A Guide to Effective Cross-training for Runners

Six Best Types of Cross-Training for Runners

If you examine any training plan, it is full of jargon: tempo run, long run, cross-training, and so on. But not every plan defines these workouts in the same way. For the Hansons Marathon Method, tempo runs are continuous runs at marathon goal pace; while Jack Daniels defines tempo runs as 20-40 minute efforts at hour-race pace. If a run can have so many different interpretations, then the vague term “cross-training” can be even more open to interpretation. What exactly is cross-training for runners?

What is Cross-Training?

Some coaches and athletes interpret cross-training as anything not running. Strength training is cross-training, injury prevention exercises are cross-training, and any exercise other than running is cross-training. 

However, that generalized definition neglects some important aspects of training. Some non-running workouts are non-negotiable, such as strength training. Even though strength training is not running, it should be part of every runner’s training plan. Strength training is crucial for overall health and essential for improving your speed and reducing your injury risk as a runner. Injury prevention work is a non-negotiable in any sound training plan. 

Meanwhile, exercises such as yoga, Pilates, weight lifting, and bodyweight strength training should properly be categorized as supplemental exercises. They cannot replicate the cardiorespiratory gains of running. However, they should be a part of your training as they will help you become a better runner by strengthening muscles, improving flexibility and mobility, and injury-proofing your body.

Cross-training and supplemental training are defined in relation to the sport, so they will be different for runners than they are for triathletes, tennis players, or gymnasts.  For runners, cross-training is an exercise that improves your cardiorespiratory system and specifically mimics the movements of running. Cross-training will provide an aerobic workout, but with less stress on the musculoskeletal system than running.

For example, the elliptical, cycling, and hiking all rely on aerobic metabolism for energy production, all move throughout the sagittal plane, and all use the leg muscles as the primary movers. Of course, there are exceptions: swimming is not highly specific to the form of running, yet it provides a great cardio workout. Yoga, on the other hand, doesn’t provide a cardiovascular workout and cannot count as specific cross-training (here’s how you can incorporate yoga into your running plan). 

How to Cross-Train for Running?

Essentially, running-specific cross-training consists of exercises you could do to maintain your endurance and running-specific fitness. 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 need to recover from a race. For a runner returning from injury, cross-training can add volume and serve as a substitute for hard running workouts (think intervals on the bike instead of the track) during the base building phase. 

A final note: if you are including regular speed intervals, tempo runs, and long runs into your weekly schedule, be mindful that you keep your cross-training easy. Even if it is not running, a majority of your training should be at an easy intensity. You can use the RPE scale to gauge intensity in cross-training workouts.

(As a note: do not feel pressured to add in cross-training during your post-race recovery, injury recovery, or training. Some runners love cross-training while others do not, and ultimately it comes down to what works for your body, your schedule, and your personal preferences.)

Six Effective Cross-training Workouts for Runners

So what counts as cross-training for runners? In no particular order, here are the six best types of cross-training for runners. You can do these while injured or recovering, or in addition to your running.

1. Hiking

If you want a serious endurance workout with a lower impact on the musculoskeletal system, look no further than hiking. Hiking as cross-training for running can benefit long-distance runners by adding long durations of time at easy-to-moderate intensities into their training. Trail runners can especially benefit from hiking, as it adds in race-specific volume. 

Whether on a mountain or gentle incline, hiking works all the muscles in your legs, feet, core, and glutes, just like running. Climbing up steep hills strengthens your glutes and teaches you how to activate them. The descent prepares your joints for the jostle of downhill running, which can irritate many runners’ knees. The lateral movements and stabilization required in hiking train muscles and movement patterns that normal road running neglects. 

In winter, an alternative to hiking is snowshoeing! Snowshoeing provides a similar workout to hiking, with added resistance due to snow.

2. Swimming

Swimming may not be highly specific to the neuromuscular patterns of running. However, there are scenarios in which swimming as cross-training for running is optimal. For example, swimming may be one of the few modes of aerobic exercise a runner can do with a stress fracture. Triathletes frequently include swimming in addition to running and cycling in their training plans.

New to swimming? Check out my injured runner’s guide to swimming

3. Elliptical/Ellipti-Go

The elliptical (or arc-trainer) facilitates a low-impact movement that is biomechanically similar to that of running. It’s easier than running but will maintain your fitness during injury. The primary complaint about the elliptical is that it is inside a gym and therefore boring. An enjoyable podcast can provide entertainment or, if you have the resources, you can use an Ellipti-go outdoors. Whether you opt for the gym or outdoor version, try one of these elliptical workouts for runners to add variety and build fitness. 

4. Cycling/Spinning

Cycling as cross-training for running is a popular option amongst many runners. The Peloton has made indoor cycling more popular than ever. Outdoor cycling provides a challenging workout and allows you to see more scenery than you would with running. You can use a road bike, gravel bike, or mountain bike as cross-training for running.

Cycling/spinning provides a serious cardio workout with very little weight-bearingPedaling can help you improve the cadence of your running. You can adapt almost any fartlek-style run or tempo run as a workout on the bike. 

5. Pool Running

The movements of pool running (also called aqua jogging) are almost identical to those of overground running, but with one significant difference: it is not weight-bearing. Deepwater pool running (where your feet do not touch the bottom) can be done during almost any injury, even most stress fractures. (Just always check with your PT or doctor first.)

Six Best Forms of Cross-training for Runners

While pool running, you want to do a workout almost every time. Hard workouts allow you to break up the monotony of the pool and maintain a higher heart rate. Try one of these pool running workouts

6. Cross-Country Skiing

Are you unable to run from November to March because of snow and ice everywhere? Cross-country skiing is a hard cardio workout that closely mimics the movements of running, while also adding a more challenging element of working your upper body. If you can’t run but can bear weight, it’s one of the best ways to maintain your running fitness in winter

How to Incorporate Cross-training for Running into Your Training Plan

There is no universal way to include cross-training in your running plan. Some runners do not cross-train; some cross-train multiple times per week. Very advanced runners may cross-train as a second workout each day.

The decision of how often to cross-train depends on:

  • Individual preference
  • Schedule
  • Injury risk/background
  • Level of experience

Sample Cross-Training Plans:

  • Injury-prone runner: three days run, two days cross-train, two days rest
  • Outdoors enthusiast: four to five days run, one to two days outdoor bike or hike, one day rest
  • Advanced marathoner: five to six days run, one to three days bike (some as double workouts) one day rest
  • Triathlete: three days run, two to three days bike, one day swim, one day rest (some days as brick sessions)

Are Running Shoes Good for Cross-training?

Can you use running shoes for cross-training workouts? It depends on the type of cross-training.

When you hike, you will want shoes that provide traction and stability. If you have a pair of trail running shoes, those can work for hikes. You can also wear hiking boots to hike, especially if you are concerned about ticks or snakes. Cross-country skiing also requires special boots that clip into the skis.

You can wear running shoes to cycle. Most indoor bikes have special shoes, but will work just fine with running shoes. However, if you are biking outdoors, you may want to consider a pair of cycling shoes. Cycling shoes provide more platform and better grip on the pedals. Many cycling shoes can clip into the pedals, which provides better security and allows you to work more muscles on the “pull” portion of the pedal stroke.

For the elliptical, you can use running shoes. Unlike some of the other forms of cross-training, the elliptical does not require any special gear (except access to the machine).

Do I Have to Include Cross-training for Running?

If you do not like to cross-train, it is not obligatory in a training plan. If you are able to run injury-free, aerobic cross-training is not necessary. However, if you struggle with injuries, it may be worth finding a form of cross-training that you enjoy.

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8 Responses

  1. When I hit the gym, I usually incorporate the elliptical, stepmill or arc trainer. If it’s outside, cycling during the summer, hiking year round and snowshoeing during the winter. I’d love to pick up skate skiing but we don’t have the snow and groomed trails in town. I’d have to go at least 45 minutes. Maybe eventually.

  2. I used to cycle a lot. One year I hit 6,000 miles and did at least one century ride each month. Then I turned my focus back to running and my bike gathers dust (though I keep thinking about getting started again). I do hike occasionally or just walk (which in my neighborhood is kind of like an easy hike).

  3. Love my swim days! I tried water running when I was injured but didn’t really find it satisfying. thanks for the suggestions. I enjoy all the cross-training.

  4. I’m not a fan of swimming or the elliptical, but I love cycling (even in the trainer) and XC skiing! Pool running is a good backup plan too.

  5. I was never one to include cross-training into my training schedule until I was injured. Once I was fully recovered, for some reason I always ditched the cross-training and dived right back into the running. I’ve certainly learnt the lesson and done the time now for realising that cross-training should be apart of your training year-round, not just when we’re injured – the same applying for as you call supplemental exercises such as weight-lifting.

    The lessons we learn along the way are so valuable, I wonder why many of refuse to listen to ourself and do exactly the same thing again? … surprise, ending up injured once again.

  6. I tend to go for a hike, jump on my exercise or go for a fast walk. I try to make sure the walk gets my heart jumping a little, aiming for 8/8:30 mins per km.

    Ian Sharman has said on the Science of Ultra podcast how much he uses hiking to cross-training.

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