Why cross training is so important for runners

Run. Run. Run. Run. Run. Run some more. Run. Run. Run.

We get it...in order to be a good runner, you need to run...a lot.

The problem is, running is really hard on your body. Each step produces hundreds, maybe even thousands, of pounds of force on your bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles. And you might take thousands of steps each time you go on a run!

Compound that with poor running form, poor training practices, and too many miles and it's no wonder that sources estimate that anywhere between 50-92% of runners get injured every year!

Now, armed with this knowledge, you would think that running coaches and training plans would suggest that you incorporate more cross training into your regimen, right?


After scouring dozens of training plans (ranging from 5k-marathon distances) around the interwebs, there were very few that even hinted at the idea of cross training. Of course, there were a variety of different running workouts and paces that you should run...but it was all still running.

The only time I ever saw cross training mentioned was during a rest day, where some plans would say something like "Rest Day/Cross Training".

Listen, if you're training to be an elite or professional runner, or you're running to win prize money, then by all means, run until you can't.

But for the rest of us mere mortals who are just running because we enjoy it or maybe looking for that Personal Best...you need to incorporate cross training into your training plan.

In my opinion, it is one of the most important and most overlooked aspects of any training plan. I'll explain why.

This is where I remind you that I am not a trained professional. Do not take any of this advice as medical advice. If you choose to use these training principles, you do so at your own risk!

Prevent muscle imbalances

When you run you tend to run however you feel comfortable. Maybe you hold your arms higher, maybe they tend to hang lower. Maybe you have an exaggerated butt-kick, or maybe you generally shuffle. Maybe you swing your right arm harder than your left.

Whatever it is, most people have something like this. One or two little things that you do differently than most people. And in general, this is totally natural and normal. I mean who can honestly say they have perfect form?!

The problem arises when one part of your body is working harder than the others, which can create muscle imbalances. For example, I am right foot dominant. Whenever I need to step over a curb, take a big step, or jump over a puddle...I do it with my right foot.

You might not think that's a big deal until you realize how many times you do it! Over time my right hip flexor has become stronger but also tighter and less mobile than my left hip flexor. This has led to overuse injuries and general discomfort in my right hip.

Cross training may help alleviate some of those muscle imbalances that you may have from your natural running form.

If you focus on elliptical, rowing, or biking where your gait is locked in, it may help you strengthen and stretch your muscles more evenly.

Even if you choose to cross train with a different exercise, allowing your body to move in a pattern that you're not as familiar with could force your body to move more efficiently and less habitually, again allowing for a more balanced workout.

Strengthen secondary muscle groups

When you run, your body gives most of the hard work to a few major muscle groups like your calves, your quads and your hamstrings. Sprinters tend to work their glutes more than distance runners, but you could through that muscle group in there as well.

Then, your body hands out the rest of the work to a bazillion other little muscles that are often called "stabilizer" muscles or secondary muscle groups. These are the little foot muscles, the core muscles, the muscles that help your knee stay in place, the ankle muscles, etc. They're working too, just not as hard.

These muscles are absolutely essential to running efficiently and safely but they often get neglected in recovery workouts and strengthening exercises.

One way of strengthening these secondary muscle groups is by cross training.

Different activities will work your muscles differently (obviously!), so some cross training exercises may be better than others, but all of them will be beneficial as long as it's a full body exercise that gets your heart rate up.

Lower impact workouts

I don't want to beat a dead horse...buuuut I kinda do, so I will. Running is a high impact sport! It can be very hard on your body, especially if you have prior injuries, if you're overweight, or if you have poor running mechanics.

Almost anything you cross train with will be easier on your body than running.

So even if you don't take into account anything else we've talked about in this article, cross training will give your body a break from the stress and impact of running while still providing you with a cardiovascular workout.

We'll talk more about low-impact cross training options later.

Mental break from running

Running is awesome. It's an amazing sport that I clearly love...that's why I'm writing about it! But many people might see running as more of a job, something that needs to be done rather than something they want to do.

We've already talked about why running can be so brutal for beginner runners, but this mindset might also apply to many different types of runners...overweight runners, injured runners, or people using running as their form of cross training.

Some days you might wake up and the thought of going on a run makes you want to hide under the covers all day. I know that feeling, I've been there. Hell, we've all been there!

I found that the best thing to do to get rid of that running stress is to just do something else.

Find anything else that will elevate your heart rate, and do that. Play basketball, do yoga, go on a walk with your dog, chase your kids. Even if it's not the best workout in the world, it will still give you the mental break you need from running.

And this tip isn't just for those who aren't the biggest fans of running, even the most passionate runners need a break every now and then.

I look forward to my run pretty much every day but every now and then I schedule in a mountain bike ride, a swim, or a hike because I know that even I will burnout if I don't give myself a break every now and then...even if I don't think I need one.

About 6 months ago I was dealing with IT Band Syndrome. ITBS is a common overuse injury for runners. I went to the orthopedist who told me to stop running, start working on strength and stretching exercises and come back in a few months to figure out if I'll need surgery.

I was able to bike, swim and even hike with no pain. It was just running. And it was infuriating...but I did what the doctor told me.

After 5-6 weeks I tried going on a run again and the ITBS was the same, I didn't feel any improvement at all. At this point I had all but given up. I just figured I was going to need surgery so I might as well run if I can endure the pain, it couldn't make it any worse!

After a few road runs (and lots of ice), I ran on a local trail and noticed that I didn't have any pain in my IT Band that evening. So I tried trail running again...and again, no pain during or after the run. I started running every other day on the trails and never had any IT Band pain.

I didn't care that I wasn't running on the road, I was still able to run, and that was enough! So I kept running on the trails around my house until I decided I wanted to try road running again.

At first, I just ran a 2 mile loop. No pain. Then 3 miles...then 4. No pain. I honestly couldn't believe it. I would come home after every run way more excited than a grown man should be! I was able to sprinkle in road runs once or twice a week while all of my other runs were on the trails.

After a few months I was able to run on the road as much as I wanted without any IT Band pain (knock on wood for me).

Now, I'm not saying that cross training is going to solve all of your injury problems, I'm not even sure if it solved my injury problem...but I'm fairly confident that trail running paved the way for me to return to running injury free.

My half baked theory is that because trail running is so inconsistent (with ups and downs, twists and turns), I didn't follow the same movement pattern over and over and over. My stride had to change with every root, rock, and hole in the ground.

Combined with the fact that I was doing a lot more hill climbing, and therefore strengthening my glutes, I think I was able to sufficiently strengthen my secondary muscle groups so that when I went back to road running I didn't have the same imbalances that may have been causing my IT Band pain in the first place.

Now, I can't stress enough...I'm not a medical professional. I've done a lot of informal research on all of this, but I'm reminding you...it is informal. If you have an injury go see a doctor! Please, please don't construe this as medical advice!

Alright...if you're interested in adding some cross training sessions into your training plan, let's take a look at what we're working with...

Cross training options

In the gym



Stair master

Recumbent bike

Spin classes

HIIT classes

Battle ropes

Low impact



Roller blading

Cross-country skiing











Golfing (you gotta walk!)



Jump rope

Rock climbing

Now, there is one activity that I purposefully did not list here...that's weight lifting. The reason I didn't list lifting is not because I don't think you should do, it's because you should always be doing it, not just in lieu of one of your run days.

Weight lifting is an essential element of running that many runners choose to ignore. Lifting will help you build stronger, more efficient muscles. If done right, you won't get bulky or stiff, you will gain strength, cardio fitness, flexibility and mobility.

If you're not incorporating weight lifting into your training plans you're missing out on a huge opportunity to improve your running.

How to start cross training today

Hopefully, you already know the value of cross training and you've been working these sessions into your training plan for as long as you've been running. But if you haven't, it's no big deal. You can start cross training today by following a few simple guidelines.

  1. Substitute one of your runs with a cross training session, not one of your rest days. Remember that this cross training session is taking the place of one of your runs...you still need to maintain your rest days.

  2. Try to maintain the original workout intensity. If you're going on a swim instead of hitting your tempo run, don't half-ass it in the pool! You should be trying to keep the intensity of your workout the same during your cross training session so you can get a break from running while still getting a good cardio workout. A good way to keep track of this is with a heart rate monitor.

  3. Don't go overboard, don't get hurt! This is not the time to try to dunk on your friends, break the pool 100 meter record, or land your first 360 flip on your mountain bike! You are probably not as physically adapted to this sport and may be more likely to get injured. Work hard, but don't get hurt.

Remember, we all need breaks. Burnout is a very real thing in almost every aspect of life so make sure you're taking care of your body and mind by changing up your workouts every once in a while!

Thank you, thank you, THANK YOU for reading!!

If you found this article interesting, helpful or just entertaining do me a big favor and share it!

If you want to read more of the good stuff follow these links for more articles about...

New Runners | Heavy Runners | Trail Runners

Last but not least, let me know what you think in the comments below. Do you cross train now? If so, what do you prefer to do?


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