It is an expansive exercise regimen.
It has existed for decades in different forms and in different athletic fields.
In more recent years, it has become synonymous with running.
It is, by far, one of the best things workouts a runner can do. It will allow for increased results, and, when done correctly, a decrease in potential injuries.
What Are We Talking About?
In short, cross-training involves engaging in more than one athletic activity that will aid in improving your performance in the main workout of your choice. For instance, there are many hybridized martial arts forms out there. Practitioners might train in multiple combat techniques—Muay Thai, boxing, amateur wrestling—with the goal in mind to become a better fighter in general.
Just to clarify, we are talking about cross-training—not CrossFit. While both exercises champion certain hybrid exercising, CrossFit is high-intensity, and they rarely share exercises.
But, of course, we’re talking about running. Cross-training for running hasn’t often been considered, at least in public forums, until recently. Mostly, running was considered its own thing with certain stretches and minor exercises connected to it to improve cardiovascular health and increase speed.
However, outside of the squats, crunches, and fartleks, there are exercises that can be applied for running. Now, more than ever, passionate runners are looking to cross-training to supplement their exercise regime.
The Benefits of Cross-Training for Runners
At the very least, cross-training keeps things fresh. How many times can you do the same stretches? How many different playlists can you scour to try an add a flavor of newness while running the same courses over and over? The sheer sameness and repetition are usually what drives factory workers and mailmen crazy. You don’t need that in your workout too. While we can’t guarantee a level of fun in exercises, at least you have more options by adding cross-training to your workout routine.
In a physical sense, the added diversity introduced by cross-training is also a major plus. The human body is soft, malleable, but also very adaptable. Working out the same muscles, in the same way, will eventually cause your progress to plateau. Maintenance is, of course, incredibly important, but if there are still goals you’ve yet to reach, perhaps cross-training will help you reach them.
It has come to bear that cross-training is better for increasing speed than the usual route of more-intense speed exercises. Cross-training can also improve endurance. Gains, in general, can be seen within a few months of consistent cross-training.
Another major benefit to cross-training is the possibility of doing low to no impact exercises (we’ll get there, don’t worry). This means a marked decrease (perhaps even a zero-percent) in the likelihood of injury. Cross-training, in general, is beloved for this fact, especially for the injury-prone.
Sorry, Charlie, this isn’t a golden ticket. Cross-training does come with some caveats for new and established runners alike.
While there’s always the possibility of overtraining for established athletes and runners, those new to the game are at the highest risks of it. That’s when things like injury and exhaustion can happen most. Cross-training can either help or hurt you in that regard.
For new runners, cross-training should be used to get you ready and cool you down. You probably aren’t breaking records or even in the best running shape yet. The addition of cross-training can get your body ready for a run, and as a cooldown, help it back into a resting position without injury. However, this exertion might lead to overtraining. It might also lead to injury while running since the cross-training might have already pushed you to your limit in the first place.
Runners—especially new runners—should save cross-training for the day before a run or on the recovery day between runs. Never do it the day of.
For you established runners out there, I imagine you keep a busy schedule. I also imagine you keep a schedule or a chart on paper or your phone, giving structure to your workouts against your everyday life responsibilities. Now try squeezing cross-training into your life.
And that’s the thing: cross-training takes time as anything else does. It may not (and shouldn’t) take as much time as the run itself but must take up more time then your warm-up/cooldown exercises if it is to be effective.
Reconciling Cross-Training with Other Running Exercises
Sadly, we cannot account for everyone’s variable schedules or the intensity of your running. We’ll try to break it up and be as expansive as possible here.
If you are new to running or a runner who does it more for fun, we would suggest a schedule that looks like this:
Three days of running with two days of cross-training. Cross-training sessions would best be placed on recovery days between runs as a buffer for the muscles. Leaving recovery days alone—using them simply for relaxation rather than augmenting them with cross-training is also fine; we would suggest at least one pure recovery day a week.
Established and serious runners tend, obviously, to run more days a week and at a greater duration, so we’ll take that into account for their cross-training glazed exercise. They tend to run five or six days out of the week, so some minor changes to that will be made:
Five days of running with two days cross-train workout. If you’re looking for more, substitute one of your rest days with a low-intensity cross-train workout if you want to keep your edge. However, we would suggest speaking to your trainer or doctor before engaging in such a heavy workout schedule.
Let’s begin with the simple stuff.
Push-ups and Pull-ups: We know what you’re going to say: muscle weighs more than fat, and extra muscle will slow me down. Cast that aspersion aside. Arm exercises will actually help you with balancing while running and dealing with the resistance of some terrain or uphill runs. Of course, a balance between the upper body gains and increased speed need to be managed. There is a point where the increased mass will slow you down.
Deadlifts: Okay, technically, this is a gym workout. But it’s worth mentioning. Take the argument about muscle mass from the last segment and apply it here too. In the case of deadlifts, you are exercising your hamstrings, glutes, and quads. These muscle groups are intrinsically important for runners, especially if you’re looking to gain speed. Keep in mind that some muscle growth will help, but too much can indeed slow you down.
The video below has more similar exercises for you to perform at the gym or even in the comfort of your own home–so be sure to check it out!
But cross-training isn’t limited to just the gym. Below you’ll, find some different, yet fun and exciting, things you can take up to improve your running.
Swimming: This is my personal favorite workout, so it’s going first. I’ve always liked the water, so your mileage may vary, of course. Swimming is practically an all-around workout that is great for cardio and endurance-building. It’s a no-impact activity for your legs and great for your core. The only possible downside is potential injury if your form is incorrect.
Barre, Yoga, or Zumba classes: This should come as a no-brainer. These low-to-no impact activities will aid in flexibility, conditioning, and strength with a negligible change of injury. Since these are indoor exercises, they can be done year-round. Of note, you can strengthen your muscles with the resistance exercises these activities provide.
Kayaking: A favorite pastime of Miles O’Brien (bless your heart if you catch the reference), the rowing involved with kayaking will strengthen the upper body and all the way down to the glutes and hips. Of course, there is some trouble with kayaking. Though fun, kayaking can be very dangerous and can result in a multitude of injuries of varying severity (depending on the waters, of course). In the case of Chief O’Brien, it was recurrent dislocated shoulders. If understandably, the risks of kayaking are too much for you, rowing exercises, in general, are a perfect substitute.
Martial Arts: The cardiovascular, balancing, and endurance gains that can be made through martial arts training is virtually second to none. Of course, the added bonus of self-defense should go without saying. However, the discipline that martial arts teach is great for adults and kids, and an important skill to have for the dedicated and serious runner.
Cross-Country Skiing: The cardiovascular benefits to any kind of skiing is incredibly good and obvious. Unfortunately, skiing isn’t always an accessible activity. In that case, substituting skiing with elliptical or skating exercises would be a lateral move. Also obvious but still worth mentioning is the danger involved in some types of skiing. Be warned.
Elliptical: Sure, it’s a basic no-brainer exercise, but it’s worth mentioning and worth doing—especially on recovery days. Naturally, the boredom factor is worth considering, as this isn’t particularly different from running your usual course anyway.
Skating: Skating (ice or inline) are great for building up the muscles in your legs (especially if you’re recovering from injury and you need low impact exercises to help get you back into the game). And, hey, if you’re lucky you can pick up hockey. Still one of the most exciting sports out there.
Dog Walking: You will utilize the same muscles you would go in a run but in a lower impact way. This is a great exercise for recovery days. Also, look up some dog walking companies. Why not make a few bucks on the side while keeping yourself fit? See how we take care of you?
In the End, Should Runners Cross-Train?
The short answer is yes, but strategically and in moderation. New runners should implement cross-training carefully, and established runners should be mindful of overloading their workout schedule. An injury is unlikely from cross-training itself, but from the actual run if you have over or undertrained.
However, for the sake of it, let’s say you’re injured. Depending on the severity of the injury, you can be laid-up a while and whatever gains you’ve made might likely be lost.
Here’s where cross-training can be a lifesaver.
Due to its low-impact (or in some cases, no-impact) nature, some runners (depending on the injury) can engage in cross-training exercises that focus on other body parts and muscle groups, allowing them to continue a version of their fitness regimen and keeping the losses to a minimum.
- Runners World, Cross-Training
- Runners World, 16 Cross-Training Exercises to Try
- Runners World, 8 Cross-Training For Trail Runners
- Runners World, How Cross-Country Skiing Can Make You a Better Faster Runner
- Very Well Fit, A Guide to the Benefits of Cross-Training for Runners
- Life Hacker, How to Improve Your Running With Cross-Training