Top 5 Cross-Training Workouts for Runners (and XT Explained)

Jane Springston sitting at the pool and a cyclist

As runners, we tend to hear a lot about how wonderful cross-training can be for running. Yet there is so much information out there about different kinds of cross-training, and it can be overwhelming and confusing to know what kind to do. You might even wonder if it’s something you HAVE to do!

Based on our review of multiple scientific studies, aerobic cross-training is beneficial for runners who want to maintain, and perhaps even improve, their running performances. Cross-training is also beneficial to injured runners, or to runners who are injury-prone that can’t run as frequently. But despite its benefits, runners are not required to cross-train.

The Top Five Best Ways for Runners to Cross-Train Are:

  1. Cycling (especially outdoors)
  2. Swimming
  3. Using an Elliptical Machine, (including an outdoor elliptical trainer)
  4. Hiking
  5. Pool Running (Aqua Jogging)

Keep reading as we share why these are the best types, the benefits of cross-training, and how to incorporate it into your own run training, if you choose. At the end, stay tuned for an overview of alternative ways to cross-train with minimal equipment, even without access to a gym or pool.

What is cross-training (from a runner’s standpoint)?

There are countless ways that a person can cross-train separately from their primary sport or preferred mode of exercise. But for this article geared specifically toward runners, when we talk about cross-training, we mean aerobic cross-training: non-running exercise that still elevates your heart rate and breathing. In other words, we’re talking about doing cardio that isn’t running.

As runners, when we cross-train, the main goal is to work the systems of our body in ways that can benefit our running and endurance, without the impact of running.

Is cross-training the same as strength training?

From our perspective, cross-training and strength training are NOT the same thing. Cross-training for runners is an optional aerobic form of exercise intended to supplement or maybe even replace some of your training runs. The whole idea behind aerobic cross-training is to help your running without having to run more.

Not sure what we mean by aerobic? This article about heart-rate training gives you the run-down.

We believe that strength training, on the other hand, is non-negotiable for runners to keep your bones and soft tissues strong and to improve your chances of avoiding injury, as discussed in our article How to Prevent Injury in Marathon Training. Strength training alone doesn’t usually get your cardiorespiratory system working hard the same way aerobic cross-training, such as swimming or biking, does.

Do runners have to cross-train?

Runners do not typically have to cross train if they don’t want to. However, many runners choose to cross-train as a means to minimize the effects that the impact of running has on their bodies; as a way to stay in shape when they’re injured and unable to run; and as a way to battle burnout or boredom that may come with strictly running.

Do keep in mind, however, that if you have a specific goal you’re ultimately trying to reach with your running, cross-training may be the ticket to helping you achieve that goal if it’s necessary for you to cut back on your running.

The Benefits of Cross-Training as a Runner

Though cross-training isn’t typically a requirement to being a strong runner, some of the benefits of cross-training share in this study and this study include:

  • Reduces stress to joints by eliminating the forces of gravity and impact your body experiences running
  • Improves neuromuscular coordination by utilizing different muscles and movement patterns than running
  • Helps prevent burnout and staleness by giving athletes a new activity
  • Helps prevent injury in athletes by reducing impact on your bones, joints and tissues
  • Helps maintain cardio fitness by raising your heart and breathing rates in a comparable way to running

The research data is still conflicting across a number of studies over the past few decades, however, as to whether cross-training can actually improve running performance. Some studies have concluded that adding cross-training to a runner’s training does improve performance. Other studies have found that adding cross-training in just maintains running fitness, but does not necessarily to improve it.

The sports physiology community continues to conduct research and learn about the effects of cross-training on runners (and all athletes). Regardless of how the data eventually shakes out, it’s important to keep this quote from a 1995 study in the European Journal of Applied Physiology and Occupational Physiology in mind: “Muscularly, non-similar cross-training may contribute to improved running performance, but not to the same degree as increasing [running] specific training.”

The bottom line is that the BEST way to improve your running is always going to be by running. But that doesn’t mean that cross-training can’t be highly beneficial, too.

Best 5 Types of Cross-Training for Runners

There are several types of cross-training, and a common question among runners is which one is best in regard to supplementation. Obviously doing something that you enjoy is very important, but here are the top five types that transfer best to running from a conditioning standpoint.

1. Cycling:

A 2011 study found that 81% of runners chose biking as their preferred cross-training mode. Stationary bikes are commonly studied, and help maintain runners’ VO2max and lactate thresholds. A 2018 study found that outdoor cycling (on a mountain or hybrid bike) was actually more effective than a stationary bike for improving run performance.

2. Swimming:

In addition to traditional lap swimming, which is an excellent cross-training method for run recovery, deep water running – also known as aqua jogging – is another great alternative for runners who want to maintain and perhaps improve their land running.

3. Elliptical machines (outdoor and indoor):

Outdoor elliptical bikes such as ElliptiGO and StreetStrider, although very pricey, are one of the best cross-training options for runners because they are effective at mimicking running-like motion and side-to-side instability, compared to stationary or outdoor bicycles. If you don’t have access to an outdoor elliptical bike, you can use a regular stationary elliptical machine instead. One indoor option that better mimics running motion is the Precor Adaptive Motion Trainer, which also may be available at a gym near you.

4. Hiking:

Hiking is an excellent supplement to running. It allow you to get your heartrate up in a low-impact way, while still getting additional “time on feet” that is necessary for endurance runners. Pro Marathoner Nell Rojas shares in this Runner’s World article, “It’s also great for those who aren’t able to run high mileage due to injury; they get the training benefits without all the pounding.” And you don’t need us to tell you how beneficial being out on the trails in the great outdoors can be, too. (And if you don’t have a trail nearby? This can be easily simulated on steep incline on a treadmill.)

5. Pool Running (aka Aqua Jogging)

Because running in a pool allows you to have the same motion as running outdoors, it’s a very good substitute for running. Since it’s essentially the exact motion of “real” running without any impact, so if your body won’t allow you to run on the ground some or all of the time do to its high-impact nature, this is a great way to go. Most people, however, find this type of cross-training to be quite boring and tedious however, which is why it’s number five. There are certainly more exciting ways to cross-train, IMO. But if you are very set on a running goal, we recommend you try it. Laura Norris recommends breaking up the boredom with intervals and shares a few of her favorite pool running workouts here.

As a runner, when is the best time to cross-train?

Cross-training can be incorporated in a multitude of ways, and there isn’t one right or wrong timeframe to cross-train within your training cycle or off-season. It really depends upon you, your body, your personal preferences, and the input of your running coach (if you have one), just to name a few factors!

Some runners who are masters (over the age of 40) and/or injury-prone might incorporate cross-training into both their training cycles and off-seasons.

Some runners might choose to only cross-train in the off-season, after their race(s) are completed. They don’t need or want to be running the high mileage they ran during their training cycle, but they want to maintain their endurance fitness. One research study found that it was more common for non-elite female marathoners to cross-train only after their marathon was over, compared to the smaller proportion who cross-trained leading up to it.

Some runners prioritize cross-training over running at the beginning of a training cycle. They then slowly phase out or wind down the amount of cross-training they do as their training cycle progresses closer to race day and their training plans become more specific to their race.

How do I fit cross-training into my weekly training schedule?

A research study from 2018 found that replacing easy or recovery runs with cross-training is an effective way to support your run training. It was the first study to compare the effectiveness of substituting some running with cross-training.

In a separate study, scientists compared the running performances of runners who recovered by resting and runners who recovered by swimming. They found that runners who recovered by swimming were able to run faster the next day, compared to those who only rested. This study maintains the importance of active recovery, whether that’s through cross-training or running, as we discuss in the article The Importance of Recovery Runs in Marathon Training.

If you choose to swap some runs with a cross-training activity, make sure it is only for 1-2 easy or recovery runs on your weekly schedule. Or you may also choose to do a short run and follow it up with a short cross-training session on these days.

It is rarely recommended to replace your weekly long runs or quality/speed running workouts with cross-training sessions unless you are injured or can’t run. Remember, as mentioned above, the best way to improve your running is by running.

Is there any type of cross-training runners should avoid?

When it comes to cross-training, it’s important to be aware of the intensity with which you will be training, because exercise intensity is an important factor in injury prevention. As shared in this study on soccer players, just like with running, the harder you go, the higher likelihood of injury.

A popular method of exercise right now is HIIT, or high-intensity interval training. HIIT fitness studios such as Orangetheory and home-based programs such as Insanity are popular because they are proven effective for cardiorespiratory fitness, boosting energy, and promoting lean muscle mass and fat loss. Unfortunately, these programs also carry an increased risk of overuse injury, especially to the knees and shoulders. Scientists have found a correlation between an increase in sports injuries and the increased popularity of HIIT among fitness enthusiasts.

That’s not to say that runners have to avoid HIIT altogether. It’s important to know your body and its limitations, weaknesses, and any pre-existing conditions that could pre-dispose you for injury. (I am someone who found out the hard way over several overuse injuries that my body cannot handle any HIIT alongside run training!)

We caution runners to be careful about HIIT. If you choose to cross-train using a HIIT method, we recommend that you do not schedule any HIIT workouts back-to-back with your running workouts, or else you’ll put your body at even greater risk for injury.

How Cross-Training Helps if You’re an Injured Runner

If you’re injured and unable to run, or simply injury-prone, research studies have proven that cross-training can help maintain your aerobic fitness the same as if you were still running.

Ready.Set.Marathon’s Coach Jane has prescribed cross-training for some of her injured or injury-prone running clients who can’t run 4-6 days a week. These runners still want to race and accomplish their running goals, but their bodies need a break from pounding the pavement day-in and day-out. When Coach Jane once had an injury-prone marathon client, so she prescribed her 4 runs a week, and 2 days of cycling leading up to the marathon and she still qualified for Boston! You can watch her story here.

Alternative Cross-Training for Runners at Home

If you don’t have access to a gym, pool, or bike for cross-training, no problem! There are several other ways you can support your running with cardio-based cross-training. Best of all, these alternative methods are inexpensive or free, and require almost zero equipment (other than your own body)!

  • Walking, or power walking
  • Jumping rope
  • Skipping
  • Dancing: Attend a local class, put on your own music to dance around the house, or take a free class on a platform such as YouTube.

Ultimately, just like any workout, consider what you enjoy. Because if you enjoy it, you’ll do it. So if you need to add cross-training to your routine to stay injury-free OR you need to replace some running with cross-training because you’re getting bored with one type of exercise, we recommend you try these different types of cross-training and then do what you love.

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