Let’s talk for a moment about semantics because of how precision in language matters in running. If you examine any training plan, it is full of jargon: tempo run, long run, cross-training, and so on. But not every plan defines these workouts in the same way. For the Hansons Marathon Method, tempo runs are continuous runs at marathon goal pace; while Jack Daniels defines tempo runs as 20-40 minute efforts at hour-race pace. If a run can have so many different interpretations, then the vague term “cross-training” can be even more open to interpretation. What exactly is cross-training for runners?
Some coaches and athletes interpret cross-training as anything not running. Strength training is cross-training, injury prevention exercises are cross-training, any exercise other than running is cross-training.
However, that generalized definition neglects some important aspects of training. Some non-running workouts are non-negotiable, such as strength training. Even though strength training is not running, it should be part of every runner’s training plan. Strength training is crucial for overall health and essential for improving your speed and reducing your injury risk as a runner. Injury prevention work is a non-negotiable in any sound training plan.
Meanwhile, exercises such as yoga, Pilates, weight lifting, and bodyweight strength training should properly be categorized as supplemental exercises. They cannot replicate the cardiorespiratory gains of running. However, they should be a part of your training as they will help you become a better runner by strengthening muscles, improving flexibility and mobility, and injury-proofing your body.
Cross-training and supplemental training are defined in relation to the sport, so they will be different for runners than they are for triathletes, tennis players, or gymnasts. For runners, cross-training is an exercise that improves your cardiorespiratory system and specifically mimics the movements of running. Of course, there are exceptions: swimming is not highly specific to the form of running, yet it provides a great cardio workout. Yoga, on the other hand, doesn’t provide a cardiovascular workout and cannot count as specific cross-training (instead, it counts as injury prevention work or mobility work).
Essentially, running-specific cross-training consists of exercises you could do to maintain your endurance and running-specific fitness. For injured runners, cross-training allows you to maintain your hard-earned fitness, even if you were unable to run due to injury, illness, or needing to recover from a race. For a runner returning from injury, cross-training can add volume and serve as a substitute for hard running workouts (think intervals on the bike instead of track) during the base building phase.
So what counts as cross-training for runners? In no particular order, here are the six best types of cross-training for runners. You can do these while injured or recovering, or in addition to your running.
(As a note: do not feel pressured to add in cross-training during your post-race recovery, injury recovery, or training. Some runners love cross-training while others do not, and ultimately it comes down to what works for your body, your schedule, and your personal preferences.)
Admittedly, I’m biased here since I love hiking. Hiking is a serious endurance workout. By hiking, I mean walking at a steady pace on an uneven surface and up a steep incline (and then, of course, back down). Trail runners can especially benefit from hiking, as it adds in race-specific volume.
Hiking works all the muscles in your legs, feet, core, and glutes, just like running. Climbing up steep hills strengthens your glutes and teaches you how to activate them. The descent prepares your joints for the jostle of downhill running, which can irritate many runners’ knees. Hiking requires lateral movements and stabilization, which are movement patterns that normal road running neglects.
In winter, an alternative to hiking is snowshoeing!
Swimming may not be highly specific to the neuromuscular patterns of running. However, it is a challenging cardiovascular workout that will strengthen your upper body (which many runners neglect). New to swimming? Check out my injured runner’s guide to swimming.
The elliptical (or arc-trainer) facilitates a low-impact movement that is biomechanically similar to that of running. It’s easier than running but will maintain your fitness during injury. The primary complaint about the elliptical is that it is inside a gym and therefore boring. An enjoyable podcast can provide entertainment or, if you have the resources, you can use an Ellipti-go outdoors. Whether you opt for the gym or outdoor version, try one of these elliptical workouts for runners to add variety and build fitness.
Cycling and spinning provides you with several options: you can attend a group spin class, enjoy the fresh air on your road bike, or use an indoor bicycle at your gym. The pedaling can help you improve the cadence of your running. Cycling/spinning provides you with an appreciable cardio workout with very little weight-bearing and impact. You can adapt almost any fartlek-style run or tempo run as a workout on the bike.
5. Pool Running
The movements of pool running (also called aqua jogging) are almost identical to those of overground running, but with one significant difference: it is not weight-bearing. Deep water pool running (where your feet do not touch the bottom) can be done during almost any injury, even most stress fractures. (Just always check with your PT or doctor first.)
While pool running, you want to do a workout almost every time. Hard workouts allow you to break up the monotony of the pool and maintain a higher heart rate. Try one of these pool running workouts.
6. Cross-Country Skiing
Are you unable to run from November to March because of snow and ice everywhere? Cross-country skiing is a hard cardio workout that closely mimics the movements of running, while also adding a more challenging element of working your upper body. If you can’t run but can bear weight, it’s one of the best ways to maintain your running fitness in winter.
A final note: if you are training for a race and including regular speed intervals, tempo runs, and long runs into your weekly schedule, be mindful that you keep your cross-training easy. Even if it is not running, hard efforts do add up.
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What’s your favorite form of cross-training?
Do you cross-train regularly or only when injured?