7 Best Cross-Training for Runners Options
Are you trying to get faster? Add more miles weekly?
For a new runner, or a middle of the packer like me simply adding miles or speed workouts can lead to injuries and injuries are a runner’s worst enemy. Recovery from an injury can be depressing for someone trying to build miles or speed, but it also will set you back significantly (in some cases, back to ground zero). According to Nigel Stepto, associate professor in exercise physiology at Victoria University you can lose as much as half your running fitness if you don’t train for a week. If you’re out for a month, as I have when battling injuries, you’ll likely have to start building your endurance back from scratch.
So, how do you increase you aerobic base…the foundation for your running endurance without succumbing to injury? The answer is you need to add cross-training to your regimen. There are many types of cross training that will benefit runners; including strength workouts, flexibility exercises, balance exercises and lifting. However, since we want to build your endurance without risk of injury we’re going to focus on aerobic cross-training.
Cycling is one of my favorite types of cross-training, as it’s easier on the joints than running which allows you build your aerobic base without increasing your risk of injury. Cycling will also help build the muscles in your legs, most notably the quadriceps and hamstrings but it will also build the gastrocnemius and soleus calf muscles. For someone like me, who has had his fair share of calf injuries this is an added benefit.
While I prefer outdoor cycling, and the benefits of being in nature as well as the uphill and downhill portions which help different muscle groups you can get almost the same benefit from stationary cycling by using the various options such as hills, random, inclines, etc.
I’ll make a confession here, I used to hate swimming; when training for my first triathlon, I dreaded the mornings I was scheduled to hit the pool. Then, a funny thing happened and I realized what a positive impact it had on my running. Not only did it help build my aerobic base, but the upper body and core benefits translated into better running form and efficiency.
Swimming has the least impact on your joints, allows you to use most of your muscle groups and is very low impact, allowing you to build your base with much less risk of injury.
Have you ever been to the pool and wondered why the guy in the last lane isn’t swimming? Well, he may be the smart guy in pool as pool running is one of the best methods of cross training for runners. It’s low impact, lessening the risk of injury (and a great injury recovery method) but the resistance of the water makes it an even better cardiovascular exercise; in fact, it can burn up to 75% more calories than running.
However, it’s important you do it right as it’s not quite the same form as your normal running so you’ll want to stay a bit more erect than the slight forward lean when you run, have a slightly more exaggerated knee lift and more compact back kick as compared to your normal running. You can use a running belt when you start, but ultimately you’ll develop the right form and begin to see positive results.
While hiking is a weight bearing exercise, there is much less jarring on your legs than running; in addition, it will provide you with a good cardio workout and help build your endurance. If you haven’t hiked much, start out on a simple track to get acclimated to the terrain but ultimately the uneven terrain, ascents and descents will help you with your balance as well as your core strength.
A side note here on the importance of balance; when you run, your body is either airborne or supported by one foot and your balance point is continually changing and moving forward. Balance is a neuromuscular skill that triggers muscles and body alignment to keep you upright; interestingly, when you run only half your energy is used to propel you forward while the other half is expended to keep you upright. Cross training that helps your balance, allows you to focus more of your energy on moving forward.
While giving you many of the benefits of road cycling, mountain biking will also challenge your dynamic fitness more often, engaging more muscle groups. Jumping, dodging obstacles, tackling bumpy terrain as well as dynamic vertical changes engages your body in the very specific way that allows you to work on dynamic as well as isometric strength in many other muscles.
The elliptical has many benefits that can help a runner. It’s low impact, allowing you to build your stamina and endurance without the risk of injury but it’s the additional benefits I enjoy. First, you can get use both your upper and lower body providing a great whole body workout; Second, by using different inclines, resistance and pedal direction (forward or reverse) you can target different muscle groups in your legs. Finally, by releasing the handles and only using the pedals you’re able to improve your balance and core strength. Not only is the elliptical a great cross training tool, but it will help maintain your endurance and strength during recovery from injury.
John Muir said “In every walk with nature, one receives far more than he seeks” and I believe that is true when you consider adding walking to your cross-training. The benefits you see from a long, swift walk not only include increased endurance but you’ll also see that your body makes small adaptions to strengthen your feet, ankles, knees and hips which will lead to better running form.
Try adding some or all of these to your cross training schedule and you’ll see the benefits in increased endurance, strengthened muscle groups, better core strength and greater balance.
Rich Flaherty is a middle of the pack runner and triathlete, whose only real claim to fame is his daughter Bekah Brooks qualified for the Boston Marathon in her first marathon.