I was going to title this post “The joys of winter cross-training” but realized that wouldn’t be accurate for me because I can’t train like I used to, which was pretty much run, run, run, so now what I used to consider cross-training is simply training, and though there’s nothing like running to get in running shape, I do think all the different workouts I’m doing are helping me get in shape to have a good shot at my goals for the year.
What proof do I have? Well, my fall run workouts had all been short and fast, but I had no endurance. Over the last few weeks I’ve been able to go to the indoor track for workouts with my old college teammate Tony and have gotten a little faster, and more importantly, felt more comfortable each week. Specifically:
On 12/17, the highlight of the workout was a 6:06 mile. This was tough!
On 1/7, I ran 1.5 miles in 9:14 (6:12 at the mile and picked up the pace for a 3:02 last half mile). This felt much easier than the 6:06 mile a few weeks earlier.
On 1/14, I ran a mile in 5:54 (my first time under 6 minutes since before I got hurt 15 months ago), then 4 half miles in 2:54, 2:52, 2:50, and 2:48. Not only was I getting faster on each one, I was feeling better, like my body was remembering how to run again.
Between these workouts, I’ve done runs on the treadmill and dropped my average pace for a 4 mile run (always at 1.5 grade) from 7:05 per mile, to 7:00, 6:52, and then 6:47. Again, these are rather hard but I feel a little more comfortable with each one.
I’m sure it’s these very workouts that have done the most to improve my condition and get me ready to run faster the next time. But I’ve only been running 2-3 times a week, with a maximum mileage of 15 per week. In the past I would’ve thought there was no way I could get in any kind of shape with such low mileage. But it’s happening. How? Let me count the ways…
First of all, though I feel like I’m repeating myself, it’s swimming, with lots of intervals, because it’s the best way to give my heart and lungs a great workout. I swim hard enough so that sometimes I don’t know if I’m going to make it to the end of the pool, or if the 15 or 30 seconds rest I give myself between repeats will be enough. I’ve learned that it always is, that if I slow down it’s because my muscles tire, not because I can’t get back on top of my breathing. When I used to swim I used to just plod along, 30 minutes, 45, treat it like a run, and while that was all right, that’s not how swimmers do it—which is all intervals. As a runner, you might think it’s not sustainable, and if you were running workouts of similar duration and regularity, it wouldn’t be, your body would break down. But with swimming, you can just hammer out the repeats for an hour or more and do it as often as you want. I’m not ready to agree with my lovely perfect wife that swimming is the toughest sport , but it sure allows a person to train hard and the results of it–a strong heart and lungs–are essential for good running.
I’ve also been trying to bike twice a week. Indoors, of course. Even without this year’s polar vortex, the conditions are too cold, icy, and snowy for me to even consider riding outdoors. I use my trainer at home, watching TV, which for me ends up being kind of a bare minimum workout. In 45 or 60 minutes, I get a little lathered up, but it’s never a killer, like the kind I can do out on the roads. Recently though I went to my first ever spin class and I’m going to give this workout an A+. I did over 90 minutes, the time flew by, and I rode much harder than I would have on my own at home. What I liked about the class was having the teacher tell me when to go hard, when to back off, when to stand up, when to sit down, what my cadence should be, et cetera. It was all planned out, with music to accompany the different phases of the workout, and 30 other bikers spinning their pedals around me, which made it easy to get caught up in “the ride.” And having someone else in control of what-to-do really freed up my mind to concentrate on form, effort, power, and eventually the existential questions that come when I get close to my breaking point. Can I really keep going at this level of effort? Why? How? To what end? What’s it all about?
I could see that some of the other riders in the class did not share my enthusiasm, were not really following the workout, or just wanted it to be done, but I was, no surprise, hankering for a good workout, so it was perfect. So my goal for now, at least until the spring thaw, is to make it to at least one spin class per week. And who knows, maybe I’ll keep going after that because I think it’ll help my running by working my legs and core in a way that’s a little different than simply riding outside because the tension on the spin bike was consistent all the way around the pedal stroke and it’s hard for me to do those short, high-intensity intervals on my own. As a low-mileage runner, I’m going to need to have strong legs, stronger than I’ve had in the past, but is there any runner who wouldn’t benefit from more leg strength? I don’t think so.
Perhaps the best training tool I have is the old Nordic Track ski machine I bought out of a neighbor’s basement last fall for $85. A 45 minute workout on this comes as close to replicating a 6 mile run as I’ve found. While I feel like I’m still getting comfortable with the motion of the machine, and I can’t do intervals on it, and sometimes I feel a little twinge in my knee (if I try to go too fast or stop paying attention to form), and it’s not like running, not nearly as relaxing, the motion it asks of my body, especially the pulling forward of the legs, really uses the running muscles, the quads and hips, and when I get done with the workout, step off the machine and walk around my basement, I can feel it in my legs—and it feels almost like I’ve run.
Honestly, especially now that I’ve just explained the benefits, I realize I should do more Nordic Track. But I’ve been limiting it to once a week because sometimes I do feel that twinge in my knee. But I hope as I get stronger, I can do it more often. I rarely see it listed as a good running substitute, but it really may be the best. The best evidence is probably from 1990’s American distance running stud Bob Kempainen, who because of injuries did most of his training in the six months leading up to the Olympic trials marathon on his Nordic Track (along with aqua jogging) and surprised everyone by running a 2:12 and making the Olympic team.
Cross-country skiing, which the Nordick Track replicates, is also good winter training, and I’ve gone a few times, which has been fun, and I can feel a pleasant fatigue in my legs afterwards, but as an inexperienced skier, I pay more attention to keeping my balance and not falling down, and can’t ski well enough to put out any kind of sustained effort. Hopefully that will come in time. Cross-country skiers have some of the highest recorded aerobic capacities on record, and working on my ski form should be worth the effort, as skiing in the park or through woods will surely be more fun than doing it in my basement.
Still, I’ll take what I can get for now, and along with a couple trips to the weight room each week, this is what I can get. How well it will translate into good running when the weather is better remains to be seen, but I think that even if my knee was stronger, even if I’d never been injured, I’d try to incorporate these workouts into my routine instead of just trying to maintain mileage and slogging through winter. A lot of the winter runs I’ve done in the past, in three layers of clothes, going slowly over ice and snow, just don’t provide the benefits, of either a good-weather run, or of these winter training activities I’ve been doing instead. Again, I know there’s nothing like running to get in shape for running, but that doesn’t mean running is the only way to get in better shape for running.
It occurs to me as I reach the end of this post that while the title I started with is “the joys of winter training,” I’ve only discussed training and haven’t mentioned “joy” one time. Well, seeing as last year at this time I was only halfway through my 6 weeks on crutches and didn’t know if I’d ever be able to run another step, I guess every workout is pretty joyful for me. I do feel like I’m getting my running legs under me again, which makes me happy, but wherever these workouts may lead me, I’ll go. I think that’s the key, right? To keep going….