Laying down a base. Why do we need cross training (Hint: injury prevention MUST start NOW)

Cross training? Say what? Why do training plans, especially the ½ marathon and full marathon, have “cross training” in them? And what exactly does it mean?

Cross training, by definition, is any activity that is different from what you typically do (running) that helps you increase your fitness while hopefully helping you to avoid injury and overtraining. There are many flavors. For example: walking, biking, rowing, swimming, resistance training, running in the water, and the list goes on.

I always consider my cross training and overall fitness before I plan my training calendar. What were the injuries or issues I had last season? Did I fully recover? Are symptoms still lingering?

Prevention is key. So, look at your last few months of training and ask yourself, honestly, if there is something that you need to work on. Are your ankles weak? Do you need to work on your core? Do you have nagging hip or knee pain? Maybe some resistance training right at the start of your season, or even before you begin training, will help you prepare to run injury-free this year. Getting a good injury screen is worth it’s weight in gold.

You don’t need to spend hours in the gym, either. With a good, focused strengthening program, you can workout for just 15-20 minutes 2-3 times a week and reap HUGE benefits with your running. Trust me, it works.

Cross training can help you increase your fitness, true. But, cross training can also help you recover better. Perfect example; you do your long run on Saturday or Sunday, say 16-18 miles. If you’re like most runners, the next day you feel stiff and sore, and find that you feel even worse if you lay around all day. Enter cross training.

Yes, most of us hobble around like we’re 80 years old with a bad case of arthritis after doing a nice “little” 18 mile jaunt. Sometimes, that’s just how it is. But, if we set up camp on the couch afterward, it only makes things worse. Our joints lock up, the stiffness sets in, and we look like the Tinman.

However, if we can keep things moving, albeit slowly, we fare much better.

biker holding mountain bike on top of mountain with green grass
Photo by Pixabay on


Then, there’s the next morning. That moment when you wake up and wonder what will happen when you swing your legs over the side of the bed and get ready to take your first steps. On the way to the bathroom, you start assessing the “damage”. How bad do you feel? Are the stairs going to feel like Mt. Everest today?

This is the perfect time to consider walking, swimming, or biking nice and easy. It really does improve your recovery time. The key word, though, is EASY. Low intensity.

Another thing to consider when looking into cross training is what you enjoy. Pick something you actually LIKE to do. If you hate riding a bike, then don’t put it on your schedule. I know, common sense, right? You’re already hurting, and it would be nice to have something you enjoy to look forward to.

water swimming competition pool
Photo by Pixabay on

So, let’s say your marathon program has you running 4 days a week, and your knees are not particularly enjoying it. You could consider swapping out one of your short runs with something else. This will save your joints a little pain and suffering, while increasing your overall fitness level.

Many runners can successfully run 3 days a week while training for a marathon. When you throw in a day of cross training, you increase your longevity in the sport of running. It helps you avoid injury and burnout.

Real world example, your running week looks like this:

Monday cross train 45 minutes

Tuesday 5 mile run

Wednesday 10 mile run

Thursday 5 mile run

Friday rest

Saturday 20 mile run

Sunday rest

You look at this week, and you already have a nagging injury that you don’t want to make worse. You need to keep your 10 and 20 milers in there, so maybe you choose to swap out one of the 5 mile runs for a bike ride or swim instead. Perfect! Still active, still increasing your fitness, yet avoiding overuse!

Another good example is when you are in the thick of your training schedule for a long event, ie: a marathon. Just knowing that you have yet another run to complete the next morning can give you cause to think about skipping your training day all together. OR, you could swap out something else you enjoy, still get in a good workout, and feel refreshed because you did something different. It’s like finding a new running route; NEW is GOOD.

Lastly, it’s good to have a backup plan if you do get sidelined with an injury. When your doctor tells you “no running for the next 2 weeks”, cross training will keep you from going bonkers sitting on the couch and staring at your calendar.

Cross training is all good. Mix it up, buttercup.

Run Happy, Run Long.


Amy is a marathoner and triathlete, a mother of four, an Exercise Physiologist and an endurance athlete Physical Therapist. She lives with her husband, Dan (also a marathoner and triathlete), and kids in Lewis Center.


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