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Does Running Fitness Translate to Other Sports?

How far will your running strengths carry you on the court or playing field, and which sports will best make you ready to run well?

Sun rise, sun flare, rural landscape, misty.
Kelly O'Mara

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Sure, you run a lot. You probably think you’re pretty fit. But, then again, it’s likely you also know plenty of runners who couldn’t lift a dumbbell or survive a game of tennis if their life actually depended on it. Exactly how does running fitness translate to other sports? And, how does what we do in other sports translate back to running?

“Running, in a way, is a very specialized sport,” says Jeff Horowitz, a running coach and author of the book, Quick Strength for Runners. Running only moves in one direction. That doesn’t necessarily prepare you for other types of movement. What running does do is build your engine, “which is why you hear about professional athletes of all types having a base of running,” he said.

Horowitz saw that in action when he played some pick-up basketball with friends. He isn’t an amazing basketball player, but he has great endurance and could last longer than the other guys on the court. “I wasn’t great, but they were huffing and puffing,” he says.

A study done by Øyvind Støren, from the Department of Sport and Outdoor Life Studies at Telemark University College in Norway, found that a cyclist improved his cycling performance in a time trial test, even when his cycling training was reduced and high-intensity running was substituted instead. This is, Støren said, because running is one of the activities that most improves VO2 max. VO2 max, he said, is one of the main things that determines a person’s aerobic endurance and VO2 max is most affected by the heart’s stroke volume. So, improving your heart’s stroke volume can ultimately help improve your endurance.

“The activities that are best suited to improve stroke volume are those who put the most stress on cardiac output. These are activities that involves large muscle mass from several muscle groups, and activities performed in a vertical position,” Støren says. “So, swimming or rowing will not translate very well to running, because of position. Cycling will not translate as well to running as running translates to cycling—more muscle mass in running—and so on. Most runners could, after being used to the new techniques, perform well in cycling, triathlon, or cross-country skiing.”

That bodes well for fit runners hoping to take their fitness to other sports, but they shouldn’t get cocky. Runners also have a lot of weaknesses.

“If all you do is run, you leave these gaping holes in your fitness,” said Horowitz.

The typical runner has poor lateral strength and movement, weak hips and a weak upper body. Hamstrings often have to overcompensate for weak glute muscles. And, nearly all runners could work on their balance.

That means if you’re trying to figure out what other sports would translate well back to running, then you should focus either on sports that strengthen the muscles directly used in running, or on those that work the muscles that support running indirectly, Horowitz says.

Inline skating, Horowitz says, can help strengthen hip muscles in runners. Tennis can even be good in developing runners’ lateral movement and glutes. “Cycling is really good,” he says, because much of cycling is quad-focused while running mostly engages the backs of the legs. Cycling also tends to attract people for similar reasons: exploring the outdoors and hanging out with friends. Even things like rock climbing, kayaking, and rowing, Horowitz says, can be beneficial for running. Støren recommends cross-country skiing.

Interestingly, studies have found that good swimming fitness doesn’t appear to translate to equally good running fitness. “Swimming doesn’t help much in running,” Horowitz says. The one thing swimming does have going for it is that the training tends to be pretty brutal. “Some athletes move from swimming to running and are used to training very hard in swimming, so the run training isn’t so demanding after all,” says famed coach Jack Daniels of the Run S.M.A.R.T Project.

Daniels also advocates simply being active, especially in younger athletes. “For youngsters, whatever sport is fun will benefit running,” he says—something that still holds true as we age.

“We’ve become too specific in our sports,” Horowitz says. If you think of your body as trying to solve the challenges you present it, then if you only present it with the same problem over and over (ie. running), it’ll get good at that, but not at much else, he explains. “Our body doesn’t know how to solve lots of problems.”

When a client comes to Horowitz and says that he or she wants to be a better runner, Horowitz usually tells them to focus on becoming a better overall athlete. If you “broaden the ways your body moves,” he believes, it will help your running.

Støren agrees, advocating occasional strength training and other types of explosive exercises as a way to improve running economy. In a different study, Støren and his associates found that running economy could be improved through maximal strength training. Their protocol involved four sets of four squats at maximum weight, three times per week. In addition to regular strength training, he also recommends jumping and plyometric exercises as a way to improve running economy.

“The best runners will be those who both have a high VO2 max and are able to be efficient regarding running economy,” Støren says.

From PodiumRunner Lead Photo: Getty Images