8 Proven Benefits of Cross-Training For Runners

We all know that running isn’t just about running. There are so many pieces to our training plan jigsaw puzzle to ensure we can attain optimum performance, remain injury-free, and stay happy and healthy. 

Some of these essential components include warming up, stretching, strength training, sports massage, healthy eating, mobility, sufficient sleep, hydration, and, you guessed it, cross-training.

There are many benefits of cross-training for runners that can help us train, race, and recover to the best of our ability.

This article will discuss why cross-training should be part of our training plans and the 8 benefits of cross-training for runners of all levels, distances, and ages. 

More specifically, we will look at the following: 

  • What Is Cross-Training?
  • What Are The Benefits of Cross-Training For Runners? 
  • How To Schedule Cross-Training Into Your Training Plan 
A person smiling on an elliptical machine.

What Is Cross Training?

Cross training is any exercise outside of one’s primary sport that essentially contributes to and complements the athlete’s performance of their primary sport.

In our case, where our primary sport is running, crosstraining can include cycling, swimming, elliptical training, deep water jogging, skiing, rowing, strength training, mobility exercises, yoga, and pilates, among many others. 

Why cross-train, you ask?

Cross-training has many benefits that we often overlook, but those who already have cross-training as a staple in their training schedule can tell you it’s well worth it! 

Let’s check out the 8 benefits of cross-training for runners in our detailed list to see if we can convince you to add cross-training to your plan! 

What Are The Benefits of Cross-Training For Runners? 

A person road cycling.

#1: Cross-Training Can Reduce the Risk of Injuries 

Running is a high-impact sport, and particularly if you are a road runner, the repetitive movement of pounding the pavement can take a toll on your muscles, joints, and connective tissues. 

Even if you have perfect running form, which is a great way to help alleviate some of the strain, it does not erase the fact that running puts stress on the body. 

Adding low-impact or no-impact cross-training activities such as the elliptical machine or cycling to your training program can help alleviate some of that foot-ground impact and potentially decrease your risk of running-related injuries. 

Likewise, strength training as part of your cross training plans can strengthen muscles that are neglected during running, and even out imbalances in your kinetic chain which can lead to injury.

#2: Cross-Training Adds Variety To Your Workouts

Most of us, as runners, sure love running. We often don’t mind hitting the pavement or trails day after day, logging miles and miles into our Garmins. 

However, cross-training can spice up your overall training plan. You may even discover you enjoy other activities in addition to running, such as biking and swimming, that you may have never tried otherwise. 

Who knows, perhaps you’ll even try a triathlon one day! 

People on rowing machines at the gym.

#3: Cross-Training Can Improve Overall Fitness 

Even though practicing the specific sport you want to excel in is most commonly the best way to improve your performance in that particular sport, cross-training can improve your overall fitness, including aerobic and even muscular fitness.

Build your endurance with a long Sunday cycle, or strengthen your core with strength training classes.

#4: Cross-Training Can Help Decrease The Risk Of Overtraining 

Logging in plenty of miles will no doubt improve your running performance, but there is a fine line between what is just enough and what is too much. 

In that grey area of too much, we can get dangerously close to a potential running-related injury such as runner’s knee, IT band syndrome, or shin splints. 

Adding in some cross-training will give your body and mind a break from running and help prevent you from reaching a state of overtraining

People under water jogging.

#5: Cross-Training Can Be A Great Tool For Injured Runners

If running is currently out of the question due to an injury, cross-training can be an effective way to maintain aerobic fitness and strength without the impacts of running. 

Deep water running with proper form and technique has proven to be an excellent way to maintain running performance, Vo2 Max, and fitness levels.

#6: Cross-Training Can Be A Great Off-Season Alternative To Running

When your racing season has ended, and it’s time for the off-season, cross-training can be a great way to maintain your fitness without the impact stressors of running.

Instead of running 6 days a week as you may during your high training or competitive season, you could split it up into a few days of cycling and a few days of running to maintain your performance level adequately, but give your body a rest from the impact. 

In a study looking at female long-distance runners who took on cycling during the off-season, their results “concluded that cycle cross-training adequately maintained aerobic performance during the recuperative phase between the cross country and track seasons.”

A person doing a deadlift at a gym.

#7: Cross-Training Gives Your Body A More Well-Rounded Workout 

If we just ran all the time, our bodies would miss out on the vital benefits of other types of exercise, especially strength training. 

If you are a long-distance runner, you may have noticed throughout your training that it is challenging to keep even the slightest bit of muscle mass on unless you have incredible genetics and are a muscle-making machine! 

Therefore, adding two days of total-body strength training into your running training plan is essential to keep you strong, healthy, and, again, at a lower risk for running-related injuries. 

#8: Cross-Training Can Work As Active Recovery 

After a challenging speed workout or long run, our muscles need to relax and recover. Doing a cross-training activity that can help this cause could be very beneficial to get you ready for your next tough run. 

But remember, you have to be comfortable with the cross-training activity for it to actually be “recovery.” If you have never swum before, swimming may not feel like a recovery at first as you struggle through just one lap across the pool.

Always choose activities that are enjoyable and comfortable for you and that will have a positive impact on your fitness and health. 

What do you think? Are these 8 benefits of cross-training for runners enough to get you inspired? 

A person swimming backstroke at cross-training active recovery.

How To Schedule Cross-Training Into Your Training Plan 

There are various ways to add cross-training to your training plan. How you do so will depend on multiple factors, such as your specific goals, running experience, and overall fitness level. 

Here are some general guidelines to go by: 

Strength Training 

All runners, whether beginners or experienced, short or long distance, road or trail runners, should add two days of strength training into their weekly program no matter what. 

Strength training will help fix muscle imbalances, reduce the risk of injury, and help you maintain overall strength and health, allowing you to run further and faster, and well into your golden years. 

These two workouts should be total body workouts and include squats, lunges, deadlifts, step-ups, planks, push-ups, pull-ups, and all variations. Try to hit each muscle group in every workout and be consistent. 

I promise this will help you in the long run! 

People at the gym strength training.

Replace A Day Of Running

One option is to replace one of your days of running, ideally one of your easy days, with a cross-training activity that will give you either an added benefit or similar benefits to running. 

For example, adding a cycling workout will contribute to your leg strength and power and work your aerobic fitness without the pounding of running.

Another example of cutting out one day of foot-ground impact but maintaining a running-like movement would be the elliptical trainer. Take your 45-minute easy run, and be sure to keep the same perceived effort as you would on the road or trail on the elliptical machine. 

Your joints will thank you!

Active Recovery 

If you are more of an experienced athlete and accustomed to a high training load, add a cross-training workout to your training plan as an active recovery instead of replacing it with a run. 

A great option would be a midday or evening swim after a tough interval workout or long run. Swimming is a no-impact cross-training activity that can help you recover from strenuous workouts. 

Take 30 minutes and do some relaxing laps in the pool. Mix up your strokes and have some fun. You will feel your muscles relax as you do so and feel even more energized and recovered for your next running workout. 

A person's feet move on the elliptical machine.

Cross Training For Injuries 

There is nothing worse to hear from a doctor or physical therapist for a runner than those dreaded words, “you need to take a break from running.” 

If you are injured and have been instructed to stop running for a certain period, ask your physical therapist or physician what types of cross-training activities you are permitted to do that will allow you to maintain your fitness while at the same time recovering from your injury. 

Depending on your specific condition, you can swim, deep-water jog, jump on the elliptical, row, or bike. 

If you can get on the elliptical or cycle, you can even transfer your running program to your new cross-training machine. 

Instead of doing our intervals of 10 x 400 meters on the track, go ahead and transfer this to the estimated time and do them on the bike. 

Instead, try 10 x 2 mins hard with 2 min of easy cycling 10 times. 

Be sure to warm up for 20 minutes before and 20 minutes after to keep that endurance up. 

People smiling on the eplipical machines.

Easy and long runs can also be done on low-impact cardio machines. Just transfer the time over, (usually, you can get away with doing a bit more time on the cardio machines, but check with your coach to be sure exactly how much!) 

For example, an hour and a half on the bike should be fine if you have an hour-long run scheduled. Remember, it’s low impact and may be a challenge to get the same aerobic effects as running, so a bit more time may be necessary to make it equivalent. 

But this is up for discussion on exactly what conversion will be best for each person, as it depends on your fitness level and experience.

So, have we convinced you to work some cross-training into your life?

The benefits of cross-training for runners get endless, and you may even enjoy these new activities in the process. To get you motivated with some ideas, check out some of our cross-training guides for runners to get you started right away:

Swimming For Runners: How To Make Your Pool Workout Boost Your Running Game

The Benefits Of Cycling For Runners: How To Use Your Bike To Run Better

A person in a pool sticking their head out of the water and smiling.
Photo of author
Katelyn is an experienced ultra-marathoner and outdoor enthusiast with a passion for the trails. In the running community she is known for her ear to ear smile even under the toughest race conditions. She loves sharing her knowledge and experience with everyone and has a great desire to motivate others to hit the trails alongside her. Run for fun!

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