Cross-Training for Runners: Mix Up Your Marathon Training

Cross-Training for Runners: Mix Up Your Marathon Training

Bored or injured? Mix up your marathon preparation with these cross-training workouts for runners.

Are you struggling to lace up for your next run as you prepare for your fall race? If you find yourself skipping a run or simply crave variety in your training regimen, it might be time to incorporate some cross-training (i.e., other sports) into your marathon training. Doing so can keep you engaged in your training plan and also offer gains that you can’t necessarily achieve on the pavement. 

Why Should Runners Cross-Train?

Runners have a long-standing belief that running, and running only, will help them achieve their goals on race day. While running should be the main modality for training, it doesn’t need to be the only thing you do. Because every runner’s body responds differently to training, fatigue, and recovery, cross-training can be a great way to actively recover as you prepare for your next run. However, not all cross-training is created equal, and understanding when you should bike or strength train is vital for your marathon performance. Here are six ways you can safely cross-train before your fall race. 

Cross-Training Workouts for Runners

Strength Training

If you’re looking for an activity that can help you improve your chances of having a breakthrough race, then strength training should be #1 on your list. Simply put, strength training is injury prevention and a workout all in one. Incorporating a running strength program into your routine will allow you to build run-specific strength that may be lacking or showing up as poor form, persistent pain, or a lack of mobility. 

Strength training can be low impact, high intensity, or restorative depending on the exercise and load, so how hard you go should be dictated by where you are in your race build-up. Consult a coach to pinpoint exactly what that means for you. 

Cycling

Cyclists, runners, and skiers are often regarded as having the highest VO2max of all aerobic athletes, which is why cycling is #2 on my list as one of the best cross-training workouts for runners. Cycling allows you to build strength in your legs, hold a high heart rate for a long period of time, and minimize forceful impact on your legs. 

If you are looking to exchange a run with a bike workout, then use the 1.5x rule. For example, if you’re planning on a 40-minute run, you need to ride 60 minutes at a similar intensity. At the end of the day, however, there is no direct replacement for running and speed work; so if you’re going to replace anything, you should replace your easy aerobic days or recovery runs with a bike ride.

Swimming

Swimming is a total body activity with a huge aerobic component that puts minimal stress on the body. It’s a great tool to use after a race or hard workout, or even as a simple mid-week recovery session. While swimming is not going to build running-specific adaptations, it will help you focus on your breathing, better understand form and symmetry, and give you an equivalent aerobic workout so you can show up the next day recovered and ready to run. 

Swimming is a freebie in my book — you really can’t overdo it if you keep your swimming workouts within 60-90 minutes per week (e.g., up to two or three 30-minute sessions weekly).

Aqua Jog

This is often regarded as the most run-specific type of cross-training, and I often prescribe this to my athletes who are most likely to get injured. Aqua jogging is best done in the deep end of the pool with a waist belt floaty to help prop you up higher in the water. Using the resistance of the water and running as if you were on dryland removes all the lower leg impact you’d receive on your run. 

While similar to running, aqua jogging does not equate to the same level of aerobic impact as a normal run — your hardest aqua jog probably won’t register above zone 3. Therefore, don’t use aqua jogging to replace a run; instead, use it as a restorative activity. Aqua jogging is a great way to hone in your symmetry, increase range of motion, and release tension in common running areas. 

Elliptical

Running on the elliptical offers minimal impact, good aerobic stimulation, and a relatively good full-body workout. However, it is not a direct replacement for running because you don’t have the same emphasis on the push-off and mid-stance phases. Much like aqua jogging, this is a great tool to use for injury prevention, mobility, and another type of aerobic training. Use an elliptical on days when you are particularly sore or need a warm-up before strength training or yoga.

Yoga and Pilates

Restoration, mobility, and muscular control are why I implement yoga and pilates into my athletes’ training programs. Athletes that are frequently injured usually don’t understand how tight or bound up they are after a run. Yoga and pilates demand muscular control to hold positions that translate to better form when running. I like to program this at the end of a tough workout or later in the day of a long run to prevent losing range of motion and mobility. 

Both yoga and pilates can help engage the sympathetic nervous system, which can help you sleep better, relax, and minimize stress. There is also a small strength component that can be beneficial to runners, but extensive or excessive amounts of both yoga and pilates can lead to lower muscle tension which can diminish power output — use yoga and pilates sparingly during times when you have a great deal of speedwork.

Other Sports

With the exception of cross country or Nordic skiing, downhill skiing, rock climbing, and dancing are great ways to move your body, but they don’t restore or specifically prepare your body for your goal marathon. That doesn’t mean you should ignore them or not do them — just don’t give up other cross-training activities or any of your runs for these types of workouts.

Cross-training can help you move through a patch of injury or boredom without upsetting your whole training regimen — just don’t overdo it (usually two cross-training sessions per week is advisable). Use it as another tool in your training arsenal while pushing towards your marathon goals.

Andrew Simmons

Andrew Simmons is a USATF Level 2 and TrainingPeaks Level 2 certified coach and the founder/head coach of Lifelong Endurance. Athletes who want to improve their race times in distance running have found major success with his Individual Coaching and Training Plans. Andrew resides in Denver, Colo., where he still trains as a competitive amateur. Follow Coach Andrew on Facebook , Instagram, and Twitter.