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Cross training for Trail Runners

We all KNOW we should be doing it, and it feels like everyone else IS, but what exactly is IT and where do we start? The hills are alive with misinformation, hype and training trends, so we took our burning questions to the professionals, for some rounded, realistic guidance on cross training for trail runners.

First in the hot seat is Brendan Lombard, a 30-year-old Cape based fitness expert, run coach and elite trail runner. When pressed to outline the top 3 tips that he would confidently hand to any trail runner, Brendan outlined the following:

  1. Get into the gym. The benefits gained from strength training are of utmost importance if you are looking to reduce risk of injury and maximise performance. 
  2. Employ the skills of a fitness expert. Following a simple cut out from a magazine won’t cut it. I have found most of the articles to be comprised of “old science.” Specific strength training for running is complex and requires someone who knows what they are doing. Check their degree and experience. A simple online diploma is not good enough.
  3. Lifting heavy will NOT cause you to gain weight that will hinder your performance. Especially ladies - YOU MUST LIFT. Doing bodyweight exercises will only get you so far.

Why cross train at all?

“There is an array of benefits from doing strength training.  First and foremost, it is a great way to prevent injury. Injuries are often caused by muscles not firing which causes other parts of the body to compensate and flair up. By strengthening one’s muscles we “bulletproof” our body and make it more resilient and less injury prone. Mobility and stability exercises can help one’s proprioceptive qualities become better and aid a runner in moving over the trails more efficiently. Trail running is never done on an even surface and thus requires prepping one’s body and joints for the task ahead. The “best benefit” I have come to know from strength training are the performance enhancing qualities it provides. You will NEVER reach your full potential as an athlete if you do not strength train. That is a fact. You can take two athletes of the same ability and the one who does strength training, will win the race. The science is there, the facts are there. If you want to be faster, stronger and improve all facets of your mechanical running performance, then you NEED to implement strength training.” 

Common mistakes?

“The biggest thing trail runners get wrong when taking on a form of cross training is that they mostly just choose another form of aerobic exercise. While this can help improve aerobic performance, only marginal “possible gains” in strength can occur.”

And if we don’t belong to a gym?

“One does not have to belong to a gym to do strength training, although I highly recommend it. One can get away by purchasing a few pieces of equipment and asking a fitness professional or sports scientist to devise a program for you. Bodyweight exercises will help initially but one needs progressive overload with a strength program and this will require resistance in the form of bands, weights etc. The objective is to become stronger and better and this requires progression. If you can, try to get a coach to help you.” 

Three of Brendan’s start-up strength training exercises our outlined below. There are many more complex exercises but they require more visual demonstration and guidance.

1. Squats

Stand with your head facing forward and your chest held up and out. Place your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider. Extend your hands straight out in front of you to help keep your balance. You can also bend the elbows or clasp the fingers. Sit back and down like you're sitting into an imaginary chair. Keep your head facing forward as your upper body bends forward a bit. Rather than allowing your back to round, let your lower back arch slightly as you descend. Lower down so your thighs are as parallel to the floor as possible, with your knees over your ankles. Press your weight back into your heels. Keep your body tight, and push through your heels to bring yourself back to the starting position. 

2. Step Ups

Stand in front of a step, bench or stair with back, legs and arms straight, feet hip-distance apart. With right leg, step onto the centre of the bench and straighten your right leg at the top. Opposite leg should remain behind you for counterbalance. Slowly bend right knee and step back down with left and then right foot to complete one rep.

3. Bulgarian Split Squat

Find yourself a step, bench or any other contraption that you can rest a foot on, it needs to be about knee height. Get into a forward lunge position with torso upright, core braced and hips square to your body, with your back foot elevated on the bench. Your leading leg should be half a metre or so in front of the bench. Lower until your front thigh is almost horizontal, keeping your knee in line with your foot. Don't let your front knee travel beyond your toes. Drive up through your front heel back to the starting position, again keeping your movements measured.

Repeat the above in progressive reps as part of your regular cross-training regime. For more? Contact Brendan or follow him on Insta at brendan_lombard. In the next Wildrunner Weekly, we chat to Ash “Fitmom” for her cross training tips and wisdom.

Till then, hold that squat.

Words: Kim Stephens