Sometimes it’s what you do when you’re not running that gives you the edge you need. So it is with cross-training. A weekly non-running workout gives your muscles and joints a break while producing benefits that carry over to your running. ‘If you only run, you’re using the same muscles within the same plane of motion over and over,’ says Shannon Colavecchio, who trains runners in cycling, rowing and core-strengthening classes. ‘Using different muscles and movement patterns can help prevent injuries and also build speed and endurance.’ While you can get a good cross-training workout from many activities, some are particularly useful in helping you achieve running goals. Here are the best cross-training/running pair-ups.
Want to train hard? Try pool running
If you have an ambitious goal, you might want to do extra miles. But you could risk injury if you tackle too much. Jason Fitzgerald, head coach at Strength Running and a 2:39 marathoner, says pool running is a great option. ‘It’s the exercise that mimics road running the best; you’re working the same muscles, without the impact.’ Studies show that as long as you keep your heart rate up, pool running is an effective substitute for dry-land running.
How: Wear a pool belt to help keep you afloat. Run as you would on the road, keeping good posture while pumping your arms and keeping a high cadence. (Slow strides could cause you to overextend your legs, which may irritate your hamstrings.) Do it once a week for 45 minutes to an hour. You can pool run at a steady pace, or try short sprints (go fast for 15-30 seconds, recover, repeat) and long sprints (moderate effort for 5-10 minutes, recover, repeat).
Looking to prep for a hilly race? Try cycling
‘Cycling builds muscle endurance and powerful quads, hamstrings and glutes – muscles runners need for hill climbing,’ says Colavecchio. ‘Runners who do hill climbing on the bike will see the benefits on foot: they’ll have an easier time conquering hills.’
How: To get the most out of an outdoor-cycling workout, try to find rolling terrain where you can power up an incline, pedal fast when it flattens and charge up another hilly section. Colavecchio says that a spin class or stationary bike is also a good option, since it allows you to better control your workout – and not coast on downhills too much. Create your own ride: after a warm-up, do six sets of three minutes at hard resistance with a minute of light resistance in between. Finish with two minutes of a fast pace at medium resistance to simulate the end of a race, when your legs are hurting but you need to finish strong.
Want to nail a PB? Try weights
There’s no true substitute for running speedwork, but strength training can help you reach your goal. It builds leg power, which carries over to faster running times. Any strength work is useful but lifting weights that really challenge you has great value: one study showed that runners who lifted heavy versus light weights improved their performance in a 5K race. And you’ll get out of the gym faster. ‘You’re doing fewer reps, but getting more benefit; it’s a better bang for your buck,’ says Mike Young, founder of Athletic Lab, a research and training facility in North Carolina, US.
How: If you are new to resistance training, start with a light weight, one that allows you to comfortably do about 12 reps of your chosen exercise. Gradually increase the weight and reduce reps over time (while maintaining good form). Your ultimate goal is to pick a weight that makes it a challenge to do six reps.
Need to finish strong? Try rowing
In the last miles of a long run, many runners can’t stay upright. Hunching over causes you to breathe more shallowly, which can decrease how much oxygen you take in. Using a rowing machine can help your posture. ‘You’re getting a great cardio workout and strengthening your legs; rowing is like doing leg presses over and over, and that all carries over to improved endurance running,’ says Colavecchio. ‘Rowing also strengthens your core, back and arms. Building strength in those muscles can help you keep posture and form.’
How: Coach and strength specialist Will Kirousis recommends the following rowing-interval workout: do a five-minute warm-up, going from an easy to a moderate effort; eight minutes of alternating 20 seconds at intense effort and 10 seconds at easy effort; two minutes easy effort. Do the eight-minute set twice more, then finish with a five-minute cool-down.
Want to get flexible? Try yoga
You might have the ability to run fast or long. But reaching down to tie your shoelaces from a standing position? Without groaning? Now that’s often a different story. Runners need enough flexibility to be able to move fluidly through a proper range of motion, says Sage Rountree, yoga instructor, triathlon coach and the author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga (Velopress). ‘Stiffness in your hips can shorten your stride and limit your speed,’ she says. ‘And tightness in a specific muscle can cause gait modifications that can lead to injury.’
How: Find a style that’s appropriate for your level of experience and works well with your training schedule. During a period of demanding running, opt for a more relaxing yoga practice, like hatha, says Rountree. But in the off-season, when your mileage is less intense, you could do a more challenging session, such as ashtanga.