While running may be your go-to exercise, cross training is an essential part of an injury-free runner’s lifestyle. Simply put, cross training is any sport or activity that’s complementary to your running routine that improves both your performance and stamina. To prepare for the Wings for Life World Run, elite runners often cross-train.

So whether you give your running a boost with strength training, or decide to lengthen out those limbs with yoga, including other forms of exercise in your routine is a must. You’ll notice the impact on your running game in no time.

When walking or hiking, your leg movement mimics running, but only add gentle stress to your bones, muscles, and connective tissues. At the same time you are building strength and increasing your heart rate. If you choose a hike for active recovery between workouts, try different terrains and inclines to change up the difficulty and resistance.

Braden Currie

© Seal Beale

Biking is a favorite cross training exercise for both Red Bull heptathlete Emma Coburn and Red Bull ultrarunner Anton Krupicka. It works the same major muscles in your legs as running, helping you build the strength you need while cutting out the pounding of your body on the ground. Cycling allows your joints and ligaments time to recover, but you are still boosting your cardiovascular fitness.

Lucy Charles Barclay

© James Mitchell

A plunge into the pool is a great active recovery exercise for runners, providing a reliable cardiovascular workout that’s super light on the muscles, joints, ligaments, tendons, and bones. Since your body’s completely weightless, you get all the benefits of cardio, minus the stress of the impact.

Aqua jogging is the lovechild of running and swimming. Get yourself a flotation belt so you can focus on the quality of movement (rather than just staying afloat), and move your legs like you’re running while treading water. This is an especially valuable form of cross-training as rehabilitation for injured runners. To increase difficulty, raise your arms above your head and rely solely on your leg movement.

In the gym

© Craig Kolesky/Red Bull Content Pool

You don’t have to be a total gym buff to start strength training! Technically, it means performing a resistance workout on your muscles, which can be done with bodyweight, resistance bands, or by lifting weights. Start with what you’re most comfortable with, and work towards lifting weights in a compound exercise that builds strength in multiple big muscle groups at once. You can’t go wrong with weighted squats, lunges, deadlifts, or bench presses for the upper body.

Yoga can loosen tight muscles and strengthen your core

© Mathilde Draeger

You might think yoga is not for you, but you don’t have to contort yourself into a pretzel to do it right. Check if there’s a yoga studio in your area for a social weekend cross training workout, or get started with our list of easy yoga moves for runners. From the basic stretches to the advanced poses, it will do wonders for your mobility, improve your running form, address imbalances, and greatly reduce your risk of injury. The breathwork component of yoga is also a great tool to help you breathe more comfortably and perform better when you run.

Benefits of Cross Training

The different sports and activities associated with cross training should enhance your running strength, endurance, mobility, and breathing. The variations in movement will also help address imbalances in your body and prevent injuries. The most common running injury is overuse, so change it up and give your body a break.

Improves Running Economy and Endurance

Running economy refers to how far you run for the amount of oxygen you consume. Strength training your legs can lead to significant gains in this arena. The stronger your legs are, the better your endurance, and the more efficient you’ll be as a runner.

Targets Specific Deficiencies

Cross training allows you to pinpoint and target areas of improvement without adding unnecessary miles to your training. Let’s say you’re a fast runner but you tire out quickly. Instead of running further, which could lead to fatigue and injuries, you can work on your endurance with strength training.

Encourages Rest and Prevents Overuse

When running is your thing, it’s tempting to believe the best way to improve is to run more miles. The problem is that this only works the same specific running muscles, which can lead to not only overuse injuries, but also mental burnout. Cross training gives your muscles – and your mind – a break from running, so you can come back renewed and refreshed.

Florian Neuschwander

© Phil Pham

Cross Training Tips for Runners

Cross-training gives your muscles a switch-up to prevent overuse, so make sure you don’t counteract that by going too hard! Take a balanced approach, making sure you include both strength sessions and active recovery.

Cross-training is a chance to target parts of your body that are neglected by running. Focus on antagonist muscles, aka muscle groups that oppose each other, to address imbalances, improve running performance and reduce the risk of injury. For example, you rely heavily upon your quads, calves, and Achilles when you run, so make sure to train your inner thighs and hamstrings.

Planning your training will help you stay consistent in the long run, and also give you the peace of mind that you’re doing enough. It makes it easier for you to take your rest days without feeling guilty. In general, two high-intensity strength sessions a week is a good starting point, with one cross-training session of active recovery, like swimming or yoga. If you’re on a high mileage training program, go for one or two cross training sessions a week to stay balanced.

At the end of the day, exercise should feel like a joy, not a chore. Pick activities that you’re excited by–which also makes you more likely to stick to your schedule– and enjoy the endorphin rush!

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