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Cross Training Ideas for Runners

Cross Training Ideas for Runners
Become a better runner by doing more.

Successful runners do more than just run for exercise. They alternate with other activities that work complementary muscles and stress their bodies in different ways. The end result is greater muscle growth than running only would produce, and a reduced risk of repetitive stress injuries. It's called Cross Training. If you’re a runner, here are some cross-training activities to choose from. 

Cycling. It works many of the same muscles as running, but reduces the pounding your joints get from the pavement. It’s especially effective for people with weaker hamstrings and glutes.

To get the most out of your ride, do intervals where you push yourself extra hard for 30-60 seconds and then rest for another 30 seconds or so while your heart rate recovers. Try and complete 5-10 of these types of intervals. They can produce results in as little as 2-3 weeks.

The risk of injury is real. Make sure your bike is sized appropriately for you. If you’re riding on the road get a helmet and wear it. If you’re going to ride at night, get front and rear lights so traffic and people can see you.

Swimming. It keeps your legs engaged, but at a lower level than running alone. It also works the upper body, which many runners tend to ignore. Swimming is a non-weight-bearing activity. That means people dealing with joint pain, or recovering from foot or ankle injuries can benefit a lot.

Join a swim class to learn proper techniques. Avoid swimming in areas with swift currents or that don’t have safety personnel like lifeguards around. If the idea of swimming makes you nervous, consider the next water-based option.

Pool Running or Aqua Jogging. Like swimming, it doesn’t have impact forces, so it’s great for people recovering from injuries. It’s also an option for anyone unwilling or unable to master proper swimming techniques.

To get started, use equipment like an aqua-jogger (that’s a pool running flotation belt) to maintain proper form. Keep your back straight, don’t overextend your legs and use intervals to get your heart rate up. Sprint for a minute, then slow down to a jog while your heart rate recovers. Five to ten intervals are good to start, increasing to as many as 15 or 20 as your endurance improves.

Weight (Strength) Training. While running is great for your cardiovascular system, weights build the muscles that hold your body together. It’s also how you can get an energy boost if you’re someone who typically hits a wall halfway through a run.

Don’t make the mistake or doing lots of endurance work, that’s what your runs are for. Lift heavy and build up some of the muscle mass that the running tends to burn off. If your time is limited, focus on compound of multi-joint exercises like pull-ups, deadlifts, squats and lunges. Schedule a minimum of two workouts a week, for 30-45 minutes each. Three workouts, one every other day, is even better if you can arrange it.

In a 10-week study, female runners that lifted weights three times a week improved upper body strength by 24% and lower body strength by 34%. Interestingly their body composition didn’t change. However, since they were stronger, they were able to run more efficiently.

Depending on the pace they set, the runners that did strength training consumed 3.8 to 4.5% less oxygen. That means they were able to run faster than the subjects who didn’t strength train, with the same amount of oxygen. Improvements like that can easily shave a minute or two off a 5K race time.

There are dozens of other options depending on your interests and where you live. Cross country or downhill skiing, in-line skating, plyometrics, rowing, stand up paddleboarding, kayaking, martial arts and even walking are good. 

Warning: Don’t simply add one of these workouts to a six-day a week running schedule. These should be done instead of a run, to give your body a break and work muscles in new ways. 

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