**This post is one of several in an excerpt series from the book, Be a Better Runner by Sally Edwards & Carl Foster**
Common Cross-Training Alternatives
I cross-train all year. It allows my running muscles rest while I train my other metabolic and physiological systems and my energy-burning capacity.
Cycling is a great cross-training exercise. It is easy on the knees and effective at transporting nutrient-rich blood to leg muscles. Cycling is often prescribed as therapy for rehabbing runners. It also has a healing effect on runners’ legs the day after a hard run. A five-minute spin on a stationary trainer is also very healing immediately after a run.
Swimming is an almost-perfect complement to running. It gives your legs a rest, straightens your posture, works your core, and hammers your heart. It also gives you the superb upper-body development completely ignored by running. A study by Carl at the Milwaukee Heart Institute found that supplemental swimming improved runners’ 2-mile (3 km) times by fifteen seconds.
This bipedal activity is quite different from running. It works a different set of muscles, and, for the most part, does not involve pounding on the knees and feet. A study cited by Brian Whitesides, MPT, on Betterrunner.com reported that the stairstepper machine was the only cross-training mode that improved running times without increasing overall workout times. In other words, although the swimming study cited in the preceding section added swimming on top of a preexisting running program, stairstepping can replace some running, therefore not adding to workout time. Note that this study was conducted on “fit” college students who were not run-specific athletes.
Another bi-pedal cross-training alternative that works abductors and adductors in a different way than running is in-line skating. The forceful push to the outside is a superb way to build the glutes, often underutilized in running but essential for balance and injury reduction, particularly in reducing knee pain and IT band syndrome. Research conducted at the University of Wisconsin found that skating and treadmill running had similar heart rate and oxygen-use patterns. The big downside, however, is literally the down side: The risk of injuries from falling in in-line skating is significant.
The single most convenient aerobic activity in the world because it can be done anywhere, jumping rope is an interesting, low-impact alternative that strengthens calves, builds coordination, and promotes general fitness. It is not as aerobic as some of the other cross-training options, but it can be quite a workout if you challenge yourself with different jumping styles.
The elliptical machine is not exactly running, but it’s as close as you can get in a knee-saving, nonimpact exercise. It is also an excellent recovery exercise that has the additional advantage of allowing you to use it in an arm-centric, leg-centric, or equally mixed manner. Studies have found the elliptical to have similar VO2 max development and maintenance to running and stairstepping. Its effect on running performance has not yet been tested.
This all-body, nonimpact cross-training exercise is often said to be the world’s single best aerobic exercise. Studies have shown that VO2 max development with cross-country skiing is almost identical to that of running. Other studies have shown that elite skiers have the highest values of VO2 max of all athletes. Because both arms and legs are used simultaneously, cross-country skiing can stress the heart like no other activity, including running. Like the elliptical, however, its specific effect on running performance is not known. A super glute strengthener, cross-country skiing is a great way to get out and train in the winter. My advice is to take it easy the first time, as you will stress muscles that are underutilized in running.
Surprised? You won’t be after you do it, and you sweat like a marathoner in Manila. Although racquet sports are not aerobic per se, the quick-reaction time, fast-rotational forces required, the lateral coordination, and mano a mano skill set that these sports require is, in a way, everything that running isn’t. And it gives you a chance to take on a real opponent, not just yourself.
Using an ergometer (rowing machine) provides great all-body, calorie-burning cross-training for runners. It’s the only no-impact cardio exercise besides swimming that works all four limbs and all the major muscle groups at once. Done right, rowing blasts your heart and lungs in a safe way, which is easier said than done. Be aware that a proper rowing technique can be hard to master, and an improper technique can hurt your back. Many people are surprised to find that about 70 percent of the rowing motion comes from the legs. The arm pull takes over only after the legs are nearly fully extended.
More to come ..
Keep your eyes peeled as we continue to release excerpts throughout upcoming weeks. If you fall in love with these tips from our excerpt series, make sure to stop in and grab a copy of Be a Better Runner from our online store, and keep it on your shelf at home to reference and share with others!