The Best Cross-Training Options for Runners
Jeff Horowitz—In choosing cross-training modes, runners should keep three considerations in mind:
1. Is this option aerobic? One of the main adaptations that your body makes to endurance training is learning to use its fat stores as fuel. To be effective, any cross-training mode that you choose should help you achieve this goal. That means it has to be an exercise that you can engage in for hours at a time, at a moderate intensity level (at an RPE of 6–7).
2. Is this option low-impact or nonimpact? Sometimes high-impact exercise gets a bad rap. When faced with repetitive impact, your body adapts, increasing bone density and strengthening the muscles related to absorbing this impact. If you don’t engage in high-impact exercise, your body will be unprepared for the stress of race day. The result? A bone bruise or stress fracture.
But remember our motto: every step necessary, but not one step more. High-impact exercise is crucial, but after the essential benefits have been gained from engaging in it, high-impact exercise raises the risk of injury during training. Running three days a week will prepare your body for the stress of racing. After that, you should aim to increase your endurance base without adding unnecessary stress to your body. This is where cross-training comes in; it will help you achieve your race-day goals while lowering the risk of injury associated with intense high-impact training.
3. Does this option complement your running? Any aerobic cross-training will help you become a better endurance athlete, but to get the most from your routine, you should choose a cross-training mode that doesn’t simply mimic the running movement, but instead works different muscle groups. The point of doing this is to strengthen the muscles that support your running. After all, your running muscles—particularly your gluteus maximus, hamstrings and calves—are already strong from running. By focusing on strengthening your other muscles, you’ll become a more balanced, injury-resistant athlete.
So what cross-training exercise should you choose? Much of that depends on what your preferences are. Would you rather train in the great outdoors, or does the convenience of a gym appeal to you? Are you looking for a low-budget exercise that you can do anywhere, or are you intrigued by a new high-tech machine? There are plenty of options to choose from, both traditional and cutting-edge. All of them provide an added benefit of one kind or another for runners.
Four popular cross-training modes are cycling, swimming, elliptical exercise and stepping. All are low- or nonimpact exercises that provide excellent aerobic workouts. That makes all of these valuable training options for runners. The elliptical trainer and the stepper, in particular, are good substitutes for running when running isn’t possible—when you’re injured, for example. But apart from reducing the volume of impact, working on these machines won’t add anything to your running that running itself doesn’t provide. Of the four cross-training options above, only one effectively works muscle groups that are complementary to running: cycling.
Perhaps you’re thrilled to read that because you are already an avid fan of cycling, but if not, don’t be discouraged. An old coaching aphorism is that the best exercise is one that you’ll keep doing. So if you have another form of aerobic exercise that you currently enjoy, feel free to continue doing it. But my goal is to make you a faster runner with the lowest risk of injury, so keep an open mind as I explain why I think cycling should be your number one cross-training choice.
Cycling primarily works the quadriceps, a big muscle group that running doesn’t effectively work. Insufficient strength in the quads can allow the knees to buckle on landing during the foot-plant phase. This is the primary cause for the up-and-down bobbing motion seen in some runners, which can lead to patella tendinitis and other knee problems. Cycling can help with that.
Cycling also works the outer hips and gluteus medius muscles, which are crucial for running. These muscles help keep the hips from swaying outward on the landing phase. When this happens, the iliotibial band—a thick strip of connective tissue on the outside of the leg—is pulled tight, which can result in knee and hip pain. Again, cycling can help with this.
Cycling also provides you a chance to take your workout outdoors, something important to many runners. Even though there are ways in which you could take your cycling workout indoors, cycling, for most people, represents a chance to get out for some fresh air.
For runners, this is a natural fit. You probably fell in love with running not in the gym but on the roads and trails, just like the rest of us. During our workouts and races, we have the opportunity to experience the sublime beauty of a sunrise or sunset, the changing of the seasons, or the thrill of extreme weather. Giving this up to spend time in the gym is one of the biggest hurdles some of my training clients have to overcome. But with a good bicycle, you don’t have to give up your love of exploring during your workout.
Being outdoors also helps ward off the biggest problem with indoor cross-training workouts: boredom. You can do a 3- or 4-hour session on an elliptical machine, but who would really want to? But a 3- or 4-hour bike ride is not only commonplace among cyclists; it’s also considered fun. On a bike, you can cover wide stretches of territory, and with a little planning, you can map out a grand tour that includes beautiful local scenery, as well as key rest stops.
You can also more easily rope friends into joining you, which makes this a much more social form of crosstraining than the other modes. Don’t have any cycling friends? It shouldn’t be too difficult to find some. Most town and cities have cycling clubs. Stop by a local cycling shop and ask; staff will be happy to fill you in on all the local options.
For swimming, aim to spend half as much time in the pool as you would for a bicycle workout. For the elliptical machine and stepper, spend 75 percent as much time working out as you would if you were cycling.