Former 2:24 marathoner, now in my late 40s and hoping to maximally flatten the curve of my slide into senescence and mediocrity • Magazine writer, book editor and author, and commentator on the sport of distance running since 1999 • Adviser and confidant of other perambulators • Paradoxical hater of exercise fanatics • Chihuahua whisperer Sentence-fragment impresario

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Why cross-train? (Part I of more than I)

You're probably conditioned to reading this question as "What follows is a list of good reasons to do exercises other than running, in particular when you can't run." But this is a personal blog, not an advice column, which means that now and then I enthusiastically wade into bullshit, merriment, half-coherent self-reflection, slow-motion histrionics, and emotionally driven dissertations about things best left unread by anyone more pressed for time than a Galapagos tortoise on weed. In fact, I just did.

Put another way, I can't run and haven't been able to for over a week now, which in theory means I should be trying to protect my hard-earned fitness until I can get back out there. In practice, that's not going to happen. I'll cheerfully share with you the reasons I have no good reason to do anything more than sit around and only occasionally punch and swear at things while I wait for my leg to heal, and in fact won't be all that concerned if I can never run again.

I love to run long distances. Like a lot of people of a certain bent who take up this activity, I also like to compete in running races -- or did, when I could do this with the assurance of occasionally demonstrating a certain level of proficiency. Although I won a whole bunch of small races, mostly in Massachusetts and New Hampshire (including one marathon), and even took second in a watered-down 50K national championship, I usually didn't run to win. I chased times. When I ran my first marathon in 1994 at age 24 in 2:39:37, I believed -- not on the basis of this showing, mind you -- that I would eventually have a shot a the Olympic Marathon Trials qualifying standard, which at that time was 2:22:00 and would remain so until 2012, by which time I was long gone from meaningful running or racing. Since I ran 2:24:17 in a race in which I went one-for-three in portable toilet entry attempts, and ran comparable efforts at 10 miles and 21.1K, I probably could have done it. I didn't. But for quite a few years, I had a solid goal built around a serious avocation, and I loved it.

I also very rarely became injured, meaning that the idea of keeping in shape while unable to run was almost never in play. In 1995, I incurred a stress fracture of my right fourth metatarsal and missed eight weeks of running. During that time I rode a mountain bike fairly recklessly around Hanover, N.H., usually with one shitkicker boot on, per the advice of the doc. But these were very short bursts aimed only at getting to and from class, so it wasn't really exercise.

In 2003, at age 33, heading toward my last real shot at 2:22:00 in the 2004 qualifying cycle, I dinged my hip running the Bridge of Flowers 10K in Massachusetts, a course that includes a 13% grade in the third mile and a nasty. prolonged descent on the back side of that hill (the whole fucking thing should really be peeled off the face of Shelburne Falls and ejected into outer space). This cost me three weeks, and during that lonely span in the lovely Roanoke Valley of Virginia I could have ridden a bike or swam, or something.

But I didn't. Not once in over twenty more-or-less-unbroken years of serious running did I ever do an official workout when I couldn't run. Because frankly, even when I was fairly fast and extremely focused, I just didn't care enough. I figured that when the time came, I'd start running and get back in whatever shape I'd been in before the world ended.

Had I been an elite athlete with a contractual obligation, it would have been a different story. But I wasn't, and the story's what it is.

I should interject here that I'm not incapable of "working out" in ways besides running. Starting as a high-school junior, I lifted weight without fail three times a week until I left for college. In my short and mostly inert stint in the U.S. Army, I was fixated on excelling in the APFT, and achieved a score in that "event" of 371 (on a test that normally tops out at 300 -- an "extended" scale is sometimes used, as it was when I took the test at Fort Sam Houston in 1995; a former Navy SEAL beat me, but no one else in my unit of about 350 people did). This just means that I could do a great many push-ups and crunches in addition to running extremely fast (by Army standards -- I didn't even break 10:00 on my APFT). I also used to be able to do over 20 pull-ups; now can't piss for more than 20 straight seconds without herculean effort, but we don't need to discuss that now.

At any rate, I have never tried keeping in shape when injured. This means literally ignoring my own advice across multiple contexts, over a period of many years. Chapter 12 in Run Strong is titled "Retaining Fitness While Recovering from Injury," and I advise people whose training I help oversee to cross-train for both rehabilitation and prevention purposes. This doesn't make me a hypocrite so much as someone who cares a lot less about staying fit than a lot of people with whom I'm in contact.

Well, hell. I haven't even gotten to the angry parts yet and I really must stop for the day.

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