The best cross-training for runners


By Henry Howard


Biking? Swimming? Yoga? HIIT? Skiing? Rowing?


As runners, many of us just want to run. But as we age our bodies require more recovery time. And those who stick to cross-training and active recovery will generally be better off when it comes to injury prevention.


There are many options when it comes to cross-training. Among the activities runners consider are what I listed in the first sentence above. It’s also worth noting that all those examples were from athletes of mine, who asked if that form of cross-training would work.


Generally, I am open to and encourage such forms of exercise and movement that help reduce injury risk and may improve the runner’s fitness. Before you start cross-training, here are some things to consider:


First, what constitutes cross-training?


This is really any form of exercise other than running. Examples include yoga, core work, cycling, hiking, walking, using the elliptical, swimming, aqua jogging, rowing, rollerblading, cross-country skiing, lifting weights, Pilates and others.


How does it benefit runners?


By adding cross-training activities to their weekly routines, runners add volume to their training program with minimal injury risk. Think of it as an added layer of protection against high-risk injuries for runners.


Proper cross-training exercises reduce the impact on your muscles, joints, tendons and ligaments. At the same time, they correct muscle imbalances created by running. For me, I cycle regularly as I find that it requires me to use different demands muscles in my quads, glutes and hamstrings. I also incorporate core work and yoga into my routines, usually at least once each weekly.


How often should I cross-train?


The answer is again based on the individual runner.


My athletes can expect to have core workouts and/or yoga in their training plans. Runners who are recovering from injury or are prone to injuries can expect to have regular work on the bike and/or elliptical.


For runners devising their own plans, consider your current level of fitness, injury history, goals, proximity to race day and time you can dedicate to cross-training in a given week.


Generally, I’d recommend between two and four days of cross-training, with at least one of those a non-running day. In most cases, I’d recommend two or three non-running days. Runners who are more injury prone or beginning a new training plan would have more non-running days until their fitness catches up.


What type of cross-training is best for me?


This depends largely on your running goals, state of fitness and available resources.


For a masters runner who is looking to improve her speed, cycling and elliptical jump out as good options because they are the most closely related to running. They also allow the athlete to work the fast-twitch muscles and build their cardio without the pounding of the pavement.


Another example would be a 20something male with a background as a high school and college runner looking to do a Spartan or other obstacle course event. Given those races involve more than just running, weight lifting, rowing and other cross-training activities would benefit the athlete as he maintains his running fitness but adds needed strength for his event.


What else do I need to know about cross-training?


Pick an activity you enjoy! The more interested you are in doing that activity, the more likely you will be to do it regularly. At the same time, keep your mind open to trying new ones. Mix in a variety so you don’t get bored.


Focus on active recovery. Walking, hiking, cycling and these other activities all get your body in motion. That’s important to keep the blood flowing and use different tendons, muscles, etc.


Remember this is supplemental to your running. Don’t overdo cross-training, especially as you get close to race day and the taper period.


If you are looking for some guidance or accountability in your running, feel free to reach out to me here for a free, no-obligation consultation. I've helped runners achieve qualifiers for the Boston Marathon, complete their first ultra, consistently set PRs, conquer the Grand Canyon Rim to Rim to Rim and more.