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Run Less, Run Better

Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.

runlessthumbCut the mileage without sacrificing performance by adding cross-training to your routine.

If you want to improve your running next summer, try cross-training this winter. With next season’s most important races still months away, it’s the perfect time to reduce your mileage

and make room for other types of exercise that will give your running a boost in ways pounding the pavement won’t.


How can activities other than running improve your running ability? Running is a complex, whole-body movement. Cross-training enhances the strength, power and efficiency of the individual muscles and movements involved in the stride. However, you can’t just cross-train any old way and achieve fitness benefits that transfer to running. It’s important to choose strength and power exercises, dynamic stretches and forms of cardio exercise that simulate and complement running.

Here’s how.

Non-Impact Cardio

Non-impact cardio exercise benefits runners in a couple of ways. First, it strengthens the aerobic system, as running does, but without the repetitive impact that causes so many running-related injuries. Second, certain forms of cardio exercise activate the running muscles in ways similar to but slightly different from running. As a result, the muscles may “learn” new activation patterns that can be transferred to running to make your stride more efficient. For example, bicycling is a more quadriceps-dominant activity than running, so cross-training on a bike may enhance the capacity of your quads to contribute to your stride.

To maximize the transfer effect, use one or more cardio activities that simulated complement running. Here are my top five, with their pros and cons.

Activity Pros Cons
Bicycling Excellent leg-strength builder Outdoor cycling is dependent upon the weather. Indoor cycling requires access to specialized equipment.
Elliptical Training Closely simulates running leg action. Many people finding it boring.
Pool Running The closet to actual running of the group. Non-weight bearing. Too much of it can reduce your legs’ ability to withstand impact forces.
Inline Skating Strengthens important stabilizing muscles in the hips and core. Doesn’t simulate running as closely as the others do.
Slide Boarding* Strengthens important stabilizing muscles in the hips and core. Requires purchase of a slide board ($250-$300).

*A slide board is a long, rectangular plastic sheet you slide on side-to-side (simulating a skating motion) wearing fabric booties.

Strength and Power Training

Strength and power training have two main benefits. Strength training enhances muscles that act as important joint stabilizers during running, thereby preventing injuries associated with abnormal joint actions. Power training—or performing explosive strength movements—enhances the efficiency of the stride.

A little strength and power training go a long way for runners. Do the following five-move workout two or three times per week. Start by doing just one circuit, then advance to two circuits and finally three (as indicated in the schedule).

Visit for illustrations of these workouts.

Single-Leg Squats
Trains the hip abductors (outer thigh muscles that move the leg away from the body) and external rotators (hip muscles that rotate the leg) to maintain hip stability during a single-leg movement similar to running.

Stand on your right foot and bend the left leg slightly so that your foot is just a few inches above the floor. Lower your butt slowly toward the floor, keeping most of your weight on the heel of your foot. As you squat, reach your left leg either behind your body (easier) or in front (harder) to keep it out of the way and help maintain balance. Squat as low as you can without your butt swinging outward (a sign that the targeted muscles have become overwhelmed and other muscles are taking up the slack). Return to the start position. Do eight to 10 squats on each foot.

Oblique Bridge
Trains all the muscles involved in maintaining lateral stability at the hips, pelvis and spine.

Lie on your side with your ankles together and your torso propped up on your forearm. Lift your hips upward until your body forms a straight diagonal line from ankles to neck. Hold this position for 20 seconds, concentrating on not allowing your hips to sag toward the floor. You may want to watch yourself in a mirror to make sure you’re not sagging. Reverse sides and repeat the exercise. To increase the challenge, lift your outside leg up from the bridge position, keeping it straight.

Split Squat Jump
Enhances stride power and efficiency.

Start in a short lunge stance with your right foot flat on the ground and your left leg slightly bent with only the forefoot touching the ground a half step behind. Lower yourself down into a deep squat and then leap upward as high as possible. In midair, reverse the position of your legs. When you land, sink down immediately into another squat and then leap again. Use your arms for balance and to generate extra upward thrust with each leap. Complete 10 to 20 jumps with each leg.

Dead Bug
Trains your deep abs to maintain stability during alternating arm and leg movements.

Lie face up with your head slightly elevated above the floor and engage your deep abs by drawing your navel towards your spine. Begin with your right leg straight and elevated a few inches off the floor, your right arm reaching toward your right foot, your left leg sharply bent off the floor with the knee at your chest, and your left arm extended behind your head, parallel to the floor. Keeping your navel drawn toward your spine, slowly reverse the position of your arms and legs, and continue alternating arm and leg positions for 20 to 30 seconds.

Strengthens the upper body and improves the posture of the upper back.

Assume a standard push-up position with your feet together, your palms placed slightly farther than shoulder-width apart, and your eyes looking forward. Lower your chest to within an inch of the floor. Your entire body should be a rigid plank. Press back up to the starting position. Complete 10 to 20 repetitions. If you can’t do at least 10 standard push-ups, do half push-ups (i.e. lower your chest halfway to the floor).

Dynamic Stretching

Dynamic stretching enhances running efficiency by training you to run in a more relaxed manner. It minimizes wasted energy in the muscles that oppose the working muscles (called antagonists) at various moments of the stride. The best dynamic stretches for runners are movements that mimic the way muscles and connective tissues actually stretch during running, but with an exaggerated range of motion that increases the cost of holding tension in the antagonists and thus challenges these muscles to “learn” to relax.

I recommend doing dynamic stretches as a warm-up before you run. Stretching will gently warm, loosen and lubricate your muscles, preparing them to perform better. The following warm-up routine takes only three or four minutes to complete.

Tilt Walk
From a standing position, take one step forward with the right foot and balance on the forward foot. Keeping a very slight bend in your right knee, tilt your torso forward at the waist until your trunk is parallel to the floor. At the same time, extend your left leg behind you for balance. Return to an upright position and then step forward with the left foot and tilt once more. Continue for 30 seconds.

Lunge Walk
Take 10 giant steps forward with each foot, lunging as far forward as you can each time.

Lateral Lunge
From a standing position, take a large step to the right with your right foot and lower yourself into a deep squat. Return immediately to a standing position and lunge to the left. Lunge five times to each side.

Forward Leg Swing
Stand on your right foot and swing your left leg backward and forward in an exaggerated kicking motion. Complete 10 swings and repeat with the right leg.

Lateral Leg Swing
Stand facing a wall, lean towards it slightly from the waist, and place both palms against it. Swing a fully extended leg left and right in wide arcs between your body and the wall. After completing 10 swings, repeat with the other leg.

Putting It All Together

The winter is not a time of focused race-preparation for most runners, and that’s a good thing. You can’t push your body for peak performance all year. On the other hand, there’s nothing like setting a goal to keep you motivated to work out consistently, even during winter. You can have it both ways by setting a low-key event goal for the late winter or early spring. The point of putting an event on the calendar in February or March is not to prepare for a PR but to give your off-season training focus and direction. The following 12-week plan uses a cross-training approach to improve your foundation for running performance and prepare you for a 10k or half marathon. If you’re training for a 10k, stay toward the short end of the duration ranges. For a half marathon, hug the upper limit of the ranges.

Find a hill that takes about a minute to reach the top; run up hard and jog down easy for recovery. If hills aren’t convenient, crank up the grade on the treadmill, between 2 and 6 percent, depending on the difficulty you prefer. After performing dynamic stretches, be sure to warm up for a mile before and cool down a mile after.

Fartlek run (Swedish for “speedplay.”)
Run most of the time at low intensity, but in the middle throw in six to eight 30- to 60-second bursts of speed, hard but not all-out.

Progression Run
Start out easy for the time indicated, then pick up the pace to moderate intensity for the rest of the run.

Tempo run
After a mile warm-up, run at 10k pace for the time indicated, and finish with a mile cool-down. If you don’t know your 10k speed, run at a fairly challenging pace, just beyond your comfort zone, but not so hard you can’t sustain the effort for the duration.

Strides For 100 meters (or about 20 to 30 seconds off the track), start at moderate pace and gradually speed up until you’re going fast, but not all-out. Focus on maintaining quick leg turnover.


About the Author

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of several books, most recently Brain Training for Runners (NAL, 2007), and is the editor of, a sports nutrition information Web site.

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