Pittsburgh Marathon Cross Training with Dr. Vonda Wright “Running is a Total Body Sport”

She had me at, “runners who only run are hurt all the time.”  That was how Dr. Vonda Wright, developer of the Pittsburgh Marathon cross-training program, began our interview.  The line resonated with me, this adult-onset athlete, who has struggled mightily with various lower limb ailments.  Continue reading for more details of the importance of cross-training for preventing running injuries.

Dr. Vonda Wright, developer of Pittsburgh Marathon cross-training program

Dr. Wright is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center (one of the few women in the male dominated profession), an expert in “active aging,” and author of multiple books on fitness after the age of 40.  She specializes in sports medicine for older athletes (over 40), and serves as team doctor for the NCAA Division I University of Pittsburgh football team.  In addition, she has developed numerous training programs for professional athletes, recreational exercisers, as well as elite Masters athletes.  “I’m a long time runner from a family of runners; my father was part of the first running wave – the Jim Fixx era,” said Dr. Wright, “and I’m a doctor who treats runners.”  She continued,

What I find is that runners who only run are hurt all the time.  What many runners do not realize – is that running is a total body sport.  Runners have incredible endurance, but as a group of athletes, we are weak.  Not only are we hurt all the time, runners have very weak upper bodies.  That’s why at the end of a long race you see runners bent over, with hanging their arms down and shaking them out.  Running is a total body sport.  Every time your legs take a stride, your arms take a stride.  If you don’t have a strong back, chest, and biceps able to hold your arms in that position, you’re going to get really fatigued by the end of a long race.

Thus, the cross-training program Dr. Wright designed for Pittsburgh Marathon participants was created to specifically address these runners who only run – those most susceptible to injury.  Can you see my hand raised high in the air now?  Well, it is…

Dr. Wright described the 5 part program.

Part 1 consists of a series of 24, 90-second videos focused on all aspects of marathon running including: nutrition, injury prevention, circuit training, and how to tackle the Pittsburgh Marathon course.  “We filmed on the hill at mile 13 that takes you from the South Side up into Oakland,” explained Dr. Wright, “people don’t realize that’s a 2 mile hill – that’s a long hill!”

Part 2 is 8 weeks of live, face-to-face cross-training sessions in Pittsburgh.  These are total body circuit training sessions, but also include pre- and post-testing to assess any muscle imbalances before and after the sessions.  The circuits focus on leg, upper-body, and core muscles, and also use plyometrics to get runners ready to tackle the hills of the Pittsburgh Marathon course.

Part 3 includes a 25 minute performance movie specifically addressing the needs of the masters’ athlete, and teaches runners 10 specific total body exercises.  The film shows actual Pittsburgh Marathon runners performing the training, and will be available to download online.

A 26.2 chapter book comprises Part 4, and each chapter goes into more detail on the 3 pillars of Dr. Wright’s training philosophy of fortify, achieve, and revive.  These chapters will be released in a serial format online.

Finally, Part 5 will launch in mid-March and include a weekly 30 minute radio show on Pittsburgh’s ESPN Radio each Saturday to talk about total body training for runners.

I asked Dr. Wright if the injuries that tend to occur in 40+ year old runners were inevitable due to our age?  At what point does biology take over and we really have to start slowing down?  In her research, Dr. Wright has found that people aging actively, meaning exercising 4-5 times/week, show few changes in muscle mass over time.  She explained,

The quads of a 40 year old triathlete look the same as the quads of a 70 year old triathlete.  Compared to a sedentary person, the [muscles of] active people are lean, flank steak, and the sedentary person is a rump roast.  Becoming a rump roast is very preventable.

She acknowledged there are physical changes that happen with aging, but those can be managed by training better.  Dr. Wright described the four parts of fitness every Master’s athlete needs to pay attention to with the acronym – F.A.C.E.

F – flexibility; stretch muscles and tendons out to their maximal length

A – aerobic training; in addition to running, use exercises like spinning to further enhance aerobic capacity

C – carry a load; use resistance training and total body workouts to build strength

E – equilibrium; balance decreases after age 20 unless we practice specific balancing exercises


Since the live cross-training sessions have already begun, I asked if it was too late to begin the program for the Pittsburgh Marathon.  Dr. Wright quickly said, not-at-all, and encouraged everyone to “start now, you’ll be stronger by the time we get to the marathon.”  She added there’s “nothing to lose, and a lot to gain in terms of strength and injury prevention.”

I want to thank Dr. Vonda Wright for taking the time to chat with me about her Pittsburgh Marathon cross-training program.  I plan on checking out the videos and incorporating the exercises into my training – as I certainly fit into the category of an over 40, adult-onset athlete, who’s injured all the time.  Dr. Wright plans on running the Half Marathon in Pittsburgh on May 6th.  I look forward to using her cross-training plan to meet her at the starting line, and if I can make it to the start, there’s no stopping me from becoming a “Runner of Steel.”

In addition to my personal fitness goal, I’m dedicating my Pittsburgh Marathon training efforts to raise money for Give Kids The World, the nonprofit organization where children with life-threatening illnesses stay when they wish to visit Walt Disney World, Universal Orlando, SeaWorld, or any of the famous attractions of Central Florida.  I’m asking readers to donate $26.20 ($1/mile of the marathon) to my GKTW Pittsburgh Marathon Challenge (but any amount donated is accepted and appreciated).  Click here for the next installment of my training efforts for the Pittsburgh Marathon.  For more running adventures, be sure to follow Adventures by Daddy on twitter and “like” our facebook page too.

About Dave Parfitt

Married, father of two girls, and living in the heart of the Finger Lakes. I'm a runner with a PhD in neuroscience and a passion for travel.