In Stride

Here's Why Cross-Training Is So Miserable

The most unsettling part is the loss of purpose

Of all the ways to cross train when injured, I truly loath pool running. (Illustration: Lisk Feng)
Of all the ways to cross train when injured, I truly loath pool running.

One morning, in the spring of 2011, I was pool running in Berkeley, California. As I bobbed through the water, I watched the morning light creep over the hills. The predawn air was dank and chilly. Above the pool, fog rolled off San Francisco Bay, splashing against the hills like aerial sewage. When it’s especially foggy in the Bay Area, the sun doesn’t rise. Instead, it smudges into the sky in a monochrome blur.

At least, this was my grim perspective from the pool. I was groggy and uncomfortable. I felt ridiculous, pumping my legs in a maniacal facsimile of running, tepid water occasionally splashing into my mouth. The visceral urge to stay fit despite the injury was enough to get me into the pool. But I still wondered, “Why is cross-training so awful?”

Six weeks earlier, I had broken my foot while running on the Northern California trails. It happened suddenly: One moment, I was whipping through the woods, contemplating lunch. The next, I could barely walk. I limped the last three miles back to my car, pain shooting through my foot with every step. I had never broken a bone before; I figured it was just some bad tendonitis.

It was still painful a week later. Eventually, an X-ray revealed that I had completely broken my second metatarsal. The bone was displaced; the fractured ends skewed away from each other. And so I found myself cross-training.

Injuries are often heart-wrenching. The pain of physical trauma is often matched by the social and psychic toll that comes from losing your daily routine and training friends. And the effort to cling to your fitness through cross-training can feel like salt in the wound. Of all the ways to cross-train when injured, I truly loathe pool running. I dislike tinkering with flotation belts, goggles, and garishly colored Speedos. I hate the smell of chlorine and that initial shock of cold water engulfing your genitals.

The pain of physical trauma is often matched by the social and psychic toll that comes from losing your daily routine and training friends.

Of course, there are other cross-training options for the injured runner. Most of these involve joining a gym filled with very different athletes than are found on running trails, tracks, and roads. Muscle-bound lifters moan over free weights. Instructors in bright spandex shout microphoned imperatives. There is a different vocabulary in gym: “cardio,” “Zercher squats,” and whatever the CrossFit people are saying these days. Above it all, fluorescent lights illuminate rows of exercise machines propping up sweaty bodies transfixed to their smartphones.

One can hardly blame folks for distracting themselves on exercise machines. Hopping onto a stationary bike or elliptical can be absolutely mind-numbing. Yet the static boredom of exercising indoors doesn’t fully explain, for me, why cross-training is so terrible. While many dislike the monotony of a treadmill, I don’t mind it that much. It’s not too different from running intervals around a track or jogging at night. I can achieve a meditative headspace. Even on a treadmill, the sport provides more than fitness. It offers a sense of direction, even when I’m running in place.

So while there are differences in scenery and company, the most unsettling part of cross-training is the deferred sense of purpose. Cross-training, especially when we’re injured, forces us to dramatically shift our reason for training. We must adopt a maintenance mindset. Injury usually necessitates that runners stop thinking about improvement or forward progress. Forced by circumstance into a position of preservation, the cross-training runner no longer works toward new goals or a better self. Training becomes mere exercise, a fight against our deteriorating fitness—a desperate struggle against entropy. Cross-training is about becoming less lesser; it’s about treading water, or breaking even.

People quip that the quickest way to the funeral home is through retirement. Take away a person’s sense of purpose, a reason to wake up in the morning, and eventually they stop waking up. Running is no different. Cut off progress toward an end, and activity becomes much more difficult.

One can hardly blame folks for distracting themselves on exercise machines.

One day, during the 2011 injury, I was overwhelmed by questions of purpose. I was again in the pool. It was another gray day, but this time the skies opened, and it began to rain. As cold drops of water clapped onto my head, I wondered aloud, “Why in the world am I doing this? How is this making me a better runner?” Beyond the pool, I noticed my shower towel was soaked. I’d be damp for the rest of the morning. “Fuck it.” I got out of the pool and limped to the locker room, wet towel in hand. It was a few days before I worked up the motivation to return to the gym.

Given the choice, I’ll always opt for a run. I’ve had many more injuries since 2011, and they remain frustrating. I’ve broken more bones, inflamed more tendons, and strained more muscles. But with experience comes perspective, and I’ve worked over the years to be less cynical about substitute activities. Movement is itself a privilege.

This past summer, I fractured a rib from a tumble in a trail race. After a couple weeks of total rest, I spent a few sessions on a spin bike to ease my legs back into activity. It wasn’t fun; I was bored after a single hour in the saddle. But as I spun my legs and even cranked up the resistance to dance on the pedals a bit, I had to admit that it was pleasant just to put my legs into motion.

Filed To: ExercisesWorkouts
Lead Illustration: Lisk Feng
More Health