What’s the benefit of cross-training?

Getty Images

Beth asks: I’ve been running for about six months, three or four times a week. I have run 5Ks and 10Ks, and I’m building up for a half marathon in December and maybe a marathon next year. My running partner suggested we start cross-training a couple days a week in addition to our running. What exactly should we do for cross-training?  Is there a “best” activity for a runner?

The “best” cross-training activity for a runner is simply one that you will do. There are many benefits to all forms of cross-training, so it’s hard to say that one is better than another. When selecting an activity, it should address your needs and goals, which means that deciding what you want to gain from your cross-training is the place to start. 

Keep in mind that any cross-training should fit into your existing routine and enhance your running, rather than detract from it. Ideally, it should engage muscles that running doesn’t use. 

If you are looking to gain more cardio conditioning to supplement your running, your cross-training should be an aerobic activity - preferably one that uses different muscle groups than running, like swimming. If you want to focus on improving muscle strength and/or muscle flexibility, then look at adopting weight training, Pilates, yoga or other exercise classes. It also doesn’t hurt to incorporate one day of cardio cross-training and one day of muscular strength and flexibility training. 

Remember, however, that running primarily uses the muscles of the lower body. Recovery time between run workouts is necessary, so cross-training activities that primarily target the legs - like spinning - may not allow you enough recovery time between workouts if you are just starting out. For this reason, swimming or rowing are generally my favorites for aerobic cross-training for runners. Both emphasise the upper body over the lower body and are also non-impact. Spinning or stair climbing are also great forms of aerobic exercise, so they may be better on days off when your legs are feeling fresh after a run.

For improving muscle strength and flexibility, yoga, weight training or Pilates can target specific areas of the body that need work. Boosting your upper body strength and core help maintain good running form, especially over long miles, so it’s good to concentrate on these areas. And, if flexibility is your focus, then stretching classes or yin yoga are great options.

When running three or four days a week, cross-training can easily be incorporated two times a week into your schedule while still allowing one or two days a week of rest. Rest is also an important component of training do, so don’t neglect it!