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Best Cross-Training Workouts for Runners

Running every day will help keep you fit, but it keeps you fit in a very specific way. Running is so specific, in fact, that it can actually create weaknesses in your body, even while strengthening other things. In the context of overall fitness, this is not a good thing.

The solution is cross-training. It can be hard to switch up your running routine. But if you’ve hit a plateau with your training and are no longer making progress, it might be that you need to take up other forms of exercise.

The good news is that you can introduce some cross-training into your training that will breathe new life into your running!

Not only will you get a mental vacation from running, but you’ll be strengthening muscles that don’t often get used when running. Cross-training can help you target specific muscle groups that you feel need to be strengthened and can help build up your endurance.

Let’s take a look at some of the best cross-training workouts and how they’ll benefit runners.

What is cross-training for runners?

Cross-training is when runners do any other form of exercise that will supplement their running.

Incorporating different types of exercise improves your cardio fitness, strengthens muscles, and improves your endurance. All of these will benefit you when you run.

Strength training is a good form of cross-training that can help prevent injuries, help with stability, increase endurance, and strengthen both fast and slow-twitching muscles.

Whether you’re running trails, training for a 10k or marathon, or you’re working on your fitness base, tempo runs, or fartleks, you’ll find that your overall running performance will improve and you’ll be a healthier and more efficient runner.

Why should runners cross-train?

Running is great for burning calories, but not great for a developing a strong body in general. The movements of running are very limited – essentially, propelling yourself in a straight line at a constant speed while lightly swinging your arms. This targets very specific muscles, and neglects others.

Runners should cross train to make sure that their whole body is staying fit. Not just the running drive train, but the muscles needed for lateral movement, core muscles, and upper body muscles as well.

Research has shown that runners who incorporate cross-training into their exercise regimes are likely to have a higher VO2 max (a measure of your body’s ability to absorb oxygen). Depending on how you’ve structured your training schedule, cross-training could replace some of your rest days or easy runs.

Cross-training can help you to maintain your fitness levels, as most of the activities have similar cardiovascular benefits. You’ll find that regardless of the activity you choose, your body will still be able to recover, as the muscles that are used for running probably won’t be overused in other activities.

Your muscles will become balanced as you start to strengthen the groups that aren’t always targeted while running. This will reduce your risk of injury, as well as help prevent injuries that can be caused by the physical stress of running too much.

If you’ve sustained an injury from running, cross-training can be used to maintain your fitness levels and help with the frustration of not being able to run. It can also be used to help rehabilitate you and correct the cause of injury.

Cross-training has a number of benefits for runners that aren’t just about being in peak physical condition.

Other benefits

After a grueling marathon, your legs may feel tired and sore or your joints may be stressed. By doing some cross-training, you’ll be able to get the blood flowing, and light workouts help to accelerate muscle recovery.

As passionate as we runners are about running, it can become a bit tedious at times. And when you hit a plateau it can be very frustrating. Cross-training allows for that break from running but still allows for consistent and efficient training sessions.

You’ll also find that you have greater aerobic capacity when you’re cross-training, as you can switch to different exercises to target different muscle groups, which increases your stamina.

With the different movements that come with cross-training, you’ll find that your core strength will develop even more. This will help you to maintain proper running form.

Besides, it’s fun to get out and do something different, something that challenges you in a completely different way. By doing a different activity, it can rejuvenate you mentally and motivate you to achieve your running goals.

What to be aware of when cross-training

Before you rush out to find your cross-training activity, identify what you’re looking to get out of your cross-training sessions. Are you looking to increase your strength, target speed work or to focus on recovery?

You want to maximize your cross-training sessions by getting the same outcome that you would from the type of run that you would have done. Cross-training isn’t meant to replace your run; it’s meant to enhance your overall performance.

Incorporate cross-training into your training routine twice a week for about 45 minutes to an hour at a moderate intensity. You could use these to target muscles running is notorious for neglecting, like your glutes and hip flexors.

There are a number of activities for runners to choose from to supplement their running, but it’s best to target one activity as a primary cross-training activity.

If you choose swimming as your primary activity to do twice a week, that would give you eight monthly training sessions. Instead of swimming for all eight training sessions, you could swim for six and row for the other two.

If you’re prone to injuries, you’d want to increase your running volume into cross-training. Depending on your activity, you could increase your volume by 20 to 30% on either distance or time.

For your off-season, you could mix up your cross-training sessions by trying circuits, spinning classes or HIIT workouts.

Best Cross-training Workouts

With so many cross-training activities to choose from it can be hard to decide which one you want to do. While it will come down to personal preference, any of the following would be an effective cross-training activity.

Cycling

Cycling is a great low-impact aerobic workout for legs and lungs alike! Like running, cycling can be done indoors, on a trainer, or outdoors. It’s dependent on major leg muscles, but is far more power-based than running is. It asks a lot of your quads and calves. It also mimics the movement of running but without the impact of footstrikes, which reduces the risk of injury.

If you’re a runner with a long stride and slow cadence, cycling can help you to develop a short stride with a higher turnover rate. You’ll find that this will help increase your efficiency and speed when you run. Running and cycling have similar “ideal” cadences: 180 steps per minute translates to 90 rpm on the bike.

Spinning is a style of riding that focuses less on power and more on fast turnover (setting aside for a minute “spinning” as a form of HIIT you might see a gym or cycling studio). If 90 rpm is your baseline cadence, then spinning asks you to get that cadence well over 100 rpm.

For one cross-training session a week, try to get your pedal cadence to 115 revolutions per minute. Try to do this for 5 minutes, and then rest for a minute and repeat the set.

Once you’re able to maintain 115 revolutions per minute, then increase it to 120 revolutions per minute for eight minutes. This will make it more challenging, but it will help with your running cadence and efficiency.

Tips

If you don’t have a bicycle yet, then decide if you want a mountain bike or a road bike, as the sizing of the bikes is typically different.

You’ll choose the size of your bike based on your height, and then you want to make sure that the components are adjusted for comfort and efficiency – this is called bike fitting. Having your saddle the right height, the handle bars at the right position, and your butt in the right spot relative to the bottom bracket all help. This will let you cycle further and longer without any pain.

Keep in mind that road bikes and mountain bikes have very different geometries and are set up very different from one another.

You can split your training day by running in the morning and spinning or cycling in the evenings. This will free up an entire day that you can use to focus on your recovery.

If you want a more challenging workout where you include your upper body, then look at using an air bike. Similar to rowing, you need to move your legs and arms at the same time to drive an air bike. For the cycling purists, there’s no better way to make a workout harder than to do it on hills.

Workout idea

If you’re familiar with fartleks, then apply them to cycling as well! Just like running, you can do fartleks on hills or flats. Try the following:

  • 10 minute easy pace as a warm-up
  • 4 minutes at a moderate pace
  • 2 minutes flat out sprint
  • 4 minutes at a moderate pace
  • 2 minute sprint
  • 5 minutes at a moderate pace
  • 3 minute sprint
  • 10 minute cool down at an easy pace

You could also work on your endurance by including intervals into your cycling routine. These will help to increase your aerobic capacity and power.

Begin with an easy pace for 10 minutes to warm up. Then, for one minute, cycle at 90 percent of your max capacity. Rest by slowing down your pace for a minute. Then repeat. You can do this eight or ten times throughout your workout, and as your endurance gets better, you can increase the interval times.

Swimming

Swimming is one of the best non-weight-bearing forms of exercise that runners can do! Water offers resistance training, and this will tone and strengthen your whole body while you swim laps, as well as help to improve your breathing.

If you swim twice a week, you’ll find that your flexibility will improve and it can help to reduce inflammation in the body.

Workout idea

Aqua jogging can be done by runners who want to rehabilitate an injury, but it also provides a great workout for runners without injuries.

Try this aqua jogging workout:

  • Start by warming up with an easy 10 minute run in the water.
  • Once you’re all warmed up, run for 1 minute at a medium tempo at 80% effort.
  • Then sprint for 1 minute at 95% effort.
  • For 30 seconds, put your hands above your head in the air and run.
  • Rest for 1 minute.

Do this five times before you do a 10 minute cool down at an easy pace. You can increase the time from 1 minute to two and then to three as your fitness increases.

Yoga

Yoga may look like it’s easy to do, but it’s a lot harder than most people will admit! Once you start, you’ll find that yoga can be as difficult as you want to make it. And it has many benefits for runners.

One of the great things about yoga is that you can do it anywhere! You can do it by yourself when you get up in the morning. You can grab your yoga mat and do some moves in your garden, at the beach or in a studio where you can join a group. Bodyweight exercises and stretching might seem like new, modern ideas developed from good science. But many of these ideas have existed for millennia in the ancient practice of yoga.

Yoga will strengthen the key supporting muscles that runners use, like your core, hamstrings, quads, and hip flexors. It helps to stretch muscles out, but also helps you to become more flexible and supple. You’ll feel the joints, ligaments, and muscles are relaxed, which gives you a better range of motion.

Yoga in its purest form is also a deeply spiritual practice, with strong elements of meditation. Modern western versions don’t focus on this nearly as much. But yoga is not at all dogmatic – it meets you where you are physically and spiritually, and you make it what you want it to be.

Meditation or no, it will help with your running form and you’ll find that your posture will be better even at the end of your run.

Principles of yoga has been adapted into other newer modes of exercise. If you’re looking for more of a challenge, you could always try Tabata Yoga. Other good yoga-adjacent options that you could look at would be Barre classes  or Pilates.

Strength work

There are many different ways you can do strength training that will either work your entire body or target specific muscle groups.

You can use your own bodyweight—calisthenics—to do pushups, pullups, and air squats, as an example. This will help to strengthen your muscles and your core. If you need more of a challenge, you can always add a weighted vest or kettle bells to your workout.

You can use the weight section at a fitness center, or you can use the machines. You could also use a combination of barbells, dumbbells, and machines to target different groups of muscle.

Resistance bands, kettlebells, and medicine balls can also give you a full-body workout that you can do from the privacy of your own home. They’re also a great way to tone and strengthen your body.

If you’re looking for strength training that’s done in a group, or where you don’t have to worry about putting your own training program together, then you can look at the following:

  • CrossFit—Remember to scale your workouts
  • Boxing
  • Bootcamp
  • HIIT
  • Tabata

Elliptical or Rowing Machine

Both the elliptical and the rowing machine are great for low-impact full-body workouts. You’ll find that working out on either one of these machines will work out your back, shoulders, arms, core, and glutes.

You’ll find both machines in the gym but you can also get them for your home.

Hiking

What isn’t to love when it comes to hiking? Arrange to go out on a hike with a friend or a couple of friends, and all you need to do is pack your backpack.

You can get creative with the snacks that you take, and remember to take plenty of fluids.

Hiking is a low-intensity cardio activity, but you’ll find that during your hike you’ll have some high-intensity sections, especially up steep inclines. Runners will benefit from the movements of hiking, as there’s a lot of lateral movement and stabilization.

You’ll also engage muscles you don’t often use when running, especially when it comes to having to navigate uneven terrain. You may find yourself performing lunges, as clambering over rocks while climbing up steep hills will activate your glutes. You don’t want to rush your hike. You’ll find that a long, slow hike will be very effective.

Kayaking

Kayaking is a great aerobic exercise and it’s a particularly good workout for the entire body. This will also help you with good running form as you need to have good posture when you’re out on the water. Otherwise, your shoulders may start to ache.

When you’re paddling through the water you’re twisting every time you need to paddle on either side of the kayak, and this helps to develop core strength. You’ll be surprised at how much core strength it takes to glide through the water.

You will use both your core and legs to steer your kayak and the resistance of the water will provide a great workout for your back, chest, shoulders, and arms.

Cross country skiing

Cross country skiing is a great form of cardio exercise and full-body workout that will build up your stamina and total body strength. Fortunately, you don’t have to wait until it snows, as there are centers where you can ski indoors during the summer. If that’s not an option, you can get some skate skis – essentially greatly elongated inline skates, complete with Nordic bindings, boots, and poles.

Cross country skiing is low impact, but notoriously challenging. you’re activating your core and using your whole body to move you over the snow. This increases your body’s oxygen uptake, and you’ll see an improvement in your aerobic capacity. When you look at Nordic skiers, you’ll find that they have some of the highest VO2 max values in the athletic community.

There are two basic styles of cross-country skiing: classic, and skating. The classic technique focuses on foward-backward movements. The skating technique uses more side-to-side motion, and is better for strengthening leg muscles not used in running.

By incorporating cross country skiing into your workout schedule, you’ll be able to strengthen your weaknesses and improve your overall running performance. You can also try snowboarding, snowshoeing, ice skating, or alpine skiing.

Other cross-training ideas

Climbing/bouldering

Bouldering and climbing are both great forms of cross training. In bouldering, you climb short, technically tricky routes without any ropes or harnesses. All you will have is a bag of chalk, climbing shoes, and safety mats.

Climbing proper can entail several different disciplines, but in general involves longer sustained pitches and safety gear that prevents falls.

Both will develop your balance, strength, and focus as you navigate your route through a series of moves while getting a full-body workout.

Rollerblading

Rollerblading or roller skating is like running with wheels on your feet! It’s great for the core, as you need to balance yourself, and your legs and arms get a great workout as you need to push yourself to move.

Make sure that you have a long stretch of flat ground where you can practice gliding. You’ll find that you use your core and legs often, especially when it comes to making turns, as you have to gain momentum and then scissor your leg in the opposite direction of the turn.

Many North Americans might be surprised to find that some European marathon events offer a rollerblading option. It’s a separate race held on a different day, but the concept is the same: cover the 26.2-mile route on rollerblades.

Standup Paddleboarding

Born from surfing, stand up paddleboarding will have you standing on a board that’s similar to that of a surfboard. You’ll use the paddle to propel yourself through the water. What’s great about stand up paddleboarding is that you can do it on lakes, rivers, and the sea.

When you first start standup paddleboarding, you’ll find that it requires some stability in the legs and a decent core, as you have to balance yourself on the board while you paddle. This activity will engage your core, traps, deltoids, chest muscles, and leg muscles.

To mix up the challenge, seek out a class for yoga on a SUP.

Tennis

Tennis is a fast-paced game that can be played as a double team or as singles. It’s great for cardio and increasing your fitness levels. For runners, tennis can help to improve your speed work. While you may be swinging the racket, you’ll find that your calves, hamstrings, glutes, and quadriceps will do most of the work.

The real benefit for runners, though, is in how much tennis has you changing directions and speed. If you’re used to running in a straight line for 30 minutes at a constant speed, tennis is the exact opposite. Small court, short bursts of speed, and constant movement to the side. In short, just what cross training is meant to be.

Soccer

Soccer is another activity that’s fast-paced and involves a lot of running in short bursts. It’s not just about your quadriceps and hamstrings. It also engages your shoulders, core, hip flexors, and foot muscles, especially when kicking the ball.

Volleyball

Volleyball can be played outdoors or indoors and will get your heart rate up as you run in short bursts for the ball. There’s also quite a bit of explosive jumping involved. Play on a soft sand beach, and all those starts, stops, and jumps become a true challenge.

This fast-paced game will work your core and back muscles as you twist and need to stabilize yourself. Your biceps, triceps and deltoids are all used when you push the ball up and over the net.

Golf

Assuming you walk the course (some courses require carts to speed up play and get more rounds in), golf is a great way to get a high volume of light exercise. During one 18-hole round, you can exceed 10,000 steps! Aside from strengthening the muscles, it also helps to develop mental focus.

When you play a round of golf, carry your golf bag and walk the course. This will help to build up strength and endurance, especially if the course has undulating hills. When you swing to hit the ball, you’re going to engage your forearms, chest, shoulder, glutes, quads, and calves.

The Wired Runner