Cross-train the Right Way

Cross-training can get a bad rap among runners. For a lot of us, the only time we’re on an exercise bike or in the pool is when we’re injured. So we start to associate those exercises with all kinds of negative thoughts and feelings. The truth, of course, is that mixing up your exercise routine can help you avoid injuries and make you a better runner at the same time.


But not all cross-training activities are created equal, so it’s important to know what you’re trying to accomplish in each session. Today we’ll look at three reasons to cross-train and some of the most effective exercises for each.


The first (and probably most common) reason to cross-train is injury-prevention. Each step you take while you’re running creates impact forces, which over time may lead to over-training or injury. The goal of cross-training in this case is to keep or increase your aerobic fitness while reducing the accumulation of impact forces. So instead of increasing your mileage, you add additional cross-training sessions to your routine.


Since you’re trying to replace running, it’s important that the activity is similar to running — the best examples being deep-water running and the elliptical machine. Elliptical machines, however, may put your hips in an unnatural position and can result in more injuries. For that reason, I recommend deep-water running. It’s a no-impact exercise that closely mimics the running motion. Since the muscular demands are significantly less, however, it can be beneficial to include low-weight, lower-body exercises in a deep-water running session (example: body squats, lunges, and calf raises in the middle or at the end of the session).


The second reason to cross-train is for recovery. If you are not injury-prone or are already running high-mileage, you can use cross-training for supplemental recovery without adding impact forces. In this case you’re not as concerned about maintaining aerobic fitness, so it’s a great time to do activities that are not focused on running-specific muscles. For example, you may find that swimming is a more effective way to recover than the elliptical because it doesn’t put any additional stress on the muscles used for running. The exercise bike can be effective as well if the resistance is kept low and the cadence relatively high.


The third reason to incorporate cross-training into your routine is for active recovery. In this case I’m speaking specifically of a break between seasons. Instead of taking a week or two completely off, you can maintain fitness and recover more effectively by doing some form of athletic activity every other day. In this case, having fun is probably the most important aspect, so pick whatever activity you enjoy the most!


Hopefully incorporating some cross-training in your program before you are hurt will let you feel better and run faster — and have a better opinion of those machines in the gym!