Many successful runners use biking, water running, swimming or other sports in their weekly training schedule - this is called cross training. Athletes often find that, rather than inhibit performance in their primary sport, training in others enhances it.
If running is our only exercise, the same muscles are always stressed
Exercise places stress on muscles, which causes them to break down. During rest, they then repair to be stronger. If running is your only exercise, the same muscles are always stressed. This increases the likelihood of pushing it too hard and picking up an injury.
By exercising in other sports you can reduce the likelihood of injury. Flexibility training such as pilates, yoga or a good stretching routine also reduces the chances of injury, as you develop a wider range of motion.
If you vary your sports, you'll use different muscles and achieve a more balanced overall fitness. For example, instead of a gentle running session after an intense speed work out, half an hour swimming will give an aerobic workout, reduce stress on legs and improve torso and upper body conditioning.
Strengthening areas other than legs can improve your running performance, too. For example, a strong upper body will carry over to a more powerful running action. Improving core (torso) strength with activities such as circuits and aerobic classes will help to improve stability.
Add variety to your training program and reduce boredom
Training in more than one sport not only reduces stress and gives more rounded fitness but is great for motivation.
Because of the variety of activities, there is less of a routine to training, which alleviates boredom and increases motivation.
In addition, when training for longer distance events, incorporating less stressful activities such as cycling is a good way to add low-impact, long aerobic sessions.
How should I choose my additional activities?
It's important to choose a sport that complements your running training. A priority is to give the legs and body less strenuous wear and tear. Sports such as swimming, rowing and biking all give good cardiovascular benefits without having to be overly strenuous.
Some sports pose a high risk of injury, such as contact sports like soccer and rugby, sports which involve a lot of twisting and turning such as squash and extreme sports. Such sports should not necessarily be totally avoided, but you should be aware that if an injury occurs while participating in them, it could set back any progress you are making with your running training.
Cross training when injured
If you have an injury this may be the ideal time to start cross training
While some injuries require a total break from any exercise, others only require total rest from running - particularly high intensity, strenuous running.
At this time it's useful to find an alternative activity which, so long as it does not aggravate the injury, you can substitute for running workouts - an ideal time to start cross training.
For instance, it's possible to maintain a very high level of cardiovascular fitness by using a rowing machine at a gym. Other activities such as biking or swimming may be equally good substitutes. When substituting an activity for running it is best to substitute time rather than distance.
For example, if it is impossible to do speed-work with the injury then transfer the workout to another activity. For instance if the workout intended was 10 x 400m sprints, then do 10 hard rows for the time it would take you to do a 400m sprint. Recovery time would be the same as it would be for the running session. A similar approach could be taken to a swimming session. This way you will maintain fitness while allowing time for the injury to recover.
Here's an example of a weekly rowing training programme that you could follow if laid-off from running:
Example weekly rowing training program
Steady row for 30 minutes followed by 10 minutes alternative activity (e.g. cross country ski machine) at steady pace
Row 1 hour, alternating pace for variation.
- Warm up with 10 minutes relaxed (or 'easy') rowing.
- Then 6 x 500m hard effort (should take 1 to 2 minutes).
- Recover by easy rowing for the same time as hard rowing.
- Cool down with 10 minutes easy rowing.
- Warm up with 10 minutes easy rowing.
- Then 2 x 10 minutes hard effort.
- Recover with 5 minutes easy rowing between.
- Cool down with 5 - 10 minutes easy rowing.
Swim, yoga, pilates or another similar low impact activity.
Introducing cross training to a running training plan
- Steady row for 1 hour, include 10 x 250m (up to a minute) hard rowing during it.
- Recover with one minute easy rowing between the hard rowing.
substitute the relaxed recovery runs for cross training and carry on with speed-work and long steady runs
If incorporating an alternative activity, it's best to substitute the relaxed recovery runs that you do after a hard session and carry on with the speed-work and long steady runs.
For example, substitute a 30-min recovery run with cycling or another activity carried out at the same intensity as you would have done the recovery run.
Swimming is an exception to this rule as it exercises the legs a lot less, so it is possible to work quite hard in the pool and still enable the legs to recover.