A Runner’s Guide To Cross-Training (With List Of Exercises)


Running may be an excellent form of exercise but it has its limits. Its high-impact nature makes it hard on the body and it doesn’t develop other aspects of fitness very well. That said, cross-training is very beneficial for runners. But what cross-training exercises are most beneficial for runners?

These are the best cross-training exercises for runners: 

  • Cycling
  • Heavy strengthening exercises
  • Trail running or hiking
  • Nordic walking
  • Yoga and pilates
  • Swimming
  • Aqua jogging
  • Core strengthening and stability
  • Team sports

But that’s not all, there are a lot more questions surrounding cross-training for runners including the benefits, the goals, and the frequency of cross-training. In this article, we will attempt to answer all questions surrounding it and provide clarity for those who’d like to start cross-training.

What Attributes Do Runners Need?

Before we move on and discuss what specific cross-training exercises you should do, we should first find out what are the attributes required to become a successful runner.

Endurance

It refers to your body’s ability to sustain the effort. It is divided into two categories:

muscular endurance, which refers to your muscle’s ability to sustain effort over long periods, and cardiovascular endurance, which refers to the ability of your heart and lungs to supply oxygen to your body over an extended period.

Endurance is the primary thing that is being tested in a marathon and other long-distance races. This is why marathon runners, ultrarunners, cyclists, and triathletes are collectively called endurance athletes.

Strength

Strength is described as your muscles’ ability to generate force against a resistance. Runners may not need much of that kind of strength since we’re only carrying the weight of our bodies across the force of gravity, but runners do need strengthening exercises in their programs.

When we talk about “strength” for running, we’re talking more about functional strength to generate power in your stride, assist with running form, and fix muscle imbalances that will help improve the running economy.

Rarely is the strongest man also the fastest marathon runner. But all runners need to have some kind of functional strength to be successful at running.

Stability

Stability refers to the ability of your muscles to support a joint in a given position. This is highly important for running posture and injury prevention.

You may have heard about core stability, hip stability, knee stability, and ankle stability. All of these are important for your longevity in the sport of running.

Benefits Of Cross-Training

Although your marathon training should still be composed with mostly running, complementing your running with different types of cross-training exercises has many benefits including:

  • Being able to train endurance with less joint impact
  • Improve running economy
  • Prevent injuries
  • Improve other aspects of fitness that running can’t
  • Get better physique
  • Get a mental break from running

The Goals Of Cross-Training For Runners

To benefit well from cross-training, mixing and matching different types of exercises should be specific to your goal. Runners need a specific kind of strength and aspects of fitness.

That said, it would be best if you should tailor your cross-training picks based on these goals:

Improving Endurance Without Adding Too Much Mileage

Long-distance running requires a very high level of endurance, both muscular and cardiovascular. Improving endurance could simply be adding more miles into your runs. However, running is a high-impact sport, and adding too many miles too soon may lead to injury.

A good way to train your muscular and cardiovascular endurance without the musculoskeletal load is by doing cross-training exercises like cycling and aqua jogging. This way, you can improve your endurance without hammering your legs to the pavement.

Improve Other Aspects Of Fitness That Running Can’t

Though running is an excellent way to improve your fitness, running alone can’t improve all aspects of fitness like strength, power, and flexibility.

So when doing cross-training exercises, include exercises that will improve other aspects of fitness, not just your endurance. This will make you a more well-rounded athlete.

In addition, adding upper body and lower body resistance exercises will give you a better physique. If you’re wondering why marathon runners are so skinny, one of the more obvious reasons is the lack of resistance exercises.

Injury Prevention

Running is a very repetitive and high-impact sport making overuse injuries and stress fractures very common among runners.

Cross-training helps prevent injuries by fixing muscle imbalances, stretching muscle tightness, and providing better muscular support to your joints.

Recovery

Low impact, low-intensity endurance exercises like biking around the neighborhood, swimming, or walking around the block helps aid recovery by increasing blood circulation and aid lactate clearance.

It is best to do these low-intensity exercises on your active rest days.

By the way, if you want to learn more about the benefits, frequency, and importance of rest days for runners, I made an article that clearly explains each of these in detail.

8 Best Cross-Training Exercises For Marathon Runners And Why

#1 Cycling

Want to improve your running without actually running more? Cycling is one of the best cross-training alternatives to running. In fact, several studies have shown the benefits of cycling to running performance.

In research conducted by the Journal of Strength and Conditioning, researchers found that adding only 6 sessions of 6 sets of 10-second all-out cycling sprints with 80 seconds rest in between sets performed alongside regular training for 2 weeks can significantly improve running performance.

Another research conducted at the University of Toledo, Ohio, found that adding three cycling workouts per week in just 6 weeks resulted in a decrease in the rate of perceived exertion during strenuous running and an improvement in 5k time by almost 30 seconds.

That said, cycling is a good way to add training volume that directly improves running performance without the musculoskeletal load of running. Furthermore, cycling is a great way to maintain running fitness when recovering from an injury.

If you’re into cycling, you can add 1-2 cycling exercises to work on your endurance instead of directly adding more running miles to your weekly mileage. That way, you are getting improvements in endurance without the load on your joints.

#2 Heavy Strengthening Exercises

Strengthening might seem like a whole different sport from running. However, several studies have proven the positive benefits of heavy strength training to running performance.

2010 study found that adding maximal or explosive strength training to your endurance training was more effective at VO2Max and running economy in endurance runners.

This is supported by a 2013 review where researchers reported the effects of combining strength and endurance training. According to the researchers, the running economy is improved by combining endurance training with heavy strength training or explosive training.

They suggested that the improvement in running performance has something to do with the delayed activation of the less efficient fast-twitch muscle fibers, improved neuromuscular efficiency, conversion of muscle fibers, or improved musculotendinous stiffness.

That said, when you’re doing cross-training strengthening exercises, focus on lifting heavy with a lower rep count (1-5) to satisfy the findings of the two pieces of research I mentioned above. Focus on compound exercises like squats, deadlifts, and lunges. 

A photo of me doing heavy deadlifts.
A photo of me doing heavy deadlifts.

In addition, you can add accessory work to fix muscle imbalances. Hiring a good coach or physiotherapist can help you identify those imbalances and give you exercises to fix them.

I am big on strength and it is my sport even before I got into running so I do it as often as I can (at least 5 days a week). I do most of the strength stuff: squats, deadlifts, presses. And the explosive stuff: snatch, clean, and jerk.

But if you just want to do strength training to improve your running, doing strength training at least 2-3 times a week is good enough.

#3 Trail Running or Hiking

Trail running is an excellent way to ramp up your training while decreasing the load that your joints receive from ground contact.

The uneven surface of the trails adds challenge to your balance and stability which can easily carry over to your road running. The varying elevation helps improve other muscles that aren’t usually improved by running on a flat road surface.

Lastly, the soft ground absorbs some of the impact reducing the amount of impact that your joint receives.

If you want to know more about the ways trail running helps you succeed in road running, check out this article that I’ve made.

Hiking, on the other hand, is a great way to back off from the intensity and mental stress while still training endurance and foot stability. In fact, hiking is my favorite active rest day activity.

A photo of me sitting on a rock during one of my hikes.
A photo of me sitting on a rock during one of my hikes.

I, personally, go for a short hike (5-10km) at least once a week on my active rest days. Sometimes, I replace one or two road running sessions with trail running even when I’m training for a road race.

#4 Nordic Walking

Another great way to spend your active rest days is by nordic walking. It’s a great way to engage more of your upper body and improve your cardiovascular endurance without beating up your knees.

If you’re into Nordic walking, you can do 1-2 days of it instead of adding another running session.

#5 Yoga and Pilates

If you decide to stay home and cross-train something completely different, doing very low-impact and low-energy demand exercises such as yoga and pilates offer great benefits that will carry over to running very well.

Back then, yoga was discouraged to runners because of the fear of being “too flexible”. However, some yoga centers now offer yoga sessions specific to runners’ needs.

Aside from the added range of motion, yoga also improves muscular endurance thanks to the long holds in certain positions. In addition, doing yoga also practices your breathing which can have a great impact on your running performance.

Pilates, on the other hand, is useful for runners in such a way that it promotes correct body alignment and usage by working the deep abdominal muscles that are responsible for posture. In other words, it’s a series of core exercises on steroids.

If you think yoga or pilates is for you, you can do it as often as you’d like or as recommended by your instructor. But if you have no plans on joining a yoga or a pilates class, I recommend that you at least do some stretching exercises every after your training session to prevent your body from getting stiff.

#6 Swimming

If you’re aware of the Specific Adaptation on Imposed Demand (SAID) principle you may think swimming is a completely irrelevant cross-training activity for running. However, I’d argue that swimming is a great way to eliminate the load on your joints while still getting some sort of aerobic training.

It’s also a good way to induce blood circulation and help clear out lactate formation to support recovery.

If you have access to a swimming pool, swimming as a “cool down” is good. You can also do it as active recovery on your rest days.

#7 Aqua Jogging

If you haven’t heard aqua jogging, it’s simply mimicking jogging underwater. It offers all of the health benefits of jogging but with less impact on your body.

You can do aqua jogging on a machine or simply do laps on the pool.

Runners who can’t run because of an ankle, knee, or hip injury can benefit very well from this low-impact exercise. It uses the same muscles with some added resistance but with less impact. In other words, you’re getting some good muscular and cardiovascular improvements for less work.

If you’re recovering from an injury and have access to a swimming pool, you can replace your running with aqua jogging just until you’re ready to hit the pavement again. If possible, you can alternate cycling and aqua jogging to get some variability.

#8 Core Strengthening and Stability

Aside from those six-pack abs everyone’s talking about, working on your core comes with many benefits including:

  • Improves posture
  • Decreases risk of low back pain
  • Increasing strength
  • Improving running economy

Focus on exercises that work your deep abdominal muscles such as planks and holds rather than repetitions (which is what we usually see in gyms).

Also, work on the major muscles of the hips, your glutes (Maximus, Medius, and Minimus). Bridges and banded crab walks are effective exercises you can add to your training program. Together with the deep abdominal muscles, they play a big role in your running posture and running economy.

I highly recommend that all runners do core workouts at least 2-3 times a week after a running session. I usually do it with my strength session on Mondays and Fridays.

#9 Team Sports

Want to have fun while still training different aspects of fitness? Do team sports like basketball, volleyball, and football.

If it ain’t obvious, team sports involve sprinting, running, jumping, and lateral movements that help improve endurance, strength, power, coordination, and a lot more. In addition, you are likely to love training if it involves a game.

If you love team sports, I recommend doing team sports 1-2 times a week on low-volume days or active rest days.

The Problem With CrossFit as A Cross-Training Regimen

You might be wondering why I haven’t included Crossfit in the list of the best cross-training for runners. But there’s a pretty good reason for that.

CrossFit is a wonderful fitness regimen, I am a Crossfit athlete and I’ve joined (and won) many local Crossfit competitions. I’ve competed internationally and I have nothing against Crossfit as a sport. I believe Crossfit is a great way to test and improve your fitness, however, I do not recommend them as a cross-training regimen for runners, especially those who are training for an event.

Why?

Because when you’re doing Crossfit exercises, you are actively seeking fatigue by finishing a workout as fast as possible. Unless you have the self-control to attack each workout with only 60-70% effort (which most people don’t, including me), doing Crossfit as a cross-training exercise when you’re training for an event will only take away the quality of your training in the “running” aspect.

Take this as an example, your weekly mileage is a high predictor of your marathon performance. The higher your weekly mileage, the better your marathon time.

If you add Crossfit as a supplement to your training, you will be too sore and fatigued to add more mileage or to perform at the recommended pace.

Furthermore, you may have a harder time recovering from training which may force you to decrease your weekly mileage.

So unless you’re training for Crossfit, or you’re a runner who really enjoys it, don’t make it your cross-training regimen of choice.

How Often Should You Cross-Train In A Week?

There’s no magic number as to what is the optimal cross-training days in a week. But I could say that it highly depends on your goals, the skills you lack, your total weekly mileage, and where you’re at in your training.

There’s nothing wrong with cross-training every day. As long as your cross-training sessions meet with your goals and don’t negatively impact your runs.

On the other hand, some runners might only cross-train 2-3 times a week and feel well-rounded.

We all have different needs, goals, and training preferences. That said, you have to find the “optimal” balance of running and cross-training activities for you.

Tips on Applying Cross-Training Exercises

  • Match your cross-training exercises with your goals (e.g. to improve balance, strength, speed, etc.)
  • Strength training is nonnegotiable, squats, deadlifts, and lunges are the most beneficial
  • Add some upper body strength training too
  • Find cross-training exercise that doesn’t feel like training and make it your “active recovery”
  • If you feel burned out or less motivated to train, you’re probably overtraining. Replace some of your “training days” with cross-training activities you enjoy.
  • Accelerate recovery by doing low-intensity exercises like walking and swimming

Nicho Mauricio

Running wasn't always my favorite sport. I was a CrossFit athlete and I loved every bit of it. But since the pandemic began, I was forced to stay away from the gym and train at home instead. Things got boring. That's when I decided to trail run with my friends. I instantly got hooked. So I started training and researching all things running. As a beginner, I want to buy only the best running gear and do only the best practices. This blog is where I share what I've learned in my journey and my experiences as a runner.

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