Cross Training for Runners: A Doctor's Advice to Prevent Injuries

Can cross training for runners really make a difference? 

Michael Cavanah has helped a lot of runners improve performance, speed recovery and prevent injuries.

He's also a physical therapist and multi-sport athlete. 

Wondering if cross training for runners works? Here's his take on mixing things up...

Are you running yourself into the ground?

Running, like many other sports, requires consistency and effort to improve.

A typical running program consists of different types of workouts including:

  • Intervals
  • Speed work
  • Long runs, and...
  • Recovery runs

Not many address the benefit and need for cross-training. 

And that's a problem...

"Running is a high impact sport that places tremendous amount of pressure on the body’s joints and muscles resulting in a high incidence of injuries."

—Dr. Michael Cavanah

The bad news: Many runners never reach their goal due to setbacks from overuse injuries.

The good news: Cross training for runners can provide substantial gains in running performance and significantly lower injury risk. This approach provides consistency in training and a better chance at achieving your initial running goals!

Cycling and swimming are two highly-effective forms of cross training for runners.

Let's take a closer look at both...

Dr. Michael Cavanah is a physical therapist and Ironman triathlete.

Can cycling improve running performance?

Cycling stresses the quadriceps, calves, hamstrings, and gluteal muscles while requiring core stabilization to maintain proper posture.

The pedal stroke involved during cycling has two stages, the down and up stage.

  • The quadriceps are the primary drivers in the down stroke, activating from the 12 o’clock to the 6 o’clock position. 
  • The hamstrings are most active from the 6 o’clock to the 9 o’clock position which reduces the load on the knee at full extension and results in increased power and endurance during the exercise.
  •  Both the quadriceps and hamstrings are key muscles used for running. 

The benefits: Mixing in cycling with your running program will improve your lower body strength and power to get up that big hill or pass that athlete in front of you.

Pedal power to boost VO2 max

Like running, cycling is an endurance sport meaning that the majority of training sessions hinge on the athlete’s aerobic capacity.

The gold standard for measuring aerobic fitness in the VO2 max. 

  • An athlete’s VO2 max is the maximal amount of oxygen that his/her body can utilize during exercise. 
  • Therefore, the greater the VO2 max, the more efficient the heart, resulting in increased blood pumped per beat and a lower heart rate during exercise. 

So to be a faster runner, you need to have the greatest aerobic capacity possible to improve the heart’s capacity to deliver oxygenated blood to the extremities and prevent fatigue early on in the race. Cycling can help you improve VO2 max.

The low-impact benefit of cycling for runners

While cycling is demanding on the body’s aerobic system, it is relatively easy on the joints due to the fact that there is no impact with the ground. 

The motion provided by cycling also increases the blood flow to the:

  • Quadriceps
  • Hamstrings
  • Calves
  • Glutes

After a long run, add some cycling to your training schedule. Why?

Cycling flushes out lactic acid after a long run and helps speed recovery. This allows for increased duration and frequency of workouts which in turn yields greater improvements in lower body strength and aerobic capacity!

"Swimming is completely non-weight bearing, making it the perfect complement to any running program." -Dr. Michael Cavanah

Can swimming improve running performance?

Swimming is extremely beneficial to running, because it encompasses whole body movements. 

Swimming helps:

  • Strengthen muscles used while not running
  • Alleviate muscular imbalances
  • Protect runners from overuse injuries
  • Improve upper body strength and arm swing for running
  • Prevents overuse of the upper trapezius muscles, which can lead to headaches and neck pain after long runs. 

Recruit the glutes to improve your kick

Did you know the glutes are the driving muscles during the kick of freestyle swimming?

It's similar to how the glutes drive the legs while running. But there's a big difference...

Because water is 800% more dense than air, it provides the perfect environment to strengthen your legs.

  • Training aids like a kickboard and fins can help focus the training session to the lower extremities and yield considerable improvement in running power.

Swim to improve core strength & running performance

Like running and cycling, swimming requires excellent core stabilization. Why?

  • Core strength helps you maintain position in the water and transfer power to the upper and lower extremities throughout the stroke. 

Core stability also plays a major role in improving proprioception...knowing the body’s position in space.

  • Having adequate core stability allows swimmers to coordinate the proper sequence of arm and contralateral leg movement required to produce a powerful stroke. 
  • The benefit from improved core stabilization provided through swimming parallels to running by providing a stable base to drive the legs forward.

The non-weight bearing advantage of swimming for runners

Swimming is completely non-weight bearing, making it the perfect complement to any running program. 

  • The buoyancy of the water counteracts the effects of gravity.
  • Swimming decreases pressure on the weight-bearing joints and stress on the muscles. 
  • Swimming also aids in flushing out lactic acid developed during exercise. It's a perfect activity to add in after a long run or a hard interval workout.

Swim, breathe, run...

Swimming requires staccato breathing and intervals of holding breath, and it's great for runners...

  • This forces your body to work with the oxygen that it has
  • It leads to improvement in aerobic efficiency and capacity and breathing control
  • The ability to control your breathing improves running economy and can ultimately lead to a decreased heart rate during exercise resulting in decreased fatigue!
Physical therapist Dr. Michael Cavanah runs, bikes, swims and trains near Clemson, S.C.

Cross training for runners: What's the right mix?

The answer: It depends on a variety of factors like:

  • Experience/background
  • Current fitness level
  • Intensity/frequency of training

If you are just beginning your running journey, I highly recommend alternating running days with cross training. Why?

  • To prevent injuries and impact related soreness
  • Give your body time to build up strength in the lower extremities
  • Adapt to changes in training 

If you are a seasoned runner then perhaps you only need to add in cross training after your hard workouts or longer run days. 

  • Once you are a seasoned athlete, you develop the ability to listen to your body, knowing it will tell you when it needs a change in activity. 
  • As a principle, I would suggest 2 days of cross training for runners per week if you are exercising 5-6 days, to optimize your body’s ability to train each day. 

Become a better runner by cross training

Running is an excellent sport and activity that almost anyone can participate in. 

It improves our mental, emotional and physical health and provides a sense of freedom that appeals to our inner nature. 

Cross-training for runners will:

  • Reduce risk of injury
  • Strengthen complimentary muscles
  • Improve cardiovascular fitness
  • Improve consistency in training

Want to be a better runner? Consider implementing some of these activities into your training to maximize your potential and be the best version of yourself!

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Michael Cavanah
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Physical therapist and triathlete! Promoting a happy and healthy lifestyle staying involved in multiple sports.


Brynn Cunningham Michael, this is great! I love understanding the details of how cross training improves and benefits running.

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