The Benefits of Cross-Training for Runners

Women in spin class
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Cross-training is any sport or exercise that supplements your main sport. Studies show that cross-training offers many benefits for runners. Whether you're a beginning runner or an experienced marathoner, there are several reasons why you should consider cross-training.

  • It helps balance your muscle groups. Cross-training can help to strengthen muscles that are used less during running. You can focus on specific areas—such as your upper body—that don't get worked as much while running.
  • You'll maintain or even improve your cardiovascular fitness. Many cross-training activities are great cardiovascular workouts, so they build on those similar benefits of running.
  • It reduces your chance of injury. By balancing your weaker muscles with your stronger ones, you'll help reduce your chance of injury. Participating in low-impact cross-training activities, such as swimming or water running (aqua jogging), will also lessen the stress on your joints, which are often a sore spot for runners.
  • You'll avoid getting bored with running. Running day after day will eventually burn out even the most hard-core running enthusiast. Cross-training gives runners a much-needed mental break from their sport, which is especially important for those training for long-distance events such as marathons.
  • You can continue to train with certain injuries while giving them proper time to heal. Runners suffering from injuries are sometimes told by their doctor to take a break from running during their injury recovery. But, with certain injuries, it is possible to continue with cross-training. Cross-training can help injured athletes maintain their fitness and deal better with the frustration and disappointment of being sidelined.

When Should You Cross-Train?

The amount of cross-training you do depends on how you're feeling—both mentally and physically. If you're a recreational runner, try to supplement your three to four days of running with two to three days of cross-training.

If you're a competitive runner and run four to six days a week, you can substitute a low-intensity cross-training workout for an easy run or a rest day on one to two days a week. Cross-training can also be great for runners who are traveling and may not be able to run outside or on a treadmill but have access to other sports.

If you're dealing with an injury and sidelined from running, you may need to cross-train more frequently. Ask your doctor or physical therapist for advice on how much you should cross-train and what activities are best for your specific injury.

Both beginners and experienced runners may hit periods in their training when they are feeling bored or uninspired to run. Cross-training can be a great way to work through those unmotivated phases. Taking a couple days off from running each week to do another activity can help get you excited to return to running.

Popular Cross-Training Activities for Runners

You have many options for cross-training activities. Choose one (or a few) based on availability and preference.

Swimming

Swimming is an excellent cross-training activity for runners because it's not weight-bearing, so it gives your joints a break from the stresses of running. It allows you to build strength and endurance, and also improve flexibility.

It's a great balance for running because you'll really work your upper body while giving your leg muscles a breather. Swimming has been shown to be a good way to recover after a long run. It may be recommended if you are prone to running injuries or are healing from an injury. Some runners also find swimming very relaxing and meditative.

Water Running

Water running is an alternative for injured runners or as a substitute for an easy running day. It's also a smart way to get in your runs during hot and humid weather. While you can run in the water without flotation aids (vests, belts, etc), you’ll find the workout to be easier with them.

Cycling or Spinning

Cycling and spin classes are also low-impact ways to boost cardiovascular fitness and strength. Cycling exercises muscle groups that are in opposition to those you use most with running, especially your quads and glutes.

Elliptical Training

You'll get a total body cardiovascular workout on the elliptical machine. Its oval-like (ellipse) motion provides the feel of classic cross-country skiing, stair climbing, and walking all in combination. You can program the elliptical to move in either a forward or backward motion to work all the major muscles in your legs.

The muscles used on the elliptical are similar to those you use when running. This makes the machine a good low-impact alternative when an injury prevents you from running.

Pilates

The Pilates method is a form of exercise that emphasizes core strength and flexibility, important elements for running that are often ignored by runners.

Walking

Walking is a good activity to substitute for an easy running day, especially if you're recovering from a long run or speed workout. With certain injuries, you may be able to walk pain-free, and speed-walking is a good way to maintain cardiovascular fitness while you're recovering.

Rowing

An excellent cardiovascular, low-impact activity, rowing strengthens the hips, buttocks, and upper body. Just make sure you learn the proper rowing technique to maximize the benefits of this activity and avoid injury.

Strength Training

Strength training allows runners to improve the strength in their running muscles, create a balance between unbalanced muscle groups, and focus on keeping their legs strong during injury recovery. You can do either resistance training, where you use your own weight for resistance (push-ups, for example), or weight training, where you use weights (free or machine) for resistance (leg press, for example).

Strength training is an excellent opportunity to strengthen your core. Having a strong core helps runners avoid fatigue and maintain good form.

Yoga

Yoga offers some of the same benefits as strength training, since you'll use your body weight as resistance to strengthen your muscles. You'll also improve your flexibility since it involves a lot of stretching. Many runners find yoga a great way to relax after a long run or tough workout.

Cross-Country Skiing

With cross-country skiing, you'll get a great cardiovascular workout and focus on many of the same muscle groups as running. You'll skip all of that the pounding on the road, so it's a great cross-training activity for runners with injuries. You'll also work on your flexibility, as the gliding motion stretches your hamstrings, calves, and lower back muscles. If there's no snow on the ground, use an indoor ski machine.

Skating

Inline or ice skating is also another no-impact sport (as long as you don't fall or jump) and it's a great activity if you're recovering from shin splintsAchilles tendonitis or knee injuries. You'll really work your quadriceps, buttocks, and lower back muscles.

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