Unanticipated Benefits of Cross-Training

I’ve been a runner for almost as long as I can remember. When an over-use injury cut short my marathon training last fall, I got serious about exploring other options to stay strong and fit without running almost every day. I’ve been working with a trainer for the past three years, and this spring I added swimming and cycling into the mix (triathlon anyone?). I do these things because it’s important to me that I’m strong, and because I want to stay healthy, and I love the sense of accomplishment that comes from making progress and achieving goals.

I knew that cross-training would be good for me physically. What has surprised me, though, is how each of these activities provides a unique mental release for me.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about running is that the wide-open spaces give my mind a chance to roam, to gather my thoughts, and to sort through things. My weekly distance is usually a good barometer of what’s going on in the rest of my life.  Peak mileage is typically associated with peak stress; I find I’m best able to work through my problems one mile at a time.

Thinking through things works well for me a lot of the time, but sometimes I simply need to turn my brain off – which is not something at which I particularly excel. It wasn’t long after I picked up my first road bike this spring that I realized that’s exactly what happened when I clipped into my pedals and took off for a ride. Unlike running, cycling requires that I focus almost exclusively on what I’m doing. Even now,  I’m mindful of the potential for bodily injury: minor scrapes when I don’t manage to unclip in time for a sudden stop, and the potential for greater injury from cars, animals, children, potholes, and other hazards along my route. I’m almost constantly on the look-out for hazards. It’s stressful at times, but also a nice release: when I’m focused so much on what’s going on around me, I’m finally able to let go of my day-to-day stress.

I do almost all of my swimming in a pool (open-water swimming is another issue entirely). As a child, I got into running in large part because I was such a hopeless swimmer, so in many ways my sense of accomplishment is greatest from swimming. At the start of the year, I had to rest and catch my breath every 25 yards. I learned by studying other swimmers, talking with one of the life guards, and by watching videos of good swimmers. I’d study what they were doing, then try to replicate it, seeing what worked and what didn’t. I’m still doing that – it satisfies my inclination to analyze and experiment, changing one thing at a time and try out new combinations. It also reminds me a little of my long runs, where I have to fully tune-in to my body; I’m aware of my position in the water, how far I’m turning my head to breath, where my hand enters the water, how many strokes it takes to get to the end of the pool. It feels almost decadent.

Of all of my activities, strength training may be the hardest and most fun. I love the moves that I can muscle through (squats, bench press and the like), and dread the ones that require finesse and balance (pretty much anything I do on one leg). I like putting on my compression shorts or a running skirt, then picking up good weight and doing a power weight-lifting move with good form.  I’ve lost track of how much time I spend in the weight room laughing. My trainer has finally gotten used to the fact that I inevitably start to laugh mid-way through a tough set of bench press. I think the laughter stems from my pleasure in what I’m doing and just how far removed the weight room is from the rest of my life. It’s where I most feel like a bad-ass. No – it’s where I’ve discovered that I am a bad-ass.

When push comes to shove, I still think of myself as a runner. It’s where I go for my energy, focus, and stress release. It’s also something that I’m pretty good at doing. But my other activities have provided me with balance, and unexpected rewards that I’ve grown to appreciate.

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4 Responses to Unanticipated Benefits of Cross-Training

  1. Caitlin says:

    I can really relate to a lot of this post. I started out thinking of myself as primarily a runner, but I have really grown to love triathlon – and specifically, swimming – that now I just call myself an athlete because it’s easier than saying “I’m a runner, triathlete and swimmer.” Heh.

    Anyways, I also love the focus in cycling and the discipline required in swimming and lifting. I have a tendency to zone out during running which means I think about everything BUT my run. I can’t do that with cycling and swimming, which is nice because I usually finish each activity feeling very mentally clear and calm. I think they serve an almost meditative purpose in this regard. I feel like adding all of these things to my training routine has made me so much stronger than when I just ran a lot. I still love to run but it’s definitely nice to mix it up.

  2. susanlaury says:

    Thanks, Caitlin. It’s interesting to see that you’ve come to especially like swimming (especially since from your blog that the open-water swim was hard for you). It was a revelation to me when I first noticed that I was relaxed in the pool while swimming – my next, most immediate, challenge is getting to that point in open water.

  3. cynthia says:

    I love so many things about this post. And I can also relate to a lot of it. Running is the hardest thing for me, but I have noticed how it feels easier when I’m heading out–rather than around. I had a running over-use injury back in 2009, and this year is my first year back. But I never loved it. It always did feel like the epitome of being fit, though. When I used to do triathlons, people would ask me which of the three activities was my favorite–none was always my response : ) My favorite thing is you discovering your bad-ass self : ) Maybe I will find mine on one of these runs…

    • susanlaury says:

      Triathlons are such a challenge, aren’t they? I managed one tri last fall, and did my second a couple of weeks ago. I’m still learning to overcome an inexplicable panic that takes over as I get in the water at the start. I definitely need to find my water-dwelling badass! On the other hand, I’ve started working more on relaxing and taking in my runs. One of the things I particularly enjoy these days is taking photographs on my runs (my “heart-rate recovery photo ops”). It encourages me to explore off the beaten path when I’m traveling and to look at my familiar (sometimes boring!) routes in a new way.

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