Fitness / Running

The Runner’s Guide to Cardio Cross-Training

How to get the most out of your supplemental cardio workouts.

For the same reason NFL players might do ballet to practice flexibility, runners often switch up their training methods with a new workout style to improve fitness skills. This is cross-training, and it can help runners improve speed, endurance, and strength.

Cardio cross-training with a goal in mind is a bit more involved than simply hopping on an indoor cycling bike for 30 minutes, though. So, to dive a bit deeper into how to use other cardio methods for cross-training, we tapped cross-training researcher and University of Ohio track and field and cross-country volunteer coach Ian Klein. Here, he explains how cross-training can help you, the benefits of each method, and how to execute a successful cross-training session.

How Cross-Training Can Work For You

Runners might cross-train because of a running injury or to improve aerobic fitness without the impact of running. Either way, it’s important to note the physiological difference between running and any traditional cross-training type: specificity. The fastest way to become a faster runner is to run. So, basically, adjust the intensity of your cross-training methods to match the intensity of your regular run training.

“It’s like a 4:1 ratio,” Klein says. “Four miles on a bike is like 1 mile of running. You’ve got to do more than you normally would, at a higher intensity, to try to maintain your fitness as much as you can.”

Running is, of course, the most effective training method for runners. “If you’re on a bike, swimming, or even aqua jogging, you’re not impacting the ground,” Klein says. “Certain muscles are recruited when you’re bearing your own weight.” Not activating those muscles can make it harder to reach your maximum heart rate, no matter how hard you try. For that reason, world-renown running coach Jeff Galloway instructs runners to walk (briskly) if they can’t run, simply because walking is load-bearing and more specific to running than biking or swimming.

All that said, Klein instructs his runners to cross-train when injured and when they’ve just had a hard workout and don’t want to overstress their legs the next day. Based simply on the principle of specificity, running should make up the majority of your training (unless you’re hurt or too fatigued). But cross-training opens up your training world to other options that can also strengthen your runs.

The Best Cross-Training Options For Runners

Here are some of the most effective cardio cross-training methods for runners to try:

In summary, weight-bearing cross-training is more specific to running. So, these methods may benefit the average runner more swimming or aqua jogging. However, the alternative is fine if you’re injured or if you’re a trained cyclist or swimmer who has no problem getting your heartrate up using those modalities.

How To Cross Train With An Injury

When injured, obviously choose a cross-training style that doesn’t cause extra pain. “You want to mimic the intensity without aggravating the injury,” Klein says. “If you ride the bike and the bike hurts your injury, that’s probably not the best; do something else where you can get those intensities.”

How To Cross-Train Successfully

Whether you’re cross-training through an injury or to supplement your running training, go into each workout with intent. Everything you do outside the run should mimic an effort you would have done on the run. If you’re cross-training on a recovery day, your level of exertion should be similar to that of your recovery run.

Klein uses the Rated Perceived Exertion (RPE) scale with his runners as a simple point of reference. If you have a heart rate monitor, ecord your average HR on an run and replicate that effort cross-training.

You can also replicate workouts with cross-training. This is an easy way to double up on run training without destroying your legs.

“We’ve even experimented with doing a tempo run in the morning, and a tempo ride at night,” Klein says. “You’re essentially getting two tempo workouts, but the elliptical doesn’t make you any more sore, and the next day you can do an easy day and recover just the same.”

Fitness Running

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