Top Ten Types of Cross Training for Runners
By Rick Morris
There are a nearly unlimited number of cross training activities you could perform as a distance runner. Any non running activity qualifies as cross training. Any non running activity qualifies but are they all appropriate cross training workouts for you as a distance runner? Not really. Ideally your cross training activity should provide benefits to you as a distance runner and closely match the movements, motions and stresses that you undergo during your running workouts. Here are our top ten types of cross training for runners.
The number one spot in our cross training for runners top ten belongs to strength training. Strength training is such an important part of your running performance that I don’t even consider it cross training. It’s an essential part of any running program. While I don’t really consider it cross training it is a non running activity so it qualifies for our list. There have been many recent studies proving the benefits of strength training for distance runners. It improves your running strength, power, running economy and injury resistance.
Another great type of cross training for runners is cycling. Running places emphasis on your hamstring and calf muscles. That can become a problem because of the potential muscle imbalance between your hamstring muscles on the back of your upper leg and your quadriceps muscles on the front of your upper leg. Cycling places more stress on your quadriceps muscles making cycling a great cross training activity for establishing the proper strength ratio between your hamstrings and quadriceps. Cycling also burns additional calories to help you maintain or decrease your body fat levels and an opportunity to get in another high intensity workout. As a bonus there have been studies that suggest that the addition of cycling can improve your running performance.
Cross Country Skiing
Here is a nice type of cross training for runners for winter sports enthusiasts. There are few activities that are the equal to running in terms of calorie burning potential. One activity that comes very close to or may even exceed the calorie burning of distance running is cross country skiing. The exact number of calories burned per mile depends upon how efficient you are at the activity and how hard you are working, but for most athletes, cross country skiing burns an equal amount or more when compared to distance running. The calorie burning potential, the additional high intensity workouts and potential improvements in aerobic capacity makes cross country skiing an excellent cross training activity for distance runners.
Basketball is a good distance runners cross training workout for two primary reasons. First, it burns a lot of calories through nearly nonstop movement. Second, the abrupt direction changes and frequent jumping are great plyometric activities that improve your neuromuscular conditioning as well as your lower leg strength.
You’ve climbed stairs before and I have no doubt that you’ve felt a nice burn in your quadriceps muscles when you were done. You felt that burn because your quadriceps were working overtime to get you up those stairs. That makes stair climbing another good cross training activity to help balance out the strength between your hamstrings and quadriceps. Stair climbing also does a good job of burning calories and challenging your cardiovascular system. A study from 2004 in Dublin Ireland showed that physiological improvements from 12 weeks of stair climbing were similar to that of treadmill running when training volume and intensity were equivalent.
If you have been performing running drills and plyometrics you have probably been doing a lot of exercises that use quick and powerful changes in direction. Those types of exercises will improve your agility, muscle elasticity and power. They also improve your injury resistance by increasing the strength of your lower leg muscles. Quick and powerful changes in direction combined with quick sprints. That sounds a lot like a typical tennis game. Those short, high intensity burst of speed and quick direction changes makes tennis and other racquet sports a good choice for distance running cross training.
Deep Water Running
Deep water running has been used for years as a rehabilitation tool. Deep water running allows you to put your body though a very running specific motion while removing nearly all of the stress of impact, making deep water running a very good method of cross training when you are injured. How about when you’re healthy? The running specific range of motion makes it a fairly good choice. It is low on our list because a recent study showed that the exact mechanics of deep water running is actually quite different making it problematic for distance runners. The bottom line. This is a great cross training activity for injury rehabilitation but just OK for use when you are healthy.
Cross country skiing is high on our list because of its high calorie burning ability and the fairly running specific motions. The problem is that you need snow to do it. No snow – no worries. Try rollerblading. You are using a motion that fairly running specific and you don’t need any snow. Rollerblading will reduce your body fat through calorie burning and it also removes most of the impact of running, making it a good recovery day cross training activity.
You may be surprised to see this type of cross training for runners so far down our list. After all, aren’t the motions of walking and running very similar? Doesn’t walking and running burn the same amount of calories? It’s a common myth that walking burns the same amount of calories that running does. Studies have shown that running burns many more calories per mile than walking does. Running also uses muscles very differently than walking. That doesn’t mean that walking isn’t a good cross training activity, it just doesn’t match the requirements of running very closely. The best time to use walking for cross training is after a very hard speed session or a hard long run when you need a day or two of rest. Walking will help with your recovery and burn a significant number of calories if you walk long enough.
This one may be another surprise. Swimming is one of the most common methods of cross training for distance runners, but is it the most efficient? Not really. The movements of swimming are not very running specific. A study from the University of Tennessee looked at the transfer of training effects between swimming and running. They found that “Swim training may result in minimum transfer of training effects on VO2 max”. In other words, swimming isn’t as efficient as other cross training methods in maintaining or improving your fitness. Swimming is another good cross training method for those days when you need a lot of recovery or when rehabilitating an injury.
Physiological changes following a 12 week gym based stair climbing, elliptical trainer and treadmill running program in females, J Sports Med Phys Fitness, 2004 Jun;44(2):141-6
Effect of run vs combined cycle/run training on VO2 max and running performance, Med Sci Sports Exerc. 1993 Dec;25(12):1393-7
Effects of cross training. Transfer of training effects on VO2 max between cycling, running and swimming, Sports Med, 1994 Nov;18(5):330-9