Cross training for beginner runners
Sarah Coope explains how replacing a few of your more gentle weekly runs with other exercise such as a gentle bike ride, long walk in the country or swim can enhance your running training.

Cross training for beginner runners

How will cross training help my fitness?

The amount you can run is governed by your current fitness and how quickly you recover after each session. For example, when you start running the muscles in your legs may not be strong enough to run every day. The major way cross training will improve your running is by enabling you to exercise as much as you like while reducing the risk of injury.

Cross training will reduce the risk of injury
Put simply, running leads to some muscle breakdown - this is quite normal as the muscle is then repaired by the body, making it stronger. If you always train by running, the repetitive action concentrates stress on a specific part of each muscle used. If you vary your training, different parts of each muscle will be stressed, reducing the likelihood of injury. You will also be exercising a wider range of muscles, which will give you a more all round fitness, though it will be less specific to running.


Cross training adds variety to training. If the longest you can run for is 20 minutes, that will be the limit of your stamina training if you stick exclusively to a running programme. If other less stressful (e.g. non weight bearing) activities are introduced, such as biking, it will be easier to do more longer work outs, which will improve your fitness quicker.
Swimming is ideal cross training for running
Swimming is ideal cross training for running Swimming is another good cardiovascular cross training activity, especially the day after a hard run when the legs are tired. It works the heart and lungs, and the legs passively kicking will ease any stiffness. If you feel like pushing it, it is possible to work quite hard in the water even though you are tired from running. Doing a different activity at an easy pace to recover is called 'active recovery' - and is better than doing nothing if your legs are sore.

Other benefits include:
  • Alleviating boredom: a variety of training sessions will prevent staleness and enable you to look forward to each session.
  • Strengthening the rest of your body: improving upper body strength will carry over to a more powerful running action. Improving trunk strength with activities such as circuits and aerobic classes will help to improve stability.
  • Flexibility training such as pilates, yoga or a good stretching routine reduces the chance of muscle injuries as you develop a wider range of motion.
By cross training when you start your training plan you will not be so limited by shortness of breath and aching legs. Training for longer will increase your fitness and improve your running quicker than if you were just running or jogging.

Putting it into action

Now we know why you should be cross training let's have a look at how you can build it into your training programme - the suggestions below can be worked into the sessions in 'Training programmes' in the Beginner's section.


As you reach the second phase of the beginners' programme, think about doing one of the following sessions in place of one or two of the longer running sessions:
  • 30 minutes bike, easy spinning in a low gear.
  • A swim session. Depending on ability this could range from 20 minutes to 40 minutes, moderate intensity keeping moving for as long as possible.
  • A session of strengthening exercises such as aerobics or circuit training.
Also try to do a 20 minutes stretching session or a yoga or pilates class per week.
Emphasise the three runs of the week - the extra work is included to balance the programme

When exercising, keep the pace easy to moderate. It should feel like you will be able to complete all the sessions in the week. This will maximise the benefits you get from regular training and is much better than going hard for a couple of days and then being too sore to finish the week. Make sure you are emphasising the three runs of the week - the extra work is included to balance the programme.

Advanced beginners

If you are following the advanced beginner's training plan (for example can easily run for 20 minutes) think about including:
  • 2 strength sessions such as weights, aerobics or circuits.
  • If you belong to a gym use CV equipment such as the exercise bike, rowing machine or stepper for 30 minutes at an easy pace. A combination of the machines would work well, providing the time you take to change over is as little as possible.
If the emphasis of your running programme is to lose weight and build up endurance, then switch one of the strength sessions for an alternate cardio activity. Alternatively take a yoga or pilates class, which will work on core strength and stability and thereby benefit your running.


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