The Importance of Strength and Cross Training for Runners

by | 10 Jun 2021 | Advanced running

We’ve all been there. Just started to run, struggling with reduced lung capacity, pains all over the body as well as self doubting through the whole ordeal.

And then we hear that on top of it all we should be doing strength training. And there is more. We also should be doing cross training.

‘Cross’ what?

Enter new additions to our running vocabulary, the arsenal of words designed to impress our dinner party guests. ‘I cross-train, you know.’

But there is way more to it.

Strength and cross training for runners are not designed to impress anyone, they are designed to help us improve our running. How? Let’s take a look.

What is cross training for runners?

In simple terms, cross-training is a form of exercise or training in sports other than your main sport. If you are a swimmer you will cross-train on land. You will run and cycle amongst other dry land possibilities. If you already run, like us, you will be offered a choice to swim, amongst others.

Cross-training is meant to help our overall physical performance.

When we are not exercising our running muscles we can pick a non-impact sport like swimming, cycling, even golf or humble dog walking and maintain our fitness by keeping our cardio active as well as engaging and strengthening other than just running muscles.

The idea is to find the balance and work more muscles, the ones that running wouldn’t normally engage. We become more rounded and healthier players!

Runners who cross train progress and improve faster. Cross-training for runners serves the important purpose of making you a better and faster runner.

Sometimes, in the event of an unfortunate injury, we will cross-train rather than sit at home feeling sorry for ourselves. If we hurt our knees, we can cycle. If we hurt an elbow, we can still walk. Cross training can fill those dreaded ‘injury day’ holes in your running.

In other words, we keep active and by being active we speed up our recovery.

What is the best cross-training for runners – and why?

My favourite 7:

1.   Swimming (my personal favourite)

Great exercise that will maintain the cardio going. Many runners turn to swimming when suffering an injury or muscle strain in order to recover sooner.

It’s not necessary to engage in 16 laps of butterfly at full tilt, gentle breaststroke over 10-15 minutes will often do the job. Even walking in chest deep water will relax and work the muscles.

So, is swimming the best cross-training for runners? Depends who you ask, and depends on personal preferences…but it IS very good. And it is my personal favourite.  

2. Cycling

Another very useful cardio and recovery exercise. Again, the idea is to go easy.

Best cross-training for runners is not about putting in huge efforts, it’s about maintaining fitness and aiding recovery.

So, don’t sit on your mountain bike and challenge the steepest hills, blacking out trying! Instead, cycle to relax the muscles and mind. By doing cross training exercise you are aiming to prepare your body for another run, not exhaust it during the ride.

cycling is one of the best cross training for runners

Photo by Dorothy Castillo from Pexels

3. Tennis

Some cross-train for running by playing tennis. Be careful though. Although tennis is a top choice when maintaining cardio fitness, it can also pose more than unnecessary risks to your knees and ankles when chasing that long cross by speeding, turning and jumping in order to smash the ball.

I love tennis, but there are ways to play it in a more relaxed way. The key is the word ‘relax’, don’t go all competitive and try to ace every serve. You are cross-training, not playing at Wimbledon.

Tennis as cross-training for runners verdict: Yes. But go easy.

4. Golf (yes, golf)

Golf can aid recovery. You are walking, you are on your feet all the time and unless you are being transported in a golf buggy you are likely to walk a number of hills. And unless you’re a pro you’re likely to carry a fairly heavy bag with your gear.

Remember, best cross-training for runners is not about fainting after 200 pushups, it’s about relaxing between the runs.

If you are marathon training, you will need to chill between those very long training runs, and golf could be just the game.

5. Walking

Perfect for recovery. After a long run you need to show some love for your bruised and battered legs.

Walking will relax the muscles and get the blood going in a gentle way. You don’t have to cross a mountain, a stroll through the park will suffice. You have a dog? Bring it along, those guys love being outside and can motivate us to walk even when we may not feel like it.

Walking is good.

I discovered it in earnest one day when I got stuck on the bus and walked home. I got there before the bus.

Verdict: not THE best cross-training for runners, but definitely has its place.

6. Rowing

I love rowing. Once you figure out how not to hit your knees it becomes a breeze. Great for maintaining your core fitness as well as building up muscle.

But, as with anything related to cross training for runners, rowing rule number one is to take it easy. Row in a relaxed way.

If done properly rowing it can improve you as a runner and enhance your running ability. And it’s less risky than lifting weights.

Hyde Park in London is a great place to run

7. Yoga

Good cross training for runners need not solely involve another ‘sport’, or exercising in the gym. Stretching and breathing exercises play a big role too, and can help you become a better and faster runner, faster. 

I stretch at least an hour every day. Yoga will help you stretch your whole body, recover from certain aches and achieve overall body conditioning.

People often say that it’s hard to find time for all that stretching in our busy lives. And then they sit on the sofa and watch a film in the evening.

I also like watching films, but I always sit on the carpet and stretch while watching it.

Yoga as a cross-training for runners verdict: definitely Yes.

What is strength training? And how is it relevant to runners?

Many will confuse strength training with bodybuilding. Bodybuilding is essentially focusing on aesthetics rather than strength, and strength training aims to increase the functional ability of muscles.

If you look at any professional runners, they are all muscular. Long distance runners are slimmer than sprinters but muscular they are, all the same.

None of them looks like Hulk though. They are not in the business of running for body aesthetics, they are in the game for strength and power in order to win races.

When it comes to strength training we don’t have to be professional athletes to benefit from strength workouts.

I love running in London thanks to fantastic parks and sights

Photo by King Lip on Unsplash

If we work on our leg muscles and make tendons and ligaments (connective tissues) stronger, that can make us less prone to injuries. Also, the stronger the legs, the more comfortable the runs.

We can also run with more efficiency if we work on our upper-body strength and by getting stronger we minimise side-to-side movement and hold our form better at the end of a run when we begin to tire.

By developing our arm strength we will improve our arm drive and put power into our stride.

Word of caution though. You may work some of those exercises easier and to your benefit, but some may be more problematic and awkward. Never copy that guy from YouTube, gym, or anywhere else.

We are all different, our bodies are different, those exercises are a guide, not laws written in stone.

If you struggle, stop.

My physio once recommended bulgarian squats in order to strengthen my knees. My left knee didn’t like it all. We quickly established that by attempting to do that exercise, my left knee would snap in two (or more) pieces. Not a good idea for a runner.

What strength training is good for runners?

My favourite ten strength building exercises are:

1. Press ups / push ups

The old favourite, press-ups will strengthen the chest, shoulders and arms to improve posture and arm drive while running.

Some people say the best is to do 3×10 reps. Some suggest more. Do what you can, but do them right. If you can do 3 in one go, you’re onto something good.

If you feel too much pressure, pain in your lower back or your shoulder blades, don’t continue, do something else.

What works for me, may not work for you.

2. Planks

If you want to make your stomach tight, make your core stronger, improve posture, get better balance, become more flexible, reduce that annoying niggle in your back, what do you do? Plank exercise springs to mind.

Photo by Sergio Pedemonte on Unsplash

Simple and effective, planks are doable at home without need for any equipment. But remember not to copy the next guy! It’s better to execute a perfect 30 second plank than to fidget for 6 minutes and hurt your lower back.

Start simple and easy. Listen to your body.

Planks, when done right, can be a real game changer!

3. Squats

When we were kids we squated often and perfectly. Then we grew up and forgot how to do it right. Squats are part of us, we just need to remind ourselves how to do them.

Photo by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

I love squats, they are firm favourites for many. They help major muscle groups used when running and decrease injury risks. They will improve your flexibility and could make you a faster runner simply by developing a more efficient stride.

Love thy squats!

4. Step ups

Simple, easy, can be done almost anywhere. Step up exercise will work major muscle groups in the legs, improving running power. You need power to run in comfort, and this exercise will make the difference.

5. Glute bridge

Improved pelvis and torso alignment, stability and running efficiency. How? Through this simple and relatively easy exercise that you can do at home, in your own time. Quite often simplicity is the key and glute bridge definitely fits that description. Lay on the carpet, put some music, TV or podcast on and enjoy it.

6. Walking lunges

You must have seen people in the parks doing funny walks. Those of you who visited a physio must have been advised to try them.

Photo by Anna Shvets from Pexels

Walking lunges have been one of the top strength exercises and there are reasons for it.

They will improve your single-leg balance for improved stability and coordination. Your running will benefit as a result. It is likely that your running stride will lengthen and you will run faster as a result.

7. Single leg deadlift

Ok, you will need to be more adventurous to do this right.

For those who are after running power and stability, single leg deadlift is guaranteed to build and strengthen your hamstrings and glutes. If you can do single leg deadlifts and enjoy the experience, carry on. If not, you can continue with other exercises and still reap the benefits.

Remember, we are fun seeking amateur runners looking to make improvements, we don’t need to blindly follow every workout. Do what you can, do it right and have fun doing it!

8. Dumbbell row

Far from being dumb, dumbell row strengthens the upper back to balance out chest strength.

Like with any exercise where you are holding weights, be mindful of the actual weight. It’s about how we lift, it’s about getting it right. It’s not about lifting some mean double digits.

Always bear in mind that you are not bodybuilding here, you are making your muscles more functional by getting stronger. You want to improve your running more than your beach look (unless that is also your target, but that’s a different topic altogether).

9. Tricep dips

One of those that you can even do at work. All you need is a chair.

Photo by Sinitta Leunen from Pexels

With tricep dips the arms and shoulders will strengthen and help you maintain an upright running posture.You’ll look like a pro. Again, do it right, take your time learning it.

The last thing you need is slipping on the bum.

10. Leg raises

Hip flexors (aka the guys who are responsible for knee lift when you run) and your lower abdominals are the main beneficiaries from this exercise. Oh, and you will develop a more stable torso.

Leg raise may not be the easiest exercise in the book when doing it right but do give it a go. The benefits are there!

Some prefer strength training in the gym, alone or with a personal trainer. I do it at home. Some follow the advice from their trainer based on their age, physical ability and overall strength. I figured it out myself based on how I feel when working out.

Our training will depend on what we want to achieve, how we want to achieve it and available time in our busy lives.

Always remember that any training is better than no training, don’t despair if you can’t commit to long regular sessions. Every little helps!

Those who love running want to be able to run for as long as possible. The key is to run injury free, hence added activities. How often should we cross & strength train? We can cross-train any day when we’re not running. It’s about reducing the risk of injury by reducing the repetitive stress of running and being active at the same time.

With strength training, once per week is better than nothing but ideally you would do it twice or maybe even three times per week if you’re more serious about your running.

The more active we are, the better we feel. The better we feel physically, the better we run and feel mentally. Wins all around!

Cover photo by Rishikesh Yogpeeth on Unsplash


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