The Cross-Training Every Runner Should Do for Less Impact and Lower Injury Risk

As runners, all of our training revolves around improving the cardiovascular system  — even slow runs. It’s the whole point of spending hours on the road hammering out miles. But for runners who are injury-prone or easily bored, that hammering gets old fast, even on slow runs. Trading some training miles for time on the bike, in the pool, and with other forms of cardio — known as cross-training — for runners might be the solution.

“Cross-training allows you to get the aerobic benefit of running but in a way that stresses the body in a bit of a different way, with less impact,” explains Jake Tavernite, DPT, OCS who works to get runners back after injury at Coast Rehab in New Jersey. 

A runner cross-training by swimming in open water.
Pexels, mali maeder

By mixing in activities like swimming, cycling, rowing, and walking, you’re not just giving your muscles a well-deserved break from pounding the pavement, you’re also building strength. Cross-training for runners creates a well-rounded approach to training that’ll make you physically resilient and mentally fresh to keep you on the road for the long haul. 

The Benefits of Cross-Training for Runners

Cross-training is loosely defined by most as any form of aerobic or anaerobic activity that’s not actually any type of running

“Running is just so cyclical in nature; every step is the same exact movement over and over and over again,” says Travernite, who has studied the benefits of cross-training for his clients and his personal race times. In other words, you’re loading the body in the same manner, mile after mile, week after week. 

That means you’re stressing the same tissue and the same muscles, too. Tavernite explains that when running, your quadriceps, hamstrings, calves and glutes absorb a great amount of shock with each stride. Additionally, the muscles around your hips and core act as stabilizers to support your pelvis and core. 

Diversifying your training gives the muscles being loaded time to rest and recover between runs while still training your cardiovascular system aerobically. Over time, this leads to running longer and faster

Tavernite says most cross-training methods will recruit the main muscles used in running plus auxiliary muscle groups that will help strengthen and stabilize your body for running. 

Which Runners Should Cross-Train?

An injured runner about to do a speed workout
Unsplash, Eagle Media Pro

Travertine and RRCA-certified running coach and personal trainer Erica Coviello agree there are three main categories of runners who should cross train:

  • Beginners, since replacing mileage can minimize the shock of transitioning from no or little running to high mileage
  • Injured runners dealing with things like tendonitis or stress fractures, since they often need to stop running entirely but can rely on cross-training to maintain fitness as they heal
  • Easily bored or burnt-out runners looking to switch up their race training

Coviello adds that that runners who don’t need to cross-train are those who:

  • Are running five to six days per week
  • Are not prone to overuse injuries
  • Have a secure, reliable schedule

Does Cross-Training for Runners Prevent Injuries?

Experienced runners know the physical and mental agony of running injuries. Being sidelined for weeks at a time is the absolute worst. The best way to combat this, of course, is injury prevention

But, as a physical therapist, Tavernite says he sees runners hobble in all the time because they do “too much, too soon, too fast, on too quick of a ramp-up.” 

Increasing your mileage volume too quickly or running too fast for your fitness level will catch up with you. This almost always leads to problems, namely stress fractures, tendonitis, shin splints, plantar fasciitis, and bursitis, he adds. 

And most of them are running exclusively, not cross training. 

The good news? Cross-training can really help prevent injuries, especially for those runners who are injury-prone: “While stressing the cardiovascular system, the variety provided by cross-training prevents the overuse of any one particular muscle group,” Coviello says. “This, in turn, reduces the risk of injury and promotes recovery. You may also find the variety of workouts help keep your mental game fresh.” 

Tavernite explains that this is particularly useful for intermediate runners who want to incorporate track workouts for speedwork, which can be an unwitting catalyst for injuries. “If you can use cross-training to replace your faster stuff, you can hold off some of those overuse injuries,” he says.

What Counts as Cross-Training for Runners?

Cross training for runners

As Tavernite mentioned, cross-training for runners is defined as training aerobically or anaerobically in a way that’s not running. That’s because runners should be focused primarily on training these systems to improve their running economy. 

Coviello agrees, adding, “Anyone running more than an 800-meter race will, then, should be training for cardiovascular endurance.”

While the best cross-training options will give you a full-body workout, cross-training is different from strength training. The latter is certainly important and valuable to make you a better runner, Coviello says, and you want both in your training plan. But strength training focuses on muscle development while cross-training for runners is used to replace easy running miles. 

“There’s really good evidence that you can maintain or improve your fitness with swimming, water running, cycling, both indoor and outdoor,” says Tavernite. “I’ve even come across people who use battle ropes as cross-training.” 

The 6 Best Cross-Training Workouts for Runners

The 6 Best Cross-Training For Runners, according to a running coach and physical therapist

Tavernite says that the best cross-training activities are the ones that you find personally gratifying. “My advice is to pick something you enjoy that you’ll actually do,” he says. 

Each form of cross-training offers different benefits. Here are the options Tavernite and Coviello recommend for their athletes:

1. Swimming

a runner cross-training by swimming
Unsplash, Marcus Ng

People are constantly citing the landmark study from 1995 that concluded that swimming made runners faster. But forget speed, Coviello says — swimming is awesome for runners because it really stokes your cardiovascular system without hurting your joints and muscles. Plus, Tavernite says it engages muscle groups we don’t usually use in running, which helps build strength, increase range of motion, and promote balance.

2. Pool Running

Running coaches and physical therapists swear by this kind of awkward but extremely beneficial movement. Also known as aqua jogging, this activity involves mimicking the running motion while underwater. You wear a special floatation belt to keep you afloat while in deep water. 

Pool running offers a low-impact alternative to running and helps runners maintain cardiovascular fitness and strengthen muscles, making it an excellent cross-training option for injury recovery and overall performance. 

3. Cycling 

an athlete cross-training on an indoor bike
Pexels, Ivan Samkov

Whether inside or outside, Cycling is running’s more-intense endurance cousin. It trains your leg muscles in a different way than running and takes impact out of the equation.  

Plus, it might make your running times faster: Tavernite cites a 2020 study from The Journal of Sports Science and Medicine, which found that four weeks of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in running improved VO2 max in female athletes, while HIIT in cycling increased their average speed in a 10K run and enhanced power and muscle strength. This suggests that cycling HIIT can boost running performance and reduce the risk of overuse injuries.

4. Elliptical

For those who don’t mind the gym, ellipticals mimic running without the impact. And even though Tavernite himself can’t stand being on one for more than five minutes, he often asks his clients to give it a try on their road to injury recovery thanks to an older study from 2016 on outdoor elliptical bicycles. 

The study showed that after a month of elliptical training (following the same number of running days as the runners’ regular training plan) the subjects saw similar improvements in physiological measures — like maximal oxygen consumption and ventilatory threshold — as those who did traditional running training. 

5. Rowing 

A fit man cross-training on a rowing machine
Pexels, Tima Miroshnichenko

Whether on a rowing machine or in open water, Coviello says rowing is an incredible cardiovascular workout that also uses full-body strength (like, hello hamstrings!) without putting strain on joints, muscles, tendons, or ligaments. For injury-prone runners who want to work speed training into their plans, Coviello recommends rowing intervals so long as you’re using the correct form. 

6. Clinical Pilates 

While pilates is less of a cardiovascular workout, it is an incredible cross-training activity for runners because of its intense focus on core strength and remedying inefficient movements.  

When runners have biomechanical imbalances, they’re more prone to getting injured. Clinical Pilates, which involves specific exercises to fix these issues, was tested in a study with 40 runners in a 2017 study published in The International Journal of Sports Medicine. After doing a 6-week course, the runners’ movements and running form improved, suggesting that Pilates might help reduce the risk of running-related injuries by improving how our bodies move. And yeah, while you’re not pumping the lungs like running, you will work up a seriously good sweat in a Pilates class. 

7. Walking

Walking is an underrated form of cross-training. Coviello says when  you mix walking into your training routine, you reduce the impact on your joints while still reaping the benefit of time on your feet. For beginning runners or runners making a gradual return from injury, this type of cross-training is essential to start building up their impact and cardiovascular conditioning Travernite says.

But, Tavernite explains, for performance improvement, cross-training has to get your heart rate elevated in a way similar to running, which walking will not accomplish. 

How to Add Cross-Training to Your Running Schedule 

A runner getting ready to workout
Pexels, Yaroslav Shuraev

For runners coming back from an injury, Coviello recommends 3 days of running and 2 days of cross-training. Instead of using distance as the goal, go for time (i.e. instead of running three miles, cross-train for 30).  

If you’re looking to add cross-training to your training plan for other reasons, Tavernite recommends working with a physical therapist or running coach to find your perfect running-to-cross-training ratio. 

“It’s really individual,” he says. “You have to find out how many days per week you can run while staying healthy throughout the length of your training program. If I know I feel good running five days and cross-training one, then that’s what’s right for me.” 

Cross-Training Tips for Runners

If you’re using cross-training as a means to gain aerobic and anaerobic strength while cutting down on your running volume, you should be thinking of the cross-training activities as your daily miles. 

Here are a few tips our experts say will help you succeed in your cross-training journey. 

  1. Choose workouts you like: You have options. Just because cycling might make you quicker or swimming is what your sports doc said to try doesn’t mean those are the activities that will work for you. If you hate bikes, pools, and gyms, try an outdoor aerobics class. 
  1. Get medically cleared: If you are replacing running with cross-training due to injury or illness, check with your coach, physical therapist, or doctor to make sure the exercise you choose is approved. For example, Coviello says too many runners assume elliptical machines are safe alternatives to running on a stress fracture or tendon injury, but they are still load-bearing and could delay recovery. 
  1. Use HIIT sparingly: The allure of mixing in squats, pushups, deadlifts, and plyometrics may sound efficient, but Tavernite says combining weight training and intense cardio can overtax your muscles and leave you overworked for your next run. If you are in a training block, your cross-training should complement your running miles. It should not leave you exhausted, sore, and unable to train effectively the next day. 
  2. Keep cross-training days separate from rest days: Short walks on rest days are OK but don’t think that just because you’re mixing up your movement patterns doesn’t mean your aerobic system doesn’t need an actual rest day.


How many times a week should a runner cross-train?

Coviello says runners who want to mix up their run training should aim to cross-train two days per week. To avoid overtraining, these days should replace running days, and not be added on as double training sessions. 

Is Zumba good cross-training for runners?

Zumba can be an effective cross-training option for runners who aren’t experiencing injury or physical limitations. It’s a good cardio workout that requires coordination and balance. The dance-based nature of Zumba helps strengthen different muscle groups and enhances overall flexibility. Plus it’s fun! 

What is the best cardio cross-training for running?

The best cardio cross-training for running depends on your goals and abilities. If you’re looking to improve your time, cycling is a great alternative to running. If maintaining your fitness while injured is the goal, swimming might be the right choice for you. Remember, cardio cross-training is available in many different forms — from aqua jogging to cross-country skiing to interpretive dance. The best method is what fits into your life.

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