What are the Best Cross Training Exercises for Runners?

Since being injured for the last several months, I’ve been cross training to maintain my fitness, careful to pick the best cross training exercises for runners. Why? Because I want to keep a semblance of cardiovascular fitness for when I return to running AND I want my muscles and brain to remember what it’s like to run.

Whether injured or healthy, cross training is a MUST for runners. It is one single way to get fitter and stronger, prevent injury, and avoid burnout.

cycling for runners
I’ve been using the stationary bike and elliptical to stay fit through my running injury.

When done correctly, cross-training can help runners run faster, longer, and stay healthy.

When done incorrectly, cross-training can hurt runners or be a waste of time.

I want to help you use your time wisely! So, in this cross-training for runners guide, I talk with experts about:

  • Is cross-training good for runners
  • 5 main reasons runners should cross train
  • What cross training for runners is and isn’t
  • What kind of cross-training runners should do
  • How often should a runner cross-train
  • How to get a good workout cross-training
  • How to not get bored cross-training

Is cross training good for runners?

Pin these cross-training tips for runners for later!

Yes! Cross training is good for runners. Every runner, no matter the level, should include cross training in their schedule. For beginner runners and runners returning after injury, cross training provides additional cardiovascular strengthening without taxing the body.

Here are 5 reasons why cross training is good for runners:

Cross training prevents running injuries.

Cross-training allows runners to continue to strengthen muscles while allowing the rest of the body to recover from the high impact of running.

Your cardiovascular system strengthen more quickly than your tendons, bones, and ligaments thus, cross-training allows you to further strengthen those areas while allowing the skeletal system to recover, explains Todd Buckingham, lead exercise physiologist at Mary Free Bed Hospital.

Cross training allows you to add volume.

Cross-training allows runners improve their cardiovascular fitness without the extra pounding of running.

For new runners or runners returning to running after injury (me!), this means alternating run days with cross-training days. For experienced runners, this means cross-training on recovery days or as a second workout to avoid “junk miles,” explains Stonehouse.

Cross training prevents burnout and over-training.

Most runners will run miles and miles on end, day after day. However, doing the same thing over and over will work only those specific running muscles which could lead to overuse injuries, overtraining syndrome, and mental burnout.

Mixing up your activities keeps your body and mind fresh.

Cross training strengthens other muscle groups.

cross-training for runners
Cycling is another awesome cross-training exercise for runners because it can improve running economy.

Running works the same muscles repeated in a single plane.

Doing other activities helps activate and strengthen different muscle groups, helping runners improve their power and efficiency, says Steve Stonehouse, director of education at STRIDE run coaching.

Cross training can accelerate recovery.

Doing light cross-training activities like cycling or the elliptical is often called “active recovery” which can improve blood flow to the muscles, thereby accelerating recovery time between runs.

Active recovery has also been found to reduce lactic acid buildup in muscles, remove exercise-induced metabolic waste in muscles, and reduce muscle tears and pain. (WOW!)

Anything that is low intensity and moves the body can be an active recovery exercise.

What is cross-training for runners?

So, I’m going to be a stickler here. Cross-training for runners doesn’t just include any other exercise or activity other than running. Certainly, there are many cross-training activities, but for them to be effective cross-training for runners, they must meet certain requirements.

According to certified running coach and The Mother Runners co-coach Laura Norris, cross-training for runners includes:

“Running-specific cross-training consists of exercises you could do to maintain your endurance and running-specific fitness,” explains Norris. “For injured runners, cross-training allows you to maintain your hard-earned fitness, even if you were unable to run due to injury, illness, or needing to recover from a race.”

This means that although there are exercises like yoga, strength training, or Pilates that help strengthen the body and prevent injuries, these are not considered cross-training activities for runners because they don’t directly improve running economy.

Related: Your Strength Training Guide for Runners

What are the best cross training exercises for runners?

The elliptical is a great cross-training exercise for runners

If a person’s main focus is running, cross-training activities should mimic running and the intensity should be able to be scaled to meet the purpose of the workout (whether it be active recovery or aerobic conditioning.)

The following 8 cross training exercises are the best cross-training exercises for runners to do because they are gentle on the body, mimic running (with the exception of swimming), and provide cardiovascular benefits.

The 8 Best Cross Training Exercises for Runners

  • Cycling or biking
  • Elliptical or Elliptigo
  • Swimming (its cardiovascular benefits outweigh that it doesn’t mimic the motion of running)
  • Aqua jogging (To do it, wear a flotation belt. To make it more difficult, put your arms above your head).
  • Walking
  • Snow skiing or Nordic Track
  • Roller skating or roller blading
  • Hiking

What does cross-training for runners not include?

While runners may enjoy other sports such as tennis or golf (personally, I LOVE badminton), these are not cross-training activities for runners because they do not provide a direct benefit to running.

Similarly, any activity that has quick lateral movements can be harmful to runners, warns Buckingham.

“This is because running moves in one plane of motion (forward), so doing these motions quickly or ad hoc can lead to injury,” says Buckingham, noting that in a controlled environment, these lateral movements can help strengthen neglected muscles.

Here are 9 cross-training activities that runners should avoid.

Worst cross training activities for runners:

  • Tennis
  • Golf
  • Baseball
  • Soccer
  • Basketball
  • Football
  • Lacrosse
  • Downhill Skiing
  • HIIT workouts (especially on easy or rest days)

This is not an exhaustive list. Note that HIIT workouts such as CrossFIT or Orange Theory Fitness are not directly beneficial for runners. And, if a runner does them, it should NOT be done on a rest day!

How many days a week should a runner cross-train?

Beginner runners will likely cross-train every other day as their bodies adjust to running for a total of 2 to 4 days.

Related: How to Start Running: A Complete Beginner Runner’s Guide

More experienced runners will likely cross train less as they run more. Their cross-training activities will be to help them recovery faster or give their legs a rest while they still work their cardiovascular system. Thus, more advanced runners will typically cross train 1 to 2 times per week, in place of recovery runs.

According to Stonehouse, you should cross-train when

  • You need a recovery day
  • Need extra volume
  • Are injured or sick
  • Can’t run due to extreme weather
  • Or, need active recovery.

How to get a good workout when cross-training?

Pin these cross training tips for runners for later!

Most injured runners trying to maintain fitness while on a running break know that part of what makes cross-training so difficult is that it can be hard to elevate your heart rate.

Sometimes perceived effort is not the best guide when cross-training. That is why a heart rate monitor, such as a chest strap, or fitness watch such as a Garmin or WHOOP, is an effective way to monitor actual effort.

(Save $30 off any WHOOP membership here).

Monitoring your heart rate can ensure you stay in the appropriate zones for your workouts. For example, if you are injured and trying to maintain or gain fitness, monitoring your heart rate can tell you if you are working hard enough.

The WHOOP has helped me immensely in scaling my workouts and having peace of mind that I am maintaining a level of fitness.

Get a complete guide to heart rate zone training here.

For tips on how to stay entertained while cross training, check out my treadmill tips for moms article.

9 Cross-training Tips for Runners

As you incorporate cross-training into your running schedule, keep these tips in mind:

  1. if you are runner looking to incorporate cross-training into your running schedule, look for something that you enjoy, mimics running, and is easily accessible to you.
  2. Just as you plan your runs, plan your cross-training activities. Choose the best times for you to do them so that they enhance your running workouts and performance.
  3. If you’re only doing cross-training, have them mimic your running schedule: do tempo work or one longer session a week, for example.
  4. To ensure a good workout, increase the resistance or chase hills.
  5. Listen to music, as research shows listening to music can help performance.
  6. To ensure a recovery workout, keep your heart rate in zones 2 or 3 (the fat-burning zone).
  7. Wear a heart rate monitor to know what heart rate zones you are working in.
  8. Bear in mind that for many cross-training activities to replace a running workout, duration should be about 50 percent longer, says Buckingham.
  9. BUT if you are injured for a while, don’t worry about this duration otherwise you risk burnout or another injury!

For help on how to leverage cross-training for runners, learn more about The Mother Runners coaching services.

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