How Cross-Training Can Improve Your Running

Cross-training is way to get stronger and healthier, bridge the gap to higher mileage and prevent burnout

Cross-training is a simple way to become a faster runner. But what exactly is cross-training?

Cross-training simply means performing any type of exercise that is different than your primary activity. The options are endless: cycling, yoga, swimming, or even a pickup game of basketball, if you are so inclined.

What’s more challenging for a runner is knowing how and when to cross-train. And that depends on what you’re trying to accomplish. Are you injured, but trying to stay fit with minimal impact? Are you trying to get stronger and faster? Or are you looking to avoid burnout by including a variety of workouts in your training?

While there are some activities that all runners will benefit from (like strength exercises), there are others that are more specific to individual needs. Let’s take a look at some of the more common types of cross-training, and how each can be used to benefit your running

1. Pool Running

If you are injured and unable to perform any weight-bearing exercise, pool running should be your go-to method for maintaining fitness. Of all types of cross-training, pool running is the most running specific. This means that it is most like actual running in respect to your movement and biomechanics.

And because of the properties of water, it will also aid recovery by promoting blood flow throughout the legs due to the higher pressure. Now that’s a win-win!

You can replicate just about any type of running workout in the pool, from tempos to intervals to long runs.

So what’s the downside of pool running? It’s not terribly exciting, especially if you’re trying to push through a two-hour long run.  But if you can handle the monotony, you’ll reap the rewards.

2. Cycling

Cycling is also very runner specific. It is low impact, and like pool running it provides a perfect opportunity to replicate workouts such as tempos and intervals. Indoor cycling is a perfect option for greater flexibility during bad weather.

While most runners will only turn to pool running out of necessity when injured, cycling can be an alternative option in a variety of circumstances. Cycling can be used to maintain and improve fitness, as well as simply adding variety to your training. In addition, cycling helps strengthen the hamstrings, outer hips and glutes, which all tend to be weaker in runners.

3. Elliptical

A third cross-training option that is also runner specific and low impact is the elliptical. Working out on an elliptical closely mimics your running movement with little to no impact on your joints (unlike pool running or cycling, however, it is load-bearing). Make sure to use enough resistance to get your heart rate elevated for an aerobic workout.

Like pool running, ellipticals can also be a little monotonous. An alternative, if available, is the ElliptiGO bike. A number of elite runners, including Meb Keflezighi, have used these as a supplement to their training. They have all the benefits of an elliptical machine while allowing you break the monotony and get outside.

4. Strength Training

Strength training is a broad term that encompasses everything from core exercises to bodyweight workouts to lifting heavy at the gym. Whether you are injured or not, strength training should be a part of every runners’ routine.  It can be as simple as adding on 15–20 minutes of core or hip-specific strength work after your runs, and will make you more efficient and injury resistant.

Glutes and hips are common weak areas for runners, which can lead to issues such as IT band syndrome or runner’s knee. If you are currently injured, strength training can help you come back stronger and more resilient. Of course, always follow your doctor’s orders as to what types of exercises are safe to perform.

5. Hiking

While hiking is certainly an impact sport, the varying terrain along the trail combined with the slower pace and softer surface make it a great choice for building fitness. Hiking can help you gain tremendous strength and endurance, especially if you choose steep terrain or carry a heavier pack.

If you are training for a trail ultra or any race with a lot of climbing, hiking is an excellent option. It gives you the opportunity to build some variety into your routine and explore scenic places with trails that might be technical and tough to run. In addition, you’ll get a mental break from slowing down the pace slightly and taking the time to enjoy your surroundings.

6. Swimming

Swimming is an outstanding full-body workout with no impact. Because swimming is less running specific, however, it will fit into your training a little bit differently than pool running. Swimming is a perfect activity for a recovery day, or for a runner who wants to get in some aerobic work but is prone to injury as their mileage increases.

To target your legs more specifically, try adding in some laps using a kickboard. A short, easy swim the day after a hard workout can also help you kickstart recovery.

7. Yoga

Like swimming, yoga is much less runner specific than many of the other options described here. But that doesn’t make it any less beneficial.

Yoga can be a great tool for recovery and working some mobility back into tight, inflexible muscles. Restorative classes are perfect for this. But other types of classes, like a hot Vinyasa class, move at a faster pace and will test your strength and stamina. With its focus on breath and movement no matter what the pace, yoga can also benefit the mental side of your training.

As much as runners love to run, most would benefit from adding some type of cross-training into their routine. Whether you are trying to stay healthy, bridge the gap to higher mileage or simply prevent burnout, cross-training is a great option for every runner.

Jason Fitzgerald
Jason Fitzgerald is a 2:39 marathoner and the USATF-certified coach behind Strength Running, an award-winning blog and podcast that helps runners set personal bests. His work has appeared in Runner's World, The Washington Post, Health Magazine and many other major media publications. Follow his work on Twitter at @JasonFitz1 and at StrengthRunning.com.