Running is a physically demanding sport. Researchers have estimated that 37 to 56% of regularly training runners sustain an injury each year. Many runners find that alternating other forms of exercise into their routine allows them to train at greater intensities without getting injured. Once an injury has occurred cross training allows the athlete to maintain or even improve their performance during recovery.
Ed Eyestone, two time U.S. Olympic Marathoner, sustained a stress fracture in his foot during the cross country season of his senior year in High School. Determined to compete in the state cross country championships Ed took his training to the pool. In the pool Ed was able to run without pain. His foot healed while the intense workouts improved his fitness level. Ed won the state cross country championship that year only having run once prior in a qualifying race. He would later publish research on water running, verifying the benefit of alternate forms of exercise on running performance.
For beginning runners cross training is a tremendous way to more quickly improve your fitness level without over straining your muscles and bones. Three days of the week you could run and on the other days cross train. As your body accommodates to the stress of running decrease the number of cross training sessions. If you are training in a gym you could run more frequently and divide your training time with cross training. For example, you could run ten minutes and cycle or use the stairmaster for 20 minutes. Everyone is unique – find the blend that is right for you.
More competitive runners may want to supplement their program with cross training to enhance performance and prevent injury. There is limited research describing which modes of cross training actually improve running performance. In one study, beginning runners were able to improve running performance (race times) by training on a stairstepper instead of running. Most studies on cross training have demonstrated improvements in the body’s ability to use oxygen (VO2 Max) but not necessarily improved running performance (race times). Research on cycling and swimming has demonstrated enhanced running performance when athletes have added these modes of exercise, at high intensities, to an existing training programmes.
If you are currently injured and want to use cross training to maintain your fitness level and enhance healing it is essential that the mode of exercise be pain free. More severe injuries will only allow you to train in the pool whereas other injuries may allow you to train on an elliptical without pain. You may want to seek the guidance of an experienced physical therapist or coach to help you with this decision. In general, you can continue with the same amount of training as well as the same intensity just in a different form. Just remember to keep it pain free.