Mailbag Monday: Coach Joe on Treadmills and Cross-training | The Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans


It’s time for our bi-monthly feature here on the Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans: Mailbag Monday with Coach Joe. This week we have two running related questions for the column. Keep those questions coming!

Question 1: To cross-train or not to cross-train

Amy writes in the with the following question:

Crosstraining? Seriously? Do I have to? Look, I’m just a fat girl who loves to run. I’m not training for a marathon or anything, maybe I’ll do a 5K or 10K in the fall. I run to help me lose weight (80lbs down 30 or so to go!).I know strength training is important so I’m trying to get more of that in. But the idea of “crosstraining” sort of mystifies me. What exactly is crosstraining? Does a yoga or pilates class at the gym count as crosstraining? Or one of those total body workout class thingies, does that count? I would really rather not sit on a bike for a half hour when I could have fun running. And the elliptical just feels unnatural, and don’t get me started on the StairMasterOfDoom. I could happily run 7 days a week if my schedule would let me. So, do I have to crosstrain? what are acceptable crosstraining activities? And what is an appropriate crosstraining schedule? And what can I do to make it fun?

Good question Amy. I’ll answer this in two parts. The first part has to do with what we call “pleateauing” and the second has to do with the benefits of cross-training itself.

One of the most important things to realize about exercise is that the way that you improve your fitness is to place a load on your body that is difficult for the body to handle. This creates a response, forcing the body to adjust, grow stronger and adapt. This means is that you get better when you push yourself. And, the opposite is also true – you will stop getting better once you are become accustomed to what you’re doing.

All of this has to do with the first part of my answer. Exercise scientists often talk about reaching plateaus. A plateau occurs when the body slows and then strops making progress. Put another way, the benefits of the exercise, when done in the same way, day after day, become less and less. So while you could, as you say, “happily run seven days a week,” doing this will most likely lead you to see a decline in your progress. You’ll reach a certain level and then advance no further.

This is where cross-training comes in. Cross- training, or working out in different sports, puts different loads on the body and works different muscles. This variety, you could say, keeps the body guessing and adapting to what’s coming next. So cross-training plays a role in keeping your fitness and weight loss advancing rather than allowing your body to get overly accustomed to what you’re throwing at it, reaching that dreaded plateau.

Cross-training also does something else for you. By varying the type of exercise, you’re also using different muscles, joints and connective tissues (tendons, ligaments, etc.) and this will both make your body stronger and reduce the likelihood of injury from doing the same things over and over again (referred to as “over-use injuries).

Think of cross-training like eating a well-balanced diet. When your diet includes lots of different foods you’ll have a better chance of eating all of the nutrients that you need and increasing your health. Cross-training serves much the same purpose.

In terms of what sports count as cross-training, this really comes down to your goals. If you are trying to train for a longer-distance running event such as a half-marathon or marathon then cross-training in sports with strong aerobic characteristics will be good to help you progress toward that goal. If weight loss is your goal, the strength training, Pilates or Yoga would be great cross-training as they will strengthen and stretch many parts of the body that you won’t touch when running. Personally I don’t care for some of the exercise machines that you mention either, but I do think that spin classes are particularly good cross-training for runners as are swimming and full-body exercise classes.

Shoot for 30-35% of workouts to be cross-training rather than running, which would mean that 3 or 4 out of 10 workouts could be cross-training for many runners.

Question 2: Treadmills vs. Outdoor Running
The next questions comes from Debra:

I find that it’s harder to run on a treadmill than in the street. I find it much harder to breathe on the treadmill and I think it’s because I just go faster on the treadmill. But because I can’t get my breath my time is worse. Is there an advantage of one over the other? or is it good to mix it up and do both?

There are a bunch of great questions raised here, so let me try to hit a few of them.

First, there are number of reasons why the treadmill might have a different feel than running outside. The first is that you are running indoors, which means that the temperatures are likely fairly warm. And second, since you are not actually moving, you are not cutting through the air as you would when running outside. This combination often means that the temperature is higher than it is outside and that you’re not receiving the cooling benefits of the wind as you would pass through it outside. This will make your running effort feel more difficult, especially if the humidity is high where your treadmill is located. Many gyms are both humid and warm, making it much harder for you to cool yourself and making the effort feel more difficult. If you find that yourself dripping with sweat after an indoor run, this may be the culprit.

But another thing that makes the treadmill feel different is that the pace is constant. Once you set the belt speed on a treadmill, you pretty much have to run the same speed or you’ll fly off the back of the treadmill. When running outside, you can vary your speed quite a bit as you look around, stop for street-lights, run around corners and all the rest. If the speed that you’ve selected on the treadmill is faster than you normally run outside, you’re going to be doubly-pushed by the fact that there is no letting up on the speed once you get tired.

The fact that you say you’re having more difficulty catching your breath on the treadmill suggests that either the pace or temperature is causing these issues for you. Your breathing rate increases as the load increases, so if you’re breathing harder, you’re working harder. This either means you’re running faster or you’re working harder to cool yourself.

Now as to the benefits of running outdoors versus on the treadmill, the clear preference would be to run outdoors. If training for an outdoor race, then running on outdoor surfaces and in outdoor temperatures is much better preparation for that race. As my colleague Coach Dean often says, “if your race is going to be on the treadmill, train on the treadmill. But not that many races are on treadmills.” We refer to this principle as “race specific” training and we would much prefer that runners train outside, unless there is a good reason not to train outside.

What would be some reasons to train on the treadmill? Safety and avoiding extreme outdoor temperatures would be two good reasons. We’d certainly prefer that runners not run alone outdoors at night, for example. Nor would we suggest training outdoors in a blizzard and icy conditions. Treadmills also may offer a softer-surface for some runners that may reduce the chance of developing certain kinds of injuries (such as shin splints) and they may help you learn to run a consistent pace if you’re having trouble paying attention to your pace outdoors.

The bottom-line is that treadmills are fine, but they don’t offer race specific preparation for outdoor running events. A mixture of indoor and outdoor running will lead to better preparation for running races that will be held out on the streets. When you do run on the treadmill, dress lightly, drink lots of water and make sure to set the incline to 1.5% to 2.0% to help better simulate the drag that you’d experience outdoors when cutting through the air. If you still find the effort to be harder than outside, then slow down. This should do the trick.

Good luck Sisters!
Coach Joe English,, special to the Sisterhood of the Shrinking Jeans

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