5 cross training workouts to build strength, speed and flexibility

Improve your running performance with these weekly cross training sessions


If you love to run but want to reap more rewards from this pastime, then cross training might be the missing piece of your training puzzle.

A weekly non-running workout gives your muscles and joints a break from pounding the pavements or trails, all the while producing benefits that carry over to your running. ‘If you only run, you’re using the same muscles within the same plane of motion over and over,’ says Shannon Colavecchio, who trains runners in cycling and core-strengthening classes. ‘Using different muscles and movement patterns can help to prevent injuries and also build speed and endurance.’

While you can get a good cross training workout from many activities, some are particularly useful in helping you to achieve specific running targets. To support you in reaching those goals, we’ve highlighted the best cross training/running pair-ups.

Want to train hard? Try pool running

If you have an ambitious goal such as competing a marathon, you’ll likely want to run extra miles. But, you could risk injury if you take on too much mileage too soon. Jason Fitzgerald, head coach at Strength Running and a 2:39 marathoner, says pool running is a great option. ‘It’s the exercise that mimics road running the best – you’re working the same muscles, without the impact.’ Studies show that as long as you keep your heart rate up, pool running is an effective substitute for dry-land running. Accomplished middle and long distance runner Eilish McColgan can often be spotted aqua-jogging in the pool.

How to do it

Wear a pool belt to help you to stay afloat. Run as you would on the road, keeping good posture while pumping your arms and keeping a high cadence. (Slow strides could cause you to overextend your legs, which may irritate your hamstrings.) Do it once a week for 45 minutes to an hour at a time. You can pool run at a steady pace, or try short sprints (where you go fast for 15-30 seconds, recover and repeat) and long sprints (where you do a moderate effort for 5-10 minutes, recover and repeat).

Looking to prep for a hilly race? Try cycling

Cycling builds muscle endurance and powerful quads, hamstrings and glutes – muscles runners need for hill climbing,’ says Colavecchio. ‘Runners who do hill climbing on the bike will see the benefits on foot – they’ll have an easier time conquering hills.’

How to do it

To get the most out of an outdoor cycling workout, try to find rolling terrain where you can power up an incline, pedal fast when it flattens and charge up another hilly section. Colavecchio says that using a stationary bike, such as at a spin class, is also a good option, since it allows you to better control your workout – and not coast on downhills too much.

After a warm up, do six sets of three minutes at a hard resistance with a minute of light resistance in between. Finish with two minutes of a fast pace at medium resistance to simulate the end of a race, when your legs are hurting but you need to finish strong.

Want to nail a PB? Try weights

While there’s no true substitute for running speed work, strength training can help you to reach your goal by building your leg power, which carries over to faster running times. Any strength work is useful, but lifting weights that really challenge you has great value. In fact, one study showed that runners who lifted heavy versus light weights improved their performance in a 5K race. What’s more, lifting weights is time efficient. ‘You’re doing fewer reps, but getting more benefit, so it’s a better bang for your buck,’ says Mike Young, founder of Athletic Lab, a research and training facility in North Carolina, US.

How to do it

If you’re new to resistance training, start with a light weight which allows you to comfortably do about 12 reps of your chosen exercise. Gradually increase the weight and reduce the number of reps over time, while maintaining good form. Your ultimate goal is to pick a weight that makes it a challenge to do six reps.

Need to finish strong? Try Pilates

Pilates is a low impact way to build your core strength, benefitting your posture in the last miles of a long run. Hunching over causes you to breathe more shallowly, which can decrease how much oxygen you take in. But, regular Pilates exercises will build strength in your abdomen, back and arms to help you keep posture and good form.

‘It’s great to do on rest days – and, when done consistently, it will help you to get stronger and faster,’ says Pilates instructor and personal trainer Louise Humphrey, who runs a Pilates for Runners programme. ‘It can also be used as a warm up and as a short, 10-minute strength session after a run.’

How to do it

According to Humphrey, doing just 10 minutes of Pilates a day will make a real difference. Start with 10 press-ups and a 30 second plank and repeat this twice with a 30-second rest in between. Then, move onto 30 seconds of scissors, criss cross, shoulder bridge and a single leg stretch. Repeat this twice with a 30-second rest in between.

Want to get flexible? Try yoga

It’s hard to find the balance between having enough tension in your limbs to power you forward and too much stiffness which can restrict your movements. Runners don’t want to be too flexible, as this is counterproductive – but, loosening off tightness with some yoga can be a real game changer.

Runners need enough flexibility to be able to move fluidly through a proper range of motion, says Sage Rountree, a yoga instructor and triathlon coach and the author of The Runner’s Guide to Yoga. ‘Stiffness in your hips can shorten your stride and limit your speed – and tightness in a specific muscle can cause gait modifications that can lead to injury.’

How to do it

Find a style that’s appropriate for your level of experience and which works well with your training schedule. During a period of demanding running, Routnree suggests opting for a more relaxing yoga practice like hatha. In the off-season, though, when your mileage is less intense, you could do a more challenging session like ashtanga or hot yoga.

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