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Although many runners would rather take on any type of running workout over biking, swimming, or other exercise modality, running every day can lead to overuse injuries, which may ultimately force you to take time off to allow your body to heal. However, incorporating cross-training activities into your regular training program—even when you’re healthy and training for a big race—can help mitigate your injury risk and may even make you a better runner.
If you find yourself feeling lackluster when you come across a cross-training day on your training plan, there are plenty of good reasons to embrace the variety and value these vital non-running workouts just as much as your beloved long run or hill repeats.
Whether you’re new to running, an injury-prone runner, feeling the effects of advancing age, or chasing a big race goal, you can benefit from regularly incorporating cross-training into your running training program. Keep reading to learn what constitutes cross-training, why you should be cross-training, and how runners should cross-train to maximize the benefits.
What Kind of Cross-Training Can Runners Do?
Cross-training refers to any form of exercise other than running, such as hiking, walking, cycling, swimming, aqua jogging, rowing, rollerblading, cross-country skiing, lifting weights, yoga, Pilates, dancing, martial arts, boxing, and using elliptical trainers or stair steppers. While activities like jumping rope or playing sports like basketball can be considered forms of cross-training, most running coaches and programs recommend that runners focus on low-impact cross-training exercises to reduce the musculoskeletal stresses of the activity and offset the impact of running.
What Are the Benefits of Cross-Training for Runners
Cross training is one of the best ways to add volume to your training program while minimizing your risk of injury. Essentially, cross-training can act as a protective and preventive measure against injuries by reducing the impact and forces on your muscles, joints, bones, tendons, and ligaments, adding variation to the repetitive stress imposed by running, and correcting muscle imbalances caused by running by strengthening opposing muscles. Aerobic cross-training activities such as cycling, elliptical trainers, jumping rope, and rollerblading, can also improve your cardiovascular fitness, which can boost your running performance.
There are quite a few cross-training activities runners can choose from, and picking the “best one” depends on your goals and needs as a runner—reducing stress on your musculoskeletal system, improving cardiovascular fitness, building strength or correcting muscle imbalances, increasing flexibility, varying repetitive movement patterns, replicating or reinforcing running motions, etc. That said, since one of the primary goals of cross-training workouts in a running training program is to reduce the risk of injury, it’s best to select low-impact forms of cross-training to offset the stress of running.
But, what exactly constitutes “low-impact exercise?” Activities like running or jumping have a period of flight when both feet are off the ground, followed by a high-impact landing. Low-impact exercises, on the other hand, involve movements or activities wherein at least one foot remains in contact with the ground or supporting your body weight. Examples include walking, cycling, barre, stand-up paddle boarding, and rowing.
Cross-training exercises that complement the muscular demands of running by relying on opposing muscles are also ideal because they can help correct muscle imbalances and make you a more resilient athlete. For example, cycling puts different demands on your quads, glutes, and hamstrings, so it can be a good adjunct to running.
How Much Should You Cross Train?
The question of how much runners should cross train, which is referred to as training volume, involves considering the frequency and duration of cross training workouts. Depending on your level of fitness, goals, injury risk, and interests, your training program should include cross-training workouts anywhere from an occasional, one-off workout to a 1-3 times per week staple. Runners who are more injury prone, new to the sport, or returning after an extended break should rely more heavily on cross-training than seasoned runners with demonstrated tolerance for higher mileage weeks.
Cross-training workouts are usually used as substitutes for lower-intensity recovery runs, following long runs, tempo runs, races, or other hard efforts. Accordingly, the duration and intensity of your cross-training session should be in line with an average easy to moderate run. For example, if your typical training run is 5-6 miles at 10-minute pace, a good cross-training substitute would be 45-60 minutes aqua jogging, spinning, swimming, etc. at a similar heart rate or intensity level.
Cross-Training Tips for Runners
To get the most out of your cross-training workouts, follow these do’s and don’t’s.
- Pick an activity you enjoy. If you’re new to cross-training, the idea of heading to the gym and planting yourself on an elliptical or stair master may be about as appealing as sitting through an endless meeting at work, but if you pick an activity you enjoy, that slog will turn into a pleasurable experience—much like running. The more fun you have, the more you’ll appreciate your cross-training days.
- Choose wisely. If you’re prone to injury or nursing a niggle or two, it’s imperative that you choose a cross-training modality that minimizes further injury risk. For example, if you have a history of stress fractures, choose non-impact activities like swimming or pool running, if possible. If you tend towards IT band syndrome, it’s best to avoid exercises that mimic running—like aqua jogging or the elliptical.
- Mix it up. In much the same way that the repetitive movement pattern of running makes it inherently a high-risk activity for sustaining overuse activities, overdoing one particular cross-training modality can also lead to overuse injuries. If you’re cross training several times per week, try to vary your exercise of choice on each of those days. Consider a Zumba class one day, hiking with your dog another, and hitting up a spin class on the third, for example.
- Keep the goals in mind. Remember, the primary goal of cross training for most runners is to reduce injury risk, so it’s important to consider the potential injury risk of the activity you’re taking on. Be cautious jumping into activities like rollerblading or downhill skiing if you’re unaccustomed to these sports. Falls can cause serious injuries that can set you back in your training.
- Make it social. If one of the things that draws you to running is the social aspect, recruit your running friends to join you on your cross-training workouts. Most cross-training activities can be enjoyed with others, and that support and camaraderie can go a long way towards making the workout feel as enjoyable as running.
- Don’t overtrain. Jumping into a new form of exercise too quickly without giving your body time to adapt is a recipe for injury, just what you were trying to avoid with running. Go easy when you first start a new form of cross-training.
- Don’t increase cross-training activities during the taper. If you’re tapering before a race it’s important to focus on recovery and not adding in new stresses.