I really love to run, but I personally can not imagine ONLY running. I would go crazy and be incredibly sore. My body craves movement in all planes of motions, speeds and intensities. My joints are most happy when I run 3-4 times per week. That's not the plan for everyone, but that is what works for me and my history with injury. So, I rely heavily on cross training. Not only does it greatly improves my running, but quite frankly breaks up the monotony it keeps me happily moving!
Cross Training Explained
Cross training is any physical activity other than running that will help improve your run. It can include activities like swimming, cycling, strength training or yoga. Whether your sport utilizes a repetitive motion like running, or on the flip side, if your sport includes fast, lateral and unbalanced movements, cross training will help prevent injury by correcting muscular imbalances and strengthen the core for more endurance.
Cross training should not become a replacement for actual running if you have a race in your future (yes, I've gotten that question numerous times). There is no replacement for actual miles on the pavement, however a steady cross training plan can help you reduce training miles. Your training plan should truly be tailored to your body and fitness level. However, if you’re on a run only training plan that includes running 5+ days a week, adding the right cross training will allow you to drop that to 3-4 days a week and still improve your fitness…. as well as your joints and muscles!
Some cross training helps to maintain your cardiovascular health, such as cycling, swimming or cardio fitness classes. Then there’s strength training, which in my opinion really is the icing on the training cake because the benefits will range from improved metabolism and energy, weight loss to improved stability and a more efficient run. While I have my preferences for cross training, truly the best exercise is the one that you’ll keep on doing. Let's take a closer look.
Zero-impact Cardiovascular Cross-Training
Jason Fitzgerald, running coach at Strength Running, encourages exercises that closely mimic the motion of running to most improve your running. His suggestions for the best cardio exercises are:
Pool running – Use high cadence, don’t overextend your legs, and keep a straight back.
Cycling – Road biking or indoor cycling is preferable, but mountain biking can also help. Keep your cadence above 90 revolutions per minute.
Elliptical machine – Effective, but super boring. Keep your cadence high to mimic running.
Swimming – Learn proper technique and use faster workouts for an extra aerobic boost (swimming least mimics running, so consider 1-3 first)
The list does not need to end there though. Jason is pretty hard core. There are many other fantastic cardiovascular cross training activities like cross country skiing, zumba, tennis, soccer, or rollerblading to name a few. My suggestion is to stick with the low impact variety with the least possibility of injury risk. You will never see me on a ski hill.
If you find yourself on the injured list, you can also supplement some of the exercises listed above to maintain your cardiovascular base.
This is my jam. I love strength training, and along with cycling, is my go-to cross training activity. In my years as a trainer, I have witnessed many excellent runners up their game by incorporating strength training. On the other hand, I've witnessed a very obvious pattern of injury appear with athletes that lose their strength base or who have no strength training in their plans.
Strength training is not risk-free, so be cautious. When you first start strength training, take the time to understand what muscles should be working, the objective of each exercise and what you should be feeling. It is so important that you strength train properly. A personal trainer can get you going in the right direction with just a few sessions.
Building strength does not need to be complicated – focus on compound movements and core stability (try this band workout that incorporates both) . Keep your goal in mind - training for a solid race! You’re not trying to be an Olympic lifter, so don’t grab super heavy weights. 15-20 minutes is all you need. Start with lighter weights or, better yet, use your body weight. Click below for a few great body weight exercises.
Timing your Cross-Training
Cross training should be built into your training schedule strategically to either promote recovery, encourage aerobic fitness on a non-running day, strengthen the non-running muscles to avoid injury or get you ready for a hard effort (like a long run). How you put it into your schedule will depends on your level of fitness and what type of race you’re training for.
If you are a fairly new runner, then it’s wise to use a day of cross training before your long run to get you ready to run long. The last thing you want is to be tired on the most important workout of the week. Cross-training like cycling, swimming, or pool running can boost your aerobic fitness while promoting blood flow to your legs. Since these types of exercises are zero-impact on the legs, you can still get in a good workout before/after a tiring effort on your long run day.
Scheduling your long runs, speed workouts, easy days, flexibility and cross-training can be a daunting task. That's a lot! I'd make a bet that 100% of the readers of this blog are NOT professional runners, we all have many other things going on in our lives. The key is learning to listen to your body and find balance in your training. Most important is when we get the feeling that something is just not right, we need to honor that and address the issue quickly.
I have been through the running injury ringer, and finally feel like I have a handle on the issue. Cross training has been my saving grace and kept me fit while I was off running. I'm on my way back, feeling strong, and I've been able to maintain a lot my run fitness. I can confidently say that I will be a stronger, faster and far less injured runner now that I've addressed my injury and understand the right balance of run training, cross training and flexibility for ME!
Have you embraced a balance between running and cross training?
What’s cross training activity has had the biggest payoff for your running?