What Is Cross Training and What Are the Best Activities to Try?

Your non-running workouts don’t have to be boring.

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Running can be psychologically, physically, and emotionally rewarding. The kilometres help your heart, your bones, and your mood. However, to both improve performance and help you recover, you need to add a few other workouts to your routine—which is where cross training comes in to supplement your training.

What is cross training? Well, it’s basically other forms of exercise that switch up how you move your body. Ideally, it has you moving in new ways, directions, and activating multiple muscle groups. Here’s what to know about cross-training, plus the best activities for runners.

What is cross training?

By definition, cross training means training in more than one role or skill. So for runners, cross training means practising other workout modalities besides running.

An ideal cross-training activity should improve your cardio, strengthen your muscles, or help speed your recovery, Kevin Vincent, M.D., Ph.D, director of the University of Florida Running Medicine Clinic tells Runner’s World. Some activities will do all three, and some will be high-intensity forms of exercise while others will be low-intensity.

Typically, athletes want to do cross-training that compliments their main sport. For runners, this could be swimming, cycling, or even walking to help build endurance. Strength training is also important for injury-proofing the body and building resiliency to take on more kilometres.

Keep in mind, running is a unilateral movement (that means one-sided as you basically jump from one leg to the other as you run)—so it’s important to incorporate unilateral exercises, such as lunges, into strength-training workouts. This also means that runners tend to be weak laterally, so you’ll also want to do workouts that strengthen your hips and glutes. By paying attention to these needs, engaging in cross-training will not only make you a better runner, it will also help you avoid injuries.

Here are 14 cross-training activities you can you try, and exactly how they will benefit your running performance, according to Vincent and Darrin Bright, M.D., OhioHealth sports medicine doctor and ultramarathoner.

1. Rollerblading

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How it helps your running: It improves your cardio and helps you recover with a low-impact activity. “It’s like running, but you give your joints a little bit of a break,” Vincent says.

What to keep in mind: There is potential for injuries, so be sure to wear the proper padding. While it is not is not always aerobically challenging, to increase your heart rate, find a path where you won’t coast very much and have to work hard to catch speed or get up a hill.

2. Swimming

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How it helps your running: Get your heart rate up, while keeping the impact low while in the pool. “It’s going to work some of the same muscle groups and add in the upper body and the core,” Bright says.

What to keep in mind: Swimming can be tough on your shoulders, especially if your form is off, so if you haven’t been in the pool for a while, you might consider taking a lesson. Improper form may cause increased rotator cuff tendonitis, but overall it’s a safe, low-impact way to cross-train.

3. Barre class

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How it helps your running: Improve your mobility while building strength in your entire body. Barre classes incorporate ballet-like moves, while focusing on small muscle groups and stabilisation. While you don’t often jump in class (though some will incorporate plyometrics), it is often still a high-intensity workout that can cause muscle soreness. You can do these workouts at home, but they may be difficult without proper equipment or in-person instruction.

What to keep in mind: “If these workouts are combined with usual training schedules without incorporating proper recovery time, there may be a risk for overtraining,” Bright says. So take a rest day after a barre class if you need it.

4. Kayaking

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How it helps your running: Strengthen the upper body and core, while giving the legs rest and recovery. Getting on the water has been shown to help people psychologically. “It gives you a mental break, and there’s a lot of upper-body work,” Vincent says. “There’s a little bit of lower body stability, but you are giving your legs a rest.”

What to keep in mind: It can have low aerobic intensity, especially if you paddle casually, which is why kayaking can be both a workout or used for recovery.

5. Golf

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How it helps your running: Golf allows your muscles to recover, while also keeping you moving—especially if you opt out of the cart. “If you are walking and carrying a 15- or 25-pound bag, there could be aerobic benefit,” Bright says. “There’s even a concept called speed golf. People literally run the 18 holes.” However, if you do ride the course in a cart, it will be a more of a low-aerobic activity.

What to keep in mind: Consider stretching your upper body before and after you play a game.

6. Walking the dog

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How it helps your running: Let your body recovery while still working similar muscles to running. “You are utilising the same muscle groups. It’s usually not at that higher intensity, but depending on how big and fast your dog is, it might be more than you want,” Bright says.

What to keep in mind: It has low aerobic intensity level. “It’d probably be more of an active recovery day. I wouldn’t substitute it for a tempo or interval,” Bright says.

7. Yoga

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How it helps your running: Yoga can help you improve flexibility, increase core strength and stability, and maybe most importantly, bring a focus to your breath. It serves as a solid active recovery day, too, when you go for less intense classes, like restorative yoga. Also, “benefits may be seen in hot yoga prior to running a race in warmer environments. It has been shown that acclimating to the heat can help to decrease your risk for heat injury and improve performance,” Bright says.

What to keep in mind: Yoga is not competitive, so don’t push yourself in class. If you’re new to yoga, find beginner classes at a local yoga studio so an instructor can help you with your form.

8. Waterskiing or Wakeboarding

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How it helps your running: Test your balance while building your strength with this incredibly fun form of cross training. “It will help with lower-body strength and will give you core strength,” Vincent says. It will help with your balance, as well.

What to keep in mind: Your legs really work when you waterski and wakeboard, so you might not feel ready to run again the next day. In that case, take a rest day.

9. Tennis

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How it helps your running: Running around a court makes for a good cross-training activity that keeps the heart rate up, improving your cardio fitness. “It’s very intense. You are conditioning. It’s a very hard workout and allows you to stay in shape,” Vincent says. Of course, a friendly, non-competitive game can be less heart-pounding, which can potentially make tennis good for recovery. Another benefit: Instead of just moving forward, like in running, you move side to side and in rotation, too, helping you become a more well-rounded athlete.

What to keep in mind: Your legs still take a beating, and quick lateral movements and pounding on your legs can up the risk of injury. “Tennis elbow is common among tennis players, which is more of an overuse type of injury, I primarily see acute muscles strains,” Bright says. Consider warming up before and then stretching after a game to help ease muscle aches and sidestep injury.

10. Cross-Country Skiing

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How it helps your running: Cross-country skiing is a great cardio sport that eliminates the impact you experience while running. “It’s working similar muscle groups to running. There is high aerobic demand. It’s a perfect sport that we could substitute,” Bright says.

What to keep in mind: “If you suffer from asthma or exercise-induced asthma, [cross-country skiing is] one of the highest triggers for asthma,” Bright says. Take caution if you’re at risk.

11. Zumba

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How it helps your running: Get in a cardio workout while strengthening your muscles head to toe. Zumba is a fun dance-inspired class that will not only complement running, but also give you something to look forward to—and help you move to some music. “It’s working some of those same muscle groups [as running]. It’s strengthening some of those hip-stabilising muscles that are important to running. It’s also utilising them in a way that we don’t always with running,” Bright says. You can check your local gym or YouTube for class videos to follow.

What to keep in mind: While Zumba requires lower aerobic intensity than running, it can cause overexertion of leg muscles. Some moves can put stress on your calves, in particular. Make sure to give your legs some rest after if they’re feeling sore.

12. Downhill Skiing

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How it helps your running: Get a leg workout, and a kick in your heart rate, with downhill skiing, which also gives you a great excuse to exercise outside in winter. “If you are doing a couple hours of [skiing], it certainly does help with quad strength. When you are coming downhill, it will help with your posture and stability,” Vincent says.

What to keep in mind: You may overexert your leg muscles and there is risk of injury. “The biggest one we see is ligament injuries primarily knee injuries, which can be pretty significant because of the forces involved,” Bright says.

13. Stand-Up Paddle Boarding

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How it helps your running: Work on building a strong, tall posture, as well as balance and core strength with stand-up paddleboarding. “You do work your legs a lot, and it’s tiring from a posture standpoint. It’s not as much pounding as running is. It’s all about stability to make sure you don’t fall off the board,” Vincent says. It can also be relaxing and a stress-relieving activity.

What to keep in mind: It works your leg muscles hard, and it’s a tougher workout than people expect. Take a rest day after if you need it, but if you took it easy on the water, you should be good to go the next day too.

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