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How To Integrate Cross-Training Into Your Running

There's a reason many runners fail to cross-train effectively and Olympian Alan Culpepper shares the new way to approach it.

Most athletes have come to appreciate the benefits of cross-training. However many fail to integrate it effectively, because they don’t understand how to pair it with a running training program. The integration of new training elements takes planning and thoughtfulness, and different types of cross-training require different approaches.

Three categories, three strategies:

  1. Aerobic non-impact includes cycling, spinning, swimming, pool running and elliptical.
  2. Aerobic impact could be CrossFit, boot camp, dance or aerobics.
  3. Strength work is free weights, drills, yoga and Pilates.

Aerobic Non-Impact

This is the easiest category to integrate into a running program, since it can be used to replace a recovery day or a harder workout day. Ideally these would be used for recovery days, and your harder running days would not be compromised. However, if you are dealing with an injury, swapping a harder running workout with a harder cross-training workout is a good option.

Some important aspects to consider are duration and effort level. Non-impact exercises actually allow you to work out longer and harder than running. For instance, if you had planned a 45-minute run, you could swap it with a spin on the stationary bike for 70 to 90 minutes or a run on an elliptical for 60 to 70 minutes at a moderate effort. Since there is little to no impact, you can still recover in the same time frame. Swimmers, for instance, work out every day because of this. Runners, however, should limit harder sessions to two or three per week. When looking to add cross-training into your routine, an aerobic non-impact option should be your first choice.

Aerobic Impact

When it comes to integrating an impact regimen with a running routine, I do not advocate this during a buildup to a specific goal or target event. During the off -season or when you are not training for a specific event is a great time to try out CrossFit or Orangetheory or a fun dance class. However, if you are preparing for a target goal, this type of training becomes tricky to integrate efficiently and can hinder your running-specific development. The impact and higher level of intensity make it harder to simply swap out a run on any given day. As a general rule, cross-training is meant to limit the impact on the body while also providing other ancillary benefits such as muscular strength and minimal recovery time. Remember, harder runs or tough aerobic efforts such as a bike ride, swim or elliptical workout are where you will gain the most in terms of better running performances. Muscular strength is secondary to the aerobic benefits of cross-training.

Strength Work

I do not want to minimize the benefits of strength work and the role it plays with injury prevention, form development, power and stamina. However, strength work is secondary to aerobic work as it relates to improvements in running performance. The good news is that you can see huge improvements in your overall muscular strength with a minimal amount of work. This type of cross-training can be added on top of your existing program. A yoga or Pilates class can be added on an easy run day versus simply replacing that run. Or you can add a 15-minute core workout and drill routine as part of your cool-down after a harder run session. Strength work should never replace aerobic work but should be an additional element. These sessions should be shorter in duration and with a focus on form and body awareness. They should not be overly taxing or exhausting. They are meant to turn on various muscle groups and create overall muscular balance.

RELATED: Cross-Training Classes That Are Great For Runners


About the Author

Two-time U.S. Olympian Alan Culpepper won national titles from the 5K to the marathon. His first book, Run Like a Champion, is available at VeloPress.