While running is the primary way we improve our performance, cross-training is useful to give the legs a break while still maintaining fitness. Quality cross-training for runners delivers valuable perks like cognitive benefits, strength gains, neuromuscular adaptations, and—perhaps most importantly—joy.
As it turns out, we don’t have to dread cross-training. We are not destined to spend hours aqua jogging or supplementing running on the elliptical machine. Take a hint from the sport’s up-and-comers and choose activities you might actually enjoy.
Kate Peters, a sophomore at Lake Oswego High School in Oregon, ran the third-fastest 5K qualifying time (16:43) for the 2020 Nike Cross Virtual Championships. She has been running and cross-training since elementary school. When COVID-19 health restrictions limited her options, she refocused on climbing rock walls.
Peters’ running coach, Steven Edwards (who also happens to be Shalane Flanagan’s husband), endorses the climbing, which boosts core strength as well as back and arm strength. And while those might be physical benefits, Peters mostly likes climbing because it’s fun. In fact, she and her sister love it so much they convinced their parents to install a small climbing wall in their basement.
“I’m not doing it to make myself a better runner, but because I enjoy doing it,” she says.
Dancing It Out
Megan Roche is a physician and coach based in California, who’s also an accomplished runner and host of the podcast “Some Work, All Play.” She takes a cue from the younger crowd on TikTok, the social media platform where dance challenges have taken off and become popular beyond the app. Roche recommends dancing as a way to warm-up before a workout or simply as a way to get into the right mindset when motivation is hard to come by. Depending on how rigorously you dance, it certainly provides aerobic benefits, as well as mobility work.
“I’ve seen that some runners, myself included, tend to struggle with going with the flow of adapting to new scenarios,” Roche says. “Dancing can be a great way to relieve stress and a reminder not to take the little things so seriously when life may feel heavy or hard.”
Dancing has also been shown as a way to relieve stress and improve depression. If you want to take it a step further, consider signing up for ballet classes like NFL hall-of-famers Lynn Swann and Herschel Walker: a ballet practice will help you hone your focus, increase ankle strength, and boost your brain health by learning a new skill.
Sydney Masciarelli, three-time national champion from Marianapolis Prep in Connecticut, recently committed to run at University of North Carolina and likes to cross-train on the court (at a school with seven men’s NCAA basketball titles, she’ll be right at home). Masciarelli believes that playing basketball improves athleticism thanks to its reliance on multidirectional movements that aren’t often emphasized in traditional running or strength workouts, which utilize mostly front-to-back movements.
“Playing another sport makes you an overall better athlete and athletes tend to be the runners who are the strongest, have the longest career, and are the least susceptible to injury,” she says.
In 2020, Masciarelli combined her interests to set a then-unofficial Guinness World Record for running a mile while dribbling a basketball, finishing in an impressive 5:08. The diversion from regular training also helps the up-and-comer avoid burnout and build resilience.
“Taking time off from racing, hard workouts, and efforts allows you to reconnect and learn more about yourself outside of running,” Masciarelli says. “A lot of people identify themselves as ‘runners’ and what they have accomplished as ‘runners,’ but what they are missing is that running is just a characteristic of you. But it isn’t who you are.”