Could Basketball Be Good Cross-training for Marathon Training? Experts Weigh In

As far as fitness and working out goes, basketball has always been my first love.

photo credit: Airman 1st Class Kerelin Molina - Wikimedia Commons

photo credit: Airman 1st Class Kerelin Molina – Wikimedia Commons

From playing until after dark as a kid, to playing pickup games nearly every day in college, I loved playing the game. When I decided to run my first half marathon in 2009, I was still playing basketball with c0-workers two to three times a week. At the time, I felt like basketball would be a good compliment to my running.

As I looked into half marathon training programs, I ended up settling on Hal Higdon’s novice program. As I dug deeper into Hal’s site and forums, I discovered that he wasn’t a big fan of mixing basketball and half marathon training. “It’s not a matter of if you get injured, it’s a matter of when” was Hal’s was clear warning on the subject.

Wanting to commit to running, I stopped playing basketball. My decision was reaffirmed when a friend of mine got hurt and missed significant amount of work in one of our pick up games. For the most part, I dropped regular basketball games in favor of training runs and it’s been that way for the last several years.

That was until I got a call from a friend asking if I wanted to play in a men’s basketball league. Almost as a muscle reflex, I said yes. I was pumped to be playing basketball again.

Then I remembered Hal’s warning about getting hurt.

One thing I’ve learned about running and running experts is that there isn’t a definitive way to accomplish your goals. It would be silly to refute anything Hal Higdon says about running – he’s an accomplished runner who really knows his stuff – but is his way the only way? Could basketball and running co-exist?

Another thing I’ve learned is that if you look hard enough, you can find the answer you’re looking for online. I’m sure that I could have found someone somewhere suggesting that basketball is a good enough cross training method, but I wanted real answers, or second opinions above and beyond Hal Higdon’s word on the subject,  which is why I reached out to a couple of running experts – Jason Fitzgerald from Strength Running and Ted Spiker from The Big Guy Blog.

Jason Fitzgerald’s Strength Running  is fast becoming one of the best running resources on the web. In addition to owning a marathon PR of 2:39, he’s also helped coach countless others to PR times in marathons and half marathons while focusing on becoming a stronger runner while also staying healthy.

Ted Spiker is a professor of journalism at the University of Florida and specializes in health and fitness writing.  He has published books on the topic, served as an editor at Men’s Health.  You can find The Big Guy Blog on runnersworld.com. In addition to running marathons and an Ironman, he’s also someone who loves a good pick up game of basketball.

Here is what Jason and Ted had to say on the subject:

Run Yoga Thrive: Depending on a couple factors including length of the game and level of play, basketball players and soccer players can run up  to 2 to 6 miles. Could the type of running these athletes do take the place of traditional track speed workouts?

Jason Fitzgerald: Yes, these workouts could take the place of more conventional interval workouts but with a big caveat: they won’t be specific to your goal race. So if you’re training for a half marathon, it’s best to focus on more structured workouts at 5k/10k/HM/tempo pace (all depending on where you are in the training cycle of course).

So when you are playing basketball or soccer, you’re getting a very good workout. But from a training perspective, it’s not specific to your goal, nor is it progressive. In other words, the games don’t get more challenging by gradually becoming longer and/or faster like a running workout might. They’re all roughly the same – unless you start slacking off and not running back for defense :)

Ted Spiker: I don’t think so, depending on your goals. I think basketball is GREAT conditioning and has a lot of physical advantages, but I don’t think it can sub out for track workouts. Too much stop-start in basketball that won’t simulate a race or even a track workout. Even the shortest intervals on a track workout are longer than what you’d typically do in hoops, so if you want to get faster, I think it has to be running-specific track workouts, not hoops.

RYT: Is risk of injury the only reason you might recommend someone not play basketball or soccer while training for races? What other drawbacks might there be to mixing basketball and soccer with training for a half or full marathon?

JF: It’s not the only reason, but it’s my #2 reason! My #1 reason for not recommending these sports as good cross-training is because it’s not specific to your goal race. Like I mentioned in the first question, it’s not really helping you get closer to your goal. You run the risk of just exercising – which is very different than training.

My #3 reason for not recommending basketball or soccer as good cross-training for runners is because it detracts from the workouts you should be doing. The explosiveness of jumping, kicking, and sprinting (not to mention all the lateral, side-to-side movement) is going to leave you pretty sore even after you’ve adjusted to the games. That could leave you fatigued for your running workouts and compromise your performance.

TS: Yep. I love my hoops games–the fun, the sweat, the competition, the good-natured jawing among friends. But with so much attention and time spent on marathon and then Ironman, I knew that it would be stupid to risk rolling an ankle or worse. Those are the only two times I’ve stopped — about 6 months before marathon and about 9 months before Ironman. I don’t think there’s a drawback physically if your body can handle the pounding (I tend to get sore backs and knees), just having that risk. I played with a guy who tore his Achilles just running the baseline untouched–that’s the risk of high-intensity explosive movements.

 RYT: People talk about being in “basketball shape” or “soccer shape”. What do you see as the main difference between the conditioning of a basketball/soccer player versus someone who is training for a half or full marathon? Is endurance the main – or only – difference?

JF: Endurance – or general aerobic fitness – is probably the biggest difference. Marathoners or those training for a HM are doing much more mileage, long runs, and prolonged, sustained efforts with no breaks.

Soccer/basketball players might cover 2-6 miles during a game, but there’s a significant amount of walking and very easy jogging. It’s interspersed with quick bouts of max effort sprints and fast running, which is somewhat similar to a fartlek workout. So these athletes are very well conditioned to sprint, walk, run fast, and jog for 30-90 minutes, but they couldn’t keep up on a sustained effort for the same period of time with a runner of the same ability.

 TS: Funny, I played half-court hoops the week after my Ironman and was huffing and puffing after 3 minutes. Here I had trained for a year, put in 10-20 hours a week, just completed an Ironman and was gassed after a few minutes. I settled down and was ok after that, but was a good lesson — long and slow can’t prepare you for quick and fast (not that I’m either of those, but relatively to the training required for endurance events).

RYT: If someone is primarily a basketball or soccer player, what type of running regimen would you recommend for them to supplement their respective sport?

JF: Generally, I’d focus on the aspect of training that they’re missing by being a soccer/basketball player, which will primarily be a weekly long run. If you play 1-2 games during the week, combine that with 1-3 easy runs and a long run on the weekend. It’s certainly not ideal, but you’re covering most of your bases.

TS: If the goal is just to play better basketball, not do endurance events, then I think it’s the old-school drills, like suicides, agility drills (ladder, side shuffles), and a bunch of explosive work (plyo jumps, etc…). I think some long slow runs mixed in will help you go longer — and track workouts would help improve anaerobic ability. Unlike above where I don’t think basketball  will help all that much in running, I think running will help a whole lot in hoops.

 RYT: If someone is going to mix basketball and half or full marathon training – even if  you personally recommend not doing so – what sort of precautions would you suggest?

JF: It would definitely be prudent to play in a less physical league and try to play as little as possible (safe, but where’s the fun in that?). Another good idea is to give yourself a day of very easy running or an off day between a game and a long run to help your legs recover.

A big picture idea that would probably be most beneficial is to try to plan your goal race so that it comes after your basketball/soccer season (i.e., play ball in the early part of the season). That will give you a few weeks or even a month to focus on more specific workouts.

TS: Dynamic warm up every time — make sure muscles are warm and ready to go (lunges, high knees, dynamic stretching). And you have to be aware of who you’re playing with — I’ve hurt my back a couple times and finally figured out that it happened when one guy would give me a little push every time I went in the air on a layup. He didn’t do it maliciously to hurt me, was just playing defense. Finally just asked him not to… And I think a big part is staying within yourself and not letting your testosterone trump your logic. We all play to have fun and win. But if you do so at the risk of going out too aggressively and hurt yourself, then maybe you win the game, but you’re going to lose court time anyway. So everyone has to know the line between aggressive in terms of fun and aggressive in terms of putting your body at risk.

 RYT: Besides traditional track work outs, are there any other types of cross training you’d recommend to runners?

JF: Runners who are playing sports like basketball and soccer while training for a marathon or half marathon should lift a lot. The runner specific core and strength work is helpful, but because of the injury risk I’d step it up a notch and lift 1-2 times in the gym with classics like squats and dead lifts. This is going to protect you even more from injuries.

Depending on your available time, some zero-impact aerobic cross-training like pool running or cycling in addition to everything else can’t hurt either.

TS: I love swimming — and while not a direct correlation, I think doing swim intervals help a lot with the huff-and-puff aspect (and helps save your body on non-hoops days). And if you’re a post player like me, core and glute exercises are a good addition to help you handle the banging inside.

So there you have it.

After hearing these guys’ thoughts on mixing basketball and running, I decided to take a bit of a break from “serious” running while I’m playing basketball. I’m still running, but  my running schedule isn’t nearly as strict as it would be if I were officially training for a race.

I’ve been playing in a basketball league for a few weeks now and while I’m a little rusty and one of the older guys on the court at any given time, I’m having fun. It’s been a nice break from running.

Having said that, I’m signed up for two half -marathons this year, so this basketball respite will be short lived. I still have some ambitious goals for half marathons this year (more on that later), so I’ll be back out logging miles in no time.

 

 

Comments

  1. It’s been 110 days since my basketball injury – just a knee collision with some tendon damage. It’s still healing and I’ve been very limited on running. I’ve spend about 1500 on doctors & xrays & an MRI. Diagnosis “mild quadricep tendonosis”

    The frustration has been crazy.

    I should have known better because every game I get something banged up. It’s usually fingers, ankle, shoulder or something. Playing at 110% doesn’t work out for my body.

    Anyway. Things are looking much better and the cutback hasn’t been a total disaster. I’m still going to the personal trainer and even testing a little cross fit (just no jumping).

    Thanks for writing this.

    • man, Tony sorry to hear about your injury, but glad it sounds like the worst is behind you.

      It’s always in the back of my mind that an injury could occur, and honestly I think it probably makes me less aggressive on the court. All the same, I still really enjoy playing basketball…even if I’ve lost a step.

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