Cross Training for Runners

Strength & Cross Training Advice
Cross Training for Runners

What is Cross Training?

Cross-training means incorporating one or more different physical activities into your schedule, that are different from your main training activity. If running is your main activity, you may benefit from low-impact disciplines such as swimming, cycling, rowing or strength training, to name a few.

The idea is to give your body a break from the specific challenges of running, while still maintaining fitness. Cross training is also a great way to strengthen the muscle groups that either don't get a workout when running or are subject to fatigue in distance running. This helps ensure that your body is fit, strong and well balanced – the latter being very important in preventing injury and the development of weaknesses as you get older.

A full-body strength-training session shares similarities with circuit training, but tends to focus a little more on muscle building and less on speed and twitch muscles. However, both aim to work on core strength, and develop a strong physique.

A gym is the perfect place for cross training as the tools you need are on hand, but with a little ingenuity you can also cross-train at home. Body-weight exercise is a perfect place to start for beginners. Over time you can add more resistance to your training by using resistance bands or filled water bottles for some additional weight.

Is Cross Training Good for Running?

Cross training can almost be seen as a cheat's way to a faster 10k. Instead of basing all your training on pounding the streets (though you still have to do quite a lot of that!), by working and strengthening different muscle groups you'll find that you fatigue more slowly and your speed will improve faster.

Cycling, swimming and rowing can help maintain cardiovascular fitness, but bear in mind that strength training won't particularly benefit lung capacity. If you include some treadmill sprints in your scehdule that will help, but ideally you'll need to incorporate some speed sessions as well, to stop getting puffed out as you sprint for the finish line. 

Benefits of Cross Training for Runners

  • Reduces impact but still engages muscles and joints in movement. Your knees will be thankful for a rest from ‘pavement pounding’.
  • Improves speed: strengthening your muscles will result in activating more muscle fibres during a run. Stronger means faster, higher, and longer.
  • Improves body resilience and helps prevent injury.
  • Increases upper body strength. Remember, when you run, you’re using your whole body, not only your legs.
  • Brings fun and diversity to your workout routine! 
  • Improves the balance of your muscles, making the body stronger as a whole and thereby reducing the risk of injury.
  • If you already have a running-related injury you may be able to continue to train safely and maintain fitness, provided the other activity does not strain the affected area.

Do I Really Have to Cross Train?

It sounds like a lot of work, but it's not really. You just need to do a little of everything to reap big benefits. The key is variety – just as it's not great to eat the same thing every day, our body needs different movements to keep it healthy. If you can manage one cross training session a week, two or three runs, and throw in a speed session as part of one of those runs, you will see big improvements in your fitness and capacity. Obviously you can do more, but this is a good foundation.

Plank Exercise

Full-Body Strength Training Programme for Runners

Increase or decrease reps according to your capacity

  • Warm up: start with a 5 to 10 minute bike, run or rower at an easy pace
  • Leg lunges: step one leg forward and bend your knees until the back knee is almost touching the floor, push back up with your glutes (bum muscles), repeat changing legs. 10x reps each leg.
  • Butterfly wings: lying on a bench or floor, lift weights straight above your chest and open arms out to the side, keeping arms slightly bent. 15x reps.
  • Step up: onto a bench (or chair) powering with your glutes. Count how many you can do in a minute, changing the lead leg half way.
  • Plank: lie face down, with your hands clasped as if in prayer, now push up so your forearms and toes are on the floor, keep your body straight – not sagging in the middle! Hold for a minute, or as close to as you can!
  • Sprint: flat out for one minute, or sprint on the spot if you’re indoors
  • Rest: take a few minutes to stretch and catch your breath, and drink!
  • Arm and core: standing feet hip width apart, hold weights at your side, half bend as if going to sit on a chair, then turning palms to face ceiling, stand up, bringing hands to your shoulders. From here turn palms to face the mirror and lift elbows out to the side (arm at right angles), then straighten arms up above your head. Then reverse to starting position. 10x reps.
  • Single leg squats: balance back foot on medicine ball or chair, with back leg as straight as you can, hands on hips, squat front leg, keeping hips aligned and stomach firm. 10x reps each leg.
  • Rowing: stand as though half way between sitting on a chair and standing – like a stationary skier – back straight, hold weights in right-angle bent arms, palms facing, now pull back so hands are at waist, squeezing shoulder blades back. 15x reps.
  • Stomach: lie on the floor with legs and feet pointing to the ceiling. Anchor yourself by holding onto a table leg behind your head, or grip an obliging person's ankles (arms should not be straight, but bent). Slowly lower your straight legs as far down as you can without straining lower back, repeat 10 times. Then push your feet up as though to tap the ceiling, lifting your hips slightly off the ground, repeat 10 times fast.
  • Sprint: flat out for 1 minute
  • End: with gentle stretching

More Gym-Based Cross Training Methods

Indoor Rowing

Like running, rowing can improve cardiovascular fitness. Some of the muscle groups which are used in running are also used when rowing. Of course, rowing uses the arms and torso more than running does.

Indoor rowing machines can be programmed with workouts which are specifically geared towards improving different running distances, from sprinting to ultra-distance running. As with endurance running, rowing at relatively high intensity can promote mental toughness, giving you the ability to keep going when tired. It can also help you to create a greater tolerance to lactic acid build-up. Being a non-impact activity, rowing can be very useful if you are recovering from an impact-related running injury. You may still be in a position to maintain and develop your level of fitness.

If you are interested in rowing as a form of cross-training, be sure to adopt a good technique at the outset, pushing with your legs, pulling with your arms, all the time having a straight back. Ask a Personal Trainer at the gym to demonstrate a good technique and to check your posture as you row. Try not to overtrain on the rower. Enthusiasm is a very good thing, but be wary of doing too much too soon – build up steadily and gradually.

Indoor Cycling

As with rowing, cycling is a great way to raise your heart rate, and thereby increase your cardiovascular fitness. Being another non-impact activity, cycling can help you to continue to train if you are beset with an injury. Interval sessions, where you mix it up so that you cycle hard then cycle easy at regular intervals, can train you in a way which is similar to uphill running, but without the impact.

Cycling chiefly uses the quadriceps. Stronger quads can benefit your knees, providing greater support for them, and more balance can be created between the front and back muscles of the legs, bringing about greater stability. Overall, risk of a running-related injury can be reduced.

Gyms will usually have different types of cycles, for example the upright cycle and recumbent cycle. You might find one more comfortable than the other. You can also set the cycles to different levels of resistance, should you wish an easier or harder session, or mix it up with intervals, pedalling faster and slower repeatedly. A good motivator would be to take part in a spin class.

More Cross-Training Options:

Benefits of Swimming for RunnersWeight Training for Runners / Circuit Training for Runners

Indoor Cycling

Benefits of a Personal Trainer

If you belong to a gym, book one session with a trainer and they'll be able to give you a routine of exercises tailored to your level and needs. A PT can assess your current level of fitness and draw up a plan, taking into account your personal goals and the time you have to devote yourself to them. In this way you can also feel safe in the knowledge that the programme is designed to stretch you but not overstretch you.

Ideally you'd book another session every month or two for variety and to tweak things as you get stronger. If this isn't an option, then choose from some of the exercises in the Full-Body Strength Training Programme above. Start with light weights and small repetitions and building up as you get stronger, remember to keep mixing it up so that you do a variety of exercises.

You can also book a personal trainer for an occasional workout – gyms like Nordic Balance will organise a trainer to come to you or a nearby park, and suggest a programme. Remember, listen to your body! If something doesn't feel right, or puts a strain on your back, etc. then either adjust the exercise or choose another, and build up slowly. Alternate areas of exercise, so do one for your arms, then one for your legs, and so on.

How to Get the Most Out of Cross Training

Concentrating on the movements you are doing is vital, when using weights or doing reps. If you are careless with your posture you can do more harm than good. Try to do the exercises in front of a mirror and watch that when you bend your knees they keep above your feet – not leaning to either side – and with lunges that your knee never extends forward of your feet.

Try to keep your hips aligned, don't let one drop down (especially when doing balance work), and always remember your tummy! Follow the Pilates method of keeping your hips in 'neutral', this means holding your stomach muscles in as much as you would to do up the zip of your jeans, and when doing upper body exercises keep your knees bent a fraction to take any stress off your lower back.

Check out Circuit Training for Runners for videos of exercises.

Cross Training for a Marathon

For longer distance running you want to be more focused on building up stamina – so the ability to run longer without fatigue. Trying to enlarge your muscles might not be greatly beneficial in this case.

During your weight training, aim for more repetitions of a lower weight. (4 x 15 reps with a lighter load instead of 2 x 4 reps with a heavy load). That helps to activate more of the muscle fibres that are designed to keep you going for longer.

Remember that cross-training is not only weightlifting! Incorporating cycling, swimming, rowing, Nordic walking or climbing is so beneficial for your training routine, and you can still improve your cardio during fast cycling, swimming or rowing. It reduces the impact but still activates muscles in your body, brings fun and makes you stronger.

Home Workout Equipment

Fitness-Mad Pro Hand Weight With Strap 0.5Kg
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Fitness-Mad Warrior Yoga Mat II 4mm
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Fitness-Mad Squat Bands Set of 3
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Thera-Band Resistance Band
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Thera-Band Resistance Band
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Thera-Band Resistance Band
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Resistance Bands, Mini-Power Loop Set
Muscle Recovery & Strengthening

Fitness-Mad Fitness Dice Pair
Running Accessories

These are exercises that we've found very useful and want to share with our customers. But we're not certified instructors. Always consult your specialist before beginning any exercise programme. This general information is not intended to diagnose any medical condition or to replace your healthcare professional. Consult with your healthcare professional to design an appropriate exercise prescription. If you experience any pain or difficulty with these exercises, stop and consult your healthcare provider.

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