It’s pretty obvious that to get better in any activity, you must practise the skill you wish to develop, and practice it precisely. This training principle, known as specificity, is relevant to most things we do in life. In other words, the best way to train for running is to run, for swimming is to swim, and for cycling is to cycle.
That might sound like a no-brainer, but it’s also recognised that such specific training cannot be endured for extended periods – we can’t practise for our races by running or cycling that same race every day because in most cases it’s just not humanly possible. So what’s a runner or cyclist to do?
To compensate for our inability to meet the law of specificity, we can actually design a well-balanced program with different types of workouts that that can reap big fitness and performance rewards. So here goes…
High intensity intermittent training (HIIT)
A stack of research has shown that these short, misery-inducing efforts offer a huge fitness return for a comparatively small time investment. How? Interval training works your anaerobic system, which is generally not fuel-efficient over distance. Improving your anaerobic capacity will not only improve tolerance to the lactic acid build-up, but will also boost aerobic efficiency (the ability to deliver oxygen to the working muscles), resulting in better performance, and greater speed and endurance.
Recent research published in the Scandinavian Journal of Medicine, Science and Sports (2013) showed that running and cycling economy improved by performing combined endurance training with either heavy or explosive strength training. Results also showed that the stronger you are, the more force you generate, resulting in greater muscle activation, injury prevention and power output. However, this doesn’t mean you become a gym junkie, but rather opt for a tailored routine that includes adjusting your lifting schedule to mirror your running or cycling training. For example, core work for cyclist and leg-work for runners.
There’s nothing not to like about cross training if you consider what it’s good for – promoting recovery (especially from an injury) and boosting motivation, to name a few reasons. The key, however, is to choose workouts that are closest to the sport in terms of muscles used. For example, cycling roughly simulates the motion of running and can actually help to improve leg speed. As for cycling, running can help to improve leg strength while working the upper body muscles that get ignored on the bike. It will also improve core strength to help with balancing on the bike.
Bottom line: While the majority of running and cycling training should remain within the realm of endurance training, variety really is the spice of life. So to inject some freshness into what may be a stale routine, be sure to incorporate some interval, speed and strength workouts that match your performance goals.