To Run Faster, Is There Any Benefit to Cross-Training?

imageStoried coach Jack Daniels once said, “The best way to become a better runner is through running.” This concept, that the best training to improve yourself in something is to do that thing in training, is called “training specificity” and is supported by science.

So why practice the trombone if you’re a tuba player (I’m a musician, remember)? Maybe your tuba is in the shop getting fixed so the only instrument around is the trombone. Maybe you’re so sick of the tuba, but you don’t mind the trombone and know some training, albeit not ideal for tuba-playing, is better than nothing. Maybe every time you play the tuba more than four days a week your arm gets sore, but by switching between the tuba and the trombone you can play every day. The trombone and the tuba both require lung capacity and air speed control, so while training on a trombone for tuba excellence isn’t ideal in theory, it may be ideal for you.

Similarly, what might be the ideal running training plan on paper, might not be what is ideal for you. Should you work aerobic cross-training into your training even when you’re not injured?

Because each person’s body responds differently to training and work load capacity, it is best to treat cross-training on a case by case basis. There are some very lucky runners out there who can run high mileage and stay injury-free. Others are not able to handle the strain of logging so many miles due to age, propensity for injuries, or simply a desire for variety.

41 year-old Meb Keflezighi used to exclusively train by running, but as he’s aged he admits he spends more and more training time on his ElliptiGO. In his words, “I know I have to have my body prepared to handle the pounding of the marathon. You can’t ignore that. But I also have to stay healthy. I do my main run in the morning, but then for my second workout I often would rather be on the ElliptiGO than take the risk of a 30-minute run in the afternoon.” Similarly, injury-prone 10,000 meter specialist Amy Begley’s workouts for the 2008 Olympics included the stationary bike and an underwater treadmill.

Of course, most of us recreational runners turn to cross-training when we’re injured. If for no other reason, it might be nice to work in a little cross-training into your repertoire when healthy so if you do get injured, heading to the machines at the gym or to the pool won’t be quite the shock to your system that it would otherwise be.

What are a few types of cross-training activities you, as a runner, might want to try?

Swimming

Swimming is the lowest impact activity out there. It is a good way to get in an aerobic workout while giving your body a break from the stress of running. One study found that the aerobic benefits of using swimming as cross-training were the least transferable to other sports than other forms of aerobic cross-training that were studied. Don’t let that deter you, however. Swimming does double-duty as core and upper body strength training, which our runner bodies often sorely lack.

Plus, swimming can be fun. There are many types of strokes, but anything that gets you winded and working hard is beneficial to your aerobic system and upper body and core strength. Basic freestyle works fine for most people. Swimming is also one of the best workouts for an injured runner. Depending on the injury, it may be the only form of exercise an injured runner can do. I am not particularly fond of swimming, but I spent many hours in the pool when I had a vicious calf strain. Although I missed running, I was able to get an endorphin high, maintain fitness and keep eating as much as I normally do!

Water Running

There’s deep-water pool running, which we’ve discussed quite a bit, but there’s also shallow-water running, which I prefer. Optimally, I use a pool or open water source that is shallow enough to move my arms out of the water. The resistance of the water is helpful for building strength, but the water also removes some of the impact. Some runners do moderately paced jogging, while others do strides as fast as they can. Because of the buoyancy of the water, it is not possible to go very fast. The weightlessness and reduced speed put less stress on your legs while still allowing you to have a good workout. If you are an injured runner, and as long as it doesn’t aggravate your injury, water running is a good option to help you maintain fitness when you are unable to run on land.

Elliptical

Cross-training helps me race my best.
Cross-training helps me race my best.

The elliptical is the go-to cross-training choice for many runners, whether it’s the machine at the gym or a elliptical-bike, like an ElliptiGO. The good news is that one study found that runners who trained exclusively on an elliptical-bike for four weeks maintained the same levels of aerobic fitness as runners who exclusively ran for four weeks. The motion of the elliptical is very similar to running but with much less impact. Because the feet don’t lift from the machine, it provides a more stable foundation, especially for someone who has a history of foot or ankle injuries.

Ellipticaling is also a great precursor to running and, for the seasoned runner, it can be used to get in more endurance-building miles. You can approach elliptical workouts the same way as you would running workouts. For example, varying the levels of resistance simulates hill running. You can also do interval workouts, adding in short burst of faster speeds or more difficult resistance levels. It can also be used as a recovery workout from a hard run, using an easy pace and a low resistance. Compared to the other forms of cross-training, the elliptical may not be advisable with certain running injuries because it is more weight-bearing and similar to running than other forms of aerobic cross-training.

Cycling

Cycling is great for building quad and hamstring strength. You can do it on non-running days as a hard workout, or as an easy recovery workout. Just like the elliptical, you can vary the speed and resistance levels to suit your needs. I personally prefer an easy bike ride on my off-days, or as a same day recovery workout from a hard run. I have also taken very challenging spinning classes when I am not running as much, because a good spin class is a stand alone, calorie-torching, quad-fatiguing, not for the faint of heart workout! Again, use caution if you have an injury that is exacerbated by this activity.

Do you aerobically cross-train? Why or why not? If you do, what forms of cross-training do you prefer? 

I am a dedicated runner and classical musician. I am currently chasing a sub-3 hour marathon (3:00:38 PR). I often feel like the underdog going up against "serious" runners-I took up running after college, I do not have a typical "runner's body type", and I am mostly self-coached. I travel a lot to perform with different orchestras and run when I can, where I can. I love to (over) eat and that is my number one motivation for running! Follow me as I chase my goals!

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9 comments

  1. This post came at a great time for me. I’ve been taking a week off running due to an Achilles issue. I’ve been happy doing workouts on the stationary bike – gets the heart rate up, without the impact on the legs.

  2. In the very little time I spent on an elliptical, I found it to be an artificial exercise that was much more like cycling standing up than running — it doesn’t have hip extension or energy storage in tensions, or any of the other human mechanics that make running running. It is hard to simulate this sport with other sports. That is probably why Daniels writes, “The best way to become a better runner is through running.” For those of us shooting for the stars, we have to completely max our our running miles first.

    That isn’t to say that there isn’t a place for cross-training sports. Sometimes, a little bit of variety is nice. Road cycling is so much fun, especially if you live somewhere with fabulous rural rolling road.

    1. You sound like one of the lucky who can run a lot of miles with less chance of injury….I am jealous! I agree, running improves your running more than anything else. I was injury-prone in the past and used to have to cross train out of necessity, only running 3 days a week. Now my body can handle a lot more, but I still throw in some cross training, almost always on easy days or for recovery. As I have been upping my miles, I have been doing less cross training. I still like it sometimes for a recovery workout…the other day I did a hard 20 miles and the following day my hips were just too sore to run. The elliptical was a nice compromise!

  3. I’m living in the land of forced cross-training right now. I’m pregnant and have been ordered to skip impact exercises. Result- hours on the arc trainer, pool running, swimming, and incline walking. I guess it will be a few more months before I see if this actually helps.

  4. I’ve had good results training on the elliptical – but only when i have to, I.e. Injured or pregnant. Also love me some spin class in winter. But I don’t usually do aerobic cross training as a regular part of my running routine.

  5. I’ll agree that running is the best way to train, but I’ve also tried the arc trainer and it’s a great workout. It especially helps the backs of the legs (hamstrings, calves). I also did spin classes when I was injured for almost 2 months a few years ago, and I feel like really helped me stay fit when I couldn’t run.