What is Cross-Training?

The term cross-training refers to the practice of supplementing exercises and activities from outside of your sport into your training.   Cross-training is applicable to athletes from many different sports, though it is particularly popular amongst runners.  

For endurance runners, in particular, it can be easy to make the assumption that more time spent running will ultimately translate into a better performance come competition time.  However, many top-tier runners are actually doing a variety of different exercises and activities in their training; they’re not just focused on running.     

It may sound counter-intuitive at first, but bringing in some outside exercises and activities into your training can actually benefit you in a number of different ways.   

Cross-Training Benefits 

what is cross-training

Minimize Injury Risks

One of the biggest potential issues associated with long distance running is that it’s a high impact activity, meaning that it places a lot of stress on vulnerable muscles, tendons, and joints like your hips and knees.(1)(2)

As such, high impact activities like endurance running can cause a lot of damage to your body, which ultimately requires an ample amount of time to recover from. (3)  Running again before your body has had enough time to fully recuperate can drastically increase your risk of getting injured and also impinge on your ability to make improvements.    

Adding some low impact activities like cycling and swimming into your routine, especially when you’re still recovering from high-impact training, can be an incredibly effective way to keep to the risk of injury at a minimum while also staying fit and active throughout your training regimen. 

Gain Strength

Strength training can also help improve your running performance.  It can be particularly beneficial for building up weak areas that don’t receive a lot of attention from the act of running itself.  While you might be skeptical about targeting muscles that aren’t all that important when it comes to running, having strength imbalances make you more susceptible to injury. 

There is also a sizeable amount of evidence that strength training helps to improve your running economy. 

Numerous studies have demonstrated that strengthening the muscles of the core, in particular, helps to increase your efficiency of movement as you run. (4)(5)(6)  

The core plays a vital role in stabilizing your torso over your legs when you’re running.  In fact, as much as a quarter of all the energy you burn off while you’re running is spent keeping the top half of your body balanced over the bottom half.  

At the end of the day, if your core muscles are weak, your body is going to spend considerably more energy trying to maintain stability, which can ultimately get in the way of performing at the best of your abilities.        

Keep Your Routine Fresh

Another benefit to cross-training is that it’s an easy an effective way to keep your routine fresh.  Even for the most seasoned runners, staying motivated to train can be difficult if you’re doing the same things day in and day out.  If you’re not motivated to be there, it’s going to be very difficult to really challenge yourself come training time.    

An easy way to keep yourself motivated is by supplementing your running with other activities that still have a practical application to your sport but at the same time offer a fresh and alternative element to your training.  Having some activities likes these in your routine can help keep things more exciting and push you further in your training.   

Cross-Training Activities For Runners

cross-training benefits

From hiking and rock climbing to more traditional activities like swimming and cycling, runners have experimented with all sorts of different approaches to cross-training.  

While more adventurous activities like mountain biking can be effective cross-training tools, they can also be somewhat dangerous, so that’s something you’ll certainly want to consider before choosing a new activity to include in your routine.  

Because one of the main motivating factors behind cross-training is injury prevention, we’re going to focus our discussion on low-risk activities with practical benefits for endurance runners.  

Pool Running

Pool running, AKA aqua jogging, is simply running in a pool, usually with the aid of a weight belt.  Not surprisingly, it’s about as close as you can get to running without actually running in the traditional sense.  

The main difference is that running underwater is just about zero-impact, as the water negates much of the stress that’s usually placed on your joints during physical activity.  On top of that, running underwater is more challenging on your muscles compared to running on dry land which can help you develop both strength and stamina over time.  

Cycling

cycling for runners

Cycling is another activity that can also serve as a supplemental form of training for endurance runners. 

While it is a considerably different motion compared to running, there is still some significant overlap in terms of the muscles recruited by cycling.  

Because it’s a low-impact activity, it means you’re able to work on your endurance over long distances without putting the same types of stress on your joints that you would with running.  

That makes cycling a particularly useful activity to utilize in between intense training sessions, where you’re trying to allow your body to recover but still want to maintain your conditioning.    

Swimming

Like with cycling, swimming doesn’t necessarily target every muscle in the same way that running does but there is still enough cross-over to benefit from throwing some regular laps into your training routine.  

Swimming recruits most of the different muscle groups throughout your entire body, so not only can you target the muscles that you use when you run but you can also hit the ones that normally get neglected.  And again, because you’re in the water, there’s just about zero impact on your joints.    

Strength Training

On the anaerobic side of things, strength training is not necessarily going to engage your muscles in the same way that running would but it will help to develop strength and power in weak areas, which can improve your overall running economy.  

Many runners are actually deficient in core strength, so focusing on movements that build strength in the abdominals, obliques and lower back will ultimately help you to have more control over your movement when you’re running — more control ultimately means less wasted energy.

Wrap Up

Whether you’re just getting into the sport or have been running for decades, runners from all walks of life can benefit from throwing some cross-training activities into their training.  

Activities like pool running, cycling, and swimming can all be excellent tools for both injury prevention and recovery.  On top of that, activities like strength training can actually help you improve your running performance when applied appropriately in your training.  

The are plenty of different activities other than running that can be beneficial to include in your training.  For the best results though, you’ll want to go with activities that have a low risk of injury and a practical application to your sport.