Cross-Training to improve running performance

As a runner, it’s common to dedicate oneself exclusively to the sport, occasionally incorporating weight training. Often, it’s an injury that prompts individuals to explore other aerobic activities (such as cycling, swimming, or cross-country skiing) to maintain fitness. However, cross-training—alternating running with another sport—can significantly enhance your training plan.

Trail Runners: champions of cross-training

Trail runners often stand out as strong proponents of cross-training. Icons like Kilian Jornet with ski mountaineering in winter, Xavier Thevenard with cross-country skiing, and Julien Chorier with cycling exemplify this approach. Even amateur runners have seen significant endurance improvements by incorporating activities like IronMan into their training.

The primary benefits of cross-training include diversifying workouts and reducing joint strain through low-impact sports. For those targeting a distant race, up to 50% of their training volume can be allocated to sports other than running. However, as one transitions to more specific race preparations, at least 75% of the training volume should be focused on running.

If you have a personalized RunMotion Coach training plan, there’s the flexibility to incorporate cycling on selected days (via the “Modify the week” option). If training independently, it’s possible to substitute recovery, endurance, active endurance, or even weight training sessions with cross-training activities. Yet, it’s crucial to ensure that specific running sessions (such as VO2 max, race pace specificity, etc.) are maintained to condition the body for running efforts and improve running economy, thereby enhancing stride efficiency.

Next, we’ll explore which sports can best complement your training plan:

Cycling as cross-training

Cycling stands out as a premier choice for runners looking to cross-train. It offers a significant way to increase training volume without the risk of joint or bone stress, thanks to its low-impact nature. However, it’s crucial to ensure proper cycling posture, particularly the correct saddle height, to prevent knee tendinitis. Cycling objectives can vary widely:

  • Recovery: Aim for a duration of 1 to 1.5 hours at a “spinning” pace, which translates to 90/100 revolutions per minute (RPM). This helps facilitate muscle recovery while maintaining aerobic fitness.
  • Endurance Building: For enhancing endurance, sessions exceeding 2 hours (and extending to 3-4 hours for marathoners, even longer for ultra-trail enthusiasts) are beneficial. These are conducted at a “spinning” pace of 80/90 RPM. For ultra-trail preparation, consider a 4-hour cycle followed by a 1-hour run to simulate race conditions and build endurance.
  • Muscle Strengthening: Specifically for trail runners, 3 sets of 5 minutes using a heavy gear at a slower pace of 40/50 RPM can be highly effective. This session, best performed after a proper warm-up, doesn’t necessarily require hills but is advantageous for simulating trail running conditions, especially for those training in flatter regions.

For users of the RunMotion Coach app with Premium access, a cycling module offers up to two tailored bike workouts weekly. Depending on your preference for strength or endurance, these cycling sessions can be seamlessly integrated into your overall running plan (accessible via Training Preferences / My Training Days / Add Cycling).

Cycling sessions are seamlessly incorporated into your overall training schedule, alongside your running routines.

Swimming: a valuable option for runners

Many runners are not very fond of swimming. The physical characteristics that favor running, such as longer legs, differ from those advantageous in swimming, which often include a larger torso. However, swimming offers substantial benefits by strengthening the upper body, enhancing cardiovascular health, and improving respiratory efficiency.

Swimming as cross-training can be beneficial for recovery and increasing training volume. You can even do interval training once you’re comfortable in the water. For runners less confident in their swimming technique, using a pull buoy can assist with buoyancy and encourage less reliance on leg movement, a common instinct for runners.

For individuals dealing with injuries, aqua jogging presents a viable alternative. Utilizing a flotation belt, it enables running motions in water, providing a surprisingly intensive workout while minimizing impact.

Cross-country skiing as cross-training

Cross-country skiing offers an outstanding method for runners to increase their training volume, with the potential for sessions to extend over several hours. Beyond merely adding volume, it serves as an effective substitute for strength and conditioning workouts. This activity demands and develops upper body strength, requiring a robust core for maintaining proper skiing posture and ensuring efficient glide.

Engaging in cross-country skiing, particularly the action of pushing off with the poles, strengthens the arms and triceps. This movement mirrors the pole usage in ultra-trail running, making it an ideal cross-training option for trail runners seeking to enhance their performance.

Moreover, technique plays a crucial role in both cross-country skiing and trail running. The importance of looking ahead while descending to strategically plan foot placement and anticipate the terrain ahead cannot be overstated.

Similar to Nordic skiing, ski touring also presents a fantastic opportunity to improve endurance and strength endurance, benefiting runners looking to elevate their fitness and running efficiency.

The equivalence between running / cycling / swimming / skiing

When considering the duration equivalence among running, cycling, swimming, and Nordic skiing, it’s important to acknowledge that an individual’s proficiency in a given sport significantly influences the effort and energy consumption involved. For instance, swimming may require more energy and pose greater difficulty for beginners compared to experienced triathletes. Similarly, the challenge level of cross-country skiing varies significantly based on one’s familiarity and skill with the sport.

Generally speaking, here is how the duration of activities with endurance-type intensity compares to running:

Running (reference)Road Cycling (x1.5)Nordic Skiing (x1.5)Swimming (x0.5)
Table of the equivalence between running / cycling / swimming / skiing

This guideline outlines the equivalency between running, cycling, swimming, and Nordic skiing in terms of duration and effort. Additionally, it takes into account the differences between indoor and outdoor activities, which can significantly impact the perceived intensity and energy expenditure due to factors like ventilation and increased sweating indoors. For example, spending 1 hour on a treadmill is approximately equivalent to about 40 minutes of running outdoors, while 1 hour on a home trainer (cycling indoors) roughly equals about 1 hour and 30 minutes of cycling outdoors.

Moreover, when considering ski touring, the equivalence with running effort and duration heavily depends on the intensity of the ascent. At a moderate intensity, ski touring effort can be quite comparable to that of running, highlighting the importance of context and individual effort levels in determining cross-training equivalences.

Exploring additional sports for diverse training 

Incorporating varied activities into your training can offer numerous benefits beyond the primary sport of focus. Yoga, for example, can significantly enhance flexibility and foster greater awareness of your breathing techniques, which are essential for endurance sports. Pilates is another excellent choice, particularly for strengthening the core muscles, including the abdominal belt, which supports overall body stability and performance.

Team sports such as soccer, basketball, and ultimate frisbee offer great opportunities for improving cardiovascular fitness. However, it’s crucial to approach these activities with caution due to the higher risk of impact-related injuries. While cross-training is beneficial for developing a well-rounded athletic base, the goal is not to compromise your main sport’s performance or risk sidelining yourself with an injury—especially not close to a key event or race you’ve dedicated months to prepare for 😉

Avatar photo
Mailis Durif-VarambonMailis grew up in the mountains, where she went hiking and biking every weekend. She loves outdoor activities where she can relax at the end of the day. At RunMotion Coach, she is responsible for community management.