The benefits of cross-training for runners

Incorporating cross-training into your fitness programme is essential for runners, from beginners right through to elite athletes. Not sure where to start? Our resident running coach Tom Craggs explains why, what and how to cross-train effectively.

The benefits of cross-training for runners

Also known as ‘XT’ cross-training can be viewed simply as the ‘non-running’ elements of your training week. But far from deviating from the plan, cardiovascular cross-training can help make you a fitter, stronger and better runner.

Cross-training benefits

Cross-training has a number of key benefits for runners:

  1. One step back, 2 steps forwards - Runners so often go into ‘shut down’ mode when an injury strikes. XT can help to maintain and even progress you fitness whilst you are injured provided it can be completed pain free. Find out more in our article on 5 ways to keep fit when you can't run.
  2. If the volume gets too much - For some runners adding the additional training runs needed to progress is just too much for their current level of strength. If that’s you and you know it’s always that 4th, 5th or 6th run that is the one that breaks you, cross training can be the perfect solution.
  3. Variety - Many runners just love to run, this is fine if your body can cope, but over the years I have worked with many runners who struggle with the monotony of purely running. Mixing training methods in the right way will keep you progressing towards your goal whilst keeping you motivated! 
  4. Different muscles, new strengths - By working different muscle groups you can give those already pounded running muscles a break while still working the heart and lungs, in addition because many of the XT options below are carried out with resistance you can build greater strength across a range of lower and upper body muscles. 
  5. Active recovery - As coaches we recommend a 2 week recovery period post a key race, particularly a full marathon where you back off running completely. If you are going to struggle with this some very easy XT can help maintain some active recovery. 

Cross-training options

There are countless cross-training options from walking through to skiing and team sports, but let’s focus on the most common available and realistic options for UK distance runners.

Elliptical trainers

Pros – mimics some of the running action and allows you to be weight bearing but without the impact. They allow you to vary resistance and can build strength and leg speed as many runners are able to move at a ‘higher cadence’ than when running. Great for replicating ‘threshold’ or ‘tempo’ type sessions.

Cons – an elliptical is not an exact mirror of the running action and lacks the hamstring engagement and hip extension that faster running has. It’s still weight bearing and so will not be suitable for some injuries.

Aqua-jogging

Pros – the most running specific XT option. By using a buoyancy belt and running in a deep water pool you can mirror and even accentuate good running posture but with no impact and a greater level of resistance.

Cons – technique can be tricky to master and this combined with the effects of the water mean it can be hard to get heart rate up to the zones they would reach when running.

Cycling

Pros – whether it’s out on the roads or on a static bike or turbo trainer cycling is non-impact but still builds leg strength and can increase our running stride rate and can be used to replicate some of the longer endurance sessions.

Cons – its less running specific however and it may further acerbate some running injuries such as ITBS if you’re not positioned correctly.

Swimming

Pros – an impact free and full body exercise against the resistance of water, swimming is a great option for injured runners or for shorter recovery sessions around a main running programme.

Cons – in a longer term rehabilitation programme swimming has the drawback of actually not being weight bearing so over time will reduce your legs load-bearing strength if not combined with proper rehab. It’s also technique heavy so it’s advisable to get some support from a coach to get it right.

How to get started

  • Time based sessions – for many XT options your running distances won’t mean much when cross training. Train to time and aim to replicate your running sessions, perhaps slightly extending a cycle ride if replacing a longer run.
  • Feel the beat – heart rate is the way to go. Whilst you may find it hard to exactly mirror the heart rates you would hit running it still provides a useful tool to ensure you don’t just cross train aimlessly. Expect that for elliptical and aqua jogging in particular your heart rate may be 5-10 beats lower than for an equivalent running effort.
  • Progressive loading – if you are cross training when injured and unable to run check out what options are best for you with your physiotherapist. The goal should be to over time gradually increase the amount of weight bearing XT you complete.
  • Adding and detracting – If you are cross training alongside running closely monitor the effort levels you are putting in, think about the purpose of each session. If you are cross training so hard you are too tired to run well its lost its value. If you are hitting super hard spin classes when you were supposed to be replacing an easy run you’ll get the wrong physiological changes and potentially hold back your running progression.

For more on the benefits of cross-training read this article on how cross-training can make you a better runner.