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Four Approaches To Cross-Training For Runners

Should you be a maximalist, supplemental, seasonal, or emergency cross-trainer?

Should you be a maximalist, supplemental, seasonal, or emergency cross-trainer?

There is no single right way to train as a runner. Individual runners need to train differently based on their experience level, training history, susceptibility to injury, goals, life schedule, tolerance for high-intensity running, and other strengths and weaknesses. There is also room for personal preference, experimentation, and changing things up for variety’s sake.

RELATED: Can’t Run? You Can Still Train!

What’s true for run training is true for cross-training as well. There is more than one way to do it and your choice of approach to cross-training should be based on many of the same factors listed above. While I generally define cross-training as any form of exercise that a runner does besides running, in this article I wish to focus specifically on cardiovascular training alternatives to running such as ElliptiGO riding, elliptical training, bicycling, pool running, and steep uphill treadmill walking. I’ve written elsewhere about how to choose a primary cross-training modality. Here I would like to discuss four ways to incorporate your chosen running alternative(s) into your training for running events. My names for these approaches are emergency cross-training, supplemental cross-training, seasonal cross-training, and maximalist cross-training.

Emergency Cross-Training

Emergency cross-trainers are runners who cross-train only when an injury or pain prevents them from running. When healthy and pain-free they get all of their cardiovascular conditioning from running.

RELATED — Cross-Training 101: Avoiding Overtraining When Injured

One downside of this approach is that when cross-training is treated as a last resort, runners are more reluctant to rely on it than they should be. Emergency cross-trainers often have little faith in cross-training and are thus tempted to try to “run through” injuries—a choice that seldom ends well.

Emergency cross-training can be a good approach for runners who are seldom injured, however. Nothing improves running fitness like running, after all!

Supplemental Cross-Training

Runners at all levels are increasingly moving from emergency cross-training to supplemental cross-training, where one or more alternative cardio activities have a small but consistent place in one’s training program. For example, a typical supplemental cross-trainer might run four times a week and use an elliptical trainer twice a week instead of running six times a week.

This approach has a few advantages. First, it reduces injury risk by limiting the repetitive impact of running without much if any sacrifice of running-specific fitness. A second advantage of supplemental cross-training is that it keeps runners well adapted to their chosen alternative cardio activity so that they are able to get more out of it if an injury forces them to rely on it exclusively to maintain fitness for a period of time.

Seasonal Cross-Training

Seasonal cross-training is just what it sounds like: Adding cross-training to a runner’s training regimen during a particular season. Most seasonal cross-trainers add winter sports to their training as a fitness-preserving way to get a physical and mental break from running. A noteworthy example is Libbie Hickman, a top American runner in the 1980s.

While attending Colorado State University, Hickman (then Libbie Johnson) was introduced to cross-country skiing, for which she quickly developed a passion that nearly rivaled her passion for running. Throughout her professional running career, Hickman returned to skis during the winter, at first just because she couldn’t resist, but later for the additional reason that she came to view this cross-training period as one of the most important and beneficial parts of her year-round training program.

RELATED: Returning To Running After Injury

Hickman would ski every day—often all day—two to three weeks per month for approximately two months each winter. All this skiing allowed her to maintain or even increase her basic cardiovascular fitness while giving her mind and body a badly needed break from running. By the time she returned to regular run training in late winter, she felt physically stronger and emotionally recharged, ready on all levels for the long stretch of hard training and high-stakes racing that lay ahead.

Every runner needs to indulge in some form of “off season” once or twice a year. However you choose to approach cross-training the rest of the year, consider being a seasonal cross-trainer during the winter or whenever your off season falls.

Maximalist Cross-Training

Maximalist cross-training is a programmatic heavy reliance on cross-training in the absence of injury. The typical maximalist cross-trainer does one cross-training workout for every run he or she does. This approach is a good one for injury-prone runners who are determined to get as fit as they can despite their fragility.

Two-time Olympian Meb Keflezighi has been a maximalist cross-trainer at times. He swam and biked as often as he ran, for example, while training for the 2004 New York City Marathon, in which he finished second. A growing number of highly competitive runners—particularly masters runners—are using ElliptiGO bikes in a maximalist approach to cross-training. One of them is Brian Pilcher, who set a national record of 16:05 for 5,000 meters in the men’s 55-59 age group this spring.

What kind of cross-trainer are you?

Think about the approach to cross-training that is best for you. If you’re not already doing it, give it a try. Don’t be surprised to discover that you need to make further refinements as you gain experience with it. The “Perfect Training System” is something you should never stop moving toward but must never expect to reach.


About The Author:

Matt Fitzgerald is the author of RUN: The Mind-Body Method of Running by Feel (VeloPress, 2010) and an expert training content developer for PEAR Sports. Learn more at