Cross-Training Guide for Runners
Whether cross-training due to injury or as a way to gain extra fitness, runners aren’t exactly known for their enjoyment of cross-training. For athletes who are used to the freedom of the open road or trail, the thought of sitting in one place indoors can be excruciating. The fact of the matter is, however, that cross-training is a necessary component of many runners’ training regimes.
Injury-prone runners can benefit by incorporating strength work or supplementing their runs with additional cardio activities such as spinning or swimming. Runners that are presently injured can maintain fitness while achieving a low-impact workout to ensure they are ready to go when the time comes to hit the road again. Listed below are a few forms of cross-training that are beneficial for runners, as well as workouts that can help jumpstart their motivation.
The elliptical is one of the most common cross-training exercises for runners because of how closely it mimics running. Arms and legs work in tandem to provide a total body workout without the impact associated with running. Indeed, according to an article published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, scientists found that when athletes exercise at similar intensity levels on both a treadmill and an elliptical machine, energy and oxygen consumption are similar for both exercises. However, heart rate is higher for athletes using the elliptical machine. Therefore, the elliptical may even provide a better cardiovascular workout. Despite the benefits of the elliptical, runners who have experienced shin, Achilles tendon, or foot injuries should avoid the machine and potential risk of aggravating the area.
Just as with running, you should never do hard workouts on an elliptical every day. Instead, break your workouts up into hard, medium, and easy days. On easy days, elliptical workouts can last anywhere from thirty to sixty minutes at a steady effort to build an aerobic base. Rotations per minute (RPM) is important during many cross training endeavors. On the elliptical, runners should aim to keep their RPM at 90 or above.
For medium days, a sample workout would mimic a tempo or long run. A “long run” effort could be in excess of 80 minutes, but kept at a steady effort. For tempo efforts, start with a 10 minute warm up at an easy RPM, then elliptical for 30 minutes at a higher-than-average RPM. If you typically exercise on the elliptical machine for 45 minutes at 90 RPM, then aim for 100–110 during tempo sessions. Alternatively, maintaining 90 RPM while increasing resistance is also advisable. After the tempo, cool down for 5–10 minutes.
A hard workout should consist of bursts of hard efforts to replicate track intervals or a fartlek. For instance, a sample workout includes a 10 minute warm up, then 4-6 x [90 seconds hard, 60 seconds hard, 30 seconds hard, 15 seconds hard] with equal rest in between reps. After each of the 4–6 sets, rest for 1:00. After the intervals are complete, cool down for another 10 minutes. This workout will simulate the toughest of track workouts.
For runners who cannot stand exercising indoors, an outdoor elliptical, called the elliptigo, may be of interest.
Two types of swimming are beneficial for runners, especially those facing injuries that make weight bearing exercise difficult. The best mimic for running is aqua jogging, which involves use of a buoyancy vest and an open area of the pool. When aqua jogging, the runner jogs either in place or up and down the pool lanes in order to work all the same muscles he or she typically would exercise while running. Although aqua jogging allows the runner to “run,” the downside is that it is more difficult to work your cardiovascular system while aqua jogging than it is for other forms of exercise.
For a higher intensity workout that does not mimic running quite as well, consider freestyle swimming. Swimming laps is a great all-around workout that boosts metabolism, strengthens muscles, and builds the cardiovascular system. However, it should not be used as a sole alternative to running, as the two exercises are vastly different.
In general, 10 minutes of swimming or aqua jogging equals 1 mile of running on dry land. For long or easy efforts, use this conversion to replicate long or easy runs in the pool. To relieve boredom, consider swimming or aqua jogging for distance, instead of time. For instance, in an Olympic-sized pool (50 meters), 15 laps constitute a mile.
For medium workouts, one workout that can be used includes interspersing hard rounds of freestyle swimming with easy aqua jogging. Swimming strokes such as freestyle or breaststroke can work the cardiovascular system better than aqua jogging, however they do not provide the same benefit of mimicking the movements of running. For this workout, aqua jog at a medium effort for 10 minutes, then swim 400 m in the stroke of your choice, at a hard effort. Follow that with another 10 minutes of aqua jogging, and then another 400 m of swimming. Repeat this pattern 2–4 more times.
For hard workouts, consider adding extra resistance to improve the benefits of the workout. Additional resistance can be achieved by removing the buoyancy belt, adding ankle or wrist weights, or purchasing a bungee cord to work against while you aqua jog. Without any implements, aqua jog for 10 minutes as a warm up and then alternate three minutes of hard aqua jogging with added resistance, and one minute of total rest. Repeat this four minute cycle 4–6 more times and finish with a 10 minute resistance-free cool down.
Although spinning does not provide the same full body workout that running, the elliptical, or aqua jogging can, spinning is one of the best cross-training exercises for runners, especially when supplementing an existing running regimen. Exercise scientists have suggested that spinning can help improve a runner’s cadence, which is important for proper form, as well as for reducing injury. Interestingly, spinning cadence directly correlates to running pace. For instance, 60 RPM is equivalent to 8:30 per mile, while 120 RPM equates to 5:00 miles. Not only does spinning at a high cadence improve aerobic fitness, but it can also train your body to run with better turnover.
For easy spinning workouts, a 45–60 minute spinning session at a moderate cadence, such as 80–90 RPM, is recommended.
For a moderate workout, consider the following fartlek-type session: spin for 10 minutes at a moderate cadence, then increase cadence by 15% for five minutes. Return to the moderate spinning for three minutes, and then repeat 3–5 more times. As always, finish the workout with a 5–10 minute cool down.
For many runners, a hard spinning session is more dread-inducing than a hard interval session on the track. Increasing both intensity and resistance on the spin bike will undoubtedly give your legs a searing workout. After a proper warm up, set the resistance on the bike to a level that is comfortably hard. Keep the resistance the same throughout the workout, but vary the intensity of your cadence. Start with 1:00 hard at 130 RPM, followed by 1:00 easy. Next, spin for 1:30 at 125 RPM, again with 1:00 rest. Continue this pattern until you reach 5:00 of spinning at 90 RPM. Once you reach 5 minutes, you will continue in the opposite direction, working back down to 1:00 and 130 RPM. Warning: this session is not for the faint of heart!
On this topic, a reader sent this to us:
When I started my family, time for exercise was at a premium – and for a while I took up keep fit at home, starting with spinning workouts and an indoor bike. It’s a brilliant way to stay in shape if you can’t get out and about as often as you’d like to. With this in mind, I recently helped to put together and edit a really informative piece on how these types of exercise regimes can form an integral part of your keep fit plan. If you’d like to, you can read it here: http://always.training/five-spin-workouts/
Strength training is a great supplement to a runner’s schedule because it strengthens joints and muscles, which can decrease injury risk and improve race times.
Performing at your full potential means taking a comprehensive approach to your running. Target areas of fitness you may not normally pay attention to, like balance, mobility, strength, and flexibility. Research has shown that weight training can improve body composition by helping you increase or maintain your lean body mass and can decrease your percentage of body fat, helping you look leaner and burn additional calories.
Strength training can enhance running economy, according to a study performed at the University of New Hampshire in Durham1.
Female runners running more than 20 miles (32 kilometers) a week included strength training three times a week for ten weeks. These female runners then went through treadmill tests at 6:30, 7:00, and 7:30 minutes/mile. Their bodies used 3.8% less oxygen at the fastest pace, increasing to 4% and 4.5% at the slower paces. The second control group, who did not weight train, showed absolutely no improvement in oxygen use. Enhanced running economy means you can run faster with the same oxygen uptake. Such improvement could clip a couple of minutes off 10K times.
Yoga is a great supplemental exercise for injured and healthy runners alike. Not only does yoga work to strengthen and lengthen muscles, but it also provides alignment to the body, lowers blood pressure, focuses breathing, improves metabolism, and helps runners learn to quiet their minds. A number of elite runners have even reported that yoga can be used in place of traditional weight training, since many positions strengthen the core and improve balance.
For easy days, supplement an easy run or a day off with a gentle or restorative yoga session. For runners, hold useful positions (such as pigeon pose, which targets hips) for an extended period of time while remaining fully supported by bolsters, blocks, and pillows. Restorative classes also focus on slowing down breathing and releasing stress, which is important for runners at any level.
A good “medium day” workout is a Level 1 Vinyasa yoga class. This type of class combines the flow of breathing with exercises that work arms, core, and minor muscles used in balancing, such as in the ankles and knees. Typically lasting 60–75 minutes, a Vinyasa class is fast-paced and requires plenty of strength and endurance.
For a hard yoga workout, consider Bikram yoga, which includes a set series of 26 poses done in a room that is heated to 105o. Not only does Bikram yoga challenge the body, but it can be used to help runners adapt to heat and improve their blood plasma volume if living and training in cold climates.
Some runners, through illness or injuries, may have to face the likelihood that continued running is either unwise or not possible. Those who cross-train will have their substitute activities already built in, and will find the adjustment easier.
1. Ronald E. Johnston, MS; Timothy J. Quinn, PhD; Robert Kertzer, PhD; and Neil B. Vroman, PhD. Improving Running Economy Through Strength Training. Department of Kinesiology, University of New Hampshire. Retrieved from www.nsca.com/Education/Articles/Improving-Running-Economy-Through-Strength-Training