Chris Broadbent explores the world of Cross Fit - once the domain of hard core gym-goers now proving popular among runners looking for that cross-training solution...
The logic seems simple. The more you run, the better runner you will become. But even for a runner at the peak of his powers like Mo Farah, a more rounded training regime is now considered the best approach in order to close in on your potential. Weight sessions and core training work to improve his skills to run at speed and at length.
Many runners are now turning to complementary forms of training that will help them find the missing dimension to improve as a runner. Rather than simply piling on unnecessary muscle at the gym, many are seeking out more dynamic activity that will give them the extra edge.
One method runners are turning to is Cross Fit. This form of training was invented in California back in the 1990s, but has only really taken off as a widespread activity in the last five years and now it is growing in popularity in the UK. A mix of athletics, gymnastics and weightlifting, this sporty work-out is designed to develop strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility and co-ordination.
For runners, Cross Fit can help tick the boxes that help make a good runner. The exercise can increase speed by developing a runner's leg strength and improve the body's ability to use oxygen. It also helps improve a runner's final kick by improving the power you generate in your legs. What runner wouldn't enjoy out-sprinting their fellow runners on the finishing straight - no matter what level you're at?
It will also help prevent injury, by giving the body better balance of muscle composition and remove over-reliance on key muscles for running, which almost inevitably results in injury. Cross Fit gyms have mushroomed in the UK with over 80 currently in operation. You'll often find them in old school gyms, where the intense work-outs are attracting both men and women to the well-rounded multi-beneficial workouts.
Steven Shrago is the co-owner of Cross Fit London, located in Bethnal Green in the East End of the city. He has noted the rise in interest and fully understands why runners are turning to Cross Fit to improve.
Firstly, he says that runners fall into a common trap of repetitive exercise not just due to the belief that this is how they will improve, but because they prefer to concentrate on an activity they enjoy. He says: "You decide what you want to do in the gym and for a lot of people they do what they like doing. Whereas, really what you need to do to improve is work on the weaknesses and plug the gaps.
"It is definitely the case for a lot of runners, who believe that to become a better runner, they need to run more and more. It is a misconception common among many sport-specific people. We tend to find with runners, that a lot of them are what we would call 'weak'. Their endurance is good, but their strength is low."
By working using the Cross Fit methods though, Shrago says many runners he has worked with have found that missing ingredient that has enabled them to reach their goals: "We have people we have worked with who are now taking part in tough guy events and completing sub-three hour marathons.
"Many runners can't touch their toes and have really tight hamstrings, this often leads to compensatory injuries in the quads and knees. With cross fit, we cover the full range of physical training.
"We spend a lot of time with people working on their fitness skills working on the full range of physical movement so they get a toolkit for life. Cross fit makes a big difference to people's physical capabilities."
So, what would a runner expect to be confronted with at a Cross Fit class? Shrago says: "There is no standard typical session for cross fit. But as an example we might start out with some dynamic warm-up through skipping, jogging or some kettle-bell work. "We then might move onto some Olympic-style weightlifting such as clean and jerk and snatches. These can be really satisfying and are terrific for developing power. We then might move onto a more gymnastic work, which may involve some static holds or even hand-stands for the more skilled.
"Finally, we end with a really intense 20 minute circuit of 2-3 or 4-5 movements. It might consist of five pull-ups, five push-ups and 15 weight-free squats for example. The goal is to get through as many as possible. 20 circuits is good. An elite athlete might get through 30 circuits in that time.
"This is where you really find out where your weaknesses are. For many runners, they will break down on the push-ups."
But Shrago is keen to emphasise that no runner should feel intimidated at the prospect for attempting Cross Fit classes. "We don't throw people in at the deep end. We start them off with a basic syllabus of movements. It will hurt though because people find themselves using muscles they don't usually use. So we work with them on a seven week programme until they have the necessary range of skills before moving them onto an intermediate level."
Thanks to Steven Shrago of Cross Fit London for his help with this piece.