Exercise and Wellness

The Importance of Cross Training for Runners

A runner stretching in the gym.
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Cross training is a broad term that gets used frequently in sports. At its most basic level, cross training means doing any sport other than the one that’s your main focus. Depending on your primary sport, options for cross training are virtually unlimited.

As a runner, your training focus is related to running, and with good reason. If you want to get better, you should spend the majority of your time doing the activity you hope to improve. But cross training can benefit you in a variety of ways, whether you’re injured and trying to maintain fitness or working to increase strength and mobility.

Benefits of Cross Training

The benefits of cross training will depend on the activity you choose and how you implement it into your training schedule. Some activities, such as pool running and cycling, more closely mimic running and are ideal if you’re injured and trying to stay fit for an upcoming race. Others, like yoga and swimming, may be more complementary to running. Depending on the intensity, they can be used as a way to recover from the impact of running or help you build additional strength and mobility.

Trevor Hicks, a physical therapist with AdventHealth, notes the many benefits. “Cross training is valuable because it allows the athlete to continue training but decreases bone stress to help avoid injury. It also increases cardiovascular endurance while not taxing the joints as much as the forces incurred through running.”

Cross training can have both mental and physical benefits. Some runners use it more frequently in the offseason to allow a mental break from the intensity of running. If you are injury prone and trying to build or maintain fitness, cross training can help you improve your endurance with less pounding and mileage on your legs.

Types of Activities

There is no shortage of activities to try as an alternative to running. If you’re just looking for a mental break or a way to have fun and experiment in the offseason, then the sky is the limit. But if you’re looking to build running-related fitness, you’ll want to stick with activities that are similar to running in respect to your movement and biomechanics.

Hicks is clear that there are many options available to runners and it just depends on your goals. “Swimming and cycling allow for cardiovascular improvement with reduced stress on the joints. Resistance training builds stronger muscles to support the body when running.”

Here are a few options in order from more to less running-specific:

Pool Running

If you’re injured and unable to perform any weight-bearing exercise, pool running should be your go-to method for maintaining fitness. Of all types of cross training, pool running is the most running-specific. You can replicate just about any type of running workout in the pool, from tempos to intervals to long runs. It’s not terribly exciting, but if you can hang in there with a little monotony, you’ll see benefits when you hit the road again.


It's low impact, and like pool running it provides a perfect opportunity to replicate workouts such as tempos and intervals. Indoor cycling allows greater flexibility during bad weather, while outdoors you can explore a greater area than you could on foot. Cycling can be used to maintain and improve fitness, as well as adding variety to your training. In addition, cycling helps strengthen the quads, outer hips and glutes, which all tend to be weaker in runners.


Working out on an elliptical closely mimics your running movement with little to no impact on your joints. Make sure to use enough resistance to get your heart rate elevated for an aerobic workout. Like pool running, ellipticals can be a little monotonous. An alternative (if available) is the ElliptiGO bike. They have all the benefits of an elliptical machine while allowing you to break the monotony and get outside.

Strength Training

It's a broad term that encompasses everything from core exercises to bodyweight workouts and lifting heavy at the gym. Whether you are injured or not, strength training should be a part of every runner’s routine. Glutes and hips are a common weak area for runners, which can lead to issues such as IT Band Syndrome. If you’re currently injured, strength training can help you come back stronger and more resilient.


For an outstanding full-body workout with no impact, try swimming. Because swimming is less running-specific, however, it will fit into your training a bit differently than pool running. Swimming is a perfect activity for a recovery day, or for a runner who is prone to injury as mileage increases but wants to get in some aerobic work.

Stretching Classes

They can be a great tool for recovery and working mobility back into tight, inflexible muscles. Look for slow, restorative options or classes that move at a faster pace and will test your strength and stamina for a different type of workout. Focus on your breath and movement no matter what the pace, and you might also get an additional benefit to the mental side of your training.

How to Add Cross Training

When you’re deciding how to add cross training into your schedule, you first have to assess where you are in training and how you want to use alternate forms of exercise to your benefit. Most runners will fit into one of the following scenarios:

  • Injured and unable to run
  • Injury-prone or returning to training from a longer hiatus
  • Physically and mentally healthy and training for a race
  • In the offseason or cutting back on running to reduce risk of mental fatigue/burnout

If you’re injured or coming back from injury, your cross training will be different than someone who’s in full training mode or even a runner in their offseason. If injury is a concern but you’re looking to build running-related fitness, you’ll be best served by cross training that’s supplementary to running. These are activities that most similarly replicate the demands of running, but without the impact — like pool running and cycling.

If you are healthy and already training hard you may benefit more from activities that are complementary to your running. These include strength training or activities that can help with aspects of mobility and recovery, such as swimming and yoga.

Cross training is the secret weapon in every athlete’s arsenal of training tools to stay healthy and build long-term durability. By using cross training in a way that aligns with your goals, you’ll reap the benefits and improve both mental and physical fitness. For more information about supplementing your training safely or to speak with an expert about an injury, visit AdventHealth Sports Med & Rehab today.

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