished off with a dash of cinnamon, honey, brown rice syrup or maple syrup.
Omelet with the works + toast or roast potatoes
I normally do a 3 egg omelet, which I make by combining it with a dash of milk and TJ’s “nothing but the elote” seasoning + Chilli Lime seasoning, and a handful of Mexican cheese blend or mozzarella. I’ll then stir it with a whisk, then pour the mixture into a small preheated skillet with oil. Put it on medium-high, and keep an eye on it.
In a separate pan, I’ll be roasting/frying up the veg to put inside the omelet. Bell peppers, corn, a green de-seeded jalapeno, mushrooms, onion, tomatoes, and spinach are my normal go-to’s.
Seasoned veg in the skillet
Once the omelet is looking well cooked on the outside and starting to cook nicely in the middle, pop the veggies from one pan into the omelet pan, on top of one side of the omelet, and fold the omelet over. Top with more cheese or whatever you like.
I honestly never make these myself, I always buy them, but they’re delicious and really hit the spot. If you haven’t tried a Gyro, you haven’t truly lived.
Smashed Avo on toast with feta, tomatoes and poached eggs, with a drizzle of sweet balsamic and olive oil. Exactly what it says, no need for further explanation.
These are just a few of my favourites. All provide a good balance of carbohydrates, protein, healthy fats, and good flavour for optimal post-long run recovery. Timing-wise, I tend to have a snack 3:1 ratio of carbohydrates to protein within 30 minutes of running, and a meal from above within the hour. I’ll probably be hungry again in 2-3 hrs time and have another meal. Listen to your body here.
Want to know some handy tips and tricks for your next grocery shop? Check out my post on Grocery Shopping Tips For Runners (especially good if you’re budgeting too!) – Click here.
Coffee For Runners: The Benefits of Caffeine for Athletes
If you participate in sports competitions regularly, it’s likely you would’ve heard athletes discuss the use of caffeine for performance-enhancing benefits. Just walk down a busy street with coffee shops near popular running or biking trails on a weekend morning, and you’ll often find cycling or run groups having a brew. Coming from Australia, coffee is a big deal. In Melbourne and Sydney in particular, Coffee is an art. You could spend a whole day exploring different coffee roasters and the varied eclectic atmosphere they create for you to sit and enjoy your brew. I’ve enjoyed exploring coffee shops in my new city, Boise.
Caffeine For Runners: Is Caffeine good for runners?
Caffeine is often recommended for runners as it can have a slight performance-enhancing effect if the individual times their ingestion correctly to their race/event start time and correctly for the duration or distance of the race. The AIS (Australian Institute of Sport..hello home country!) released the AIS Sports Supplement Framework (Click here to read), grouping supplements into ABCD based on the capacity they are allowed in during and out-of-competition usage, which can be nothing at all. Caffeine is in Group A under performance supplements, please refer to the source below, attained from the AIS website:
Caffeine intake will stimulate an increase in HR/heart-rate (it itself is a stimulant), to put it simply. This is because adrenaline circulating in the body is elevated, which is the hormone associated with fight, flight, or fright response and a factor stimulating the sympathetic nervous system. This in turn will increase the athletes’ ability to perform demanding tasks, such as a hard race.
Caffeine can also cause an upset stomach, better known as G.I distress for runners if the athlete is not used to coffee when training. However, if the individual is able to take on board coffee, their awareness, alertness, the focus can increase and their perception of effort may be decreased. What’s not to love about that? I’m personally a big fan of coffee before racing.
Here’s an even niftier trick you can consider which I came up with whilst out on a long run one Sunday morning. I practice this regularly to get the optimum race-day advantage. As a regular coffee drinker, many would agree that we become slightly immune to the effects of coffee over time. Considering this, I only drink decaffeinated coffee and tea, or no coffee at all, up to 5 days before a race. Whether it is a placebo effect or not, I can’t be sure, but I know I definitely feel the effects of the caffeine when I drink coffee on race day after no coffee for a few days (a temporary coffee fast, you could call it). On the day of the race, if it is an early start time, I take on board 2 shots, and if it is in the evening, up to 3. I’m buzzing and ready to go!
The only drawbacks of using caffeine are the risk of GI distress, the need to urinate, and potential jitters. Getting the jitters isn’t such a big issue for distance runners, as our sport doesn’t require us to be still to execute a good performance (unlike an archer, or 100m sprinter on the start blocks, for instance). To avoid GI distress, we train the stomach in practice to be able to handle varying amounts of caffeine, well before race day.
Should I drink Coffee before a run? Is too much Caffeine bad before a run?
For many runners in particular, including myself, coffee is a big part of my morning routine before training or races. One study evidently highlighted that more than two-thirds of Olympians use caffeine as a pre-workout supplement. In the hotter months, particularly when temperatures can hit 45 degrees C or 100+ Fahrenheit here in Boise, I’ll reach for the cold brew pre-run. In winter when it is significantly cooler, it’s a double shot latte or Americano. Investing in a coffee machine is your best bet for convenience and finances, especially if you’re a student or student-athlete.
I love how my morning cup of coffee increases my alertness and awareness. Most of the time I find myself running in the mornings within 30-1hr after hopping out of bed (especially in the summer). I’ll pair my coffee with a small snack to help with the digestion of the coffee and satiate my hunger during the training session. A pre-run snack that pairs well with coffee is normally a bowl of cereal with non-dairy milk or toast with jam/honey or nut butter.
Is too much caffeine bad before a run?
If you’re an individual who believes they can’t eat before or close to a run, I urge you to train yourself to be able to take on board something, including a coffee. Training is time to practice for race day – you can survive a few uncomfortable running sessions in the short term, to invest in optimal long-term nutrition.
Does Drinking Coffee make you run faster?
There’s evidence to support the benefits of caffeine in endurance-based sports. Most caffeine supplements are 2-3 shots dense (80-120 milligrams), as this is believed to be the best amount to consume to improve performance. Many online sources discuss using 5mg of caffeine per kilogram of body weight. With 1 cup of coffee containing around 95-120 mg of caffeine, you may have to have a double shot or two cups to get the full effects.
Coffee works to improve your performance in a few ways. Most notably, it can reduce your perceived levels of exertion during difficult endurance activities, including running.
Caffeine has a pretty short-acting effect, so from personal experience, I like to have 1 shot an hour out from the race, and another shot 30 minutes before. I take these in caffeine strips such as Revvies (https://www.revviesenergy.com/) in which each strip is equivalent to one shot of coffee. This reduces any chance of stomach upset which might be experienced if a coffee, particularly one with dairy milk, is ingested too close to the gun time. I’ll have 1 strip 30 minutes before the race, and 1 just before I line up for the race if I’m using Revvies.
The stomach can also be trained to take caffeine on board close to a race. I can have a black coffee with a dash of milk up to 45 minutes before an event, as long as I ensure I get to the bathroom before the start, this is no issue for me. I’m firing and ready to run fast!
The best way to practice caffeine intake and experiment with supplements is during training phases/periods. You can afford to make mistakes during these times – this is why it is called practice! Mastering your nutrition needs as an athlete doesn’t happen without trial and error.
Best Caffeine Supplements for Runners
For a great, convenient pre-race option (especially for Aussie-based athletes, as this brand is AUS based), I use Revvies Energy Strips. They are super simple to take, simply place a strip on your tongue and allow it to dissolve. It can be taken during a run, and right up until the start of a race. Talk about convenience! If you’re sensitive to caffeine, 1 strip is generally enough, however, if you’re a regular drinker, 2 strips are better. Revvies don’t recommend consuming more than 5 strips a day. They have 2 flavors – Arctic Charge and Tropical Hit. I personally like Arctic Charge best as it reminds me of a piece of mint gum.
Run Gum is a popular worldwide caffeine supplement used by athletes. Unlike Revvies, Run Gum is exactly what it says it is…a gum. You chew it for 5-10 minutes to effectively absorb the caffeine, b-vitamins, and taurine ingredients in the gum. Run Gum states that this immediately boosts alertness and energy, without causing stomach upset.
In terms of general caffeine supplements, I really like Tailwind. They pride themselves on natural, organic supplements that are anti-doping approved (remember to always check your supplements on GlobalDro – this is the responsibility of the athlete). For a recovery-based option containing caffeine, I have used their ‘Caffeinated Coffee Rebuild’. This is great for post-session when you need a kick-start to your day. It helps to replenish depleted glycogen stores, rebuild muscles, and restore electrolytes to your body. I like to blend my sachets into a smoothie to go on my way to work, class, or morning errands. This sachet is made with organic rice protein, healthy fats from coconut milk, and a few carbohydrates added for recovery purposes (3:1 ratio of protein to carbohydrates within 30 minutes of exercise is the optimal timing for recovery according to Accredited Sports Dieticians). Get yours here.
Gels containing caffeine are a great way to consume more caffeine on top of your normal cuppa pre-run or top up your caffeine stores whilst you’re out running, biking, swimming, etc.
From personal experience, I would practice in training and sessions using different brands of caffeinated running gels to ensure you don’t have a stomach upset on race day, and train the body to digest it effectively. This is because the rate of caffeine absorption and its effects vary from person to person. Maurten, a reputable sports nutrition company state that this varies based on weight and how used to caffeine the individual is.
Maurten is an extremely popular brand, with Eluid Kipchoge to thank for a large amount of promotion when he used the brand to fuel his victory in the 2018 Berlin Marathon. They recently released a gel known as GEL100 CAF, containing 100mg of caffeine per serving, and 25g of carbohydrates for some extra fuel whilst you’re on the run. The great thing about this caffeinated hydrogel is it is preservative, artificial flavor and colorant free. All these nasty additives can cause stomach upsets which are unwelcome come race day. Get a box of 100 servings here.
Smart running is how you get the most bang for your buck. It involves the time, mileage, and intensity of your training load each week, recovery time between sessions, how often you race, and what cross-training activities you do to assist with fitness and/or strength. In light of the recent world events which have injected a lot of stress and uncertainty into society and individuals alike, training smarter, not harder, is the way to go for now I do believe. I call it baking a cake. I want to bake a really good cake right now – my base. Then I’ll get ready to ice it later for race season when it eventually comes back around.
I’ll admit, it took me a while to get to this headspace of tuning in with my body, and not being so rigid or structured with training. I would be lying if I said I didn’t use running as a form of coping mechanism when COVID-19 altered the way we live our lives. I was able to keep up the early mornings, harder sessions a few times a week – basically my normal training load and intensity I was doing during the collegiate season. However, onsetting fatigue and gradual discontent with a high focus on running at this time wasn’t making me happy. Instead, I decided to completely tune in to my body and use my times of higher energy to work harder, and lower energy to settle into long and slow mileage.
I now run at the time of day I best feel like it, not necessarily first thing in the morning like I usually do during school or season. I don’t put pressure on how many sessions a week I do. I’m happy if it’s just 1, and what day it is, doesn’t particularly bother me. I do a few runs with team-mates and friends for the social aspect and pure joy of getting out on the trails. I am fit, not necessarily top end fit, but I don’t need to be right now – that’s not what it is about. I’ll get ready to ice my cake when the time comes.
This is a lesson for life. Coping mechanisms are unsustainable and will result in fatigue, which then takes time to recover from. If you keep it up, it becomes a bit of a vicious cycle – like a Catch-22. I hope you get the opportunity to cash in on this advantage COVID-19 has given us to build solid values and foundations around what we do and love. All the hard work and base-building, and the personal introspection this time has ignited, will pay off later. I’m certain of it.
Smarter Running and training load: how do you manage your milage?
Mileage is something that should be gradually built, based on your background and skill level in the sport, and your injury history (because an injury is a part of any sport you compete in, at a high-level). Working with a coach who monitors this, and adapts it to suit your goals and personal needs is the best path to success and reducing injury risk. The general rule of thumb is don’t increase your mileage by more than 10% a week, sometimes 15%. You should have down weeks too, particularly after harder training ‘blocks’.
Training ‘blocks’ can be period of a few weeks (mine were generally 4-6 weeks), where there is a focus on something for a particular race or season. I know I can build the top-end speed fitness in 4 weeks that I need for faster track races, for example. My coach, team-mates and I work closely at this with race-specific workouts when the key races of the season are coming up.
This is also known as ‘periodized training’. We can’t keep extremely high levels of intensity up all year round, as it is unsustainable. So we have times of base building, speed building, endurance building, strength…you get it.
I’ve never been a particularly high-mileage runner and personally have had success with this approach, and minimal injury particularly from increased running load-induced stress. My ultimate running training schedule involves 5-6 days of running, with 1-2 doubles (25-30 mins each), a swim session, and 2 running strength- specific sessions. I’d rarely go over 100km a week. Off this training, I’ve managed to qualify and compete in some pretty cool events, and run some nifty times. There’s no doubt I will creep my mileage up in the future at some point – try it, give it a go, test my limits. I don’t want to be left wondering. It’s a bit like Mario Andretti’s quote:
“If everything seems under control you’re not going fast enough” – Mario Andretti
Sometimes it is good to take some risks. Just know when it is the right time to test the waters here.
What is Smart Running?
Smart running is all about tapping into your personal needs, training and race goals, goals, and desires in life external to running and sport, injury history, and the context in which you are living in. To have the smartest approach to running, your program should be individualized and flexible. You and your coach should have open, honest communication which allows for program adaptability. I’ve been lucky to have this for the duration of my running career. If you don’t feel like you can communicate with your coach, then you might need to re-evaluate your training set-up to better suit your needs.
“It’s better to fail in originality than succeed in imitation” – Herman Melville
No one ever truly succeeds if they spend the majority of their time copying or imitating others. Don’t get me wrong, there is a great deal to be learned from coaches, mentors, training partners, elite-athletes etc, but these lessons should just be parts to building your ‘whole’. We learn a lot just from our own experiences in the sport. Whether this is in sessions, races, mentally tough situations, long-run banter and discussions with our training partners, running training through a global pandemic…..
I like to information gather when making decisions about the training approach. I’ll consult my coach, tap into how I feel, map out a rough training timeline calendar to key races. This ensures my preparation is optimal and doesn’t induce injury in the build-up. Further, it must be manageable with the rest of life’s commitments and hobbies. If you’re anything like me, you might enjoy a few things outside of running. In fact, I’ve found keeping up my hobbies like music and singing, surfing, skiing, doing outdoor activities with friends, website management and blog post writing, etc make me a better runner – as I’m my happiest self. So I stress to my teammates and friends who ask if you enjoy lots of things, find a way to achieve balance. Running more is not always better. It can help – but there is a time and place to increase and reduce load.
How does stress impact running training and performance?
My coach at Boise State has a good analogy for how stress can impact running training and performance. It also most often ends up trickling through other aspects of our life. We want a sustainable approach that is optimal for long-term success and caters to changing needs, goals, and shifting life situations. Particularly during the COVID-19 pandemic, when more things are out of our control. We need to focus on what we can control.
My coach calls it the ‘cups’ approach. Bear with me. Imagine your life is balanced between different cups, that are each half-filled with water. Considering this analogy, most of us have cups for:
All these cups need to be balanced with certain amounts of water, not overflowing. This is optimal to reduce stress and anxiety in our life. Before you think, “that’s impossible” – hear me out.
If 1 cup is overflowing with water, for example – a heavy load at work, something else has to give. Some of that water needs to go somewhere else to balance the extra work stress out.
If multiple cups begin to overflow, we start to spread ourselves thin. Don’t panic if this is you, especially at this time in the world at present. We just have to reevaluate priorities and potentially make a few shifts or changes to better suit our needs.
So, next time you want to push your limits or step outside your comfort zone in training, for example, make sure your cups allow for this. Same for any other endeavor. You’ll recover better, perform better, and develop smart habits for the future. It’s establishing foundations for long-term success in running or whatever it is you want to do.
Running is a very physically tough, and psychologically demanding sport. Mental skills training for mental toughness is an essential ingredient in any pursuit that you desire to reach your full potential in and explore your boundaries. This goes for sport and life in general. We have to find that balance of physical and mental training and recovery. Interestingly, mental skills training fatigues the brain, as does a hard session fatigue the body – so we must train, recover, and adapt.
Your mind can be your best friend or your own worst enemy. It’s important to establish some tools to utilize when out training, racing or facing your next physical challenge. To run at our very best, it’s important to recognize what your own strengths and weaknesses are. In doing so, you can take advantage of your strengths, and become more aware of areas you struggle a little more with. Think of it as optimizing your own mental toolkit.
If you want to find out what your top character strengths are, take this quiz run through The University of Pennsylvania (yes, it has quite a few questions, but it should take way too long and it is reliable!). You’ll have to enter a username and email, don’t worry, you won’t get spammed. Take the Top 7 as your top character strengths. I did this, and my results showed my top strength was curiosity and interest in the world, the second was fairness, equity and justice, and third, creativity, ingenuity, and originality. I keep these in mind when I approach running training, teamwork, and racing. This way I can truly frame my running mindset to assist me in performing at my best.
What is mental toughness?
Mental toughness is the ability to perform at a high range of your potential consistently, under the ever-changing and often unpredictable conditions of competition and high-demand situations. A mentally tough individual will be able to execute their task with a desirable level of focus, determination, resilience, and calmness under stress and pressure.
Mental toughness is often a key determiner whether you finish at the front or at the back of a pack. One study conducted on Australian footballers determined that the group that exerted the highest levels of mental toughness favored “both mastery- and performance-approach goals and self-determined as well as extrinsic motivational tendencies”. In the paragraphs below, I’ll go into more detail about these specific mental skills which can be adopted to develop mental toughness.
The great thing about mental toughness is that it can be developed and trained, and studies have shown that it is innate to humans as it was a crucial characteristic that impacted survival ability in prehistoric times. We train mental toughness by building an ‘artillery’ of mental skills. These are characteristics such as focus, determination, dedication, resilience, performing in high-pressure settings, selective emotional ability under high-stress situations, confidence, perseverance, self-belief, the ability to work with a team, positivity in difficult situations and motivation (I’m sure there are many more you can think of!). Some of these character strengths you will find come more naturally to you, whilst others will require practice and work. Ultimately, it is about honing in and capitalizing on your strengths and improving weaknesses that could be beneficial to your sport or endeavor.
We can build mental skills in a sports psychology setting or make time to deliberately practice them. We are kidding ourselves as dedicated sports people if we think that mental toughness is something that will come magically to us – it takes dedication and deliberate commitment to improve at anything and perform at a high level. I personally utilize sports psychology through the collegiate system. A general session involves assessing strengths and weaknesses, reflecting on the experience, and how I could go about the scenario next time. A sports psychologist or mental skills trainer will assist in building key areas to perform well at the particular discipline and to meet the personal needs of the athlete.
You’ve already taken the first steps to build your mental toughness by simply educating yourself on what it is. I found it super helpful for my own pursuits to learn that our body can actually go beyond our physical perception of pain and tiredness when we hit this stage in a race or hard training session. The voice in your head telling you to “slow down”, “stop”, “give up”, “this is too hard” is better known as the pre-historic brain/ monkey brain or mind/survival instinct mind. It is simply your brain trying to stop you from hurting yourself. It doesn’t know the difference between a race and a real situation of life-or-death. Just like your legs don’t know you are running a 10km race, rather than a hard 10km training session with your teammates. It’s all in your mind. Mental wandering and negative self-talk are the key inhibitors to us performing at our absolute physical best. This is why it is essential to train will-power, self-control and decision making under pressure. We need to find a way to automate decisions and execute a plan of some sort, to prevent the mind wandering.
How does the mind work in a hard training or race scenario?
When we race or train hard, the pain and discomfort we experience are from the emotional part of our brain, as I mentioned before. It is intended to protect us. We simply need to make a decision – the brain will process this decision based on a number of factors, including personal expectations coming into the event, past experiences in similar situations, level of desire to achieve (resilience, motivation, goals, perseverance), and stimulus feedback to the brain, including fatigue, fuel, environmental setting etc.
There are a couple of things we can do to calm the monkey mind, take the extra stress and anxiety out of the race day or hard session equation. Firstly, we can train our willpower. Will power is the ability to control your attitude, thoughts, feelings, impulse, and execute a task with clear, beneficial, goal-oriented decision making. You probably already exercise it in some sense – like setting an early morning alarm for training and not questioning whether you go or not. You just do, it’s not really a decision up for debate. Same with attending a hard training session you might be dreading. Unless injured or sick, show up and see how it goes – you may just surprise yourself. However, as humans, we only have so much will-power each day. Take into account that our will-power is highest earlier in the day, along with our ability to exert self-control. This is where the common notion of doing your hardest tasks earlier in the day, or first thing comes into play.
The harder and more stressful the decisions, the number of decisions, and the complexity of decisions all dip into our will-power stores. The goal is to make a lot of these decisions more automated (subconscious) and focus on the ‘when’ of the decision (timing is everything), rather than the how, which can cause extra stress if over-thinking occurs.
We want to capitalize on the time of day when we will make the best choices, and practice our strategy of will-power and decision making at this time of day to suit our needs.
Just like physical activity requires recovery, so do mental reserves including will-power (recovery is just as important, it is where we get stronger, after being ‘broken down’ in some sense in training). If our willpower is low, our ability to make clear and beneficial decisions and exercise self-control is hindered. Physical fatigue will also contribute to lower will-power which in turn, impacts decision making + self-control. Sleep, adequate recovery, and nutrition can aid us in these areas. Athletes or high-achievers in any discipline should aim for at least 8hrs of sleep a night on most nights to perform at their best. It has even been stressed to me many times that 9-10hours is ideal – however many of us would struggle to do this in today’s busy world. Healthy, energy-dense meals are also key. Carbohydrates (in particular – glucose), fuel our brainpower. If you experience ‘mental fog’ or ‘blur’, this could be a reason why.
What are some mental running strategies?
Set yourself some goals and intentions! You’re going to hate me when I say, ‘write them down’. Really – do it. Get it on paper, or record it via voice memo if you must. Whatever. It is just crucial that these goals become a physical manifestation in some sense. I like to stick mine on the wall. Goals work best if they are categorized:
Process goals: this is the ‘journey’ as I like to put it. Where you’ll direct your focus and deliberate intention
Performance goals (short term and long term): aka. Some short term goals may be new PB in this 5km race or run comfortably for 10km. These goals help focus our execution and are the technical and strategic notch in our belt. A long term goal could be to qualify for a team, eventually run a marathon (make sure you do some very solid, consistent, long-term training to build up to this!)
The more detail, the better. List your hows, whys and ways of getting there. There are many paths to achieving a particular goal.
Be flexible. Things change, life chucks curve balls. The more practice you have at adapting and adopting, the better off you’ll be long term.
Self- talk. You have to practice this. A great website I came across explains self-talk as:
“Self-efficacy is the unshakeable belief of an athlete that they can meet the challenge they are facing. It is arguably the cornerstone for any great performance.”
We must question our own inner dialogue. Are our thoughts mostly negative? positive? What emotion is behind most of our thoughts? Recognize your own patterns! Often our mental talk/self-talk is habitual. So if any bad habits have formed which are not of benefit to your performance, or hold you back in any way, it’s time to put in some work to change them.
My in-race or session self-talk is very simple, involving just a few ‘cue-words’ that are easy to digest for the brain in a high-pressure, fatiguing situation, and don’t have any emotional association words involved in the phrase (things like good, bad, can’t, can etc.). My coach in Australia taught me to adopt ‘breathe, relax, momentum’. I have thought these 3 keywords for an entire 5km race. It worked a charm. If I felt my mind start to wander, I drew it back to these simple thoughts. I had already thought through my race execution plan, so this is all I had left to think about. Remember, on the track, course, court, field, meeting room- wherever you are trying to execute at your full potential and at a high-level – you are your own best friend or worst enemy.
Exercise your ability to be in control yet flexible to challenge and change. Often a scenario will change in a race very quickly. This is what makes them so exciting. You should be ready to adapt your plan and decisions based on perceptions and feedback. This is best practiced through hard training sessions and racing. Throw yourself in the deep end, and learn from mistakes, then try again.
Make decision making more automatic. The more decisions we can make subconscious, often the better. This is because less energy is used to make this particular type of decision. Again, racing and training is the place to practice and learn how to execute this mental skill. Personally, by the end of track season, I have cultivated a very personal plan as to how I best execute my distance (1500-10km). I take into account a sit-and-kick race situation, or a slow burn scenario, and go from there. I practice both conditions in training, so I can put my best foot forward if I need to sprint from home or maintain a high-pace for a longer period of time. I also learn to prioritize my decisions – don’t sweat the small stuff, particularly things you can’t control, such as the weather.
Glucose levels! Not really a mental skill, but worth a mention. New research shows that a hit of glucose (in the form of glucose-rich food) can temporarily restore our mental strength including will-power and ability to make good in-race decisions. This is because to perform at our best psychologically/mentally requires adequate blood glucose levels in the brain. You hear about nutrition strategies in the marathon which is for physical and psychological benefit. However, the question being posed now is? Even in shorter races less than an hour in which our glucose levels will not be depleted too significantly, could a shot of it benefit our mental capacity? Food for thought. Literally.
Sleep. It is commonly known that 6hrs or less of sleep, particularly bad sleeping patterns over a long period of time will impact our mood, emotional capacity, ability to make good decisions, mental clarity, self-control, and will-power.
Learning to relax in a high-pressure scenario, such as a race. If we stress too early, we are draining energy, which is detrimental to our race. A way to practice this is to work on persevering when pain, fatigue, and tiredness hit us in training and less-important races, so we are ready for the big day/important side of the season.
Framing and perspective. Don’t be too hard on yourself if you don’t meet your expectations. Even expectations of others. You are only human, and I know most athletes don’t go through rigorous training to not put their best effort in on race day. We are not here to waste time and opportunity. If you don’t achieve what you desired, give yourself a certain time to be upset, and then move on and reflect, focusing on the next thing. The great thing about sport is there is always another race/event/challenge. Give yourself a pat on the back every now and then too. Running isn’t life or death, it is something we do, love, enjoy and at the end of the day, it should be fun!
Returning briefly to the mental framework – make sure you don’t do any mentally challenging activities too close to a race or difficult training session. This is because our ability to perform is hindered when we are mentally fatigued. Again, this involves will-power, which impacts decision making, emotional state, and self-control. The more we race and put ourselves under these high-pressure conditions, the more we train our will-power to work in a positive symbiosis with pain and onset fatigue.
Does Visualization or Imagery help with training mental toughness for running?
Visualization is the process of establishing mental imagery of how you might like to execute the race. This technique is a mental skill that should be a part of our mental skills ‘toolbox’, as I like to put it. It is how in ‘theory’ you can experience race day and run the race before you have actually run it. You can visualize pre and post-race processes, and the race itself. For example, this could involve the morning of the race, how you’ll feel warming up, and/or the race itself. In terms of race visualization, I personally like to mentally run through sections of the course and have a best-case scenario and plan B strategy ready to go. If you can see the racecourse beforehand, or have a map as a second-case scenario, base your visualizations off this. As this was my first cross-country season in the NCAA competition, I had to plan my visualization off maps, and then the day before the race after running on the course, I could base my imagery off the course itself. I actually enjoyed this process, as moving from map to the physical reality of the course allowed me to make mental connections which were much more memorable. Think of it as an ‘ah huh!’ moment, like when I realized that the hill we were jogging up on course inspection was the big long one I planned to overtake others on based off the course map we were given a few days before. For some athletes, it is possible to visualize their plan/s of execution from the start to finish. If this resonates with you and your scenario, go with this.
You do have to find the time to practice visualization. I like to practice before I go to sleep at night. This way, it is the last thing I contemplate for the day. I channel how I want to feel emotionally, how I envision my body moving across the course, how I will take certain corners, undulations, hills, and the finishing sections. Yes, it is detailed, but it is worth the effort. You’ll feel less nervous on race day, coming into it with a flexible plan of execution that is thought through. Consider making it a habit, and a part of your race day routine and strategy.
How do you stay motivated to keep running and training?
You are in control of how you feel and choose to feel, and as soon as you can recognize this, you can start practicing your ability to exercise this and enhance it as mental strength. A good word for it is attitude. I’m not saying emotionally regulate, we all feel tired and lack motivation sometimes, and in turn, heading out for a run or doing that tedious task you had on your list for the day is the last thing on your agenda. Acknowledge it, and then take action as to how you will approach the task ahead. Often, you’ll feel better having done it. Luckily in running, you get that lovely endorphin high, which is a natural mood booster.
When I say ‘take action’, what I mean is to make the decision on your attitude. This can involve the decision to pump yourself up and carry out some mood-boosting actions or ease into the run with a sense of calm and mindfulness. As an athlete, you’ll need to figure out what these techniques are for you. I will go into some personal examples below.
Motivation also correlates with expectations – you can set them for yourself or choose to let the run unfold more naturally. When I’m tired, I take it one step at a time like putting on my shoes, stepping out the door, and zoning out to a podcast. The best athletes in the world know what amplifies and intensifies their feelings (boosts their desire to train, in a sense). For me, it’s playing some high energy music, doing my hair in braids or in a potential race hairstyle I want to try, and putting on what I consider my ‘fast’ activewear. If I want to calm myself down after a stressful day, I will focus on my breath, or rope a friend or teammate into training with me if it is a solo session (it helps distract from the ‘tiredness’ or stress, which often we carry in our body).
It is impossible to be in a high-energy, motivated state all the time, but we can develop the mental skills to get us out the door regardless of our emotional state. Who knows how you will feel on race day? Think of it as practice for that. Often goal-setting helps us stay on track and find that bit of motivation we need to push forward. I like to make it an unquestionable decision. Unless I’m sick or injured (and all the other situations I don’t need to list), I go. It is a part of my routine and I’m a better Lara to everyone if I do, no point in denying that!