Bring Your Workout Indoors
by Frank Mungeam
Are you tired of running in the summer heat, or getting soaked in a downpour? Does jogging on dark streets make you nervous? In the winter, do you spend more time getting dressed than you do actually running? Maybe you're just bored with retracing the same neighborhood loop, week after week.
Don't despair! Run to the gym instead. Making tracks to your local health club can pay surprising dividends the next time you lace up and hit the road.
TAKE THE OUTSIDE IN
According to Dr. Linn Goldberg, Director of the Human Performance Lab at Oregon Health Sciences University, the best gym fitness machines for runners are treadmills, elliptical joggers, stair steppers, indoor bicycles and cross country ski machines. "Training on these machines in a gym can be used to stay in shape during bad weather, can help maintain or regain conditioning related to an injury, and can help give runners more strength to run hills," says Goldberg.
American running great Alberto Salazar is among those who use and recommend these indoor alternatives to augment running on the roads. "I've used them all, except the cross country skiing machine (only because I don't have one!). The others are all great exercises to compliment running and add cardiovascular conditioning without the risk of pounding the pavement."
Elite runners aren't the only ones finding benefits at the gym. Use of treadmills for exercise has increased 88% in the past five years, and the use of free weights for training has grown 44% in that same period, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturers' Association.
What is the right exercise machine for you? That depends on your reason for running indoors. Dr. Linn Goldberg, co-author of The Healing Power of Exercise, has studied each of the most common fitness machines found at health clubs. The bad news? "The single best way to improve your running is by running."
But indoor exercise can have real benefits for runners looking to recover from injury, escape foul weather, or just add variety to their routine.
"These machines are just as good for your health and fitness as running," says Goldberg. "They'll help you maintain cardiovascular conditioning, and can lower the stress on your body."
Each fitness machine has its own strengths and weaknesses. Choosing the right one for you depends upon your reasons for going indoors.
When you're able but not willing to run outdoors, the treadmill is the closest indoor alternative. "It is the one piece of gym equipment that best simulates running," notes Dr. Goldberg. You can adjust both the height and the speed, allowing you to create a variety of workouts that closely mirror what you would do outside if it weren't too hot/wet/dark/cold.
However, the strength of the treadmill is also its weakness. Of all the indoor training options, the treadmill most closely simulates the pounding your legs take running outside. If you're heading indoors to recover from or avoid running injuries, choose one of the other fitness machines instead.
Elliptical machines offer a lower-impact way to condition your legs and also to maintain your aerobic fitness. According to Dr. Goldberg, elliptical machines are not as effective as treadmills at simulating the act of running, but the elliptical jogger is a lower-impact alternative to pounding away on a treadmill's belt.
Tired of getting dropped on the hills at your local 10K? Don't get mad, put your foot down - over and over. The stair climber is the best indoor device for exercising the muscles needed for running hills, and it can provide an excellent aerobic workout as well. But, warns Dr. Goldberg, "Don't cheat. Let go of the side hand rails." Often, he notices runners who set the resistance too high, then hold onto the rails, robbing themselves of the full benefit of the workout.
Spinning and Indoor Cycling
Spinning and stationary bicycles offer one of the lowest-impact ways to maintain aerobic fitness indoors. Because the bike seat supports your weight, you can work your leg muscles without abusing your joints. Plus, group cycling classes make indoor exercise more fun. Just be sure to get help properly adjusting your seat position before you start riding.
Cross Country Trainer
"Cross country machines are great for keeping you in shape aerobically," says Dr. Goldberg. "But they are not very good specific training for running. They are restrictive in their motion and you're not using the same muscles the same way."
Like gym rowing machines, cross country machines simply won't help you run faster. Still, if you're looking for variety, these exercises will definitely sustain your cardiovascular fitness.
Aqua Jogging / Pool Running
Pool running is the ultimate, no-impact alternative to running. By wearing a flotation vest, you can do everything from slow jogging to all-out water springs to straight-leg scissor kicks that build quad and hamstring strength.
Dr. Goldberg rates the fitness benefits of aqua jogging highly, but points out: "You have to be very motivated. You almost need to have a coach to keep you going." Pool running is especially good for injured runners who may have few other options for maintaining their fitness.
ADDING IRON TO YOUR WORKOUT
Most runners think of weight lifting as something other people do. Many worry that lifting weights could hurt their running performance. In reality, strategic use of weights can increase the strength of muscles you use during running. Weight work can also develop muscle endurance in the abs, back and shoulders, enabling runners to maintain good posture and form over longer distances.
Janet Hamilton, a certified strength and conditioning specialist based in Atlanta, has coached hundreds of running clients across the country. Hamilton says runners can definitely enhance their performance by lifting weights, as long as they follow certain guidelines.
Here are five weight exercises Hamilton recommends for runners who want to improve their leg strength and their running form.
- "Use free weights, not weight machines. Runners will benefit more from free weight exercises that not only force them to balance but also work the muscle across multiple joints," notes Hamilton.
- Learn proper lifting technique. Consult a personal trainer before you start, preferably one who specializes in strength training rather than body sculpting.>"Technique is everything," says Hamilton. "You do it wrong, you could get injured, and most injuries result from poor form."
- Lift lighter weights, more times. Forget those behemoths grunting away to complete eight repetitions. Instead, select a weight that allows you to do 30 repetitions at a time. "More repetitions with a lighter weight will develop muscle endurance - which, for most runners, is more important than sheer muscle strength," explains Hamilton.
Squat exercises develop the gluteals, hamstrings and quads - "the seat of your power." These are the muscles responsible for powering you up a hill and control you as you run down a hill
Forward lunging works the gluteals, hamstrings, quadriceps, inner and outer thigh. You get a lot of bang for the buck out of these exercises that you don't get from weight machines. Unlike quad machines, the lunge mimics the work the muscle does in real life.
The latissimus is a huge muscle in your back responsible for stabilizing your torso as you run. Lat pulls will help runners keep an erect back when running longer distances.
You need good abdominal strength to run well. These muscles are important for posture because they stabilize the pelvis as you exert power from your legs.
Lifting dumbbells from the prone position works the upper back muscles. Distance runners, especially newer runners, complain about upper back and shoulder fatigue. The muscles in the upper back need to be strong to maintain good posture. This exercise is especially important for runners completing races of 10K or longer.
Hamilton doesn't oppose strength training (sets of 8 to 10 repetitions with heavier weight) for runners, but recommends restricting those efforts to early- and off-season. Once the running season begins, switch from building strength to building endurance by shifting to lighter weights and higher repetitions.
The gym will never take the place of that favorite road or trail run. But indoor workouts can enable runners to add variety, reduce wear and tear and maintain aerobic fitness.