The importance of cross-training


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For many years, I thought the only way to become a better runner was to run more. I ran cross-country and track in both high school and college, and I practiced that way of thinking. I would pound the pavement six to seven days a week — sure it got me faster. I set a few great PR’s. With all of that training came a lot of time in the athletic training facility, healing aches and pains that were tied hand in hand with the intense mileage.

As I have run more days, races and miles, I have learned one very important concept: Focus on quality rather than quantity. It is easy to think that you must run every day to keep up with your peers. A lot of people (me included) can only handle that type of training for so long, and then you start to notice a trend. Injury creeps up, time and time again. Your body actually creates muscle imbalances since you are repetitively going through the same motion over and over again. Here are a few benefits of cross-training:

  • Boredom is less likely to set in. Running day after day can get a little repetitive. When you switch up the workouts every couple of days, you are far less likely to lose interest in your runs, and you could actually be itching to get out on your run again.
  • Your body will thank you for it. Learning to run on tired legs is a key to training. That is why the taper works so well in the weeks leading up to the race. However, running on tired legs is much different than running on exhausted, broken-down legs. There are days that cross-training — or even a day off (gasp!) — could really help your training rather than hurt it. Listen to the cues that your body gives you!
  • It’s a good excuse to meet up with friends. I don’t know about you, but not all of my friends think that getting up early on a Saturday to do a long run is all that fun. It is nice to broaden your exercise horizons and even meet up with some other friends in the process. Cross-training can help you to meet new people when you try new sports or fitness classes.
  • Your body could become more toned because of it. Partaking in other activities obviously uses different muscles than running — that is the point. A huge benefit of switching the running routine is that it gives other muscles a chance to shine. You will feel your body becoming stronger and more toned as you work out the other muscles that may not be used as much during running. (And you will look and feel even better because of it!)


Rather than throwing in the towel and writing off running, I have become very accustomed to using cross-training as an extremely important training tool. This mode of training has the ability to help your running by giving you the benefits of cardiovascular exercise but not exposing your body to the harsh pounding that all of those miles provide. Are you unsure of good ways to vary your routine? Here are a few great ways to get in a good workout, without running!

Swimming: I feel like swimming is one of the most beneficial forms of cross-training, but it is also one of the most feared. Swimming is great because it increases your lung capacity and there is also absolutely no pounding. Another bonus: You can do it when it is burning hot outside, which is a great tip for summer months. If you are not a born swimmer, find a master’s group in your area or take some lessons. Local community centers and YMCAs are great for this.

Yoga: This form of cross-training is great for my mind! I am constantly on the go (even with running!), and yoga teaches me to relax a bit. The first few classes I attended were very boring for me. I just couldn’t get in the groove. However, the more that I attended, the more I liked the challenge of yoga and the mental struggle that it provided for me — not to mention it's great for your body when practiced correctly. If you are new to yoga, be sure to let the instructor know, so they can help to correct your form throughout the practice.

Biking: Hopping on a bike is said to be the best way to help your running, as it works both the quadriceps and the hamstrings. The key to biking is to remember to push yourself while in the saddle. It is easy to keep the resistance low and not achieve the calorie burn that you are looking for. If you get bored easily while on the bike, do intervals! Begin with a 15-minute warm-up, cycle hard for two minutes followed by one minute cycling easy, and then repeat! Do this for as long as you can stretch out the workout!

Strength training: This should be an activity you partake in regardless of whether you are running or not. Increasing muscle mass helps to burn calories and aids your body in not compensating with larger muscle groups. If you are not familiar with strength training, be sure to consult a certified personal trainer so you can learn the correct technique of key exercises to help with your running. Otherwise, that bad technique could lead to an injury of its own.

Tell us: Do you incorporate cross-training into your running routine? What types of activities are your favorites?

Mary is the author of the blog Food and Fun on the Run, where she writes about her passions for running and healthy living. Visit Mary on Twitter.