Why Cross-Training Is Essential for Distance Running

Updated: Jul 31

What is cross training?

It's not rocket science; running is primarily a linear sport. Whether you're running at the track, paved roads, or trails, there's seldom a demand for much lateral movement. Because of this, you will benefit from alternative training routines to strengthen those less active muscle groups.

Cross training programs have been utilized in buildups and training for years. Plenty of evidence supports that by implementing cross training, you may improve your running efficiency, develop speed and power, improve mobility, reduce recovery time, and reduce the risk of injury. Many athletes curtail their cross training to address specific concerns with their needs to maximize performance benefits.

Before beginning a cross training routine, you must revisit your specific goals. A routine for a runner whose goal is to set a new PB at the 400-meter distance would be much different than someone looking to complete a marathon. Once you've determined the purpose of your routine, you can set out to develop an appropriate program to match.

Why should distance runners cross train?

⁃ Reduce the risk of injury

⁃ Develop strength and speed

⁃ Reduce recovery time

⁃ Improve mobility

⁃ Increase running economy

Cross Training For Distance Runners

What are the physical demands of distance running?

  • Aerobic Base

Distance running requires a solid aerobic base or the ability to convert oxygen to fuel through respiration. So if you're implementing a cross training day in place of one of your workout sessions, it's beneficial to consider an activity lasting longer than 30 min. A few examples might include cycling, swimming, or moderate pace hiking.

  • Slow and Fast-Twitch Muscles

Slow-twitch muscle fibers will be addressed through activities similar to those listed above or other moderate to long efforts requiring a steady pace. In contrast, fast-twitch muscle development requires activities such as plyometric movements such as jumping rope, box jumps, burpees, high skips, agility ladder drills. Also, consider sprints or weight training. Fast-twitch muscles are supported by the anaerobic process. These exercises are tolerated for brief periods of hard effort followed by rest. This type of movement produces lactic acid and is responsible for the soreness in muscles during exercise.

What are common breakdown points with distance running?

  • Running Form

In most cases, a runner's form is the first thing to break down during a long race. This breakdown usually begins in the core, as it's the pivot point for all movement. Running with a weak or limited core can affect gait patterns and running economy, which increase the risk of injury and limiting overall performance. Implementing a cross training routine with some aspects of trunk and core strength and stability is essential for the runner that wants to reach their best. Try this core workout to build strength and balance for running. A core routine can be completed in as little as 5 minutes such as completing a series of planks for 3 sets of 15 - 20 second following your training run. Remember that the goal is to supplement your running with these exercises so be mindful of your umbrella goal when determining which exercises to complete.

  • Muscle Imbalances and Limited Mobility

Muscle imbalances and limited mobility are some of the most significant factors of injury prevention with runners. Mobility is different from flexibility in that its the ability of the joint to effectively move through the complete available range of motion during an activity where's as flexibility is defined as the passive range of motion available. When it comes to running, we like to emphasize pelvic and hip mobility due to its heavy demands during the course of a race.

How often should I cross train?

In our experience, runners benefited the most when they incorporated cross training 1 - 2 times a week. The frequency will likely change for runners returning from injury or those currently in a buildup to a race. Carving out time to work on specific weaknesses will significantly improve your performance.

During the "off-season," distance runners may increase cross training 3-4 times a week and have portions incorporated into their daily training routine. We advise that you complete your running first to be sure you're getting the base mileage before going into a cross training or strength routine. In the 10 - 15 minute window following an easy run you can complete a short core routine or agility training session. Another day you may decide to incorporate resistive training to build power and endurance.