Why Is Cross Training Important for Distance Runners?
A distance runner’s training schedule will have a focus on the sport. However, in order to continue performing well, it is important for runners to supplement their running with cross training. Cross training can make you a better runner, while also keeping you injury-free.
So, what is cross training?
Cross training is any form of exercise that supplements running. It can be low intensity or high intensity and covers the broad spectrum of aerobic, strength, flexibility, agility, or balance training.
Popular forms of cross training
Swimming – The feeling of weightlessness is relaxing and takes the load off the legs. It provides a good aerobic workout as well as develops strength in the whole body.
Cycling – Provides excellent cardiovascular benefits. It is also a partially non-loading activity for the legs. It develops the quads, glutes, and calves.
Strength training – Allows you to focus and develops strength in muscles that are weak or bring about a balance in overall musculature, including the core, which is very important for runners.
Walking – Can be used as a recovery day training form. It can also provide aerobic benefit if you do speed walking or walking on inclines.
Elliptical training – It functionally activates the muscles that are used in running, but with the added benefit of low impact. It can be used at low or high intensity for aerobic adaptation.
Pilates – It can develop the core as well as flexibility and is great for runners.
Yoga – It provides whole body strength and balance training along with extensive flexibility.
Rowing – This is an excellent aerobic-cum-strength form of training. It develops strength in the quads, hamstrings, glutes, shoulders, and back muscles.
Agility training – It helps develop posture, balance, control, coordination, and flexibility. It also helps develop “quick feet”, which can improve your cadence.
Hiking – It involves walking uphill, downhill, and on uneven terrain. It provides superlative aerobic benefits besides strengthening muscles and joints, with the outdoors giving an exhilarating mental boost.
What are the benefits of cross training for runners?
There are many reasons how cross training benefits runners. Here are some of the ways:
Improve strength and provide muscle balance – Weak hamstrings or glutes can be the cause of running injuries. So too is muscle imbalance. When one side of the body is weaker than the other, it forces you to compensate with the stronger side leading to imbalanced forces causing injury.
Aerobic capacity – Just like running, many of the cross training options above will provide a cardiovascular benefit.
Improve posture – Activities such as yoga and Pilates strengthen the core. A weak core causes a collapse in running form, which in turn leads to changes in gait and injury. A strong core can correct this and also help maintain form in the later parts of a race, when fatigue sets in.
Flexibility – Flexibility allows greater ease of movement for a runner. When certain muscles, such as the hamstrings are tight, they reduce the ability to go through their range of motion and hence, affect the stride.
Rehabilitate your injuries – When you are injured and are not allowed to run, cross training comes to the rescue by helping you take up similar functional sports such as elliptical training or cycling. They simulate the same actions, provide similar benefits, and allow you to rest the injury while continuing to train.
Recover from training – All training has to be followed by recovery for it to be effective and for the athlete to adapt. While complete rest may help you recover, active recovery using walking or swimming as cross training helps the muscles recover faster. This is because such gentle recovery workouts enhance blood flow to the muscles and take away metabolic waste.
Prevent injuries – Muscular imbalance and inadequate recovery are the two main reasons why runners get injured. Cross training exercises such as strength training help even out these imbalances, whereas, yoga, walking, or swimming help you to take active recovery from workouts. These measures through cross training can keep you safe from injuries.
Breaks monotony – Making all your workouts run-specific will eventually lead to boredom, lack of motivation, or even burnout. Cross training brings a change and freshness to your workout and gives you a mental break from running.
When and how much should you cross-train?
Cross training, as explained above, is supplementary to running. The cross training exercises and options may be used throughout the year, but the type of cross training may change depending on how close or away from your goal race you are. This refers to the periodization phase.
The structure and type of exercises depending on the phase of periodization are suggested below:
|Periodization phases||Preparatory phase |
(build up of endurance with easy running)
|Speed Phase (adding speed workouts to build speed)||Peaking phase (adding runs that are more specific to the race)||Race day||Transition phase (complete recovery from racing by focusing on non-running workouts)|
|Cross-training options||Strength, Elliptical training, Hiking, Cycling, Rowing, Agility training||Strength, Elliptical training, Hiking, Cycling, Rowing, Agility training||Strength, Walking Swimming, Pilate, Yoga||–||Strength, Elliptical training, Hiking, Cycling, Rowing, Agility training|
Also read: Can Strength Training Make You Run Faster?
|Rest or swim or walk||Easy run or speed workout||Cross- train — see options||Speed workout||Easy run or|
Cross train — see options
|Easy run||Long run|
Note: FRIDAY – Easy run is for those who cross train twice a week
Number of days for cross training: 2-3
Number of days running: 4-5
Cross training is not specific to beginners and is done by advanced as well as elite runners. The only difference is that advanced runners will run up to six days in a week to accumulate mileage. Cross training can be varied and you can get innovative with it keeping in mind how your body reacts to the fatigue of training. For instance, you could perhaps do 20 minutes of strength and then spend another 30-40 minutes doing yoga or Pilates or cycling. Lastly, it will greatly improve your fitness and make you a faster runner, too.
1. Spencer A. What You Need to Know About Cross-Training. Marathon Training Academy. 2020; published online Apr 15. https://www.marathontrainingacademy.com/what-you-need-to-know-about-cross-training (accessed Apr 26, 2021).