In order to be a better runner, all you need to do is run—right? Not quite. Many runners will benefit from including cross-training in their weekly training, as cross-training will improve your aerobic fitness while reducing your risk of injury—both of which will help you run better and for longer.

What is cross-training?

While the term is used broadly, cross-training means a type of exercise that you can substitute for running. By this definition, cross-training is a type of exercise that improves your aerobic fitness: things like spinning, swimming, and so on. Some forms of cross-training mimic the motions of running, such as the elliptical or hiking, while others do not, such as swimming.

While weight lifting and yoga are valuable for staying healthy and strong as a runner, they do not quite count as cross-training. Rather, think of strength training and mobility work as supplemental workouts. They supplement your running, rather than serving as an alternative workout that trains the same physiological systems.

Cross-training can reduce your risk of injury.

The most significant benefit of cross-training for runners is injury risk reduction. The primary causes of injury for runners include muscular imbalances, biomechanical irregularities, and overuse/overtraining. Biomechanical irregularities are quirks in your running form—overpronation, supination, uneven hips, and similar issues—that make you a bit more prone to injury.

Cross-training offers help for all of those issues. By moving your body in a different motion than running, you can strengthen your muscles and smooth out imbalances. By reducing the number of miles you run, you reduce the overall impact on your muscles, joints, and bones. 

Cross-training can build aerobic fitness.

New runners will benefit from regular cross-training. Your muscles, joints, ligaments, and bones can take up to six months to adapt to the impact of running, so you do not want to increase your mileage too quickly. Cross-training on your non-running days can help build aerobic fitness and strengthen your body for the specific demands of running

Cross-training can help maintain fitness when you’re injured.

If you get injured and are unable to run for a few weeks, cross-training provides an alternative to stay fit as you rehabilitate your injury. Cross-training can maintain and even improve your level of fitness during your time off.

What type of cross-training you do when injured is based on the nature of your injury. Injuries such as stress fractures will limit the type of activities you can do, while you may have more options for injuries such as sprains, strains, and tendonitis. Be sure to speak to your physical therapist or doctor about which types of cross-training you can safely do as you recover from your injury.

Indoor Cross-Training Options

Swimming: Swimming may not be highly specific to the neuromuscular patterns of running, but it will give you a challenging cardiovascular workout and strengthen your upper body (which many runners neglect). Since you are in the water, swimming has no impact on your joints and is therefore often one of the best options for injured runners. You may need to take special precautions around kicking with some lower leg injuries, but using a prop like a buoy can help you problem-solve. You may need access to a pool, but swimming will always provide an effective cardio workout without as much wear and tear.

Aqua jogging: For runners who aren’t strong enough swimmers to achieve an aerobic lengthy workout without needing breaks, or those who want to mimic the motion of running more closely, aqua jogging is one of the best forms of cross-training. Using a belt and sometimes a tether, your heart rate can get up as you visualize running form for an hour or more.

Elliptical: The elliptical mimics the movement of running without the impact, which makes it one of the best forms of  indoor cross-training for runners. A study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research concluded that oxygen consumption is the same on the treadmill and the elliptical when exercising at the same level of perceived exertion. Many running workouts such as intervals can be done on the elliptical, meaning you can still get your speed work in even when you’re not running.

Outdoor Cross-Training Options

The fresh air, sunshine, and scenery of the outdoors are some of the reasons runners love to run—we crave the outdoors! If cross-training in a gym sounds boring to you, don’t worry—there are plenty of cross-training workouts that can be done outside.

Hiking: By hiking, I don’t just mean going for a quick stroll in a park. To be an effective form of cross-training, hiking involves walking uphill (and then back down) on uneven terrain. Hiking on steep terrain will work your aerobic system and strengthen the muscles you use for running. Climbing up steep hills strengthens your glutes, and strong glutes are essential for both flat running and uphill running. The descent prepares your joints for the impact of downhill running, which can irritate many runners’ knees and fatigue their quads.

Cycling: Whether you prefer the road or opt for a mountain bike, cycling provides a fantastic cardio workout without any impact. For runners, pedaling will also help you improve your cadence. Cycling is also simple to incorporate into your training plan, especially if you can bike to and from work a few days per week. Cycling is also a great indoor activity, whether you pick the recumbent bike or opt for a spin class.

Snowshoeing: While it looks simple, snowshoeing burns more calories than walking or hiking, which means it delivers an effective aerobic workout. Much like hiking, snowshoeing strengthens the same muscles you use in running, including your glutes and quads. You can snowshoe on hiking trails if you prefer steep terrain or at nordic ski areas. Snowshoeing provides a winter alternative to other types of outdoor cross-training. You can also cross country ski for a similar type of cross-training workout – a favorite for those dealing with Achilles injuries!

How to incorporate cross-training into your running routine

Cross-training should supplement running, not replace it. Begin with how many days per week you can safely run, which may be in the range of 3-5 days per week. Schedule one day as a complete rest day and then fill in the remaining days with your preferred cross-training and strength training/supplemental workouts. Aim for 1-2 days of any of the above cross-training workouts per week and 2-3 days of strength training, yoga, Pilates, or other supplemental workouts. One of the best ways to fit in both is to spend 40-60 minutes at the gym on your cross-training days, with 20-30 minutes of cross-training and 15-20 minutes of strength training.

Cross-training does not have to be hard and complicated. You can add on 15-20 minutes of the indoor bike or elliptical before you strength train, cycle to and from work, or hike for an hour on the weekend. Like running, many of these cross-training options can make for great group activities, so your fitness doesn’t have to come at the expense of your social life. 

How to add cross-training workouts to the ASICS Runkeeper App

The good news is you can track many of these activities in the Runkeeper app. Click the start screen, select the plus icon in the top left corner (iOS) or click the activity cell (Android) to select your preferred activity. The full list of options is here and Stopwatch Mode is a great way to get those indoor ones tracked. Happy cross-training!