The Best Cross Training for Runners



I frequently get asked, “What is the best cross training activity for runners?” My answer, as it is to most training questions, is, “It depends.” It depends on why you are cross training. For some runners, it’s because they are injured. For others, it’s to get in more training than they can do with running alone. And for still others, it’s to add variety to their training for a physical and mental break from running.


If you are injured then cross training is a way to stay fit and speed recovery while returning to full training. All therapists will tell you that in the early stages of your recovery, you must choose a cross training option where you can exercise pain-free. No reason to aggravate the injured area and delay healing. In most cases, this means choosing cross training options that do NOT closely match running. Swimming and cycling, both of which are non-weight bearing, are often good options.

As your injury heals and you move toward your return to running, you should introduce cross training activities that replicate the same movements as running. If you still need to avoid weight-bearing exercise during this time but want to closely match the running motion, then aqua jogging (running in the water replicating the running motion) is a great choice.

Once you can tolerate some weight bearing, then the best running-specific cross training activity is the Alter-G treadmill. The Alter-G supports you while running on a treadmill so you can run at varying percentages of your body weight. For example, you can set the machine so that you are running at 80% of your body weight, thus reducing stress on the injured tissues yet still running.

Runners can adjust the support to the level where they can run pain-free yet they are actually running. Then as they heal, they can gradually increase the percentage used so that by the time they are fully healed, they are already running at or near 100% body weight. This significantly reduces time lost while injured.

Not only does the Alter-G allow you to physically replicate running but it also does wonders for the mind, which we can’t discount as a major factor in healing. Injured runners who can finally run on the Alter-G are so happy that it’s usually just a short time before they are fully healed and back out on the roads and trails.

If you don’t have access to an Alter-G (though they are now in nearly all cities throughout the US), then I feel the elliptical machine (or any elliptical-like machine) is the next best option. It is weight bearing and the legs move in sort of a running motion yet there is no pounding. Runners often find that they can really get their heart rate up on the elliptical machine, which helps maintain some intensity among all the easy exercise while healing. Plus, being able to “feel the burn” and some heavy breathing is something injured runners really miss. The elliptical machine can provide this much needed intensity that injured runners miss.

This is also a great time to do cross-training that is not for building aerobic fitness but is helpful for loosening the body, relaxing the mind and strengthening weak areas. Examples include yoga, pilates, strength training (never stressing the injured area) and core training.


For injury-prone runners who are not injured, cross training provides an opportunity to add “mileage” while avoiding injuries. One of the speedy runners I coach has to do this. Her injury past tells us that she can’t run the full volume we’d like. In fact, we are about 15-20 miles short of what we’d like to run, given her goals. So, we have to get in this mileage through cross training. Since in these situations the goal is to closely match running yet slightly lessen the stress on the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, runners should choose activities like the Alter-G and elliptical-like machines. This is exactly what I prescribe. We get most of the additional “mileage” on the Alter-G and also add some workouts on the elliptical machine.

This brings up an important concept – how to equate cross training miles to running miles. While there are some really scientific ways to estimate energy expenditure for different activities, I feel the easiest method is simply is to count your time cross training as the same as time running. So, if you do an easy hour of cross training on the elliptical machine, count it the same as an hour of easy running. Is it the same? Of course not but the point is that your body is getting the additional work you want and there is no need splitting hairs. Just get in the extra exercise and call it good.


The last situation involves runners who want to add variety to their exercise routine. Most of us just want to run but some athletes want to do lots of activity – something that is certainly good for overall health. In this case, the runner would choose activities that are quite different than running. Swimming, cycling, weight training, yoga, pilates, and a host of other activities are great options.

The key for this type of cross training is that the stress of cross training must be considered as part of your total training stress. In other words, you can’t run your full mileage then decide you’ll had three days per week of cross training without considering how this will affect your running. You have to be smart and make sure cross training fits in with your total stress/rest cycle. And, as you get close to a big race, it’s important to focus more on running and be careful to reduce your cross training if necessary to recover properly from your running.

To summarize: If you are injured, select an activity that is very different from running so you rest the area. Then as you heal, begin to move toward more weight-bearing and running-like activities and slowly re-introduce running to your week. If you are injury-prone yet want to train more, add cross-training as a way to get more fitness. Choose exercises that mimic running but have less musculoskeletal stress (e.g., Alter-G, elliptical). If you want to add more variety in activities to your week, add cross-training that is different than running (swimming, cycling, etc.) so you build fitness but aren’t running all the time. Just make sure you respect the additional training stress in your week. (And as always, cross-training that loosen, relaxes and strengthens the body – core, strength, yoga, etc. – are always good to do for all runners.)

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Written By Greg McMillan
Called “one of the best and smartest distance running coaches in America” by Runner’s World’s Amby Burfoot, Greg McMillan is renowned for his ability to combine the science of endurance performance with the art of real-world coaching. While getting his graduate degree in Exercise Science he created the ever-popular McMillan Running Calculator – called “The Best Running Calculator” by Outside Magazine. A National Champion runner himself, Greg coaches runners from beginners to Boston Qualifiers (15,000+ and counting!) to Olympians.

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