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CROSS-TRAINING: Defining this key activity

NOT EVERYONE UNDERSTANDS THE TERM CROSS-TRAINING. When I posted a Tip of the Day to Facebook recently warning runners not to over-do cross-training, not everyone agreed. “This is terrible advice,” grumbled Curtis, a power lifter. Someone asked, “Can yoga be counted as cross-training?” And what about triathlons? One individual stated her belief that cross-training was supposed to prevent injury, not cause it.

Well maybe, maybe not. Many misconceptions exist about cross-training, but let me define the activity by quoting the introduction to my Novice 1 Marathon program.

 “What is cross-training? It is any other form of aerobic exercise that allows you to use slightly different muscles while resting (usually) after your long run. In the Novice 1 program, we run long on Saturdays and cross-train on Sundays, although it certainly is possible to reverse that order. The best cross-training exercises are swimming, cycling or even walking. What about sports such as tennis or basketball? Activities requiring sideways movements are not always a good choice. Particularly as the mileage builds up toward the end of the program, you raise your risk of injury if you choose to play a sport that requires sudden stopping and starting.”

Terrible advice? I don’t think so, and a number of Facebook friends agreed, citing examples where they stayed on the tennis court for one set too many, or continued to participate in their soccer league (or even bowling league) as the long run mileage inched inexorably upward. Preeti was one runner who wished she had quit her basketball game early: Bruises. Ankle twist. Shoulder pain. Once long-run miles reach the higher double digits (16-20 miles), you need to cut back on your outside activities, otherwise you will get hurt. Not may get hurt, will get hurt.

But people love their cross-training. They love to bike. They love to swim. They love to compete in triathlons. Also, who says yoga is not cross-training? If I participate in an hour-long yoga class, shouldn’t I get credit? Yes, but are you interested in earning credit or in becoming a better runner?

 Among the misconceptions about cross-training: 

1.    The triathlon is cross-training. Tricia suggested this. No, it is not. The triathlon is a triathlon. Cycling and swimming might be excellent cross-training sports, but if your focus is competing in triathlons, you are a triathlete, not a marathoner cross-training. 

2.    Cross-training will prevent injuries. Melissa believed this. If you cross-train, gently, yes. Go for an easy bike ride the day after your long run, good for you. Do some gentle swimming in the pool after a gym workout, you got it right. But convert an easy bike ride into a Tour de Pain, and the injury risk rises.

3.    Cross-training will make me a better and faster runner. Sandra claims success using multiple exercises. Fine for her, but I’m not convinced this works for most people. Sure, you can improve aerobic fitness by embracing alternate exercises, but the danger is you may build antagonistic muscles that actually can interfere with your running. We succeed when we focus most of our attention on running, not on other sports. 

Don’t get me wrong. I probably spend more time biking than I do running, a necessity as I age. I love pumping iron before a few laps in the pool. I’m not against cross-training and its many variations, I just want runners to be cautious, particularly while aimed at a full or half marathon. Save the heavy lifting for after you have a medal hung over your shoulders.


Hal Higdon is a Contributing Editor for Runner's World and author of Marathon: The Ultimate Training Guide.