Cross-Training for Runners: A Simple Breakdown

by Coach Ray

First of all, I know what you’re thinking. “A blog!?! Why not a vlog? That way I can listen to it while I’m making dinner/stretching/cleaning, etc.”

I know, I know. I’m that way too. However, I currently don’t have access to video equipment and…I prefer writing over speaking.

Anyway, I know cross training can be a bit of a confusing subject for some runners so I wanted to do a brief overview. I like to break cross training down into 3 different types:
1) Supplemental cross training (cross training you do in conjunction with your normal running routine)
2) Cross training when injured but still need to stay in shape for an upcoming race
3) Cross training during the off-season (or injured and have a long road to recovery)

Now let’s look into each one in a bit more detail:

Supplemental Cross Training:

The main form of supplemental cross training, and what we recommend to all SAGE Running athletes, is core (including hip) strengthening and stability exercises 2-3x times a week. Sandi has some great videos on her YouTube channel Running Wild that demonstrates some of the recommended exercises.

However, Sandi and I actually like to do full-body strength training a few times a week. This can be a workout DVD, a weight-lifting session, Pilates, and Yoga (I love Pilates and Yoga because they offer length and strength). The question most people ask is “when do I do my strength training?” In our Training Guide for SAGE Running Athletes, Sandi recommends doing strength workouts after a hard run or the day after. The key is to allow at least one easy running day (preferably two) before your next hard or long run. A word of caution: be careful with any workout that includes a lot of plyometrics or heavy lifting, like Crossfit. This can often overwhelm the muscles and keep them in a state of struggling to heal.

Other athletes like to keep in swimming, cycling, and other endurance exercises in their routines. This can be great to build or keep up endurance when mileage is low, for runners prone to injury with high mileage, or just to keep things fun.

Cross Training While Injured (and need to stay in running shape):

A lot of runners turn to cycling when they get injured but need to keep fit. While I thinking cycling is great and (in milder weather) can keep an athlete outdoors, it’s actually not the best exercise one can do as it only distantly mimics running since it limits leg/hip extension. For proof, just look at a cyclist’s body compared to runners.

What I recommend, though it may not be as exciting, is pool running or running on an Anti-Gravity treadmill.

While I know a lot of athletes out there groan at the mention of pool running because it’s “boring”, there are ways to make it a bit more fun. If you google “pool running workouts” you’ll find some routines to do that keep things a lot more interesting. When I tried it a few years ago and didn’t have access to music, I turned it into a bit of meditation practice is well. This can actually help keep you more focused when you return back to normal running.

Of course, if you are able, the Anti-Gravity treadmill is the best way to go. These treadmills allow you to run at a lower percent of your body weight (I tried 50% once which felt, as I would imagine, like moon walking. It was fun, but way too weird to run in!) I know they are expensive, but more and more physical therapy offices are getting them.

To finish up this category, the last piece of equipment I want to mention is your standard elliptical machine at the gym or the elliptigo (think elliptical outside). These machines also do well at targeting your running muscles without the pounding. I even know of one running team in Boulder that shares an elliptigo amongst the members.

This is all of course in addition to the exercises your physical therapist has prescribed to help heal the injury.

Cross Training During the Off-Season:

My number one tip here is to keep things FUN!

Me returning from rollerblading to Yoga and back.

Play, play, play and run very little or not at all (at least at first).

Here you can do anything you want. Ski, rock climb, rollerblade, go to fitness classes, dance, or whatever it is that you like to do. I personally don’t mind adding a little muscle bulk in the off-season from weight lifting as you’ll quickly lose it when you resume running. Additionally, I remember reading that Kenyan runners even put on a few pounds during the off-season as well. (But please, keep eating your veggies. If you want to give in to some extra sweets for a few days, that’s fine, but for the most part, you want to stick to a plant-based diet for optimal recovery and health.)

However, remember that this is your off-season and is a chance for your body to recover. You’re not going to do yourself any favors if you start spinning or jumping on the elliptical for two hours a day. Therefore, my first recommendation is really just to rest and take it easy.

At SAGE Running, we recommend that our athletes either take a full month off of hard training or take two weeks off periodically through the year (though we also include 1-2 full recovery weeks after key races depending on the athlete).

This also applies to athletes who have a long road to recovery and may not be able to run for some time. When come back time gets closer, then get back to pool or Anti-G running before starting to integrate running back into the routine (as recommended by your physical therapist).

Finally, I want to offer one last thing for my runners who are out of running for long periods, especially if it’s 6 months or more. It can be extremely hard to lose this piece of you as well as the freedom that you felt from running. Please, don’t be afraid to seek out a therapist at this time. The mental side to healing is just as, if not more important, than the physical side. A good therapist can help you sort out your feelings around the subject. (With my own therapist, we did Gestalt or “parts therapy” that both sucked and was oh-so-good in an (emotionally) painful sort of way.) I offer a few thoughts in one of my blog posts:

To sum it up, my biggest piece of advice is to simply have fun. With that, do whatever it takes to keep running enjoyable as well. The “enjoyment factor” is one of the biggest keys to longevity in the sport.

Extra: One thing I would suggest all runners do here and there is go for a walk or hike. When running, we are always moving quickly. This isn’t a bad thing, but I think it is important to take the time to slow down and take in the sights once in awhile. In the end, I believe this can enhance our appreciation for running (and life).