A blog by runners. For runners.

Cross-Training for Runners

This is a post about cross-training for runners by our guest blogger, Dr. James Nace. In this article, Dr. Nace discusses the benefits of cross-training and the importance of adding cross-training workouts to your regular running routine.


cross training for runners
Photo courtesy of Jim Bahn

My last several posts have discussed knee troubles and muscle strains, all of which are common injuries that are at best a nuisance, at worst catastrophic for runners. I delved into what is actually happening to your muscles when these types of injuries occur and provided recommendations on the best ways to treat them. But what can be done to try to avoid developing these types of injuries all together? The answer could be cross-training.

It's hard to beat the “runners high” we all know well, but it is important to recognize the same feeling can be attained through other means of exercise. Running is a great way to release tension and get in shape, but it strains the knees, ankles, and the back due to the constant pounding the body endures during long runs. This can lead to muscle pulls, strains, and tearing and wear and tear on cartilage and joints.

Incorporating a good cross-training program into your exercise routine is not only beneficial to develop well-balanced fitness, but helps prevent the damage to your joints and muscles that running can cause over a long period of time.

Benefits of Cross-Training

Most muscle strains are injuries that result from overuse and don't just pop up over night. Micro-tears can develop in muscles and joints from such overuse, putting active runners at high risk for such injuries. To help avoid these injuries and still get enough exercise, runners should consider adding swimming and/or biking and weight-training to their exercise routine. Not only does cross-training take strain and stress off of your joints, but it also makes for more well-rounded workouts and helps with muscular balance. Dare I say, it can also make workouts more fun!

It is important to vary your exercise routine because limiting workouts to only your legs and lower body (as running mostly does) can put you at risk for an injury, and it leads to unbalanced fitness. Biking and swimming provide the similar cardio benefits to running, but they also build more upper-body strength.

cross training for runners
Photo courtesy of Jim Bahn

Safely Incorporating Cross-Training

A good starting point for those interested in adding swimming or biking to their exercise routine is to use METs. The Metabolic Equivalent Task (METs) is a physiological measurement expressing the energy cost of physical activities. This measurement provides a basis for comparison and can help you plot out a new routine to supplement your running.

For example, biking (at 10-16 mph) and slow to moderately fast swimming are both rated as 4-10 METs. To put this into perspective, jogging (10-12 min./mile) and running (7.5-10 min./mile) are rated as 8-14 METs. These figures are not exact and vary depending on the individual but they give an idea about how to incorporate the appropriate amount of cross-training.

Additionally, cross-training in the pool does not have to be limited to swimming. Full workouts can be done in the pool that include running, resistance exercises and strengthening upper extremities. Another option is to start circuit training in the gym with small rest periods between exercises.

Gains Made From Cross-Training

Cross-training is a great way to promote muscular balance and to offset the punishment that running can be on the body. Endorphins are released during all workouts, so you can still achieve a “runners high” through a challenging cross-training program. Balance is important when it comes to fitness. Making an effort to avoid muscle strains is always important for runners so they can continue to enjoy this activity as long as possible.

So take this as a challenge to change it up. Try some biking, try some aquatics. You'll have fun and probably even enjoy your runs from a physical and mental standpoint even more than you do now!

Running Injuries

Dr. James Nace, MD

James Nace, MD is an orthopedic surgeon-joint replacement and doctor of general orthopedics specializing in hip, knee and shoulder joint preservation and reconstruction. He practices out of the Rubin Institute for Advanced Orthopedics at Sinai Hospital of Baltimore, Maryland. Throughout his career as a physical therapist and orthopedic surgeon, Nace has gained the most satisfaction from treating runners and all types of athletes for their injuries and helping get them back to training and competing.

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