Last Updated on October 4, 2022 by Heather Hart, ACSM EP, CSCS
There are two types of people in this world: those who “only run when being chased” and those who love to run so much, they willingly pay good money just for the opportunity to do so.
Chances are, you fall in the latter category, which is why you are here (welcome runners, you are among friends who “get it” here).
There’s no doubt that runners LOVE to run and prefer to run when given the chance. But there are a number of very valid reasons why a runner might want to (or simply should) incorporate cross training into their overall run training protocol.
In this guide to cross training for runners – written by an exercise physiologist and experienced, certified running coach (that’s me!) – we’ll dive into both the science and practical applications of cross training, so you can confidently understand when and how to incorporate non-running training to help crush your running goals.
What is Cross Training?
In the exercise science world, cross training refers to training for more than one sport at a time, or, training multiple fitness components, such as endurance, strength, and flexibility within the same period.
In this definition, an adventure racer who includes mountain biking, trail running, and paddling workouts into their weekly training is an example of cross training.
More commonly, especially in the running world, cross training refers to an athlete utilizing a form of training or exercise that is different from their main sport, in order to help continue to improve or develop a specific component of their fitness.
By this definition, a runner who includes a weekly spin class as a way to improve aerobic endurance, but with a lower impact workout to help minimize stress on the body, would be an example of cross training.
7 Benefits of Cross Training for Runners:
There are a number of benefits of cross training for runners, including (but not limited to):
- Helping to further develop overall fitness (strength and endurance) for running performance while reducing stress on the body.
- Improving or developing areas of fitness not targeted by running.
- Injury prevention.
- Improving running economy.
- Allowing an injured runner to maintain fitness while they are unable to run.
- Help promote recovery from running workouts.
- Providing an alternative to running to help avoid mental burnout during training.
Let’s dive a little deeper into understanding these benefits.
1. Improve Fitness While Minimizing Stress
Cross training is a fantastic way for runners to continue to improve their cardiovascular and muscular fitness, while providing reprieve from the physical stress of running.
Running is considered a high impact sport and involves highly repetitive motions. Research shows that each foot strike while running imparts a force equal to 2-4 times the runner’s body weight onto the structures of their body. And on average, a runner will cycle through 1,500 leg swings (and steps) in the course of a single mile.
Now, with regular running your body will adapt to those stresses, making structural changes – such as strengthening bone and ligaments – to minimize the effects of that force.
But these adaptations take time. Newer runners can utilize a number of low-impact modes of cross training, such as swimming or cycling, to help boost aerobic capacity, increase lactate threshold, and improve running while minimizing the stress of running on the bones, tendons, and ligaments.
Further, runners facing high training volume and are experiencing higher stress loads than normal may benefit from incorporating cross training into their training cycle as a means of minimizing stress.
2. Improve Fitness in Areas Not Targeted by Running
Running is a full body workout, but it’s not necessarily the best form of training or exercise for your entire body. Cross training can help runners improve their fitness in ways that running falls short of.
For example, while running does involve arm swing movement, it does not apply adequate resistance to the arms to help maintain adequate and healthy muscle mass or bone density.
Further, some research suggests that running in and of itself may not provide enough osteogenic (bone building) benefits to ward off bone loss, compared to other forms of exercise, such as strength training. (Boudenot)
In this example, incorporating regular strength training will lend to overall fitness and health, such as increased muscle mass and bone density. Not only will this lend to running performance, but full body strength training can help ward off sarcopenia (muscle loss) and osteoporosis (decline in bone density) that both naturally occur with age.
3. Injury Prevention
Cross training can help prevent injuries in runners in two ways: by minimizing repetitive stress, and by strengthening areas prone to injury while running due to imbalances.
Running – especially road or treadmill running – involves endless, repetitive, forward movement with very little lateral movement. Incorporating exercises that involve lateral movement may help runners avoid common muscular imbalances in the hips, or issues like iliotibial band syndrome.
Further, as mentioned above, cross-training can help improve fitness while minimizing stress, which may help prevent overuse injuries in runners.
4. Improve Running Economy
Running economy is a measure of how much oxygen (or energy) your body requires to run at a particular pace. By improving running economy, you are able to run faster with less effort.
A systematic review and meta-analysis looked at 5 separate research studies, involving a total of 93 high-level middle- and long-distance runners found that both strength training and plyometric training performed 2-3 times per week for 8-12 weeks was an effective way to improve running economy in highly trained middle- and long-distance runners.
Now, the majority of us may not identify as “highly trained”, but evidence of exercise modes other than running helping to make running easier is certainly promising for the rest of us (and only adds to the argument that you should most definitely strength train).
5. Training or Rehabilitation for Injured Runners
Believe me, I understand the feeling of despair when an injury prevents you from running…but an injury isn’t necessarily a sentence to losing your fitness entirely.
Depending on your injury, various forms of cross training may be a sufficient way to hold onto your running fitness when you aren’t able to run.
Further, various forms of cross training may act as rehabilitation for helping an injured athlete return to running, by helping to heal and strengthen injured areas.
6. Helps Promote Recovery from Running Workouts
Cross training, when done immediately after your main workout, may help promote – or speed up – the recovery process from your actual running workouts, potentially resulting in less downtime between running sessions.
A brief science lesson: exercise/training imposes stress upon our body and creates disruption and damage of muscle fibers. Immediately after exercise/training, there is a natural inflammatory response, followed by breakdown and removal of the damaged tissue. Hormones respond to this breakdown and tell our body to build new protein, to repair and rebuild the damaged muscle fiber (and hopefully, build it bigger/stronger than before).
Inflammatory response, clearance of damaged tissue, and delivery of both hormones and materials needed for repair are aided by the circulatory system. Active recovery (as opposed to passive) helps increase blood flow, which may help speed up this process.
Various studies have show that active recovery after a workout may help:
- Reduce fatigue in muscles (5)
- Reduce the severity of delayed onset muscle soreness (3)
- Speed up lactate removal immediately post exercise (6)
7. Helps Break Up Monotony and Avoid Mental Burnout
Reality check: even those of us who absolutely LOVE running can still feel the effects of monotony and mental burnout from time to time when it seems like ALL we do is run.
Adding in a new, novel form of training not only helps break up the monotony, but can help you stay excited about running.
Common Cross Training Mistakes Runners Make
As a running coach, I’ve seen a lot of common cross training mistakes among the running community. And as a runner myself who didn’t always know better…I’m not to proud to admit I’ve made some of these mistakes myself.
Frequently Substituting Cross Training for Running
Despite all of the crossover benefits between cross training and running, choosing to cross train instead of running too frequently may actually hinder your running performance and goals.
I will say this more than once throughout this post, but when it comes to running (or any sport for that matter) specificity is key.
The Principle of Specificity states that physiological adaptations in response to training are highly specific to the nature of the training activity. In other words? To become a better runner, the majority of your training needs to be running.
Choosing the Wrong Type of Cross Training
The correct type of cross training for you depends upon what you are trying to achieve by incorporating cross training in the first place.
If you are including cross training as a means to continue to improve upon your running performance, you’ll want to choose an exercise or activity that mimics both the movement pattern and the overall intensity/effort of your running goals.
For example, choose pool running or elliptical workouts instead of rock climbing or martial arts.
On the other hand, if you are cross-training as a means to address weaknesses or focus on areas not trained by running alone, you’ll want to choose an exercise or activity that does target those areas.
For example, if you’d like to improve upper body strength, you’d want to opt for strength training or rowing, rather than snowshoeing or soccer.
Not Considering the Physical Demands of Cross Training
A very common mistake I see in runners is that they often only think of their running workouts when considering the overall demands paced on the body, and tend to forget everything else.
All forms of training, even low impact activities, require resources (food and water) for fueling (energy) and recovery purposes, and require some level of recovery period for adaptations to occur. Just because it isn’t running, doesn’t mean it didn’t place stress on your body.
Further, many runners mistakenly assume that they can safely add cross training workouts on top of their normal run training, without addressing the need for extra nutrition, hydration, and rest or recovery.
Be sure to weigh the TOTAL energy cost and recovery needs of all of your workouts, not just your runs.
Ignoring Intensity (Targeting the Wrong Energy Systems)
Just because it’s not running, doesn’t mean intensity no longer matters.
For example, if you substitute a bike ride for a recovery run, then it is important that you ride at an easy, recovery pace.
If you’re looking to increase your lactate threshold and adding in a cross-training workout to help, ensure you’re performing that activity at or about your lactate threshold effort.
Pay attention to the goal of an individual training workout, whether it’s running or cross training, and stick to the prescribed intensity.
What are the Best Types of Cross Training for Runners?
Some of the best cross training options for runners that mimic the movements required for running include (but are not limited to):
- Cycling: There is endless research available demonstrating the crossover in fitness between running and cycling. A small 2020 even suggests that HIIT in cycling may evoke increases in female recreational runners’ power, which may have helped runners increase their 10K running time trial during the study. (4)
- Pool Running / Aqua Jogging / Water Training
- Snowshoeing: According to a study conducted by the University of Vermont, runners who substituted snowshoeing for running during the winter months actually improved their overall fitness levels (specifically, VO2max or oxygen utilization) compared with those who chose running as their only source of winter training.
- Nordic Skiing
Strength training and plyometrics are also fantastic options for runners, as they can help increase strength and power in running.
Is There a Wrong Type of Cross Training for Runners?
Some may argue that there are certain types of cross training that are not recommended for runners, as the movement patterns either do not lend directly to improvements in running, or may cause injury due to weaknesses and imbalances common in runners.
However, what makes cross training “good” or “not as good” ultimately depends on your goals.
If you are solely looking to use cross training to improve as a runner, then sticking with one of the above suggested options is recommended.
But, if you are looking to use cross training to address weaknesses or discrepancies caused by running, or simply want to be a more well-rounded athlete, then incorporating various cross training modes across multiple movement patterns makes the most sense.
What About CrossFit Training for Runners?
I often have runners ask me whether or not CrossFit, Orange Theory, or other commercially branded workouts are good for runners. The answer is: it depends.
Again, the cross training runners choose should compliment their running, and not detract from it. If an athlete can appropriately balance CrossFit into their running routine without hindering their running progress (or, recovery), then yes, it may be beneficial.
If these classes cause a runner to feel constantly tired or sore, then they might not be the best fit.
When is Cross Training Most Appropriate for Runners?
Cross training is beneficial for runners at any point in their training, but focusing on cross training may be most appropriate during the recovery phase after a race, or during the “off-season” (if you have one. Let’s be honest, most recreational runners do not.)
How Many Days Per Week Should Runners Cross Train?
How many days per week runners cross train depends entirely on their individual needs and goals. A runner who is actively training for a specific running goal should spend the majority of their training time focused on running. But a runner who is in an “off season” or not actively training for a race or running goal may spend more time focusing on cross training.
Ultimately, I like to see my athlete’s log at least 2-3 sessions of strength work per week, and regularly incorporate cross training into their recovery weeks, in order to give their bodies – and their minds – a bit of reprieve from running.
Cross Training: Final Thoughts
Ultimately, the BEST cross training option for you is going to be the one you will enjoy doing.
If you need help or have questions on how to incorporate cross training into your run focused training plan, reach out to our coaching team at Hart Strength and Endurance Coaching, or book a one time training consult with me (Coach Heather). More information can be found here: Hart Strength & Endurance Coaching
- Balsalobre-Fernández, C., Santos-Concejero, J., & Grivas, G. V. (2016). Effects of Strength Training on Running Economy in Highly Trained Runners: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis of Controlled Trials. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 30(8), 2361–2368. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000001316
- Boudenot A, Achiou Z, Portier H. Does running strengthen bone? Appl Physiol Nutr Metab. 2015 Dec;40(12):1309-12. doi: 10.1139/apnm-2015-0265. Epub 2015 Sep 28. PMID: 26562001.
- Dupuy, O., Douzi, W., Theurot, D., Bosquet, L., & Dugué, B. (2018). An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis. Frontiers in physiology, 9, 403. https://doi.org/10.3389/fphys.2018.00403
- Mallol, M., Norton, L., Bentley, D. J., Mejuto, G., Norton, K., & Yanci, J. (2020). Physiological Response Differences between Run and Cycle High Intensity Interval Training Program in Recreational Middle Age Female Runners. Journal of sports science & medicine, 19(3), 508–516.
- Mika, A., Oleksy, Ł., Kielnar, R., Wodka-Natkaniec, E., Twardowska, M., Kamiński, K., & Małek, Z. (2016). Comparison of Two Different Modes of Active Recovery on Muscles Performance after Fatiguing Exercise in Mountain Canoeist and Football Players. PloS one, 11(10), e0164216. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0164216
- Mota MR, Dantas RAE, Oliveira-Silva I, Sales MM, Sotero RDC, Venâncio PEM, Teixeira Júnior J, Chaves SN, de Lima FD. Effect of self-paced active recovery and passive recovery on blood lactate removal following a 200 m freestyle swimming trial. Open Access J Sports Med. 2017 Jun 28;8:155-160. doi: 10.2147/OAJSM.S127948. PMID: 28721108; PMCID: PMC5499938.