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Get Strong, Get Fast: Cross-Train Like Olympian Nick Symmonds

Cross-train like Olympian Nick Symmonds to gain strength, increase your speed, avoid injury, and keep things fresh.

Cross-train like Olympian Nick Symmonds to gain strength, increase your speed, avoid injury, and keep things fresh.

Like it or not, running takes a toll on our bodies. Train too hard, and sooner or later you won’t be training at all. The best insurance for staying injury-free is a strong body. And this added strength is best gained not from logging more miles, but from embracing other activities that engage your metabolic system and increase your body’s overall functional strength.

We caught up with two-time U.S. Olympic middle-distance runner Nick Symmonds, a huge advocate of cross-training, as he worked out in his adopted town of Seattle—a true urban playground for endurance athletes. We talked with him and his coaches to learn how you can benefit from a varied and fun approach to your run training.

“I’m a huge believer in cross-category exercises,” says Danny Mackey, coach of the Brooks Beasts elite training group and one of Symmonds’ chief advisers. “Because contact with the ground is such a stressful experience, we can’t exercise 35 to 40 hours of running each week like a cyclist can on a bicycle, so you’ve got to get it in other ways.”

So how does cross-training make you stronger and faster?

You can get the same aerobic effect from other activities with less pounding. If you think of exercise in terms of units, you can train longer with low-impact activities than you can with running, allowing you to put in more time building up your speed or your overall endurance than you can strictly by running.

Those of us who love running love to self-identify as runners—and in the past, that meant sometimes forgoing other sports. But becoming a more effective runner now means embracing other activities. It’ll boost your speed, strength and endurance, and lessen your risk of injury. In the end, this will allow you to run longer and faster—which is what we’re all really after, isn’t it?

RELATED: Why Runners Should Embrace Cross-Training

Weight Training

Why: Think of your running body like a spring, says coach Mackey. “If the spring is a little stiffer when you hit the ground, you’re not losing as much energy and are able to toe off more powerfully with stronger glutes and hamstrings.” Plus, stronger muscles also mean less wasted energy in upper-body movement.

Nick says: “I started lifting more when I turned pro. I knew I had lost something from when I played a dozen different sports as a kid. After college I was a one-trick pony, and I thought I had lost coordination, muscle strength and all of the stuff of a well-rounded athlete.”

Coach Radcliffe says: In a very small nutshell, strength training “allows  runners to cover the ground quicker and more cleanly, and spend less time on it,” according to Jim Radcliffe, strength and conditioning coach for University of Oregon athletics. “The more time you spend on the ground, the more bad things happen. A simpler way to put it is we want to train everybody to cover the ground more like a Super Ball than like a tomato.”

Strength training will NOT bulk you up: As a runner, of course you want to avoid extra pounds. But don’t worry—lifting weights will not make you slow and bulky. “Every single elite runner I know lifts,” Symmonds says. “We’re talking about some very small, frail people.” It’s all in what you do. No one would claim, for example, that overhead lunges, which is a staple exercise that promotes proper form and running mechanics, will bulk you up.

“In nine years as a pro, I’ve never once done bench press in a gym,” Symmonds says. “This isn’t about ‘curls for the girls’ or anything like that. This is running-focused motion—it’s all about functional weight training and explosiveness.”

In other words, it’s time to put that old-school run-training myth to rest once and for all.

Bonus: Symmonds often does a stride workout on the back of a lifting session. “There’s something I really like about trying to run fast and efficient and use proper mechanics while your muscles are extremely fatigued from lifting,” he says.

RELATED: Nick Symmonds’ 4-Week Strength Training Plan


Why: Swimming is an easy way for a runner to get his or her heart rate high—and, of course, it’s also a zero-load activity. There’s no impact stress in the water like there is pounding the pavement, and it makes for a great workout with minimal muscle damage compared to running.

Nick says: “I realized swimming had really good rejuvenating properties. A lot of runners do their secondaries in the afternoons after their morning workouts and they call it the flush, or a shakeout. After a really hard session of intervals, the last thing I want to do is run. My coach would say, ‘Go for a swim.’ After I get out of the water, I feel 10 times better than before I went in.”

Coach Mackey says: “Runners can get lactate-threshold workouts fairly easily in the pool. It’s a whole-body activity, so you’re using major muscle groups—upper body and lower body. When you use major muscle groups, demand goes up, which means blood flow goes up. And when blood flow goes up, your heart rate goes along with it.”

How to do it: After swimming a warm-up session (of 8 to 18 lengths of the pool), do 4–6 x 100 yards at a moderate to hard pace with about 30 seconds of rest in between. Follow that with 8 more laps of easy swimming followed by 6 x 75 yards in which each 25-yard segment increases from easy to moderate to very hard. (Take a 30-second rest between each 75-yard effort.) Lastly, swim 4 x 50 yards at a very hard effort (with 30 seconds of rest in between). Finish with about 18 lengths of easy swimming as a cool-down.

Bonus: To more closely mimic running, learn how to flip turn—or try open-water swimming. “Every time I used to get injured, the only thing that kept me from going crazy was swimming,” Symmonds says. “But I was frustrated that I couldn’t get that same flow you feel when you’re running that I’m really addicted to. When I taught myself how to flip turn, I could shut my mind off and just swim and find that similar feeling.” Symmonds owns a wetsuit and swims in open water around Seattle whenever possible, in addition to surfing when he’s based in Southern California.

RELATED: Cross-Training 101: Swimming for Runners


Why: For a good, long-duration workout, there’s nothing better than a bike ride—it’s much easier for most runners to go ride for 90 minutes than to swim for that long. And cycling, like running, is a social activity. It’s easy to talk a friend into a bike ride, whereas swimming is more of a solitary activity. “Living in a big city, I use my bike all the time now,” Symmonds says. “I’ll go as far as 100 miles when I have time. When I only have one run scheduled, I might go for a short ride in the afternoon as a shakeout, just to see things and get out.”

Nick says: “I like the idea of muscle confusion. You’re still firing your quads and hamstrings, but in a slightly different way. For me, I mainly like cycling as a way to boost mileage without actually running miles.”

Coach Mackey says: “I like my athletes to ride bikes. There’s a little bit of stress on the muscles and joints—just a touch—and so it’s a good way to still keep some of the similar patterns in there but without the pounding.”

How to do it: If you live in an area where the terrain is slightly rolling, even easy bike rides can turn into a fartlek effort, just because the hills force you to periodically work harder. Even if you only have one hill to ride, you can do intervals by riding uphill hard (ideally from 90 seconds to 5 minutes) and then recover by riding back to the bottom and doing it again five to seven more times. Otherwise, keep cadence high to mimic run cadence.

Bonus: Symmonds explains what else he likes about cycling. “Talking to ex-pros, there comes a day when your knees and legs just can’t do what they used to do, and I’ve met so many who have turned to cycling to find that same flow that you get from running,” he says. “But you also get out and see things, and you can ride in a big group and chat.”

RELATED: Start Cycling to Become a Better Runner

Bonus Running Tip: Vary Your Running

Symmonds and his coaches suggest varying both your running efforts and your running surfaces. Take a break from the concrete and asphalt, and hit the trails near your home. Or find your nearest track for some fast and fun workouts. According to coach Mackey, Symmonds will run roughly 55 to 60 miles per week during the season: 30 on singletrack or dirt trails, 15 on roads, and 10 on the track (including fast-paced intervals and recovery jogging).

Why: With higher miles, softer surfaces are easier on your body’s connective tissue, and for reducing the possibility of stress fractures. Plus, uneven surfaces help build up the little muscles in your legs and core, and increase your stability. Variety in your shoes helps a lot too: Symmonds cycles between as many as eight different pairs per week, depending on the surface and the speed of the workout.

Nick says: “I get told by people all the time, ‘Oh, you’re a runner, but you’re not a trail runner.’ What does that even mean? Like there’s two different types of runners: road runners and trail runners. To a pro, you’re both. You’re also a track runner. If you’re putting in 60 to 80 miles a week, as long as it doesn’t have a traffic light, you’re running on it.”

Coach Mackey says: Pay attention to the quality of your run as much as the quantity. “I’m really big on the mental side of training, and I know a lot of athletes like being outside of an urban environment in a raw, quiet, more relaxed environment so they don’t get bored,” Mackey says. But, he doesn’t recommend running on soft surfaces all the time. “People slide around a bit more, especially on the toe-off—and most people don’t race on soft surfaces. It’s important that runners are used to a hard surface and that our muscles are tuned to that.”

Bonus: Don’t forget about the track—a good, regular track workout can benefit runners of all abilities. “You don’t need to be spiked up,” Symmonds says, “but if you throw on a pair of lightweight trainers, doing a series of fast 100-meter strides with a good walk recovery is gonna make your overall running form, mechanics and economy all much, much better, and you’ll get faster, no matter if you’re a 5K runner or a marathoner.”

Extra: Coach Mackey’s Cross-Training Plan