4 Cross-Training Activities to Up Your Running Game


I don’t know about you, but when I hear the words, “cross-training,” I cringe. I am a runner because I like to run. The idea of spending hours on an arm bike or a stair stepper is not my idea of a good time. But I know cross-training is an essential part of a successful training plan. So how do you incorporate cross-training in a way that isn’t as painful as pulling teeth? Find active things you love to do that don’t feel like a chore!

I’ll still do the standard gym work, but my favorite forms of cross-training are activities I simply consider fun.That way, I get the same desired strength gains as the typical cross-training exercises, but I don’t feel like I’m (ugh) cross-training. The two activities I rely on most to fill out my training schedule are stand up paddle boarding and splitting wood.

Build Balance & Core Strength: Stand Up Paddle Boarding

Stand up paddle boarding (SUP) might seem like an arm workout, but when you do it properly it’s great for building core strength. When I’m on the board, I keep my elbows locked and out straight, and I use my hips to pull the paddle through the water.

Sara and I are on the lake with our boards at least 3 or 4 times a week. After paddling around for a bit, I’ll finish off the activity with a little fishing off the board. SUP is a great way to enjoy nature and get in a great core workout that will make a noticeable difference in your running.

Improve Abs & Endurance: Splitting Wood

I grew up in the mountains of Big Bear Lake, CA, and every fall my dad, brothers, and I would head out in the forest to cut, split, and stack our own wood. We loved our excursions into the forest, and would get into fierce competitions to see who could carry the most firewood or who could split wood the fastest. It wasn’t until recently, when I watched a documentary on the best boxer in the world, that I realized splitting wood is also great for cross-training.  

In the film, the boxer split giant logs, not because he needed the wood to warm his home for the winter, but because he wanted to build strong abdominal muscles that could take punch after punch. Since then I have rekindled my childhood love for splitting wood.

Target Weak Muscles: In the Gym

The other thing to remember about cross-training is often it’s important to do the exercises you don’t like to do. But you can make it more palatable by doing it in shorter amounts of time. For example, I know that some type of gym work done two to three times per week should be part of every runner’s workout plan. Still, I really don’t enjoy spending hours in the gym, and I know how easy it can be to find an excuse not to do it. So I tell myself I only have to be in the gym for 20 minutes, and I rally. Shorter stints help me get the work done.

What are the best exercises for 20-minute gym sessions? Let your body be your guide! If you’ve been feeling any pain, consider the source and what you need to work on to help alleviate it. If you have pain in your feet when you run, consider spending your time on foot strengthening exercises, like towel pulls or balancing barefoot on a dyna-disc. If you quads are often sore after workouts, focus on moves that strengthen your hamstrings. (Yes, I said hamstrings. Your quads are most likely sore for one of two reasons: either you are doing a lot of downhill running that is pounding your quads, or they are overworked because they’re compensating for weak hamstrings.) Many aches and pains can lead you towards the right gym workout for you. Start with bodyweight moves and go from there to promote a healthy relationship among opposing muscles. (Of course, if you have serious pain you’ll want to check in with a doctor before self-diagnosing—you don’t want to risk an injury!)

If your body isn’t sending you any pain signals (lucky you!), there are four all-around, good-for-runners exercises that I like to do:

  • Planks—I do one minute in a full plank, one minute in a side plank on the left and then on the right, and keep rotating through for about six minutes.
  • Squats—I’ll do 4 sets of 5 squats, but whatever suits your fitness level is find.
  • Toe Raises —I like to use the machine in my local gym to complete 4 sets of 10.
  • Step-ups—I pick out a box that is about 18″ high, grab a barbell with an appropriate amount of weight for me, and do 4 sets of 5 on each leg.

Recover & Maintain Cardio: Biking

Cross-training with other types of cardio is also effective, especially when used to recover from running or to prevent injury. But it’s not so much about which cardio activity you choose, as it is about doing something you enjoy. When Sara and I are working through an injury or simply want to get in extra cardio work, we like to supplement our runs with biking—Sara loves indoor cycling classes with music blaring, while I prefer getting outside and tackling the biggest mountain I can find on my road bike.

Once you find an activity you enjoy doing, you should spend the same amount of energy doing it as you would have spent running—that way you won’t lose fitness. Sara and I make sure we’re on track by looking at our calorie expenditure and heart rates with Fitbit Surge.

Bottom line, you’re going to get so much more out of your cross-training workout and your body when you’re having fun. Which means the key to effective cross-training is finding an activity you enjoy, keeping the activities you don’t enjoy (like boring gym workouts) short, and successfully tracking your energy output when cross-training with other types of cardio in place of running.

Ready to tackle cross-training? What’s your plan for this week? Join the conversation below!


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