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How Cross-Training Improves Your Running

In order to be a better runner, all you need to do is run—right? Not quite. Many runners will benefit from including cross-training in their weekly training, as cross-training will improve your aerobic fitness while reducing your risk of injury—both of which will help you run better and for longer.

What is Cross-Training?

While the term is used broadly, cross-training means a type of exercise that you can substitute for running. By this definition, cross-training is a type of exercise that improves your aerobic fitness: things like spinning, swimming, and so on. Some forms of cross-training mimic the motions of running, such as the elliptical or hiking, while others do not, such as swimming.

While weight lifting and yoga are valuable for staying healthy and strong as a runner, they do not quite count as cross-training. Rather, think of strength training and mobility work as supplemental workouts. They supplement your running, rather than serving as an alternative workout that trains the same physiological systems.

How Cross-Training Improves Your Running

Cross-Training Can Reduce Your Risk of Injury

The most significant benefit of cross-training for runners is how it can reduce risk of injury. The primary causes of injury for runners include muscular imbalances, biomechanical irregularities, and overuse/overtraining. Biomechanical irregularities are quirks in your running form—overpronation, supination, uneven hips, and similar issues—that make you a bit more prone to injury.

Cross training offers a solution to all of those issues. By moving your body in a different motion than running, you can strengthen your muscles and smooth out imbalances. By reducing the amount of miles you run, you reduce the high impact on your muscles, joints, and bones. Biomechanical irregularities won’t be exacerbated, thus reducing your risk of injury. Finally, cross-training days prevent overuse injuries by reducing the repetitive stress of running on your body.

New runners will benefit from regular cross-training. Your muscles, joints, ligaments, and bones can take up to six months to adapt to the impact of running, so you do not want to increase your mileage too quickly. Cross training on your non-running days can help build aerobic fitness and strengthen your body for the specific demands of running.

Cross-Training Can Maintain Fitness During Injury

If you do get injured and are unable for run for a few weeks, cross-training provides you with an alternative to stay fit as you rehabilitate your injury. Cross training can maintain and even improve your level of fitness during your time off, so that you return to running just as fit as before—if not even fitter.

What type of cross-training you do when injured is based on the nature of your injury. Injuries such as stress fractures will limit the type of activities you can do, while you may have more options for injuries such as sprains, strains, and tendonitis. Be sure to speak to your physical therapist or doctor about which types of cross-training you can safely do as you recover from your injury.

Indoor Cross-Training Options

Swimming: Swimming may not be highly specific to the neuromuscular patterns of running, but it will give you a challenging cardiovascular workout and strengthen your upper body (which many runners neglect). Since you are in the water, swimming has no impact on your joints and is therefore often one of the best options for injured runners. You may need special equipment and access to a pool, but swimming will always provide an effective cardio workout without the wear and tear.

Elliptical: The elliptical mimics the movement of running without the impact, which makes it one of the best forms of indoor cross-training for runners. A 2010 study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that oxygen consumption is the same on the treadmill and the elliptical when exercising at the same level of perceived exertion. Many running workouts such as intervals can be done on the elliptical, meaning you can still get your speed work in even when you’re not running.

Outdoor Cross-Training Options

The fresh air, sunshine, and scenery of the outdoors are some of the reasons runners love to run—we crave the outdoors! If cross-training in a gym sounds boring to you, don’t worry—there are plenty of cross-training workouts that can be done outside.

Hiking: By hiking, I don’t just mean going for a quick stroll in a park. To be an effective form of cross-training, hiking involves walking uphill (and then back down) on uneven terrain. Hiking on steep terrain will work your aerobic system and strengthen the muscles you use for running. Climbing up steep hills strengthens your glutes, and strong glutes are essential for both flat running and uphill running. The descent prepares your joints for the impact of downhill running, which can irritate many runners’ knees and fatigue their quads.

Cycling: Whether you prefer the road or opt to mountain bike, cycling provides a fantastic cardio workout without any impact. For runners, pedaling will also help you improve your cadence. Cycling is also simple to incorporate into your training plan, especially if you can cycle to and from work a few days per week. Then you can double up on your commute and cross-training! Cycling is also a great indoor activity, whether you pick the recumbent bike or opt for a spin class.

Snowshoeing: While it looks simple, snowshoeing burns more calories than walking or hiking, which means it delivers an effective aerobic workout. Much like hiking, snowshoeing strengthens the same muscles you use in running, including your glutes and quads. You can snowshoe on hiking trails if you prefer steep terrain or at nordic ski areas. Snowshoeing provides a winter alternative to other types of outdoor cross-training. You can also cross country ski for a similar type of cross-training workout!

How Cross-Training Improves Your Running

How to Incorporate Cross-Training into Your Running Routine

Cross training should supplement running, not replace it (unless you are running too often to sustain without injury). Begin with how many days per week you can safely run, which may be in the range of 3-5 days per week. Schedule one day as a complete rest day and then fill in the remaining days with your preferred cross-training and strength training/supplemental workouts. Aim for 1-2 days of any of the above cross-training workouts per week and 2-3 days of strength training, yoga, Pilates, or other supplemental workouts. One of the best ways to fit in both is to spend an 40-60 minutes at the gym on your cross-training days, with 20-30 minutes of cross-training and 15-20 minutes of strength training.

Cross training does not have to be long and complicated. You can add on 15-20 minutes of the indoor bike or elliptical before you strength train, cycle to and from work, or hike for an hour on the weekend. Like running, many of these cross-training options can make for great group activities, so your fitness doesn’t have to come at the expense of your social life.

We hope Laura’s post left you inspired to incorporate some new activities into your routine! The good news is you can track many of these activities in Runkeeper. Just fire up the app, and from the start screen select the runner icon in the top left corner (iOS) or click the activity cell (Android) to select your preferred activity (see photo below). The full list of options is here and Stopwatch Mode is a great way to get those indoor ones tracked. Happy cross-training! 

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Laura Norris

About the author:
Laura Norris

Laura Norris is a certified running coach, distance runner, and blogger over at This Runner's Recipes. She loves helping runners achieve their personal best through providing useful, well-researched information on running and nutrition. Beyond running, Laura enjoys craft beer, hiking with her husband and dog, and cooking.

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