A Beginner’s Guide to Cross-Training

CROSS-TRAINING—WITH cycling, swimming, the elliptical trainer, or the rowing machine—can play an important role in your overall fitness routine. It gives the muscles you use in walking and running a chance to recover while strengthening other parts of the body, boosting all-around fitness, and preventing injuries. Plus it helps prevent burnout to keep you running nonstop, injury-free.

Here’s how to get the most effective—and safe—workout when you’re doing other activities.

Make it regular. It can take a while to develop the strength and the know-how on any given machine to get a good workout. So make it a regular part of your routine from the beginning. If you wait until you’re forced to cross-train because of poor weather or injury, you might not get a good workout.

Choose one. Try different kinds of cross-training activities until you find the one that works best for you. Once you find it, stick with it. Once you become more comfortable on it, you can boost your heart rate and get a good sweat going. Sticking with one activity also makes it easier for you to track your progress. Each time you can more fairly compare one workout to the next.

Enjoy yourself! This may sound obvious, but if you don’t enjoy a particular activity, you’re not going to do it. Working out may involve discomfort, but it shouldn’t feel like torture. So find the activity that you enjoy, and find a way to enjoy it. It’s okay to listen to music or books while you work out, or even watch TV. And don’t be shy about scheduling your workout so you can catch up on your favourite episode of Parenthood.

Let effort be your guide. Pace and heart rate don’t really translate from running to gym machines. So it’s best to do any given activity—cycling, swimming, elliptical or rowing machine—for the same amount of time that you’d spend running at the same level of effort. So if you’d normally run or walk for 30 minutes at an easy effort, substitute 30 minutes on the elliptical at an easy effort.

Don’t get hurt. Though many people cross-train to prevent injuries, it is possible to hurt yourself in the process. If you’re injured, ask your doctor which activities are safe before you hit the gym. And before you try any machine for the first time, ask someone who works at the gym to show you how to use it, and to watch you and help you maintain proper form. 


Elliptical – It’s easy to adjust these machines to mimic the range of motion you use while running. The activity will stimulate your neuromuscular system to maintain the adaptations your muscles have made to training, while giving the bones and tendons a break from the pounding of running.

Rowing Machine (Ergometer) – Rowing can offer a great cardiovascular workout, and strengthen your core, upper body, and glutes. Because it requires a lot of upper-body strength, which most people lack, even a short workout is going to feel tough. So use it as a substitute for a hard workout. Start with 15 minutes of rowing, and build gradually from there. It’s especially important to get pointers on proper technique, as it’s easy to hurt your back if you don’t.

Stationary Bike – Cycling complements different components of running. Standing while pedaling does the muscle work of running, while spinning at a high cadence (over 90 revolutions per minute) mimics turnover and quickens your step.


The following routines, recommended by RW expert Jeff Galloway, allow you to mimic the running workouts that you’d do on the road.

Easy – Do the following on a single machine or on a combination of machines: Warm up, then “run” on the elliptical, spin, or row at a very easy pace or resistance for two minutes. Increase the intensity or resistance for two minutes. Repeat the sequence three or four times, then cool down.

Moderate – Complete one sequence of the easy workout (above) and also walk for 10 minutes. Then do this: “Run,” spin, or row easy for three minutes, followed by three minutes of increased intensity or resistance. Repeat the sequence three or four times, then cool down.

Hard – Complete one easy workout, walk for five minutes, complete one moderate workout, walk for five minutes. Then do the following: “Run,” spin, or row easy for one minute, doing two minutes at a moderate pace, then one minute hard. Repeat four times, then cool down.

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