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Mix It Up
Sure, running is the greatest sport in the world, but it's still not the be-all and end-all of fitness. Adding some cross-training activities will make you stronger and help prevent injury.

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By Josh Clark
Posted Monday, 15 September, 1997

Cross-training won't necessarily guarantee top running performance. After all, some of the best runners in the world don't bother with it; it's tough to imagine a Stairmaster in one of the Kenyan villages that have produced so many champion runners. All the same, low-impact cross training can give your legs a welcome rest from pavement-pounding running -- a good idea if you're recovering from an injury or in the post-race phase of your training cycle.

Since running tends to neglect some muscle groups while strengthening others, certain cross-training routines can correct muscle imbalances that might otherwise result in injury. While running exercises the muscles in the back of your legs, for example, biking does the exact opposite, and can keep your legs from getting out of whack and promote total fitness from the waist down.

Perhaps even more important is the simple fact of variety. Psychologically, the monotony of a relentless training program in a single sport can be draining. Some runners become such a slave to their running schedule that their favorite sport begins to seem more like work than than the fun it's supposed to be. Cross-training can break things up and add some spice to your routine.

Of course running is always the best training for the runner, but it's also wise to remember that running is not the be-all and end-all of fitness. It's perhaps the best aerobic exercise around, and it's great for certain leg muscles, but running doesn't help other leg muscles at all and leaves the upper body untouched. Other sports can improve muscular fitness in those neglected areas while also maintaining your aerobic fitness. While you can pursue a weight-training program to address the muscle groups of your choice, you can also target specific muscle groups by choosing the right cross-training exercises:


  • Biking
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Stair climbing
  • Skating
  • Snowshoeing
  • Water running


  • Cross-country skiing
  • Rowing
  • Swimming


  • Cross-country skiing
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Water running

Lower Back

  • Rowing
  • Swimming

Upper Body

  • Cross-country skiing
  • Rowing
  • Swimming
  • Water running

Of all sports, swimming probably comes closest to providing the most all-over fitness. Deep-water running, stair-climbing and cross-country skiing are the closest to running in terms of muscle groups used and range of motion.

Cross-training for better running

If your goal is not to tone the muscles running misses but rather to build endurance and improve running performance, consider the following list. Borrowed from Running Research, it lists the top 10 cross-training activities for sharpening your running:

  • Biking
  • Weight training
  • Soccer
  • Water running
  • Stair climbing
  • Cross-country skiing
  • Aerobic dance
  • Walking
  • Tennis, racquetball and squash
  • Swimming

Just be careful not to overdo it. Reduce your running to accomodate any new activities. Overtraining is overtraining, whether it's in one sport or a combination of them. Some of these activities may work muscle groups that you don't often use, or at least to a degree you're not used to. Ease into them gently and be sure to stretch beforehand. Just as you did when you first started running, be conservative and increase your effort gradually. As long as you keep this in mind, you can also consider cross-training days to be rest days for recovery from running. On the day after a race or a long run, try taking a spin on your bike or swimming a few laps instead of going on an easy run. Your aching muscles and joints will thank you for the break from their normal pounding.

Check out our info on specific sports:

Cross-country skiing
Inline skating
Racquet sports
Stair climbing
Water Running



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