Q&A: How can I get the most out of cross-training?

This is part of a series of posts I’m doing this spring focused on marathon training. To get these “Marathon Monday” posts in your inbox, sign-up here! 


Settle in for a long edition of Coach Carl Q&A (submit your questions here). I’m taking a deep dive into how to make cross-training more than just something to kill time when you’re injured.



“I’ve been struggling with a piriformis injury for the past few weeks. I have been resting (aka no running) since last Tuesday. Is there any alternative cardio that can keep me as in shape as possible?”
— Meagan M.



Injuries are an unfortunate reality for most runners. The trick is minimizing lost training time, and of course cross-training can play a big part in maintaining your fitness while you can’t run.


But when the goal is to stay “as in shape as possible” (and when isn’t it, right?), then you have to make sure that you’ve got a plan in place to get the most out of your work.



Maximizing your work starts with picking the best type of cross-training. Some options are more running-specific than others (remember the concept that specific stimulus produces specific adaptations) so you want something that simulates running closely.


My preferred options, in order:


1) Deep-water pool running (aquajogging) — the most running-specific option, but can also be the toughest to get access to


2) Elliptical machine — similar movements to running and good cardio stimulus, but the fixed width of the machine can cause hip problems in some runners


3) Exercise bike — uses your legs, but not in a similar way to running


4) Swimming/other cardio — can help keep up your cardio fitness but isn’t going to help with running-specific fitness


To be clear, all of these options are better than nothing. So don’t say “well, I can’t get to a pool, guess I’ll bag it.”


Even with the best options, though, you will need to make some adjustments to get the most out of your cross-training.




The first thing that you’ll have to adjust is your intensity — if you can. Part of the reason that cross-training is helpful when you’re injured is that it is less stressful than running. That might be a good thing if it means less stress on a muscle that is strained or less pounding and impact on your legs. But it also means less stress on your cardiovascular system.


So if it’s possible without irritating your injury, you want to avoid “easy” cross-training sessions when you’re trying to maintain fitness. Upping the intensity of your workout helps replace the cardiovascular benefits that running provides. Again, this is ONLY if you can increase the intensity without further irritating the injury.


I don’t think that you need to get super-specific on the intensity. I usually recommend that you mix it up so that you get a variety of stimulus.


So, after an initial warm-up of easy effort, you can add in something like:
• Sets of 1 min hard / 1 min easy
• Sets of 5 min hard / 2 min easy
• Sets of 10-20 min moderate / 5 min easy


You can pick one and do lots of sets or mix in a variety.


You can see how this would mimic some of the cardiovascular stress that you would get running — and you can even simulate different types of workouts this way, too.




The other thing that you need to keep in mind is that the muscular stress isn’t going to be the same while you’re cross-training as when you’re running. That is true even for activities that use your legs.


So, you’ll want to add some more muscular stress to compensate for that (again, assuming that this doesn’t irritate your injury). That means adding in some running-specific strength exercises in your workout. Three classics that I would recommend:

• Body-weight squats
• Forward and backward lunges
• Calf raises


You can do these exercises before and after your cross-training, or work them into your workout as part of your “rest” period.


For example, you might put together an aquajogging workout that looks like this:

• 10 min easy aquajogging
• 10x squat, 10x forward lunge, 10x backward lunge
• 4 sets of 5 min hard, 2 min easy
• 10x squat, 10x forward lunge, 10x backward lunge
• 10 min easy aquajogging
• 10x squat, 10x forward lunge, 10x backward lunge

50 min total (not including strength exercises, so call it an hour)


That’s a solid cross-training workout that is not as good as a running workout, but will still help you keep up your running-related fitness and allow you to pick back up sooner when you get back healthy and running.


About Coach Carl
Coach Carl is a USA Track & Field Level 2 endurance coach who works with runners of all ability levels to reach their goals. He has been featured in Runner’s World, Women’s Health, and Competitor and is a regular contributor to Running Times.