Do You Really Need to Cross Train?
Updated: Nov 14, 2020
Cross training for Runners: Why You Need It and the Best Cross Training Workouts for Runners.
You look at your training plan for the week...
Long run… Check! ✔️
Tempo run… Check! ✔️
Easy run… Check! ✔️
… Cross training?? That seems vague… What are you supposed to do? And do you really even need to do it?
If you’re anything like me, you’d rather just go for another run. But cross training is an essential piece of your training. It can improve your cardio fitness, prevent injury, prevent burnout, and keep you mentally fresh.
Why is cross training important for runners?
Has anyone ever asked you, “Aren’t you worried about ruining your knees with all that running?” Yep, I've heard that one.
We now know that isn’t true. In fact, one study suggests running may increase cartilage thickness and decrease risk of arthritis!
That being said, sometimes your body just needs a rest from using those running muscles. But if you want to continue to build cardiovascular fitness while giving your running muscles and joints a rest for the day, cross training is the perfect solution.
With cycling and swimming, for example, your body uses oxygen in the same way as it does when you’re running. So, if you’re cross training with cycling or swimming, you’ll give your running muscles a break, but continue to build that lung capacity that will directly benefit your running.
Cross training helps you avoid running injuries in two ways.
One, it gives your body a break! Rest and recovery is one of the most essential, yet most overlooked, elements of your training plan. When you workout, your muscles get tiny microtears in them. Your body requires rest to rebuild and repair these microtears.
It’s the repair of your muscles that actually builds them and makes you stronger. If you don’t allow your body a chance to repair, you end up burnt out or injured.
If you’re like a lot of runners, though, the thought of a day without exercise leaves your eye twitching and your leg bouncing at the dinner table. Your body and mind want to move!
Cross training is the perfect solution for expending that excess energy and still giving your running muscles a chance to repair and build.
Two, it gives you a chance to work and build all the supporting muscles of running.
For example, runners tend to have weak hips and glutes. In fact, the glutes support the hips, and help give us power when we run! Unless you’re actively and mindfully engaging them while out on runs, though, your glutes are most likely on the weak side.
If you’re a trail runner, you know that balance is a key skill that isn’t necessarily needed as much for road running. It helps you navigate different terrain as well as different twists and inclines on the trail.
Especially if you can only make it out to trails on the weekends, doing exercises that work on balance are important. Especially exercises that have you balancing from the feet and ankles, like in yoga. Building up your balance muscles will help keep you upright and injury free on the trail!
Let’s be honest. Even me, a die-hard running lover, can admit that running every day can eventually become a bit monotonous. Especially in month 4 of a 6 month training plan.
As much as physical burnout is a thing, so is mental burnout.
Cross training is a tool to break up that monotony, give you something fun and different to do, but still help progress you toward your goal. I find that after a day of cross training, I think, “That was fun... But now I’m ready to go for a run again.”
How many days a week should a runner cross train?
In a short answer… one. But of course, there are always exceptions.
A lot of training plans have you running 5 days per week, resting one day per week, and cross training one day per week. And a lot of training plans say “Rest or Cross Train”.
Part of becoming a successful runner is learning to listen to your body. Are you itching with energy and need to get out for a bike ride? Does your body need a day to rest and recover? And a bike ride will just be another stressor on your body?
In fact, early on in the training plan, cross training isn’t as important. In the first four weeks, you’re building a base, the mileage is lower, you’re at lesser risk of injury, and you’re still mentally fresh.
Could it be good to get into the routine of cross training? Sure. Is it necessarily essential in those first few weeks? Probably not.
Listen to your body, know yourself mentally, and choose what works best for you.
What is the best cross training for runners?
Well… it depends. What do you want to get out of your cross training? Do you want to…
Increase your cardio fitness?
Have a little fun?
Rest and recover?
Whatever your goal with your cross training day, here are a few ideas to get you started:
Cycling has the benefit of building up your cardio fitness as well as strengthening your muscles.
In fact, in one study participants stopped running for six weeks and cycled instead. Before and after the six weeks, they did a 2 mile time trial. After the six weeks, there was no difference in their speed for those two miles! Their cardiovascular fitness for running had maintained despite the fact that they hadn’t run in a month and a half!
For building strength, especially riding hills can really help to build up those glutes and quad muscles.
Obviously uphill cycling is reserved for those cross training days where you’re bursting with energy. But cycling can also be used for a bit more of a “rest and recover” day if you approach it from more of a “family bike ride” kind of a way. Get out into the sun, feel the wind in your hair (underneath your helmet, of course), and feel like a kid again. Woohoo! Look at me! Hands free!
Swimming is especially beneficial for building up that cardio fitness and lung capacity. Similar to cycling, though, you need to decide what type of swim workout is best for you that day.
Have some energy you need to let loose? 50 meter repeats on the minute may not be a horrible idea.
Looking to rest and recover? 50 meter repeats on the minute would be a horrible idea, and you may want to consider some slow but steady laps instead.
You don’t have to be in a senior citizen water aerobics class to do water jogging. As awkward as it may feel, it’s actually a really beneficial activity for building up running specific muscles without placing stress on your joints.
Yoga can be anything from a rest and recover to a full-on strength training session. Choose your yoga wisely based on your cross training goals for the day.
In general, though, yoga is one of the best activities for building overall strength and stability. And ever tried tree pose with your eyes closed? Talk about balance work!
For a rest and recover day, yoga also helps stretch out your muscles and give them a bit of TLC.
One more benefit of yoga? The breathwork. It teaches you to take control and be mindful of your breath. This skill can directly carry over to running.
Let’s say you’re in the middle of a long climb. Having the ability to realize when you’re panting and instead consciously choosing to take deeper breaths could mean the difference between continuing to run up that hill or having to take a walk break.
Walking on uneven terrain can help build up those little muscles of your feet and ankles. They may be little, but their impact is huge. Especially when it means the difference between rolling an ankle or not on your next trail run.
Hiking hills can also help to build up those same muscles that are needed for running hills… with less of the impact.
Resistance Training in general should be worked into your training plan at least once per week, no matter what. You can choose to do it on your cross training day, or your training plan may call for resistance training on a different day.
More reps with lighter weights helps to build up endurance, while fewer reps and heavier weights builds strength. There’s a sweet spot that can help with both, though. Aim for 10-15 reps, for 2-3 sets.
A lot of people seem to forget that the elliptical machine can be worked in both directions. And each direction has its own benefits. Both directions, though, help to build up endurance and strength in running specific muscles… without the impact.
Forwards Elliptical works your glutes and hamstrings. These muscles are often neglected by runners. But your glutes especially can help give some power to your running stride.
Backwards Elliptical works your calves and quads. Continuing to build these muscles is especially beneficial when it comes to climbing up those hills on your next run.
Walking is definitely a “rest and recover” kind of activity. But it can also be incredibly beneficial for your mental health. Shake out your legs, get outside, spend time with a friend, or listen to your favorite podcast.
What else do you do to cross train?
Cross training basically means any activity that isn’t running!
Lately for me, I’ve been longboarding (skateboarding), which provides more mental benefits than anything. I’ve also been going on pram walks for my daughter’s naptime. Depending on where you are, this could either be a rest and recover walk, or a bit of a strength building walk. Pushing a pram up a hill with a 30lb child in it is no joke, ha!
Not sure how to fit cross training and all the other pieces together for a training plan? I’d love to help you get a plan together for your next running goal! Check out my Coaching page for more information.
Jillian Beckham is wife to Brent and is not always the best at listening to her body when it’s telling her to “rest and recover”. She’s also a Health and Wellness Copywriter. If you want more information on she can help you with your business goals, check out her website: www.beckhamcopywriting.com