The Many Uses of Cross-training for Runners

“Like most world-class marathoners, I usually do two aerobic workouts a day, totalling more than 2 hours between the two. Unlike most world-class marathoners, however, I often do one of my workouts on an elliptical bike.” Meb Keflezghi, who won the 2014 Boston Marathon using 4 days per week of cross-training in his training schedule.

With this chart, I’ve assumed calories burned for someone weighing 150 pounds. If a person is much lighter they’re going to burn fewer calories and much heavier more calories. For instance, with running at an easy pace, a person weighing 110 pounds will burn approximately 520 calories in an hour, whereas, a person weighing 200 pounds approximately 942 calories.
Chart Comparing Calories Burned During Running to Other Sporting Activities

Some runners dismiss cross-training because of a lack of specificity in training. Nevertheless, considering all that goes into training, cross-training can provide many benefits for runners, similar to the way Meb Keflezghi benefited. Cross-training refers to using one or more sporting activities to enhance your overall fitness. Strength training can be viewed as a cross-training activity with a twist - it is essential regardless of doing a straight running program or adding other sporting activities.

Cross-training Adds Variety
Cross-training adds welcome variety to workout sessions, a variety that keeps you going month after month. When used strategically, it helps strengthen muscles that don’t get used as much in running. Also, it provides further cardiovascular training at the same time. For instance, when run training is paired with a couple of swim sessions in a week; swimming being a non-weight bearing activity that emphasizes working the upper body serves as a complement to run training. Additionally, swimming 

Excitement Builds for the Start of a Triathlon Swim

improves cardio, which is a requirement of running too. These adaptations in the heart, lungs, and blood carry over from sport to sport. As a result, monitoring cross-training with heart rate for appropriate intensity is helpful.  One reason for the popularity of triathlon is that the variety of swimming, biking, and running seems to work well together in training. Also, finding an alternative sport that uses a different plane of movement than running (which emphasizes the sagittal plane) can help prevent injury. For instance, basketball can burn 125 calories for 20 minutes of steady playing and uses all planes of movement and frequent jumping - plyometrics :).

There are cross-training activities that work specific muscles related to running. I’ve previously posted on standing bike intervals, which does a good job of targeting the calves, hamstrings, and glutes. You can also get a cardio benefit from this activity which will carry over to running.

Standing Bike Intervals Work Specific Muscles Important for Running

Cross-training Builds Endurance
Adding cross-training sessions to your training schedule improves endurance - especially for larger runners. Instead of going for a two-hour long run, replacing it with a two-hour bike ride may make better sense for building aerobic endurance. The same holds true for a runner coming back from a leg injury, replacing a long run with a long bike ride will likely keep fitness and rehabilitation moving in a positive direction. 

Scheduling Cross-training
Following a hard day - easy day sequence when training, it makes sense to introduce a cross-training activity on an easy day. Save quality runs (like intervals and fartlek) for your hard days. The chart above shows the calories burned in an hour of different activities. On an easy day, instead of running for an hour, the runner can fit in an hour of cross-training (like brisk walking) for a session of easy exercise. Additionally, winter can make it difficult to put in the miles on roads and trails. As the chart shows, in this scenario, adding some snowshoeing or cross-country skiing to your schedule will be beneficial.

Adding snowshoeing to your schedule helps when winter makes it difficult to get in the miles on roads and trails
Runners can benefit by adding snowshoeing to their winter schedule

Warming Up For & Cooling Down from Cross-training 
Always start a cross-training workout with a good warm up of 10-15 minutes in duration at a comfortable level. End your session with a cool down of the same duration.

Returning from Injury
Cross-training can be helpful when runners are returning from injury. In this case, the runner can mirror their run training schedule with cross-training activity (e.g., swimming and/or biking). And gradually include a run, when able to do so. Some runners have even mirrored their run training schedule with pool running for a number of weeks and then made an immediate return to racing on the roads or track. 

Basketball uses all planes of movement

Coping with Extreme Weather
Extreme weather events like forest fires, temperatures, and precipitation, can make exercising outdoors unsafe. In this case, replacing running with indoor cross-training keeps it productive and safe.

Thanks for reading! Your sharing of this post really helps grow the readership of Experiment of One Coaching.


For more on cross-training, check out the cross-training section in the EOOC TABLE OF CONTENTS.


Experiment of One Coaching covers topics ranging from running, strength training, health & wellness, sports nutrition to travel.