The Benefits of Cross Training for Distance Runners

By Rick Morris

Distance runners all over the world are beginning to add cross training workouts into their weekly training routine. Does cross training help you as a distance runner? What are the benefits of cross training? The law of specificity insists that the most appropriate workouts for any athlete are those that match their goal. In the case of distance runners that means the most valuable workouts are distance running specific workouts. That may suggest that cross training workouts are of no value to distance runners. While running workouts are by far the most important ones for improving your distance running performance, some cross training workouts do provide you with valuable benefits that will improve your performance as a distance runner.

How can cross training improve your distance running performance? Cross training won’t directly improve your endurance, stamina or speed but there are several indirect ways it will make you a better distance runner.

Improved Strength and Power

In my opinion the most valuable type of cross training is strength training. A properly designed strength training program will improve your running strength, power, muscle elasticity and running economy. There have been many recent studies showing that strength training will improve your performance in all race distances from the mile to the marathon.

More Quality Workouts

Most of your gains in VO2 max, vVO2 max, lactate threshold and speed are gained through high intensity running. Unfortunately you can’t run hard every day. You need easy running days or recovery days to allow time for your body, mind and muscles to recovery and strengthen. That’s were some high intensity cross training comes into play. While your overtaxed running muscles may not be able to tolerate consecutive hard runs you may be able to hop on your bike for a hard training ride between hard running sessions. The high intensity cycling workout will help improve your fitness while using fresher muscles that weren’t abused during your hard training run.

Active Recovery

Cross training shouldn’t always be high intensity. There are times when you need total body recovery. After a 22 mile long run or a brutal interval session your body may need a couple of days of recovery. Do you need total rest? Maybe not. Instead of total rest you could hop on your bike for an easy endurance ride, jump in the pool for a relaxing swim or schedule a game of tennis with your running buddy. The active recovery will burn some calories and also assist with muscle recovery.

Active Rehabilitation

No one wants to suffer from a running injury but they are almost inevitable. When you’re injured you need to back off on your running until your injury is rehabilitated. During that time off your fitness and endurance can suffer while your body fat levels creep up. A good way to avoid weight gains and decreases in fitness during injury rehabilitation is to do some cross training. Pick a cross training activity that doesn’t place stress on your injured muscles or body parts. Cycling, swimming and deep water running are usually good choices.

Decreased Body Fat

There is no question that excessive body fat weight can have an adverse affect on your running performance. If you don’t believe it go out for a  6 mile run wearing a 10 pound running vest! The problem with losing weight as a distance runner is you must do it while maintaining appropriate nutritional levels. That means dieting is out of the question. So, you need to burn additional calories. Cross training gives you an efficient way to burn extra calories while still getting enough recovery between hard running workouts.

Improved Muscle Balance

Distance runners tend to have highly developed hamstring and calf muscles with under developed quadriceps muscles. Muscle imbalances can cause problems with your posture and running mechanics. Cycling is an excellent way to build up the strength of your quadriceps muscles and avoid muscle imbalance. Strength training is also a great way to keep your muscles in balance.

Injury Resistance

There are two advantages to strong muscles in terms of injury resistance. First, strong muscle fibers are more resistant to strains. Second, stronger more powerful muscles provide more support to your joints. Strength training is one of the best ways to improve the strength of your muscles and help be a more injury resistant runner. Not only will strength training build your muscle strength but it will also improve  the strength and injury resistance of your bones and connective tissues.