By Nike Running
Learn how cross-training helps you prevent injury and build strength.
To become a better runner, you need to do more than just run. In this article you’ll learn how to use cross-training to improve your performance on the road, prevent injury and build strength.
Running is wonderful. But it shouldn't be the only training you do, even if you’re a pro. To stave off injuries and run your fastest and strongest, you need cross-training too—cardio, strength-training, and active recovery.
How Cross-Training Prevents Injury
Let’s start with that injury-prevention part. While it may not sound like the sexiest benefit of cross-training, it’s actually the key to becoming a better runner. That’s because it takes time for your muscles, tendons, and ligaments to get strong enough to withstand a lot of pavement pounding, explains Ian Klein, a specialist in exercise physiology, cross-training, and injury prevention at Ohio University. Cross-training, Klein says, gives your body the impact stimulus of running—basically, the coaxing it needs to grow stronger—without overloading it so much that you get hurt.
Think about cycling, swimming, using the elliptical. All of these forms of cardio can remove the brute force of running while training your muscles to go longer and push harder, and with little additional injury risk, says Jason Fitzgerald, a USA Track & Field-certified coach and creator of the coaching program, Strength Running. “If I'm looking at two runners and one is running 40 miles a week and the other is doing the same mileage plus two hours of aerobic exercise, my money is on the runner doing cross-training to run faster,” says Fitzgerald. “The cross-training is almost like running higher mileage.”
“Cardio can remove the brute force of running while training your muscles to go longer and push harder, with little additional injury risk”
Jason Fitzgerald, USA Track and Field Coach
For injury-prone runners, swapping some easy runs with cardio cross-training can give your legs a break and help you stay healthy, adds Fitzgerald. Just keep that “some” part in mind. “Cross-training is not as valuable for your key sport as doing your key sport would be,” explains strength and conditioning coach Janet Hamilton, the owner of the Atlanta-based coaching company Running Strong. In other words, if you want to be a good runner, you still have to run.
Why Building Muscle Betters a Run
Strength training, another form of cross-training, helps bulletproof your body by building muscle. “The stronger you are, the less risk you’re at for injury, and the more resistance you’ll have to fatigue,” says Hamilton.
You can get these perks by doing anything from weight lifting and plyometrics to lower-intensity bodyweight work, such as yoga and Pilates. The added benefit of resistance training: “The movements that you do in non-running activities are working muscles and joints in patterns that are different from what you would do while running,” says Hamilton. That contributes to overall body strength and mobility, which makes you a better runner.
“The stronger you are, the less risk you’re at for injury, and the more resistance you’ll have to fatigue”
Janet Hamilton, Owner of Running Strong
How Active Recovery Improves Your Training
Finally, scaled-back versions of your favorite cross-training activities—say, a super easy bike ride or a relaxing walk—can help you bounce back faster from a challenging run. This active recovery allows you to notch gains you wouldn’t get sitting on the couch. In fact, when runners were tested before and after doing either active or passive recovery, the active group was able to run nearly three times longer than those who simply rested, according to research from Western State Colorado University.
That may be because active recovery after strenuous exercise helps clear blood lactate buildup faster than passive recovery does, which increases the blood flow to your muscles, helping them to more effectively repair themselves, a separate study published in the Journal of Sports Sciences found. Active recovery has also been shown to lower your heart rate during other sports and how hard you feel like you’re working, according to research published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine.
Active recovery increases the blood flow to your muscles, helping them to more effectively repair themselves.
This may sound like a lot. But cross-training doesn’t mean you have to spend hours in the gym. Hamilton recommends strength training and/or cardio cross-training on days when you don’t have a key running workout, like speed work, hills, or a long run.
Besides all the wins for your running performance, there’s a big mental bonus waiting for you too: Cross-training brings something new, fresh, and fun to your weekly training. And that variety will keep you psyched to lace up your running shoes.