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Cross Training for Runners

Strength Training Guide | Fleet Feet

All Strength Training for Runners

If you want to reach your full potential as a runner, cross-training is an essential part of a balanced training plan. Running is a repetitive motion. If your only workouts come from running, you’ll need to also pay some attention to muscle weakness and imbalance to prevent overuse injuries.

Cross-training for runners is essential for two reasons: It allows your body to strengthen less-used muscle groups while continuing aerobic training with less impact on the musculoskeletal system. What’s more, cross-training helps runners avoid boredom and burnout.

We recommend you pick a few favorite activities to meet your training needs. Start by adding them in one to two days per week.

Here are some of our favorite cross-training activities for runners:

  • Strength training
  • Mobility exercises
  • Plyometric drills
  • Yoga
  • Swimming
  • Cycling

How should runners use cross-training to smash PRs and stay injury free? It depends on your training goals and running health.

If you’re not battling an injury, cross-training activities like swimming, cycling or elliptical workouts are perfect for active recovery after a tough running effort. Just do them at an easy to moderate intensity. Coach Mark Driscoll of the Asheville Running Collective often assigns cross-training to his runners after a hard workout such as an interval workout or long run.

“Injury-prone runners can benefit from replacing one running workout with a similar hard effort in the pool or on the bike,” Driscoll says. “Doing intervals or working at a specific threshold level can be a great endurance boost without the risk of injury that comes from daily running.”

Strength Training

A man doing chin ups in the gym

Why you need it:

Strength training for runners targets the essential muscle groups that will make you stronger and faster. Whether you’re a newbie or an experienced runner, you can see huge gains in performance, including:

  • Power
  • Speed
  • Endurance
  • Balance
  • Injury prevention

Running also doesn’t work single muscles in isolation; it recruits lots of muscles that have to work together to propel you forward.

There are plenty of great strength training exercises for runners that will help you break PRs or just run easier, whether you have access to a full gym with weights or you’re doing bodyweight workouts in your living room.

How to do it:

Start your strength training routine by doing simple, consistent workouts twice a week, either on your off days or after your runs if you have some energy left.

Try our favorite core strength workouts for runners, like planks, bird dog, and glute bridges.

Try our favorite leg strength workouts for runners, like squats, lunges, and calf raises

Yoga

A woman going yoga

Why you need it:

Runners who practice yoga will strengthen and activate underused muscles while improving general mobility.

The conscious breathing in yoga promotes a relaxed mental state, increased focus and improved body awareness. Yoga relieves stress, which enhances rest and recovery, one of the most essential parts of improving your fitness.

Yoga improves many aspects of your running, including:

  • Strength
  • Flexibility
  • Balance
  • Body awareness
  • Relaxation and recovery

Many runners underestimate how yoga can improve their training and overall health. Research shows that 10 weeks of yoga practice helps athletes improve their balance and flexibility.

How to do it:

For runners, a little bit of regular yoga goes a long way. There are plenty of resources available online, especially for runners. If you’re pressed for time, 15 minutes every other day is better than one 90-minute class per week.

Try these yoga videos for runners:

Restorative Yoga for relaxation and recovery.

Upper Spine Mobility for mobility and improved running form.

Swimming

Why you need it:

Swimming is one of the best cross-training exercises for runners because it offers an alternative for aerobic training while taking the load off your muscles and joints.

The resistance of the water helps runners build strength, and holding your breath improves cardiovascular performance. Runners can see improvement in performance from swimming, including:

  • Endurance
  • Muscle strength
  • Cardiovascular fitness
  • Injury prevention
  • Improved sleep and recovery

If you’re new to swimming, start gradually. Many runners underestimate how difficult lap swimming is if they aren’t used to it.

How to do it:

Healthy (injury-free) runners can benefit from easy swimming or pool running once or twice a week. Flush out your muscles on a recovery day with either option to get a workout without pounding your joints.

If you’re battling injury, you may need more days in the pool to replace your runs. Time-based running interval workouts are easy to modify for the pool so you can still get in your cardio training.

Try this pool workout for beginners or injured runners:

For 30 minutes, complete as many sets as you can:

  • 2-4 laps swimming at an easy, steady pace
  • 2-4 laps, kicking with a kickboard
  • 2-4 laps with a pull buoy between your thighs, to focus on form with your arms and core
  • while you give your legs a rest.

For 15 minutes: pool running with a floatation belt.

Alternating activity types keeps things interesting and allows you to get used to different activities while keeping up the cardio for the entire session.

Cycling

Why you need it:

Cycling is a perfect aerobic alternative for runners. It strengthens muscles in your legs and gives you the cardio training you need to improve endurance without the impact of running.

Lessening joint impact and using different muscles in your legs helps you become a more balanced athlete. Runners can see improvements from cycling, including:

  • Endurance
  • Muscle strength
  • Cardiovascular fitness
  • Injury prevention

How to do it:

Even if you’re injury-free, cycling is an excellent way to build some extra cardio into your workouts and flush out your legs without the impact. Runners can benefit from easy spinning for 30-40 minutes on on a recovery day, as well as bike commuting to get from place to place.

If you’re more injury prone, consider cycling more frequently and replacing a weekly running workout with one on the bike. Running workouts like intervals and hill repeats can translate smoothly to cycling on the road or a stationary trainer.

Try this high-intensity interval workout:

  • Warm up for 10-15 minutes with easy pedaling.
  • In a medium to large gear, pedal hard for 40 seconds, then rest for 20 seconds. Complete 10 times for one set.

Rest five minutes between sets and complete up to four sets, depending on your fitness level.

Mobility and Stability Exercises

Pro runner Emma Coburn does mobility and stability exercises

Why you need them:

Because running takes you only through forward motion, runners have a tendency to tighten up and become underdeveloped in many areas.

Using body weight or resistance bands, runners can significantly increase their degree of mobility and stability, which will have a major effect on their movement patterns. Runners can see improvements from mobility and stability exercises, including:

  • Muscle Strength
  • Injury prevention
  • Increased range of motion
  • Balance
  • Power
  • Speed

How to do them:

Mobility and stability exercises don’t have to take a lot of time, but it’s important to do them regularly. A regular five- to 10-minute dynamic warm up before your run can do wonders for your body.

Strategic exercises after your run can also help you recover and remind your body of good movement habits when your body is fatigued.

Plyometric Drills

Professional runner Boris Berian does plyometric exercises for runners

Why you need them:

Also known as jump training, plyometric exercises require muscles to exert maximum force in a short period of time. Plyometrics train runners to use more explosive movements while running.

These moves will get your heartrate up and are perfect prep for a tough workout. Runners can see improvements from plyometric drills, including:

  • Speed
  • Power
  • Running economy
  • Balance

How to do them:

Plyometric drills can easily fit into a dynamic warm up, strength or post-run routine. You can reap the benefits from just a few minutes of plyometric work a few times throughout the week.

Plyometrics demand a solid foundation of balance, stability and strength. Because they exert extra force on the body, it’s important to get your form right.

Add them into your routine gradually to establish the proper foundation, then increase the frequency and intensity. For example, if you’re doing a jump squat, be sure that your squat form is correct before adding a jump into the exercise.

Get started with these simple plyometric exercises after brief warm up jog. Complete each for 30 seconds. 3 rounds total.

  • Forward Skips
  • Jumping Jacks
  • High Knees
  • Butt Kicks

Try this Stress-Busting HIIT workout with plenty of plyometric moves to get your heart pumping and increase your power.