Find Balance! Train the Total Athlete

What's the purpose behind your workout today?
What’s the purpose behind your workout today?

My hamstrings are sore again. They’re getting worse.  I know I should stretch more, but I always forget until I’m running late and then I don’t have time.

I started running because it was cheaper than other exercise.  I can’t afford a massage!

Where does she get off suggesting the gym to me?  I’m a runner! I’m fit enough.

Ugh, cross training?  But I don’t like other kinds of exercise! And if I want to be an amazing runner, I think I should just keep running.

Sound familiar?  Yep.  I get it.  I’m right there with you, in fact.  But over the last year I’ve slowly and steadily warmed up to the reality that there is more to running than just running, and adopted a new attitude toward training my body.  I’m not just training myself as a runner, I’m training myself as an athlete.

What’s the difference?

Well it’s not so much a difference as it is a relationship.  See, it’s a lot like squares and rectangles.  As we learned in geometry class, all squares are rectangles,but not all rectangles are squares, as shown in figure A, where the square represents runners and the rectangle represents athletes.

All runners are athletes, but not all athletes are runners.  Get it?
figure A. All runners are athletes, but not all athletes are runners. Get it?

I was a square for years, and it was limiting.  I lost flexibility, range of motion, coordination, core and upper-body strength and other skills valuable to athletes, and where did it land me?

English: Outside view of an inflatable medical...
Yep, right in the medical tent. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I pulled something in my knee, the result of a systemic injury that continues to nag me.  Two years and thousands of dollars worth of physical therapy and massage and yoga classes later, I’ll be damned if I’m not a convert to the Church of the Total Athlete.

I was baptized into the church in November of 2012, when I attended the USATF Level 1 coach certification course.  At the beginning of the course I was a little nonplussed that I had to suffer through learning about field events, jumping and even sprinting – god forbid!  But as the hours passed I learned more about distance running from the jumping and throwing presenters than I think I ever have from actually putting one foot in front of the other.  Running, they taught me, is just one way a human can express her athleticism.

My square mind was blown open, and suddenly I was a rectangle.  No wait!  I was a pentagon.

And this translates to the diagram at the top of the post!
If this makes absolutely no sense, refer to the diagram at the top of the post.  Hopefully all will then become clear.

Every biomechanical expression we have, you see, is a result of combining five* primary biomotor abilities:

  • Strength
  • Speed
  • Endurance
  • Flexibility
  • Coordination

*There is another level of abilities as well, but for simplicity’s sake we will treat them as combinations of these five and discuss them further later on.

Running is one way you can express them.  Playing catch with your kid is another way.  Ballerinas, weightlifters, snow shovelers, soccer players, nightclub partiers, yogis, ping pongers and mall walkers all have these five things in common, the difference is how we combine them.  There’s a lot more to it than that, and I promise I’ll get to it in a follow-up, but for now let’s work on this basic truth: when you run you use all five of these biomotor abilities.

It follows then, that if you improve one of them, you will improve your running performance.  Right?

So consider how you can train each of these abilities with your sport.  Speed is a no-brainer, of course; I do speed work to get faster.  And I do long slow distance to train my endurance.  If I want to get stronger I can do hills or run with ankle weights.  If I want to train my coordination, I suppose I could run a technical trail and work hard to keep from falling.  And I can train my flexibility by…

Oh wait.

Surprise!  Runners often find themselves chronically losing flexibility, and many times this results in injury.

So we stretch, right?  And we look for complimentary athletic pursuits.  Yoga is great because it trains flexibility, coordination, strength (including upper body, which we runners tend to neglect) and endurance.  Crossfit seems to help a lot of runners find more strength and coordination.  We lift weights or do Zumba or play baseball in a social league, and all that stuff helps us become better athletes, which in turn helps us become better runners.

To look at it from another angle, it’s easy for us to get hung up on “the numbers game,” as Allspice so eloquently put it: how many miles this week?  How fast should the intervals be?  One speed workout or two?  How many days will I run?  But when we work out our bodies, it’s important that we don’t just focus on what we’re doing, but also that we consider why we’re doing it.  Use your time wisely to work toward balance in your athleticism!  I promise, the speed work can wait if your hamstrings are so tight you can barely run without pain (been there).  And if you fall every time you run? Maybe it’s time to work on quad strength so you can lift your knees higher, or maybe skip a few miles in favor of some coordination drills instead (been there too).  Think about your running long-term, and it just makes good sense to train all your abilities, not just endurance, not just speed.

This philosophy of seeking balance between the five biomotor abilities is called Multilateral Training, and it’s almost universally accepted in successful coaching. And yes, that may be in part because USATF teaches it, but I would venture to say they wouldn’t be teaching it if it wasn’t tried and true!

My master plan here is a series of posts throughout this season, to take a little extra time with each one of the five primary biomotor abilities.  I’ll cover some derivative abilities for each one and explore some suggestions for training each one of them.  Hopefully you can then use this series as a gentle nudge in the right direction toward finding athletic balance and training yourself not only as a runner, but as a total athlete.

Until then, quit your whining and go cross train!


What’s your take on this stuff?  Are you familiar with the concept?  If so, how do you use it within your training?  If not, what has been the primary philosophy behind your training thus far?

This post was originally published on March 19, 2014.

Cinnamon made Salty Running, takes lots of pictures and drinks lots of coffee. By day she's a camera assistant for films and tv in New York, and by night she's on a quest for zen in the 10k. Her writing is a mix of satirical humor, finding wholeness as an average runner, cheering for runners at all paces and more.

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  1. I agree with you – runners need to be well-rounded athletes both for performance and injury-prevention reasons. Personally, I do a lot of supplemental strength, conditioning and flexibility work and I try to include yoga and swimming whenever possible. This has not only helped me as a runner, but also has helped me in life; it’s so great not to need to ask my husband for help if I need to move furniture or lift heavy things, or to be able to jump out of a pool without the aid of a ladder or steps, even from the deep end. Yeah strong runner-women!

  2. Love this post! I did 3 sets of 1000m rows at CrossFit yesterday and I knew I had the leg strength to out pull the other ladies, but I didn’t have the arm strength. Rowing requires both 🙁 I’m looking to be a well-rounded athlete and will definitely incorporate multilateral training in my routine/training cycles. Looking forward to more from this series!

  3. Great post! I have a hard time with the extras because of time. I barely have time to squeeze the miles in! But I have been doing regular strengthening and reincorporating stretching (which, if nothing else is great for finding those tight spots!) I’ve also started doing coordination drills and I do think they’re helping. And while I don’t officially cross-train much playing with the kids has to count a little bit and lifting them all day has to be good upper body strengthening, right? Looking forward to more on this topic!!!

    1. No, absolutely not!

      I was trying to make clear that it’s not likely to train much for strength and coordination beyond what it takes for normal running, but I see that’s not quite clear…

  4. Awesome post!!! I’m really looking forward to you diving in to each of the abilities. Running is my first love, but I couldn’t give up strength training, cycling, yoga, kickboxing…other than being just plain fun, it’s great to know these activities help my running too.

  5. I officially converted to the “athlete” perspective when I fractured my foot 7 weeks ago. I was so focused on miles and minutes to become a better runner- and then, sitting in the ER with a PA telling me my bone was in two pieces, I had an epiphany about cross-training. It shouldn’t have taken a trip to the ER for me to figure this out, but hindsight is 20/20! Now, as I plan to get my boot off in a week, I’ve been looking at trading my easy miles days for spinning, yoga, and barre classes. Not only will this make me a better runner overall, but switching things up means that I won’t be dragging myself out the door on repetitive, easy runs- I’ll be bouncing out the door ready to see how all the cross-training has improved my running abilities! Thanks so much for this post- it directly reflects everything that I’ve been thinking recently!

  6. I needed to read this today. When I was a competitive swimmer I cross trained and did strength training. For whatever reason, when I switched to running, I stopped doing those things. I guess I figured running was such great exercise I didn’t need much else. And while that may have been true while I ran to get rid of my baby weight, it became less so when I lost the weight, began setting race goals and increased my mileage. Now I feel a hip injury coming on and I’m so angry with myself for ignoring the other training I should have been doing that probably could have helped prevent it. I mean, duh right? By the way, I noticed ‘balance’ was not included in your list. Maybe that is a part of ‘coordination?’ Either way, it seems balance becomes even more important as we get older.

    1. Yep, balance would be under coordination.

      Ugh! Sorry about the hip. Running feels so good and it’s so easy to feel invincible when you’re nailing workouts and racing pr after pr, but I’ve also learned the hard way that those ancillaries are necessary to take run-training to the next level. I’m a work in progress in this holistic athlete regard, myself!

  7. Thanks! I’m looking forward to the rest of this series. All too often, in whatever fitness we choose, we neglect one or some of those aspects – think women on the elliptical and men in the weights room and each never ventures beyond that. It’s hard enough for many people to find a form of exercise that they like and will do, let alone do things to complement that. I like running and yoga, but strength training is a chore, so I have to keep reminding myself to train like an athlete – that multilateral training will be good for my core sport.

    Also, it strikes me that children are natural athletes. I think about when I was a kid, and we were playing catch all the time, cycling, squeezing into tight spaces, picking up junk, climbing trees and playground frames, and playing hopscotch. All of those things naturally work to train all five biomotor abilities. And how do they have so much fun doing it? I’m envious.