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To be a better runner, you have to run. It’s pretty simple. As one of my old coaches liked to say, “You can’t plant carrots and harvest tomatoes.” But there are other alternative training options available that can help you improve that don’t include running.
For the die-hard runners out there, there is a benefit to doing non-running exercise. While running more will make you faster and increase your endurance, not everyone can jump into running 50 miles a week (or more). Pushing the mileage envelope can result in injuries.
Alternative training can help bridge the gap between the mileage that you’re currently able to handle and the higher mileage that you want to do. It can give you the same amount of cardiovascular exercise while reducing the pounding on your joints and muscles that’s associated with running.
There are numerous cross-training ideas for runners, but which ones are the best? Which non-running activities are the most suitable for runners? There are several important elements of alternative exercises to look for to make sure you’re choosing the right one. Not every cross-training exercise is created equal.
Your number #1 criteria for choosing an effective cross-training exercise is specificity. Specificity is simply how specific a certain exercise is to running. Clearly, running is ideal, but if you want to add more exercise to increase your endurance but can’t run more, then how similar is your chosen exercise to running? Wrestling is a great sport and requires a lot of fitness, but it’s not specific to running and won’t help you lower your next 5k time.
After specificity, the next thing you should ask yourself is, “Will this exercise help my running?” In other words, your cross-training sessions should supplement your running and make you a better runner. They should also never jeopardize your health. That’s why I dislike basketball, soccer, and other high-impact sports. The risk for injury is too high because of their intensity and constant direction changes.
The Best Cross-Training Exercises for Runners
If you have a road bike, or at least access to a spinning class, then you have the best exercise for runners available to you! Cycling is specific and uses your legs in a similar motion to running, so you know the fitness you get from biking will carry over well. Additionally, the way it works your muscles slightly differently will help protect against muscular imbalances and prevent injury. Cycling has no impact forces and if your bike is properly fitted, the chance for injury is small.
Pool running, or aqua-jogging, comes in a close second to cycling. With no impact forces, your chance of injury is very low. Because you’re in the water and the nature of pool running, you will have to work extra hard to ensure your heart rate is at a high enough level. That’s why it’s OK to pool run at a “tempo” effort for the majority of your exercise session. You can also do short intervals at a high effort almost every day. The water will keep your heart rate lower and your legs aren’t being damaged by impact forces, so you can get an amazing workout day after day!
Unless you’re a seasoned veteran with pool running, use an Aqua-jogger (pool running flotation belt) to help keep your form in check. Keep your back tall, and do a running/cycling motion with your legs. The trick to successful pool running is to keep a high cadence (rotations per minute of your legs). Try not to overextend your legs or you may irritate your lower hamstrings.
Really? YES! Unlike cycling and pool running, which focus on building your cardiovascular system and developing a monster aerobic engine, lifting develops the chassis around that engine. You can’t put a Ferrari engine in a Geo Prizm without the Prizm breaking down, so we have to make it stronger. Runners should focus on multi-joint, compound movements that build functional strength. Exercises like dead lifts, pull ups, military press, bench press, squats, lunges, and overhead press.
Many runners think that they should lift lighter weight numerous times for endurance. Well, that’s what your running is for. If you want lifting to benefit your running as much as possible, then lift heavy weights. You’ll use more muscle fibers so you’ll get a lot stronger (and make yourself more impervious to injury), and your leg muscles will be able to apply more force to the ground in a quicker time frame (this means you will get faster).
Mixing cross-training with your running can bring your races to the next level if properly executed. Triathlon training and running are very complementary, so you may consider taking a short break to train for a tri. Otherwise, focus on your runs, but mix in 2-3 cross-training workouts every week to continue building your aerobic system and developing strength. You may just surprise yourself at your next race!