Cross Training for Runners: How Not to Get Hurt

Confession: I’m an injured runner. The reason? Cross training…or rather, a lack of it. That thing that we all know we should be doing, but somehow can’t reliably bring ourselves to do. Sometimes we narrow our focus too much, do a lot of one kind of activity and then scratch our heads when we get hurt doing that thing or something else. Sound familiar? In my case, it was too much low intensity work followed by playing soccer with the 12U team I coach and boom…calf strain. If I had been incorporating some high intensity, short duration efforts, would I likely be toeing the line for that upcoming race? I’d like to think so. Let’s get to work.

Why do runners need to cross train?

Too often we get caught up in running and only running. I get it, we’re runners, it’s our identity. We think that any time spent away from running is a waste and will negatively impact our performance. One of the primary reasons for runners to cross train is to escape the impact. All that time on your feet can take its toll on the body. To see the positives of cross training for runners, look no further than Kilian Jornet. According to his training data from 2021-22, he spent the beginning of December to the end of March doing primarily ski mountaineering, known as skimo, which is hiking on skis or carrying them and then skiing down. He went on to win the Hardrock 100 and Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc, setting course records in both. So no, I wouldn’t say that cross training negatively impacted his performance. American runners are following in his footsteps with Jim Walmsley also taking up skimo in the winter instead of running and given his win at UTMB this year, I think it might have paid off!

What is the best cross training for runners?

The best cross training is the kind that you will do consistently. Be careful to not just do something that is essentially the same as running. Cycling and swimming can be great cross training activities, but you will be working the same muscles in the same way, in the same plane of motion. Think about activities that will make you work more in other planes of motion, such as rotational and lateral exercises. These will work muscles in a different manner than you’re accustomed to and can provide you with more stability. Another thing to consider is the intensity of the cross training. If you’re already training endurance with long duration, low intensity workouts, you may not want to mirror that in your cross training. Something that has a shorter duration and higher intensity can pay bigger dividends if done so consistently. This can condition muscles and tendons to be more resilient, instead of just being ready for one set of demands.

How often should runners cross train?

There is no perfect answer here, but generally 1-2 times per week is the correct one. If you’re getting in 8 cross training sessions as a runner each month, you’re doing a good job. However, this will vary based on the volume and intensity of running that you are doing. Cross training may also become more important if you are training around an injury. This is a great time to use walking, swimming or cycling that will work you in a similar plane of motion to maintain your cardiovascular endurance. It’s still a good idea to work in those other planes of motion as long as it’s tolerated. In these instances, it’s not a bad idea to cross train a little more while restoring your ability to run pain free again.

What are some other benefits of cross training?

Hopefully you’re running because you enjoy it, and your cross training shouldn’t be any different. It should be something that brings you joy. Another good reason to cross train is for your mental health. A lot of times, runners are preparing for races and are focused on their training plans with goal paces and miles for each week. Cross training for runners can also be a way of taking your mind off some of those details while still working toward your goal. Sure, that weekend run with your group can help, but sometimes we may just need a bit more of an escape. If you’re a Ted Lasso fan, think Roy Kent doing yoga with ladies that don’t know who he is…and it’s good for the core.

What are the best types of cross training for runners?

This one really comes down to personal preference. For me, it’s a lot about the culture around the cross training that keeps me involved. Don’t get me wrong, I love running, but the community around it makes it so easy to keep coming back. That being said, I find the most underutilized and likely most important cross training for runners to be strength training. Now before you get worried about bulking up, don’t. Remember how it took a lot of time and effort to build up to that 10k, or half marathon? Yeah, that’s the kind time and intensity it takes to bulk up with strength training as well. While you can certainly take that approach and still be a great runner, we will focus more on the kind of strength training that will complement the work you’re already putting in, improve performance, and make you less susceptible to injury.

Stick to the simple things. If you just start with squats, deadlifts, calf raises, and planks you will be on your way, but those are all still inside the same plane of motion as running. I don’t want you to exclude these from your strength training, just know that there are other movements that are valuable. I mentioned earlier that lateral and rotational movements can help improve stability and this is where it gets fun. Exercises like lateral lunges or step ups, Paloff press, and Copenhagen planks can go a long way that challenge your strength and stability. Running is a single leg activity, so let’s do a little strength training to mimic that.

Another thing to consider is your approach with sets and repetitions. Typically runners want to train strength with high reps and lower loads, but if you think about it, aren’t we already doing that with running? I would recommend going heavier and doing less volume. 3-5 sets of 6 repetitions at a heavier load can help you build strength better than 3 x 15. Think quality over quantity. If you’re concerned about your form with lifting or running, then this is a great opportunity to meet with your friendly neighborhood PT, chiropractor, or strength coach to build that confidence and cross training plan.

To sum things up, the best cross training for runners is the cross training you will do. Be sure to add in some variety and don’t always do the same things. Cross training should not be ignored when building your training plan, or else you could be more likely to end up sidelined when race day comes around. Make it fun, find something you look forward to. Whether it’s swimming on a hot day, racing someone across the world on Zwift, or chasing that deadlift PR, it will make you a more resilient runner.

About the Author

Dr. Brett Clingerman, DPT, OCS is a physical therapist with 10+ years experience. He graduated from Shenandoah University in 2012 and moved to North Carolina in 2015. He has spent most of his career treating Soldiers and Airmen, including being the lead PT for the women’s ten-miler team at Fort Liberty. Brett is board certified in orthopedics through the American Board of Physical Therapy Specialties. Certifications & Services include dry needling, Graston technique, spinal manipulation/ joint mobilization, kinesiotape, and FMS/SFMA.

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