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What Is Cross-Training For Runners?

No matter how much anyone loves running, going through the motions, and repeating the same routines for too long can produce negative results. Passionate runners can find themselves losing their love for the activity, while their bodies could suffer from ailments like repetitive stress injuries or a lack of improvement in their performance.

To prevent these problems while improving performance, plenty of athletes complement their running with what’s known as ‘cross-training’.

So what is cross-training?

Cross-training is when you engage in the form of athletic activity different from what you usually do. As a runner, cross-training can take the form of swimming, strength training, and more. Cross-training can complement running and improve a runner’s athletic performance overall while also preventing emotional burnout.

In this article, we’re going to explore everything you need to know to understand cross-training as a way to improve your running. Hopefully, you can then decide if cross-training is for you, and how you can implement it to enhance your performance as a runner.

Cross-training Vs. Running

What is cross-training for runners? Well, for a runner, cross-training means engaging in almost any athletic activity that’s different from their regular running. But how do you decide that an activity is ‘different’ enough from running to be considered cross-training?

There are two things you can consider, for starters: muscle activity and intensity.

Mix Up The Muscles You Use

Running typically involves heavy use of the muscles in the lower half of your body. Sure, you’ll be using your arms slightly as well, though you won’t be straining them as much as your legs.

An excellent cross-training activity for a runner would be something that engages different groups of muscles all over your body. Perhaps, anything that involves the upper half of your body, like rowing, would also be ideal for this reason.

You could still choose a sport that engages your legs, but it would be best to select one that makes you move your legs at a lower intensity. So, instead of continuing to challenge your legs with even more running or sprinting, try and take a slow leisurely walk or do some yoga instead.

Experiment With Lower Intensities

Still, the muscle groups that are activated isn’t the only factor when it comes to choosing a cross-training activity. It’s also vital that you exercise at different intensities. Since you’ll be spending most of your time focusing on running, it would be a good idea to pick an activity that involves lower intensities to avoid overusing the same muscles.

What Is Considered Cross-training In Relation To Running?

Now that we understand how you can choose an ideal cross-training activity based on muscle activity and intensity let’s look at a few options you could experiment with. There’s an almost endless list of activities you could engage in, and each of them will complement your running in unique ways.

Here are a few cross-training activities you could try out for yourself.

Swimming

Swimming is a popular option for runners seeking to cross-train. One of the best things about swimming is the fact that it’s a zero-impact activity. That means you’ll continue training your body while giving your joints a chance to take a well-deserved break.

Yes, swimming does involve using your legs. However, the demand placed on those muscles and joints is far lower than regular running. So, you can think of it as an active form of recovery for the lower half of your body.

Still, swimming isn’t all about recovery. With swimming, you’ll always be able to get an excellent cardiovascular workout at whatever intensity you prefer.

Yoga

Don’t underestimate the value that Yoga has to offer, even to runners. While other sports will help you enhance your endurance and cardio, Yoga is what you need to help you lengthen your muscles and improve your overall conditioning.

How does that help running? Well, increased flexibility also helps to reduce the chances of injury while you’re out on a run.

Walking Around The Neighbourhood

Yes, walking is also a form of cross-training. How? Because it allows you to engage in active recovery. Instead of laying on the couch resting (which is still essential, by the way!), you’re using the same running muscles, but at a much lower intensity.

Not only will that speed up your physical recovery, but it’ll also give you a chance to focus on something that competitive runners sometimes overlook: your mental health. Instead of pushing yourself to perform at high levels all the time, a slow walk will help you decompress until it’s time to compete again.

What Is Not Considered Cross-training For Runners?

With all the many choices for cross-training, are there any that runners should avoid? Yes, there certainly are!

When it comes to cross-training, it’s best to avoid activities that ‘abuse’ your legs even more. Remember: cross-training is supposed to complement and improve your running, either directly or indirectly. There’s no point in taking on a secondary activity if it’s going to negatively affect your performance as a runner.

If you’re looking for cross-training activities that you should avoid as a runner, downhill skiing is a perfect example.

There are two reasons for this. Firstly, downhill skiing is as stressful on your lower body muscles as running. Stressing the same muscles too much could affect your performance when you do engage in running.

Second, downhill skiing is also a high-impact activity that can put more stress on your joints, mainly your knees.

As a runner, you’re already stressing out your lower body muscles and your joints. Choosing a cross-training activity that stresses these parts out even more just isn’t beneficial.

Should I Cross-Train The Day After A Long Run?

Yes, you can and should cross-train the day after a long and intense run. However, you’ll need to be very mindful of the kind of cross-training activity you choose.

As mentioned earlier, some activities are beneficial for runners because they help in enhancing your recovery. So, things like yoga, slow walks, and swimming are excellent cross-training activities that will support your recovery the day after a long-run.

Just be sure to keep all of the intensity levels low regardless of the cross-training activity you choose! On the day after a long run, your legs and joints will probably be sore. A low-intensity exercise will help circulate blood and nutrients to those aching muscles and speed up their recovery.

Should I Cross-Train Before Speed-Work Days?

Yes, cross-training the day before your speed-work days can be very beneficial. One good tip to keep in mind would be to keep your cross-training duration the same or shorter than that of your speed-work day training.

One great cross-training form that you can engage in the day before something intense like a race or your speed-work days is yoga. Yoga will help you maximize your flexibility and reduce the risk of an injury while you’re running.

By cross-training the day before, you’ll prime your muscles and your mind to be ready for the intense demands of a speed-work day. So when the moment comes, it won’t be a total shock to your system.

Many beginners that simply want to cross the half marathon or marathon finish often ask, “Do I need to do speedwork for my first half marathon?” Click here to find out.

How Many Days A Week Should A Runner Cross-train?

Two days a week. That’s a rule of thumb when it comes to how often a runner should cross-train. Still, you should experiment with different cross-training plans and see which ones your body responds positively to.

For example, some people may cross-train more frequently than twice a week but by using several different activities. Mixing in low-intensity workouts like yoga with medium-intensity swimming could add up to more than two days of cross-training a week.

As long as your cross-training doesn’t eat into your running time and there’s still plenty of time to recover, then you should be fine.

Benefits Of Cross-Training For Runners

Cross-training can benefit runners in several ways, including:

  • Recovery: As a runner, you probably already understand the importance of recovery. While sleeping and resting are vital to the recovery process, cross-training allows you to engage in what’s called active recovery.
    Active recovery helps your body circulate blood and nutrients so your muscles can rebuild themselves to become stronger at a much higher rate.
  • Cardiovascular Conditioning: Yes, running is already an excellent way to build your stamina. However, other forms of exercise, like swimming, also do a fantastic job of enhancing your cardiovascular conditioning.
    With stronger lungs and heart, cross-training will help you run faster and for longer.
  • Flexibility: Why do we stretch before and after a run? It’s to ensure we stay flexible and reduce the risk of an injury. Cross-training also helps us improve this aspect of our running through activities like yoga. The yoga poses and stretches you do on a yoga mat will contribute directly to when you’re running on a track.

Is Strength Training Considered Cross-training?

Yes, you can consider strength training to be a form of cross-training. By training for strength, you are conditioning your muscles and joints for the challenges they’ll face when you’re running. For example, strong leg muscles can help you improve your speed and reduce the risk of injury to joints like those at your hips, knees, and ankles.

Runners tend to overemphasize training their legs. So, strength training is a fantastic way of showing attention to the other parts of your body, like your chest, upper back, and shoulders, for example.

Is Cross-training Dangerous (e.g. doing CrossFit)?

All types of physical activities come with some degree of injury risk. However, certain cross-training activities pose a higher risk to runners than others.

Remember: as a runner, you often place a lot of stress on your lower body’s muscles and joints. So, if you choose to cross-train at a high intensity using the same muscles and joints, you’re increasing your injury risk.

Over the years, the sports phenomenon known as CrossFit has become the chosen cross-training option for many people. The CrossFit way of training can be beneficial to runners, but again, it all depends on which muscle groups you’re focusing on during cross-training.

With all the focus you place on your leg muscles, you must choose a cross-training method that lets them recover and rebuild effectively. If not, pushing them too far could result in pulls, strains, and other unpleasant injuries.

Best Cross-training For Injured Runners

Cross-training can be a lifesaver for injured runners. Depending on the severity of the injury, you may find yourself bedridden for weeks or even months with no opportunity to train regularly like you usually do. That can be a problem, not only for your body and its performance but also in terms of your mental and emotional health.

This kind of scenario is probably the best use of cross-training, as it allows you to maintain your health and performance levels as your injured leg(s) recover.

Here are a few of the best cross-training methods for injured runners:

  • Walking: Depending on how badly you’ve injured yourself, at some point, walking might be the only physical activity that you can do. That’s alright, it’s nothing to be ashamed about!
  • For an injured runner, the simple act of walking is essential to their overall recovery. It’ll help circulate blood and nutrients to all of your muscles and help speed up recovery. Just make sure not to push yourself too hard, too soon!
  • Swimming: If you have access to a pool, swimming is also an excellent option. Not only can you keep yourself active, but swimming can also be your high-intensity cardio exercise to keep your stamina high while you’re unable to run.
  • Yoga: Yoga won’t challenge your body from a cardiovascular standpoint, but it can be useful for strength and flexibility. Plus, many people also enjoy positive mental health benefits from yoga practices.
  • Cycling: Suppose you’re back on your feet and can move around pretty well. If you’re not yet ready for the high-impact that comes with running, you can use cycling as another cross-training form.
  • Cycling ticks many of the essential boxes for a recovering runner. You can push yourself to high intensities and challenge your heart and lungs, and you’ll also protect the muscles and joints of your leg from any heavy impact.

References

https://www.runnersworld.com/training/a20827090/16-cross-training-activities-to-try/#:~:text=Typically%2C%20athletes%20want%20to%20do,%2C%20into%20strength%2Dtraining%20workouts.

https://www.outsideonline.com/2402061/cross-training-runners

https://www.active.com/running/articles/7-cross-training-exercises-for-runners

Coach Scott is a published author and RRCA certified running coach (Level 2). He has published over 20 books including, Beginner's Guide to Half Marathons: A Simple Step-By-Step Solution to Get You to the Finish Line in 12 Weeks! (Beginner To Finisher Book 3), which has become an Amazon International #1 bestseller. Scott specializes in helping new runners become injury-free race finishers. He recently completed his 14th half marathon race. 

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What Is Cross-Training For Runners?
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