For most of my career, I used cross training as a way to supplement or even replace running, during times when I could not sustain my usual run mileage. There were various reasons that I had to reduce or eliminate running from my training schedule and the most common of these reasons was for injury, during the late stages of my pregnancies and postpartum, or when I couldn’t find my running shoes. I am kidding about the shoes, but my point is, that I used cross training somewhat reluctantly for the most part, and as a last resort activity, when I could not run train.
After I discovered triathlon and duathlon and started competing professionally in these sports as well, cross training in biking and swimming became part of my training regime, and allowed me to train with more volume without getting injured, gave me strength, and I set my fastest times in road running and track, off a very strong, and periodized running and cycling program. Swimming was very good for my over all strength as well as being an excellent low impact form of recovery.
Cross training can be viewed in several ways. It is either an alternative to your primary activity when you can’t do that (pool running when you have plantar fasciitis for instance), is a supplement to your primary activity to reduce the chances of overuse injuries (as cycling is for me), or closely linked to this supplementary aspect, cross training is a way to improve overall performance in sport by utilizing other movements and energy systems.
Cross training activities for runners and fitness walkers, can include elliptical trainers, pool (water) running, swimming, hiking, cycling, cross country skiing, in line skating and strength training.
My current view as a coach is that some form of cross training is highly beneficial for most age group athletes, especially those over the age of 40, and instead of becoming a last resort activity to stop you from going bonkers when you get injured, should be incorporated as part of your training year round, with particular emphasis on this activity for parts of the year. Focussing on training movements in something other than your primary sport is good for you: it gives your body a break from the repetitive actions of your favourite sport which may promote longevity in that sport, and it allows you to work on perfecting another activity and become more efficient at it. Just as you get good at running by running 4-5 times a week, if you focus on riding a bike for a similar amount of time, your skill and ability will improve in that sport and you will be able to get more out of it. It’s a great emotional and mental break to allow yourself to fine tune another skill as well, as well as the satisfaction of mastering a new challenge.
A few notes about cross training activities:
Biking is an excellent cross-training method for cardiovascular fitness and leg strength and has a similar workout feel to running, with a higher recruitment of muscle fibres. Cycling can be done indoors with your bike on a stationary trainer, on a spin bike at the gym, or through a spin class. Due to the high intensity interval (sweat and burn) nature to spin classes, I don’t advocate these sorts of classes during your regular training, as they leave you feeling ‘destroyed’ on what should be more of a recovery day and depending on the coach, form and technique can be an afterthought. Cycling as cross training should be done on a bike that fits well, and there should be a period during the training where you focus on good form - single leg drills, high cadence spin with efficiency for example --and generally, very aerobic riding with a good spin cadence (over 90 RPM) is optimal.
There are two ways you can implement cycling into your program - as a low impact supplement to running, you can just 'spin' (high cadence and easy) as a rest and recovery workout, or you can find times of the year to train like a cyclist. That is, perform short and long bike intervals, hill repeats, sprints, tempo rides, and long base rides up to 4 hours. This would be the sort of training you would periodize into the year, simply because you love riding or you know that riding improves your strength, and it’s a nice break to let one type of training take a back seat.
If you do ride, please wear a helmet, a light at night, ride safely and defensively, and obey the laws of the road. Most accidents are preventable incidents. Always use common sense, be alert and take no chances with cars (impact with a car, no matter who is at fault, leaves the cyclist at greater risk for injury).
I have covered a lot of kilometres pool running over the course of my career, and found it to be one of the best ways to maintain run fitness and feel when getting over injuries and while pregnant. Pool running or water running is a good cross training activity for running and walking, as it mimics the style and action of your form, but is non-pounding, and is good for most injuries - like sprained ankles, bad knees, achilles, plantar problems. It is excellent for pregnant athlete as the feeling of weightlessness and the hydrostatic pressure feel good on the body.
Pool running also works as a strength drill, as resistance in the water helps build your strength, and running specific muscles. Pool running is a favourite of runners because it closely mimics the action of running without the pounding, is safe, and you can replicate intervals and workouts well. Most runners come back from pool running to land running very strong. Pool running is highly recommended for injury prone runners who like to train every day: substituting pool running minutes for land running minutes is a good way to reduce overuse injuries due to repetitive running.
A note about form in pool running. Start with a pool running belt just to ensure your form is good, and stick with an upright posture, driving the knees up and down piston style, more than slowly pulling them through the water. Use your arms as you would with running. This short video demonstrates the pool running technique well.
These low impact trainers are found at the gym, and, after a period of adaptation, can be used to easily replicate run and walk training. You may need 3-6 sessions on the elliptical in order to feel comfortable enough to feel like you are training, and if you find you like the elliptical it can be an awesome way to cross train. I love the new trainers too -- you can hike all over the world using the video displays!
And finally, strength training will be the most valuable cross training that you can do. I feel so passionate about the benefits of strength training for age group runners (and especially masters), that I have started my own strength training educational path so that I can develop a simple program for runners and walkers.
For people currently in the RunSport clinics you have probably been introduced to the hard style version of the regular plank, a movement I introduced this year to help people connect to their core strength and how it relates to their strong posture. The plank is considered a bodyweight strength movement. It doesn’t require any equipment, needs a space only as long as your body, and like most body weight movements, the risks of injury are minimal.
The hardstyle plank, where you are tensing all the muscles in your body for 10-20 seconds as you hold the position, improves your balance, flexibility, mobility, and strength. Not only are you building strength for running, but the stability will improve your strength for all your daily activities (lifting a vacuum cleaner, taking groceries out of the car).
From the elbows down plank, you can progress to arms straight, one arm, one leg, and then opposite arm and leg up.
Strength training for runners has two purposes: it can focus on the specific needs of an athlete with biomechanical imbalances to help overcome or prevent injuries, which promotes more consistent training and hence, improvement. Strength training done as a compound, multi- joint movement, like deadlifts, single leg deadlifts or kettlebell swings (not your standard gym machine stuff, where you are just sitting down and isolating one muscle group) will promote a balanced and strong body for improved performance. Performed correctly, barbells and kettlebells used for lifts and pushes or ballistic training, requires you to brace the core strongly and this results in a strong posterior chain - your back, glutes and hamstrings, which is a huge benefit for runners.
While runners often gravitate towards squats, squats are a fairly complex movement that can put extra strain on a runner’s tired body, especially the knees. The deadlift teaches us how to hinge at the hips correctly, and increases strength for the action of running. Matt Pearce talks about the benefits of deadlifting for runners here in this Training Peaks article. Like the plank, deadlifting will also make you bulletproof for lifting boxes on moving day.
I encourage runners and walkers to find a strength and conditioning expert when starting a strength program. Someone who is knowledgeable of the Functional Movement Screen testing (FMS), which is the observation and testing of 7 basic movements in order to assess strengths and weakness, and who can help you find a simple but effective routine that works for you.
A good strength program can be fit into a 30 minute window 2-3 times a week, and the payoff with a strong posterior chain and great mobility will be noticable. Not to be confused with Olympic lifting, or weightlifting, proper strength training for runners will not cause you to gain weight, compromise your cardio training or be mistaken for Hulk Hogan. Your muscles will become stronger and denser, your mobility will improve, and your posture and stamina will create a strong platform for your endurance training.