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Cross-Train To Get Fitter And Faster

Advance your fitness, build functional strength and improve your speed with these non-running workouts.

Advance your fitness, build functional strength and improve your speed with these non-running workouts. 

When most runners hear the word “cross-training,” they think of various forms of non-running exercises doled out by coaches or physical therapists as “punishment” for being injured. The prevailing thought is: Why would I willingly partake in another form of aerobic exercise when I could be running more?

It turns out there are plenty of good reasons to cross-train. While many dedicated runners will cross-train only when injury forces them out of their running shoes, deliberately incorporating aerobic cross-training workouts into your training schedule can help you safely increase weekly training volume, build strength, enhance recovery and improve your overall athleticism.

Why? A well-placed cross-training session gives healthy runners a break from the pounding of running while still engaging the aerobic system and getting blood flowing through the muscles. Injury-prone runners who don’t respond well to heavy mileage can even replace some of their usual workouts with an equivalent cross-training session to maintain a high overall workload while minimizing the risk of getting injured.

RELATED: Why Runners Should Embrace Cross-Training

Over the following pages, we’ll take a look at the what, why and how of four highly effective forms of aerobic cross-training: water running, spinning, elliptical training and stair climbing. These four activities most closely resemble the mechanics and demands of running and serve as a great supplement to the miles put in during any week of training. If done one a regular basis, they can help you become a stronger, fitter and faster runner.

Water Running

What is it? Water running mimics the motion of land running without the impact. Best performed in the deep end of a pool, it can be done with or without a flotation belt. Run tall, with erect posture, keeping your core tight and your legs firing like pistons underneath your hips. Keep your arms by your sides and move them back and forth as you would while running.

Why do it? The purpose of water running can be two-fold. An “easy” run in the water is a great way to recover from a long run or hard workout on land, as it allows you to stretch your legs out at a low heart rate without the impact. A hard interval session in the water, comprising intense 30–90-second repetitions, can also occasionally replace a speed workout on land without the wear and tear on your body.

How do you incorporate it? The day after a long run or hard workout, run for 30 to 60 minutes at a low heart rate in the deep end of a pool. This can replace an easy run altogether, or it can be combined with a 20–30-minute shakeout run on land, allowing you to get in a longer “run” split between land and water. For a more challenging workout, 15 minutes’ worth of hard intervals in the range of 30–90 seconds with half to equal recovery time (45–90 seconds) makes for a great workout. The resistance of the water will slow your turnover, so drive your knees and pump your arms in a sprinting-like fashion to keep your heart rate high, focusing on matching the effort of your land running workouts.

RELATED: Aqua Jogging For Injured Runners

Elliptical Training

What is it? Elliptical machines, a gym staple, and the ElliptiGO, an elliptical apparatus on wheels, both feature pedals that allow your legs to move in a way that resembles the running motion without impact with the ground. The elliptical machine essentially permits you to run in place indoors, while the ElliptiGO can be ridden on the road.

Why do it? Because you’re standing and mimicking the running motion, the elliptical or ElliptiGO helps you replicate a regular run workout better than standing up on a spin bike does. Also, you can easily manipulate the resistance of the elliptical machine, or the gears on the ElliptiGO, to make your workout as hard or as easy as you would like.

How do you incorporate it? On the elliptical machine, a 30–60-minute session at a low resistance setting can replace an easy training run—or you can increase the resistance to simulate a hill workout or tempo run. Many elite runners, including Meb Keflezighi and Lauren Fleshman, use an ElliptiGO to replace secondary runs during the training week in order to “run” without impact and enhance recovery. You can also do harder interval workouts on a closed road loop, or hill repeats, much in the same way as a road bike.

RELATED: Making The Case For Cross-Training

Spinning

What is it? Indoor riding, with either a road bike on a stationary trainer or a spin bike in a spinning studio, gives you a workout without the interruptions of road cycling. Standing up on the bike is an appropriate running replacement (although not as effective as water running or an elliptical machine) and is a great way to get your heart rate up for extended periods of time.

Why do it? Spinning indoors can serve the purpose of a high-heart-rate interval workout or impact-free recovery session, depending on what you have on tap that day. Getting on the bike is a perfect warm-up for running, an acceptable substitute for a hard workout or a good way to add in extra aerobic training volume without additional impact on your body.

How do you incorporate it? Before heading out for a run, warm up with 15–20 minutes of easy spinning in order to get your legs moving and heart rate elevated. You can also replace a 30-minute recovery run with an easy 45-minute spin on the bike. Swap out a longer marathon-paced workout with spinning for 60–90 minutes at a moderate effort, followed by 30–60 minutes at your goal marathon pace.

RELATED: 4 Approaches To Cross-Training For Runners

Stair Climbing

What is it? Usually found in a gym, the stair climber features a revolving set of stairs with adjustable speed, and mimics walking up a never-ending incline. (Some of the same effects can be created by doing repeats on stadium stairs or a tall set of bleachers.)

Why do it? Walking up stairs at a vigorous effort is a low-impact aerobic activity that reinforces the basic tenets of good posture and sound mechanics while elevating your heart rate and improving lower leg strength. It can be a great tool for runners who are weak on uphills.

How do you incorporate it? Unlike these other activities, the stair climber isn’t a great recovery option since it requires a constant climbing effort. It can, however, be a great off-season training tool to work on form and lower leg strength, especially for runners who live in flat areas and aren’t able to incorporate regular hill workouts into their routine. Getting ready for a hilly ultra race? Get a little more bang for your buck—after a long run, hit the stair climber for 15 to 30 minutes to practice climbing on tired legs.