Track and field for Masters Athletes 8: Cross-training

News Article / December 14, 2020

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This is the eight in a series of articles covering all aspects of Masters athletes’ training and nutrition for track and field events. In this article, we examine cross-training, which is a very important tool for all Masters athletes.

By Major Serge Faucher

As stated in one of my previous articles, Masters athletes need to train smarter, not necessarily harder or longer. For most of us seasoned runners, gone are the days of high-mileage workouts. Unless you’re genetically gifted, an aging body just can’t cope due to slower recovery. For example, my brother Claude (Chief Warrant Officer of 17 Wing Winnipeg) ran up to 140 km each week 20 years ago, which made him a near-elite runner. He finished the Ottawa Race Weekend half-marathon in one hour and eleven minutes, placing fourth overall! Unfortunately, the high mileage took its toll on his Achilles tendons, forcing him to drastically reduce his training volume. At age 53, he now tops up his weekly total running distance at 60 kilometres, and that includes cross training. So for most of you “seasoned” athletes, try to introduce cross-training in your weekly schedule to make up for the loss of running volume and intensity. Doing this will improve your cardio, strengthen your muscles and help speed your recovery. Single-sport athletes such as runners often are in poor skeletal shape above the waist, and could use additional forms of workouts for better overall fitness.

While my sprinting program calls for four or five sessions on the track each week, I limit it to three in order to minimize the risk of injuries. When running at full speed around those tight curves on the track, the torques generated and transferred to the plantar fascia, Achilles tendons, and soleus muscles are tremendous. These forces are even greater when wearing spikes. If you’re not careful, you will end up injuring yourself pretty quickly. Note that our nervous system also needs a minimum of 48 hours (up to five days) to recover between high-intensity sessions, either on the track or in the weight room.

My approach to minimize potential problems is to do those additional prescribed workout sessions on machines such as the stationary bike, elliptical, or rower. Cross-training is a very important tool for any Masters athletes in general, not just track and field. Before we look at the various gym machines available to you, however, let us first focus on swimming as an excellent low-impact cross-training supplement.

Swimming

One of the best cross-training exercises out there is swimming. It’s zero impact and has an extremely low risk of injury. This makes it a perfect supplemental form of training for healthy runners, or sprinters, and one of the best alternative exercises for injured athletes.

Overall, it's a great aerobic workout without the pounding forces on your legs. Additionally, it’s a good way to get some more recovery from the hard track workouts. Be mindful that it is still possible to sustain an upper-body injury, especially if your form is off. Improper form can lead to rotator cuff tendonitis, but, overall, it’s a safe, low-impact way to cross-train.

Masters sprinter Wendy Alexis, from the Ottawa Lions Track and Field club, has consistently ranked top three in the world over the last 20 years. She is also a great example of someone who came back from a devastating hamstring injury in 2018. When most of us thought that her sprinting career was over at age 63, she proved us all wrong! That was accomplished after she introduced swimming, pool running, along with top notch physiotherapy treatments. She’s now a believer and has included swimming in her weekly schedule as part of her regular workouts.

Pool running

Pool running may be the best form of cross-training for runners because it’s highly specific to running. In fact, few exercises can match its power to maintain running-specific fitness. Over the years, many world-class athletes such as Steve Scott (middle-distance) and Maurice Green (sprinter) have used pool running as part of their normal training. If you make use of a water belt, it will closely mimic your running form while using most of the same muscles. This means that you should be able to maintain your fitness even if you’re not doing any running on land. Keep in mind that pool running is done in the deep end for obvious reasons. Just like at the track, once you’re in the pool, the most important part of your workout is to maintaining proper form. Keep your back straight and maintain a quick leg turnover. Pump your arms the same way you would on land, maintaining about a 90 degree angle at your elbow.

The big fail at pool running is when athletes adopt a slow cadence. Trying to take slower strides is a mistake, and will make your legs overextend in the water, which is poor form to start with, and may lead to a hamstring strain. Instead, drive your knee up and then drive your foot down. Your stride will slightly mimic that of a cyclist, and may be more up and down than normal running, and that’s okay!

Workouts in the pool are based on effort. You can use different levels when designing your workouts in training different energy systems. For example, short sprints done at 100% effort (alactic) are typically short, and last 15 to 30 seconds. Intervals done at 70-80% effort (glycolytic) will last two to five minutes, and aerobic intervals done 50-60% effort could last up to ten minutes. Note that to duplicate short distance land interval training, 25 metres of pool running will equate to 400 metres on the track at the same perceived effort. Now, let us look at other means of cross-training for those of you who are not quite so fond of water.

Rowing machines

Whether you are using this machine as your main physical activity or as part of a metabolic conditioning workout involving other exercises, you are going to either maintain or improve your fitness depending on your phase of training. In fact, this machine is so good that it was directly responsible for me winning the M50 400m Canadian Masters Indoor Championships in Toronto, in March 2015, against tough competitors. Having developed a plantar fasciitis back in December 2014, I had to find a way to keep training and maintain my fitness during the indoor season. With the rower, I managed to cover three different energy systems each week, and ran one session of 3 X 150m at 95% effort on the track in order to get some very important leg turnover despite the pain in my foot. My brother, Claude, had to prepare in much the same way prior to the World Masters Athletics Championships in Daegu, South Korea, in 2017. Doing 75% of his workouts on this machine while nursing a knee problem, he managed to make the finals in the 800m and 1500m, and the semis in the 400m; quite the achievement for someone who could not do a lot of running! In the end, this came as no surprise to us. Those who are familiar with rowing know that rowers have some of the highest VO2 capacity, often exceeding 90 mL/kg/min.

I will normally do my weekly five kilometre “long run” or long intervals on the rowing machine. As an athlete who specializes in the 400 metre dash, I also do shorter repeats during the competitive season to work the glycolytic system. The aerobic/anaerobic effort and benefits are virtually the same as running, without the extra pounding on my legs. Aside from strengthening the core muscles, calves and Achilles tendon, it provides a good workout for the hamstrings, gluteus, back, traps, and biceps! Again, like any other good thing, too much of it may lead to injury. Balance is key.

Note: My wife entered the 2020 Canadian Indoor Rowing Championship, which was held on February 9, 2020, in Mississauga, Ontario, to see how she would stack up against actual top Canadian rowers. Applying her excellent track fitness, she managed to land the bronze medal in her age group (women 40-49) with a time of 8:21.9 min for the standard 2000m distance. Not too bad for a 400m track athlete who only rowed twice a week!

Air bike

Another one of my favorite contraptions is the air bike, which is commonly known in cross-fit circles as “The Misery Machine”. Those of you who have used it, know what I’m talking about. While often overlooked in various gyms, it has the potential to completely “destroy” you if you put in the effort. All brands essentially look and work the same as the design has been around for decades. They are an upright bike, which is equipped with dual-action handlebars and a huge fan at the front. The fan spins as you pedal, and is linked with your speed. As you pedal faster, you experience more resistance, and when you pedal slower, well, there's less! The seamless transition between hard and easy efforts allows you to focus on the hard work you're supposed to do, rather than scrambling for buttons to change the resistance. This is one of the only machines that will bring me down to my knees after a hard session. I will normally do shorter intervals on it such as 20 X 30 sec (work) with 30 sec (recovery) or I’ll use the Tabata setting and go all out for four minutes of insanity! I purchased one for my personal use, and I just love it! Be aware that some of these are pretty noisy depending on the brand as they are chain-driven for the most part.

Ski exercise machine

Ski exercise machines mimic skiing. My favorites are models that rely on the same flywheel resistance employed in rowing machines. Most of these machines allows you to focus on using either the classic alternating arm techniques or double-pole techniques. I usually use the double-pole technique as I’m looking to train larger muscle groups and obtain a higher-quality workout. This also leads to a higher calorie burn than the alternating arm technique, which focuses on smaller muscle groups. I use it successfully to get longer intervals when my legs are tired from a tough track workout or heavy squats the day before. Also a great alternative if you have suffered a lower body injury and want to keep your shape while healing. Once again, I proved that I could cross-train my way to a medal at an important international championship. In early July 2019, I suffered a calf injury just three weeks prior to the North, Central American and Caribbean Masters Athletics championships held in Toronto, in which more than 32 countries took part. Right at the time where I was supposed to get really sharp with the training and peak, my body had other plans. Instead of getting discouraged and giving up, I had the calf treated by my Active Release Therapy wizard, and worked on the ski exercise machine every second day doing some hard intervals training. Even without any running done in that three-week period, the hard work on the machine paid off as I finished 4th in the 400m finals with a decent 56.69 sec right behind the great Michael Sherar, from Toronto, who ran 56.10 sec, and also secured a bronze medal in the 200m finals two days later.

Elliptical trainer

The elliptical trainer is another one of my favorite cross-training option to supplement my running or replace running when I’m injured. It’s most likely one on the best alternative to running in that the elliptical trainer employs many of the same muscles. For seasoned runners, using an elliptical trainer can serve as a respite from high impact on the body, possibly preventing overload injuries. My brother, Claude, has used it successfully for years to raise his cardio while suffering from chronic Achilles tendinopathy for the past 13 years. Dealing with an injury at age 40, he managed to run a five kilometre race at the 2007 CF Nationals in 16:20 min doing 75% of his training on this machine.

Battle ropes

Battle ropes are fun! They are a great way to bring in an intense upper body workout following two hard days of running when your legs need a break. They will hit your deltoids and biceps like few other exercises! Most people who try them immediately like them since they are a breath of fresh air compared to everything else you’ll find in the gym. They are right up there with kettlebells as a must-have for gyms and trainers everywhere. At home, I use a 50’ rope that is 1.5” thick for my workouts as the ropes with 2.0” grip can be quite challenging to handle. When you start using the ropes, the idea of maintaining intensity over one minute seems like a pipe dream, but consistent training will help you break through mental barriers, and come out with a new outlook and confidence. The ropes are a great tool for fat loss and overall strength because it allows anyone to spike their heart rate in short bursts, thus improving cardiovascular output. I can easily push my heart rate above 175 bpm when using them.

Learn to breathe and relax! Many people tend to grip the ropes a little too hard and tense up their bodies, which can lead to quick exhaustion. Instead, control your breathing, grip the rope lightly, relax your arms, shoulders, torso, and even your face. You will be able to move faster and maintain intensity for longer periods of time.

Timings and reps can all be manipulated to a variety of workouts and goals. Your imagination only limits the possibilities. I will normally use the ropes as part of my circuit training, or use them on their own with the Tabata setting for four to five sets at around 90% effort. There are a variety of routines you can do with them. As a change from the standing position, try the ropes while kneeling or even sitting down on the ground! You can also stand on a Bosu ball to make it more challenging. I have tried different ways to move them such as the alternating speed wave, grappler toss, the basic wave, jumping jacks, in and out circles, and moving the ropes sideways. You’ll always feel the burn regardless!

Circuit training

I’m a big fan of circuit training. This workout gets your heart rate up and strengthens your muscles at the same time. As everyone in the military is familiar with, you’ll normally move quickly through several exercise stations to work different muscle groups with little to no rest between stations, where each one will be different. While circuit training comes in many flavors, I personally like to do sessions of 30 times 30 seconds of effort and 30 seconds rest. As you switch exercise every minute, the intensity and discomfort to your body will be more manageable than sticking with the same exercise or muscle group throughout. You should be “cruising” at approximately 80-90% effort during those workouts as 100% effort is not possible. I can tell you that circuit training sessions will help you shed fat and build muscle rapidly while raising your tolerance to lactic acid in no time! Another workout you might like as a form of “circuit training” is to go through the FORCE Test 2-3 time back-to-back at around 80% effort. Concentrate on form, and try to stay relaxed throughout. Once you finish the third test, you’ll be pretty spent, and will have tackled several energy systems.

High-intensity interval training

Wikipedia describes it as follows: High-intensity interval training (HIIT), also called high-intensity intermittent exercise or sprint interval training, is a form of interval training, a cardiovascular exercise strategy alternating short periods of intense anaerobic exercise with less intense recovery periods, until too exhausted to continue. Though there is no universal HIIT session duration, these intense workouts typically last under 30 minutes, with times varying based on a participant's fitness level. The duration of HIIT also depends on the intensity of the session.

One of the biggest advantages of HIIT is that you can get maximal health benefits in minimal time (workouts as short as four minutes in duration). HIIT may help you burn more calories than traditional exercise, and elevate your metabolism for hours after exercise. This results in additional calories being burned even after you have finished exercising. As perhaps the most famous approach to HIIT, let’s talk about Tabata.

Tabata

Simply stated, Tabata is HIIT on overdrive! It is pain piled upon pain and misery! Oddly enough, this is one of my favorite cross training workouts as it is very short and efficient. It’s a perfect workout during my Phase III training (competitive season), where each session sees reduced volume and increased intensity!

Tabata refers to Dr. Izumi Tabata, a professor at Ritsumeikan University in Japan and former National Institutes of Health researcher. In his 1996 study, he used a mechanically braked cycle ergometer to test athletes. They compared the effect of six weeks of moderate-intensity endurance training done at 70% of maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max) against high-intensity interval training.

First, the athletes cycled for 60 minutes per session, five times per week for six weeks. After the training, they noticed that the anaerobic capacity did not increase significantly, while VO2max increased from 53 to 58 mL/kg/min, a respectable aerobic gain.

Next, to quantify the effect of high-intensity intermittent training on energy release, the subjects performed interval training four times a week regime over six weeks. The short exhaustive intermittent training consisted of seven to eight sets of 20 seconds of exercise at an intensity of about 170% of VO2max with a ten second rest between each bout; the very definition of what is now known as Tabata. Following the training period, they noticed that VO2max increased by 7 mL/kg/min, while the anaerobic capacity increased by 28%! Over the six week period, the Tabata group recorded 120 minutes of training compared with the control group, which recorded 1,800 minutes.

As seen in this study, this type of training has a great impact on both the aerobic and anaerobic systems as one can raise one’s heart rate to 190 bpm or more if done correctly! What I mean by “correctly” is that you really have to put in 100% effort during those 20 sec of work, nothing less. It takes a lot of mental focus to keep maximum effort going. After the third of eight 20 sec segments done at 100% effort, you will start asking yourself how you will be able to finish the workout as your body and mind will feel completely fried! It’s common (and expected) for the effort to drop to the 90-95% range when the pain gets to be too much to handle after a few repetitions. The trick at that point is to focus on one 20 second segment at a time, and ignore the giant amount of pain you are experiencing. This is not easy to do, but it builds character and mental toughness. You should only be able to do one set of Tabata (four minutes). Your workout is now done. If you think you can do more, you were not at 100% effort! With that said, Tabata is NOT for everyone. I would caution you to engage with your PSP representative and physician for more information and to find out if you are in fact ready for such an intense workout.

The previously-mentioned Tabata study also showed that moderate-intensity aerobic training that improves the maximal aerobic power does not change anaerobic capacity; something most serious athletes would have guessed anyways. On the other hand, high-intensity intermittent training (HIIT) may significantly improve both anaerobic and aerobic energy supplying systems, probably through imposing intensive stimuli on both systems. While Tabata is done over a four minute period, I strongly suggest that you warm-up for at least 10 to 15 minutes beforehand, and follow up with a good cool down to flush out the lactic acid and avoid a bad case of delayed onset muscle soreness.

This form of HIIT workout proved very beneficial thus far in my routine to be mentally and physically tough as can be for the grueling 400m training program I follow. As part of your Tabata workouts, feel free to experiment with different exercises like the battle ropes, slam ball, burpees, air squats, mountain climbers, air bike cycles, and pushups, for example.

On to the next topic!

We could go on with several other methods and ways to cross train, but you get the idea by now. The bottom line is that you can never replace running if you’re a competitive runner, but cross-training is not only an invaluable way to improve your fitness, it’s in my opinion the only way a Masters athlete can keep training hard and compete at a high level for many more years while at the same time avoiding injury. I hope that you enjoyed this closer look at cross-training and its great value for older athletes. Be bold, and try some of those machines if you have not yet done so, and experiment with different workouts. I promise it will be fun! In our next article, we will take a look at one of the main pillars of performance: nutrition.

 


 

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