Cross Training to Improve Your Running

Developing as a distance runner takes time, it takes miles, and it takes careful planning and patience. The temptation, and I can admit to being guilty of this when I first got started, is to build up your mileage every day once you’re able to cover more than 5k in one session. The reality is that building a solid base for improving your running takes a considerable amount of time (typically around 6 months), during which you need to run and recover to prepare your muscles and joints for the stresses and strains of distance running.

Running 3 times a week, with at least a day off in between, is ideal for those still building up their base. In your off days from running, you can still make improvements to your overall fitness level. Cross training can help improve your stamina and strength, and can really help take your running to the next level. There are two main cross training options available – low impact cardio and resistance training.

Rest Day Cardio

Low impact cardio is anything that helps to improve your cardiovascular health without placing a lot of stress on your joints. This is typically something like cycling or rowing, two activities that provide a challenging workout but allow your knees, ankles and hips to have a decent rest. You’ll improve your fitness level, give your legs/core a decent workout and indirectly benefit your running in the process.

Cycling, in particular, has been shown to have a positive impact on running performance, particularly high-intensity interval workouts. High tension intervals on a stationary bike work your leg muscles extremely hard, in a similar fashion to hill sprints or other high intensity running. The bonus is that the cycling workout has none of the impact of sprints, and so it can benefit your speed work and can be performed as part of your cross training workout.

As a final cardio option, swimming is also a great choice for your off days. As with cycling, swimming is extremely low impact cardio and one of the advantages over cycling is that it provides a full-body workout which is easy on the joints. The twisting in the water helps improve core strength, which is extremely beneficial to your running.


Strength training is also a highly beneficial way of spending your off days. Focusing on the big compound lifts (squats, deadlift and bench press) will help provide a solid foundation for you to develop your running. A solid, consistent core workout can have a really positive impact on your performance, improving your athleticism and making you a more efficient runner.

As the body tires during a run the tendency is to lean forward, resulting in a less efficient posture. A strong core helps keep you upright and feeling strong, which will help improve your performance.

It’s also beneficial to train your legs alongside your core to help improve your running ability. As you run faster your body actually spends less time in contact with the ground, but it also requires more energy and strength to propel your body forward. A strong core and strong legs help enormously with this, and can make a huge difference when you’re looking for that extra few seconds on your run.

Taking a day off from the road or the treadmill isn’t the end of the world, and it will be beneficial in the long term, particularly if you’re new to running or are building a base. Cross training allows you to continue to develop your fitness in an efficient way while reducing your chance of injury. Complimentary training like low impact cardio and resistance training will make you a better runner, and is essential if you’re looking to progress to the next level.


  • Updated May 26, 2020
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