Cross Training for Runners: 4 Workouts to Maximize Your Miles

Is cross training for runners a good way to maximize your miles?
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If you're been thinking about this, here's a real-world example to help answer the question.
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Picture this...

  • You’re in the peak weeks of your marathon training block. 
  • You’re nailing the paces in your workouts, the mileage is building, you have a solid fueling plan
  • Maybe you’ve even purchased a new pair of carbon-plated racing shoes, and you feel strong and excited for the event. 

Then, suddenly, a small pain in your foot begins to nag you during and after your runs + you have a history of plantar fasciitis, so you’re cautious to push through. 

  • Do you give up and throw in the towel on the big race you’ve spent months training for? 
  • Or do you find another way to maintain and keep building your fitness in hopes of being able to race? 

Enter cross training for runners

Defined as the practice of engaging in a complementary physical activity outside of one’s primary sport:

  • Cross training is an opportunity to get creative and explore new fitness modalities. 
  • It’s not only helpful for injured runners, but also for runners who want to increase their overall training volume and preemptively reduce risk of overuse injuries. 
  • Plus, cross-training can offer a respite from mental burnout that can come from heavy training. 

So what are the best cross training for runners workouts and options? 
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How can it benefit runners as a whole? 
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Read on for a deep dive on modalities and actionable insights for runners of all levels!

4 benefits of cross training for runners

  1. Prevent overuse injuries
  2. Increase training volume for newer runners
  3. Maintain/build fitness through injury
  4. Provide mental refreshment from running
In 2016, ElliptiGO athlete, Meb Keflezighi secured his fourth Olympic team qualification for the marathon at 40 years old–a feat he attributes to training smarter and replacing his easy miles with cross-training. (Photo credit elliptigo.com)

Cross training for runners: You've got options

Maybe you’ve heard the media buzz about collegiate runner, Parker Valby , breaking the NCAA 5000 Meters record with only 30 miles per week and roughly 6 hours of cross-training on the Arc Trainer.
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Or perhaps you’ve heard of elite marathoner Meb Keflezighi, who won the 2014 Boston Marathon off of doubles with the ElliptiGO after hard running workouts.
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What do these phenomenal athletes have in common?
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They’ve spent years building their aerobic base and they’ve successfully implemented cross-training to boost their longevity in the sport of running!
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So how does cross-training apply to us mere mortals?
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Let’s dive in!
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Please note: While resistance training can technically be classified as cross-training, in this article, we’ll mainly focus on modalities that can emphasize the cardiovascular system. 

Pros & Cons of popular cross training modalities

ElliptiGO/Elliptical

ElliptiGO/Elliptical

Easily accessible at your local gym, an elliptical or similar machine can be a great starting place for adding in easy aerobic volume. 

  • It’s designed to target run-specific body angles with a fast cadence and (usually) a long stride length. 
  • While it’s a low-impact option, it can place extra stress on the lower leg, so consider your injury history before throwing in extra hours of elliptical work. 
Cycling

Cycling

While not everyone has the cash to throw at a brand new bike setup, used bikes aren’t too difficult to find. 

  • Cycling offers the opportunity to get outside and enjoy the scenery, which can be a welcome respite if you’re unable to run. 
  • As a low-impact activity with a fast cadence, cycling indoors or outdoors can be a viable option for most runners. 
Assault Bike (aka Airbike)

Assault Bike (aka Airbike)

The assault bike might at first seem like an unlikely ally to a runner, but considering its full-body engagement...

  • A session on the assault bike can be a highly efficient way to produce lactate in higher intensity sessions. 
  • The assault bike can be used for anything from VO2 and threshold intervals to an easy aerobic ride.
Cross Country Skiing

Cross Country Skiing

Depending on where you live and the time of year...

  • Cross country skiing offers a low-impact, run specific option for cross-training. 
Incline Hiking on the Treadmill

Incline Hiking on the Treadmill

Particularly useful for trail and ultra runners who need to be able to hike efficiently...

  • Incline hiking can be a great way to build leg strength in an easily accessible way. 
  • In contrast to hiking outside, treadmill hikes don’t require you to take as much impact from the downhill. 
  • However, incline hiking can place extra stress on the lower legs, so injury history is important to consider.
Stairmill or Stair Machine

Stairmill or Stair Machine

Similar to incline hiking, stairmill hiking is a low-impact alternative to running. 

  • However, the stairmill isolates large leg muscle groups without stressing the lower legs. 
  • One consideration is the slow cadence that hiking requires. 
  • Stairmills may not be the best choice for some road runners when used in isolation. 
  • Injured runners can maintain some leg speed and turnover when they also engage in a higher cadence cross-training activity. 
Aqua Jogging

Aqua Jogging

 Ideal for early phases of healing bone stress injuries, aqua jogging requires run-specific body angles and a faster cadence. 

  • Since it doesn’t require much gear (an aqua jogging belt and a pool) or technique, this cross-training modality is largely accessible for most runners. 
  • One tradeoff to aqua jogging lies in the weightless nature of the activity. 
  • If a runner solely relies on aqua jogging for cross-training, they may struggle to adapt to the mechanical stress of weight bearing activity later on. 
  • A transition period from weightless to weight-bearing activity is critical.  
Swimming

Swimming

 Much like aqua-jogging, swimming is another zero-impact option that can help with bone stress injuries.

  • But unlike aqua-jogging, it doesn’t require the body to move in run-specific ways. 
  • Swimming also requires good technique, so it may not be the most beginner-friendly option. 

Tips to choose the best mode of cross training for runners

So how do you decide which mode of cross-training to implement?

Here are four factors to consider:

Accessibility
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Perhaps the most important factors are enjoyability and accessibility. 

  • The best program is the one you’ll follow, so finding a cross-training option you enjoy will probably increase the likelihood of adherence. 
  • If you are dreading the activity, it’s probably not the right modality for you. 
  • In a similar vein, your cross-training modality should be easy to access. 
  • For example, if you plan to rely solely on cross-country skiing, but you live 90 minutes from a viable ski spot, the travel time alone is going to probably stand in the way of successful implementation.

Heart Rate Outcomes
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Consider the heart rate outcomes you’ll have from the cross-training activity. 

  • Adding in cross-training doesn’t necessarily mean you’re adding a ton of high intensity training. 
  • Most commonly, the cross-training modality is adding to your aerobic base rather than functioning to add in more intensity. 
  • If you’re still able to run a few days per week, most of your quality will come from those sessions. 

Run-Specificity Training
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Reflect on the run-specificity of the cross training modality. 

  • What is the cadence you’re using? 
  • What body angles do you experience during the activity? 
  • Cycling, elliptical/elliptigo, and XC skiing are some of the most popular methods used by elite runners. 
  • If you’re a trail runner, incline hiking and stairmills can be fantastic tools, but they might not have the same translation for a road runner. 

Goals
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Identify your goals with cross-training. 

  • If you’re injured and unable to run, your cross-training will look different than if you’re able to run and you want to increase your overall training volume. 

Cross Training for Runners: Frequency recommendations

How often should you be cross training?
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This question largely depends on your running volume and current goals.
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The recreational runner
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For a recreational runner purely seeking to increase their overall training volume in a low-impact, sustainable way...

  • 1-2 cross-training sessions per week can be a fabulous place to start. 
  • You can even dip your toes into doubling (training twice per day) with the addition of a cross-training session after your morning run. 
  • For example, if you have a 6-mile marathon pace workout in the morning, you could add an easy, aerobic 45 minute elliptical session to your evening. 
  • Not only will this cross-training session contribute to your aerobic base, it can also promote recovery from the harder morning session via increased blood flow.

The injured runner
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For an injured runner who can still run at least 4 times per week, but has to reduce their total running volume...

  • Cross-training sessions can be added to fill the gaps in running volume. 
  • The focus of each cross-training session will likely be easy to moderate efforts while the run volume will be primarily composed of quality (pace work, threshold, tempo, etc.)

If you're taking time off from running...
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For runners who are taking time off from running entirely, the sky is usually the limit with cross-training. 

  • Quite often, cross-training volume can increase drastically since the impact and mechanical stress of running is no longer present. 
  • The intensity of cross-training sessions will likely also increase to take the place of workouts that would otherwise be done through running. 

3 Caveats to cross training for runners

1. Consult with professionals
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If you’re injured, unable to run, and unsure about the best course of action, a physical therapist can assist in creating an actionable plan for you to maintain fitness without compromising the healing process. 

  • Hiring a running coach can also be useful if you’re able to run, but not sure how to implement cross-training to build or supplement volume.

2. Cross-training doesn’t replace the specificity of running.
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If you are successfully adapting to your weekly running volume and the addition of a cross-training regime would detract from your total run volume, now might not be the time to switch things up.
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3. Aerobic fitness gains will precede mechanical readiness. 
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Spending time cross-training will certainly build your “engine”, but that fitness might not translate immediately to running. 

  • Injured runners who have taken time off from running, but have been cross-training should be wary of doing too much running too soon even if the fitness is there. 

4 Cross Training Workouts for Runners

While cross-training volume is more commonly supplementing your easy aerobic running volume, throwing in a hard workout can be fun once in a while. 
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If you’re unable to run, your cross-training intensity will probably be higher, so give one or two of these a try! 

Stairmill Pyramids

3x12 Minute Stairmill Pyramids (51 mins)

Instructions:
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1. Each 12-minute pyramid will require you to increase the speed every 2 minutes. 
2. Take a 2-minute moving recovery between sets. 
3. The levels suggested below are just a starting point–adjust for your personal needs. 
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  • Warm-up: 15 minutes
  • Set 1: level 8, 9, 10, 9, 8. 2 mins moving recovery
  • Set 2: level 9, 10, 11, 10, 9. 2 mins moving recovery
  • Set 3: level 10, 11, 12, 11, 10. 2 mins moving recovery
Aqua-Jogging Fartlek

Aqua-Jogging Fartlek (40-48 mins)

  • 10 minute warm-up
  • 30s sprint (95-100% max HR)
  • 30s moderate (85-92% max HR, AKA tempo effort)
  • 30s sprint
  • 30s moderate
  • 30s rest
  • Repeat 12-15 rounds
Elliptical Tempo

Elliptical Tempo (60 mins)

  • Warm-up: 20 minute warmup 
  • Moderate: 5 minutes at a moderate resistance with ~90 RPM, increasing resistance every 5 minutes for 6 rounds
  • Easy: 10 minutes easy effort at low resistance
VO2 Airbike Intervals

VO2 Airbike Intervals (50 mins)

  • Warm-up: 20 minute warmup
  • 2 minutes hard
  • 2 minutes rest
  • Repeat work/rest bouts 5 times
  • 10 minutes easy

Do you cross-train?

What’s your favorite way to do so? Let us know in the comments.

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Abigail Lock
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Durango, CO
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Endurance athlete with a proclivity for mountain running and high altitude desert dwelling. NASM Certified Sports Nutriti...

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