How to Improve Your Running With Cross Training
The most common solution you’ll hear for novice runners to get faster is to do more (or harder) speed workouts. This strategy will only work partially and is not a long-term solution to breaking the performance plateau.
I have spoken to many runners with less than a year of experience in the sport. Their main goal is to accelerate to 5 or 10 km and reach a plateau of performance. All wonderful heads! They typically run 15-25 miles per week, which is a good starting point for a beginner runner, and they do one (or not) speed workout per week.
The biggest drawback for beginner runners is their small aerobic base, also called running endurance or endurance. Dramatic increases in mileage can be a sure fire path for beginner runners (especially if they aren’t doing enough basic work).
So how can you improve running endurance without increasing your risk of injury? Simple: alternative aerobic exercise. Since I want to focus on building a solid aerobic foundation, I’m going to focus on aerobic exercise as an alternative to running rather than strength training or weight lifting.
How I Increased Endurance Through Cross-training
Twice in my running career, I have used complementary exercises to dramatically improve my fitness. The first was before my college graduation year as I was preparing for my final skiing season. For two months, I spent over 3 hours a week biking and jogging in the pool (in addition to running 80 miles a week).
I went back to campus and won the last 3 km of our team time trial (we did 2×3 km). My physical fitness took on a whole new level and I ran with much more talented runners. My trainer figured my cross-training was the equivalent of an extra 15 miles a week, so I was doing the same amount of work as someone running nearly 100 miles a week, without the added risk of injury.
I almost got into the All-ECAC (East Coast Athletic Conference) by less than one second and improved my 8k personal best by 59 seconds.
After graduating from college, I switched to a three month triathlon course to prepare for several sprint triathlons. While my weekly mileage was almost halved, I was swimming and cycling 4-5 hours a week.
After I resumed running, I debuted the 10K cross country race and ran 33:41 (much faster than I thought) and ran my personal best per mile at 4:33.
Triathlon training is incredible strength and can undoubtedly improve your fitness.
Benefits of cross training
I’ve seen huge fitness gains in just a few targeted months of consistent cross-training – and so have you. During these intense training cycles, I didn’t even feel tired or burned out. I was mentally thrilled every day of training because mixing different forms of exercise keeps you fresh.
I didn’t get tired of just running every day. Cycling, swimming and running in the pool were a welcome change to my regular running routine. Keeping your workouts mentally fresh will help you avoid fatigue and loss of motivation.
Physically, I am stronger than ever. I have done more cardiovascular exercise than ever before with little or no additional risk of injury. If you are prone to injury, this is how you improve your personal bests.
The added benefit of all these zero-impact exercises is that they strengthen their muscle groups, which are usually not worked out while running. Cycling and swimming in particular work very different muscles and increase overall athleticism.
Swimming is a form of level 2 exercise for runners, it just isn’t specific enough. To maximize your running performance, stick to exercises that closely mimic your running movements. The best are:
- Running in the pool – use belt AquaJogger, to maintain the correct form: high cadence , not overexert legs and keep your back straight. If you have experience, you can ditch the belt for a heavier workout.
- Cycling is preferable to road cycling, but mountain biking can also help. Use clip-on shoes whenever possible and try to keep your cadence above 90 rpm.
- The elliptical trainer is spectacular, but not very fun. Keep your rhythm high to simulate running.
- Swimming – Learn the right technique, don’t drown, and do faster workouts for extra aerobic lift.
While most of these forms of exercise are quite running specific, at some point you will need to increase your mileage to reach your true potential. To be a good runner, you need to run a lot. Extra aerobic cross-training can help bridge the gap, especially for injury-prone runners, but you can’t plant potatoes and harvest carrots (I love this line!).
Timing for cross training
Cross training days should be used strategically to either foster recovery or prepare you for a strenuous effort (such as a long run). It depends on your fitness level and what race you’re training for.
If you are a beginner or are not used to long runs or jogging 6-7 days a week, then it is wise to use a day of cross training before your long run to prepare yourself for a long run. The last thing you want to do is fatigue on the most important workout of the week.
You may also need a day of cross training after a long run if you need extra recovery. Cross-training activities such as cycling, swimming, or jogging in the pool can improve your aerobic fitness and improve blood flow to your legs. Because these types of exercises do not transfer impact forces through your legs, you can still work out well after a tiring day of running.
Ideally, every runner should work up to 6-7 days a week and use cross training as a supplementary workout rather than a substitute for workout (especially for marathon runners). It’s not always practical, so my second choice for most runners is to use it before a long run. Getting ready for a long run followed by a good run is vital to getting ready for a marathon.
Here’s my top for anyone looking for a cheat sheet on the best ways to use cross training in the long run:
- Run 7 days a week and use cross-training workouts such as cycling or running in the pool as complementary exercises to improve aerobic fitness and recovery.
- Run 6 days a week and cross-train as an easy day, but not before or immediately after a long run.
- Run 4-6 days a week and cross-train the day before a long run to rest and prepare your legs.
- Run 4-6 days a week and cross train the next day after a long run to recover from strenuous effort.
The reason the fourth ranked last is because some research shows that jogging slowly the next day after strenuous effort can help improve performance and improve fitness (even if it is REALLY slow!). I remember reading this study a few months ago, but unfortunately I cannot find it now. Let me know if you have it on hand!
Planning your long runs, workouts, light days, and cross training can be challenging. I’m glad that for the first eight years of my running career, I had great trainers who planned my training for me. All I had to do was show up and do it!
Putting It All Together – An Example of a School Week
At Strength Running, I love giving you as many actionable coaching tips as possible that you can use today to help you run. So, here’s how to incorporate this information into your running schedule.
Imagine that you are a healthy runner. How would you plan your cross training? If you’re running five days a week with a weekly long run and a faster workout, here’s my suggestion:
In this example, Tuesday’s run is an easy recovery session. Both time and intensity are low to help you recover from your morning workout. It’s the same with Sunday Pool Run – the goal of this workout is to help you recover from Saturday’s long run, not just take a day off.
The Wednesday cycling session can be longer and with more moderate effort. The goal here is to add volume to your weekly workout to boost your overall endurance.
Now that you know how to put it all together, the next time you hear a runner say, “ What’s the point of cross-training? “You will know what to tell them!
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