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Friday, July 29th, 2011

After 17 plus years as a professional acrobat, one of the most important things I’ve learned is to constantly vary your training program and supplement it with a strong cardiovascular component. There are plenty of fitness systems out there, including AcroFit which focuses on power, fast-twitch strength, and dynamic movement. Acrobatics are the combination of these elements — rapid acceleration of your body over short bursts of time, resulting in back handsprings, back flips, and smooth arcs of flight from a trapeze bar. These finely controlled movements are excellent — if your job depends on maintaining a highly responsive, muscularly dynamic, fast-twitch body at all times. But if you’re not a circus artist or a professional MMA fighter, you may want to balance your training with a more rounded approach by including a consistent running regiment.

When I trained at the National Circus School, I was one of the few artists who ran consistently three to four times a week in addition to our 40 plus hours of acrobatic training. I didn’t have a penchant for extreme punishment; although being an acrobat means that you enjoy getting bruised regularly. I just knew the beneficial effects of running.

What are the benefits? It was plain and simple for me — it increased my cardiovascular capacity which meant that I had much greater endurance on stage as a performer. I was able to perform acts without fatiguing too much, and it increased my ability to stay on stage longer. For an artist, that equates to more gigs, more work, and greater marketability as an athlete. Think of a hockey player who couldn’t stay longer than a 30 second stint on the ice — professional acrobats also have to consider the endurance question as well.

From the point of view of a healthy person looking to create a sustainable training program, it’s vital to split your overall training hours so that you are doing at least 40% cardiovascular training. That could include biking, swimming, dancing, aerobics, and Acrofit Power (the class-based version of my training system), but should also include running. Running is free, can be done anywhere, and provides the maximum return for the effort you put into it. One hour of running may not necessarily translate into one hour of biking (especially if you bike downhill to work and take the bus back…).

But running is boring, right? I’ve heard this complaint from more than one person and it’s a reality to work with. Given that running can be turn into a repetitive activity, the key is to vary your training with fun little modifications. Try these suggestions:

B-Line Running
Are you tired of running along the same park pathway, with its smooth, meandering (but totally boring) curves? Do you get sick of passing the same swing set, playground, and bench? Break up the monotony with B-Line Running. In B-Line Running you visually choose a point in the near distance (300-400 yards) and run a direct line to it. If there happens to be benches, garbage cans, or trees in the way, your challenge is to stick to that imaginary direct line as much as possible by circumventing the obstacle in the most creative way possible. You may have to jump over benches, climb over a tree, scale a short wall, or climb stairs to arrive at your destination. Try it, it’s fun.

Free Running
Have you heard of “free running”? You may know if by its French name “parkour”. It’s the wild acrobatic running that you’ll see kids on YouTube participating in, careening off parked cars, jumping over barbeque tables, and scaling walls like Spiderman. For the regular health enthusiast, you can tone down the intensity of free running by taking your running path into areas with low obstacles with a ground clear of rocks, glass, and branches. Try running on low walls, hopping over bushes, and climbing over hand railings. That’s the start to free running.

As an acrobat, I practiced free running in several shows, and continue to play with it during my regular runs, making sure that I never finish a 6 mile jog without hopping over something.

Partner Running
One downfall of running is that it can be and is usually done as a solo activity. Unless you have a ton of self-motivation, running solo can degenerate into a few extra minutes in bed instead of rising early to hit the trails. Find a running partner to create accountability to your training schedule and meet at least once a week to run together. Distance and time are less important than creating a habit of running. I found my running partner on Craig’s List. There are many other creative ways to start, or join a running group, including Meetup.com, or checking in with your local REI or running store.

The bottom line is to mix running into your training program. You may be able to create massive strength through weights, plyometric activity, or other sports, but with time, strength fades as you age or stop training as intensely. Your ability to run (or walk quickly if you have injuries or are just starting) will stay with you for a very long time, much longer than your ability to lift heavy weights or do hundreds of sit-ups or pull-ups. Integrate running as a habit, a way of life, and as a method to ensure your health for a very long, long time.

Alvin Tam
Founder Acrofit – www.acrofit.com
Co-Owner Barefoot Sanctuary – www.barefootsanctuary.com