The only way to become a better runner is to run, but the more running replaces other exercises in your fitness program, the more likely you are to become injured, suffer from burnout or develop muscular imbalances. So what's a runner to do (besides run, of course)? Cross train.
Cross-training, or taking part in alternative forms of exercise, should be part of every fitness plan because it helps reduce the risk of overuse injuries, improves muscular balance, targets your muscles in different ways and aids in muscle recovery. In addition, cross-training can also prevent burnout and add a little fun and variety to your workout routine, while still helping you stay aerobically fit.
In this article, we'll outline two approaches to cross-training for runners: activities that complement running and those that enhance running. Depending on your training level and health situation, you can select the activities that will work best for you. Try to include some form of cross-training at least one to three times per week for optimal results.
Cross-Training Activities that Complement Running
Complementary cross-training activities use your main running muscles in different ways and engage additional muscles that you may never use while running. Performing these types of activities will allow you to build greater muscle strength and muscular balance, therefore reducing your risk for injury.
Because swimming is a non-weightbearing activity, it gives the joints and connective tissues a break from the impact of running while allowing you to maintain aerobic fitness. Swimming can be a beneficial cross-training activity for all runners, especially those recovering from injury. By targeting all the major muscle groups (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, abs, lower back and upper body), swimming gives your legs a break while developing the upper body musculature that is often neglected in runners.
Cycling indoors on a stationary bike, at the gym in a Spinning class or outdoors on the road or trail is another low-impact activity that can give your body a break from the high impact of running. Biking targets the quadriceps and shin muscles, which are slower to develop in runners, and helps strengthen the connective tissue of the knees, hips and ankles, which may reduce your risk for injury. However, some running experts advise against cycling on non-run days because it can still be strenuous and exhausting to your muscles. Instead, if you want to cross-train with biking, include it on your running days by running first and then cycling later in the day.
The indoor rowing machine may not be the most popular item in the gym, but it provides an amazing workout. Rowing is great for runners who want to develop strength in their quadriceps and hips while also improving upper body strength. Good form is necessary when using the rower, so learn about proper rowing mechanics or ask a certified trainer for some pointers.
Whether it's in your office building or at the gym on the stair stepping machine, going up stairs provides an excellent workout for the quads and hip flexors. Because runners tend to have stronger hamstrings, cross-training activities that target the quadriceps can help you achieve better muscle balance, reducing the injury risk.<pagebreak>
Plyometrics are high-intensity, explosive exercises, such as jumping, bounding and hopping drills. Jumping onto a box or step is one of the most popular. These activities can help improve a runner's overall strength, speed, range of motion, push-offs and stride length, but they are best suited for highly conditioned athletes, not beginners. Using proper form is essential when performing explosive drills. Because of their high impact, landing improperly can lead to a greater incidence of injury. If you are not familiar with plyometrics, you may want to work with a certified personal trainer for a few sessions until you have mastered the techniques.
Many runners are surprised to hear that walking is actually a great cross-training activity. Unlike running, it's low-impact, but it targets many of the same muscles and connective tissues. And because walking can be done almost anywhere at any time, doing a vigorous walk the day after an intense run is a great way to recover. If you choose to use walking as a cross-training activity on your non-running days, walk at a brisk enough pace to get the cardio-respiratory benefits. Remember to use good form, pump your arms to burn more calories and pick up the pace.
Cross-Training Activities that Enhance Running
These activities are those that utilize the muscles, connective tissues and joints in a similar manner as running but with lower impact on the joints. Many runners will use these workouts when recovering from an injury or when going through rehab, but you can try these workout ideas as preventive measures even when you're not suffering from an injury.
Deep Water Running
Deep water running, also known as pool running, is exactly as the name implies: running in deep water. This is achieved by slipping on a flotation device, such as an AquaJogger, so that your legs are suspended off the bottom of the pool. This activity most mimics running on land without the impact on the joints. It makes a great cross-training activity for injured runners, but many healthy runners may find it tedious. One of the disadvantages of pool running is the need to have access to an indoor pool during the colder months and/or a pool deep enough to perform this workout.
The elliptical trainer is one of the most popular cardio machines in the gym, and because it mimics running action without the impact, it makes an excellent cross-training activity. Even though the elliptical is a weight-bearing activity, it is low-impact for the joints. The elliptical also helps develop a runner's core and leg muscles. If you use one with the arm levers, the pushing and pulling motion allows you to develop a stronger arm swing, which can help you become a more efficient runner.
While many of us may not have the snow (or snow gear) to participate in this cross-training activity, an indoor cross country ski machine, such as a Nordic Track, offers similar benefits. Cross country skiing can help improve running economy (the amount of oxygen used during a run). Because the hips, quadriceps, core and upper body are all utilized in performing this workout, it allows for development of the weaker quadriceps without the impact. One of the greatest benefits is the high-calorie expenditure that comes from this activity. If you are looking for an activity that burns as many (or more) calories as running, the cross-country ski machine may be a great addition to your workout routine.
Remember that cross-training should not replace a scheduled day off from running. Rest is just as vital to your training as running, for it is during recovery that your body begins the adaptation process to making you a more efficient athlete.
Running too much can lead to a greater incidence of injury, actually slowing your progress and performance. This is why cross-training plays such an important role in keeping us active and injury-free. Cross-training activities are meant to complement and enhance your running by giving your muscles a break from running while still allowing you to burn calories and develop greater aerobic fitness. And with the added variety in your workout routine, you may find yourself looking forward to your runs, which can help make you a lifelong runner.
This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople coaches and certified personal trainers Jen Mueller and Nicole Nichols.