The Dirty Little Secret About Cross-Training

My second favorite cardio activity! Well, it used to be.(Photo credit: ruei_ke)

We’ve all read them. Those snazzy sounding articles proclaiming the benefits of cross-training as injury prevention for runners. I’ve read many and tend to agree. As I mentioned in my training log on Monday, I had a post in the works about cross-training. I’m a religious devotee to cross-training to maintain aerobic fitness, but hopefully avoid overuse injuries. I like cycling, swimming, but above all else, I’ve always loved the elliptical.

But I’m not here to evangelize.  This is no ordinary post about cross-training.

Perhaps by the end of it you might be surprised as I was to discover a dirty little secret about cross-training. 

Since the beginning of my renaissance, I’ve been a  cross-training devotee, believing that it was the key to injury-free running, as basic as regular stretching, ice-baths, sports massages and wearing the right shoes.  In fact, I used the elliptical to lose the initial weight I needed to drop before I could safely start running.  Since becoming a runner, I’ve been sidelined by minor running problems like shin splints and completely sidelined twice, both in the last year, when I inexplicably experienced completely debilitating hip/groin pain.  The source of this pain has been mystifying – it usually occurs when I am ramping up my mileage, but not during a run.  It has happened twice, as I said, both on both legs.  Last year it was my left leg, and this year it was my right.

Running’s always the fall guy. I automatically assumed that running caused both of these injuries and berated myself for every running-related sin.  It must have been that I wasn’t stretching enough. It was the treadmill’s fault. My shoes were too old.

And so on.

So this year, post-marathon (my first), when I experienced the same pain again, but in my opposite leg, I panicked and quit running completely.

Enjoying that post-marathon high before the pain set in.

I stuck to cross-training on the elliptical and kept trying to run every week to see if I could run without pain yet.  After a month and a half I could run again, but I still had pain.  I couldn’t run much more than an hour and my speed was slow.  It wasn’t until I took a complete break from all exercise after a bout of appendicitis that I was able to return to running again.  The change was so dramatic that five days post-surgery, I pounded out six miles on treadmill.  Pain free.  Note: I do not advise this.

Since then, I’d been running every other day (more or less) with elliptical or recumbent cycling days in between, but I hadn’t been able to shake the nagging groin pain.  I thought it was running’s fault, but as an addicted runner, I kept running.  Again, not advised.

But last week the gym at my apartment complex inexplicably filled up, so I was forced to do all cardio on the treadmill.  One week, no elliptical.

And what happened?

No hip or groin pain.

Apparently it wasn’t running that caused this injury, it was the elliptical.  The elliptical that I spent hours on, biding my time until I could run again was actually the culprit.  Not the remedy.

Since then, I haven’t stepped foot on an elliptical. For cross-training (which I still believe is necessary for healthy running), I’m sticking to walking, swimming, and biking.  I’m calling it the triathlon cross-training plan.  And I’ve had no hip or groin pain.

Sometimes that which we use to prevent injuries causes the injuries! Cross-training is not the anti-injury silver bullet I thought it was.

And yes, my title WAS a little dramatic.

But let’s face it.  I’m more than a little dramatic about anything that keeps me from running.

Have you ever discovered that something that was supposed to be preventing or curing an injury actually caused one or made it worse?

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Ultrarunner, yoga teacher, academic, and feminist. I write about ultrarunning, feminism, and the intersection of running and life.

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  1. I had a terrible experience with this! I got a minor tibial stress reaction last February. I was relegated to the pool for the first two weeks of healing, where I alternated water jogging with swimming. I am very clumsy at swimming freestyle, so I did the breaststroke. My tibia took a long time to heal, so I ended up in the pool for over three weeks. In the meantime, I began to get knee pain walking down stairs. After four weeks I went back to the doctor and found out it was pes bursitis, also known as “breaststroker’s knee.” It took over six weeks to heal. No running, the most painful ART I’ve ever had, and even the stationary bike hurt at the peak of the injury.

    I agree so much with your post! The whole experience taught me that it’s important to be really cautious beginning any sport from scratch, whether or not it is low impact. And this is doubly the case if the sport involves any kind of technique. I still cross train once a week on a spin bike, plus yoga. But I will never swim the breaststroke again!

  2. I learned the same lesson about PT strength exercises over the winter. My ART guy told me to do single-legged squats and other exercises to get my glutes firing properly. After weeks of making no progress we figured out I was doing the squats wrong and aggravated the injury! I probably could have returned to running a month early than I did if I didn’t do those darn squats! Great post!

  3. There is research indicating that long term use of the elliptical can lead to pretty significant deterioration of the hip joint, so I’d certainly advise, at the least, mixing up the cross training. I don’t use an elliptical much (in fact, I used it this week for the first time in maybe 6 months, driven indoors by Sandy), but when I do, I notice soreness in my hips pretty quickly.

  4. Is it because man’s machines will never be as good as naturally running? I don’t think the legs are designed to move like that without any impact. What about the stairmaster? Seems like the most natural way to cross train.