The Best Cross-Training Workouts for Runners

Strengthening and stretching your run-weary muscles can improve your race pace. (Image: YekoPhotoStudio/iStock/GettyImages)

What's the best way to become a stronger, faster runner? You might think the answer is just to run more. While that's part of it, the equation isn't always that simple.

Running is a repetitive, high-impact activity that poses a significant injury risk. In one study of 300 runners who logged at least five miles per week, two-thirds developed at least one injury during a two-year period, according to a 2018 study published in the American Journal of Sports Medicine.

That's why most reputable running programs will have a day or two of cross-training on the schedule. By varying your workouts, you can build up your fitness level using different movement patterns, most of which involve far less impact on your joints. Try incorporating one (or all) of these cross-training workout into your routine.

Cycling

Because you can go faster and see more, cycling provides a welcome mental break from running, says Lucas Larson, general manager and coach at Heartbreak Hill Running Company in Chicago. It's also a lower-impact way to get cardiovascular benefits similar to running. In other words, you can pedal your way to a stronger heart and lungs with less pounding on your legs.

"If you go casually, it can be a great recovery day tool," Larson says. On the flip side, runners who have joint issues can replace hard track workouts with intense efforts on the bike and still improve their speed and stamina, he says.

One caution: "If you're using a more advanced road bike, where you're clipping in and your feet are actually attached to the pedals, make sure you have a proper bike fit," Larson says. Otherwise, you can place your legs out of alignment as you ride, which causes strain and injury to your knees and ligaments.

Yoga

Working on flexibility, especially in the bigger muscles of your lower body, can go a long way to helping your body recover from your running mileage, says Geoff Tripp, a marathoner, ultramarathoner and head trainer of the fitness app Trainiac. In addition, yoga's focus on breathing and the connection between breath and movement helps you perfect your respiration during your more taxing running workouts.

Yoga for runners also doubles as a type of strength training, building up and balancing out muscles that aren't always worked evenly during the repetitive, single-direction motion of running.

Head to a class at your local studio or gym or download an app like Down Dog and take to the mat in the comfort of your own home. However you do it, dedicating one to two days per week to this type of work can pay big dividends, Tripp says.

Keep in mind, however, that many runners have tight hamstrings. Stretching beyond the point of pain can pose a risk of injury, says Denise Sauriol, a coach at Run for Change in Chicago and author of Me, You & 26.2 - Coach Denise's Guide to Get YOU to YOUR First Marathon. Don't worry if you can't stretch as deeply as the yogi next to you; bend your knees or make any other necessary modifications to keep poses from becoming too intense.

Strength Training

Long gone are the days when runners avoided the weight room, fearing they'd bulk up too much. Now, evidence strongly suggests resistance training actually helps you go the distance. One 2018 review published in Sports Medicine reports that two to three days of strength training per week improved many of the physiological capabilities that make runners faster.

In addition, strengthening your muscles also reduces your risk of a running injury by addressing imbalances and better supporting your hips, knees and ankles, Tripp says. Core work specifically — building up your back and abs — can help you maintain your running form when you're fatigued late in a run or a race, Sauriol says.

Runners can get a good strength workout with many different types of equipment, from body weight to free weights to resistance bands. Compound movements like squats, lunges and deadlifts work well for runners, Tripp says. If you don't have a gym membership or a personal trainer, you can use an app like the Nike Training Club app for guidance, Larson says.

Keep tabs on how your running is going as you add strength training. It's normal to be a little sore or tired at first, but lifting too much or not allowing enough time to recover can impair your performance in cardio or endurance activities, according to a 2017 study from Sports Medicine. If you start to feel achy or low on energy, try dialing back your strength workouts or allowing more time in between them.

Swimming

Though it's often overlooked by runners, swimming places a huge demand on your cardiovascular system, boosting your fitness with far less strain on your muscles, joints and bones, Tripp says. He sometimes puts a more intense swimming day in his athletes' training programs so they can get a good cardio workout while taking a load off their legs.

Taking your swimming day easier can help you bounce back from a long run or hard workout. The resistance of the water loosens up tight muscles and promotes recovery, Sauriol says. And being in the water can have a calming and restorative effect on your mind, too.

Can't stand swimming laps? Aqua jogging is another option. You can walk through water in the shallow end, or pick up a flotation belt and journey through the deep. Try a program like Fluid Running's H2Go — which includes a belt, waterproof headphones and an app that guides you through track-style workouts under water.

Elliptical

The movement of the elliptical machine closely mimics a running stride, minus the jarring impact of feet on pavement. For this reason, it's yet another good way for runners to work on their aerobic engine while minimizing the risk of getting hurt.

As closely as it resembles running, however, training on the elliptical can't completely replace outdoor or treadmill miles if you're preparing for an upcoming race. "Having one to two days of elliptical workouts, or to use it as an active recovery strategy or a light warm up before a run, are all great ways to integrate the elliptical into your running program," Tripp says.

Love the fluid stride of the elliptical but long for a fresh-air workout? Consider an outdoor version from companies like ElliptiGo or Streetstrider, which you can use the roads or bring inside on a trainer.

Skiing

Sailing down the slopes doesn't do all that much for your running, Tripp says. But cross-country skiing, where you're moving across snowy terrain, is a different story. A 40-minute cross-country or skate-ski workout — similar to cross-country but with shorter, stiffer skates — can pay big dividends in your fitness level.

There's also alpine touring and skimo, short for ski mountaineering, which both involve climbing uphill, then skiing down. These forms of skiing build strength and power as you make your way up the incline, Tripp says.

As with most forms of cross-training, these types of skiing can help you build a good aerobic base, Tripp says, but if you have a specific race goal, you might want to cut back on them in favor of more mileage.

Also, skiing poses a risk of more acute and traumatic injury. So if you're going to do it, take steps to stay safe, including warming up beforehand and waring safety equipment, such as goggles and a ski helmet.

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