Cross Training Options for Runners

A blue swimming belt with blue straps.

Cross-training is an important addition to your training plan–especially for single-sport athletes such as runners. The role of cross-training becomes even more important if you are injured or have a physical limiter that makes the repetitive motion and impact of running painful and potentially harmful. That being said, as we noted in a previous post, movement is good for your joints.

So, what types of training can you substitute for running to get a reasonable cardiovascular jolt? I’ll talk about some options you might have for 1) cardio machines, 2) circuit training, 3) walking workouts, and 4) water options.

Cardio Machines

If you belong to a gym, you likely have several options for including joint-friendly cardiovascular training into your regimen.

The options may include upright and recumbent bikes, elliptical machines (with and without moving arms), ergometers (rowing machines), stair climbers, and so on. Each of these types of machines may be useful for different purposes.

No matter what you choose with this equipment, I strongly recommend having a plan to keep you focused for a solid workout. It’s easy to become bored and let your focus stray on these machines. So, having a workout in mind that alters the effort level in some way is a good idea.

For example, on an elliptical machine, you can increase the effort level in a few ways: 1) increase the resistance, 2) increase your stride rate, or 3) increase both resistance and stride rate. Most machines have some way to increase the intensity of your workout. You can do intervals to improve your strength and muscular endurance by adding resistance for specific periods of time, followed by an easier effort to recover. Alternatively, you can work on your anaerobic fitness by doing max-effort intervals that keep your heart rate high, again, recovering with easier effort.

Circuit Training

When I rowed crew, my coach scheduled circuit training for us 2-3 times each week. This type of workout can be designed to improve both cardiovascular fitness and strength, and can be especially helpful for the time-crunched athlete.

Circuit training involves continuous movement through several exercise stations. You complete steady repetitions of a particular exercise for a designated period of time, and then switch to the next exercise without rest.

For example, a cardio circuit might have 8-12 different exercises, such as jumping jacks, monkey climbers, squat thrusts, lunges (no weight), front kicks (as well as other types of kicks), and so on. You would do continuous repetitions of each of these exercises for one minute. When the minute is up, you move to the next one and continue for another 60 seconds, and so on. You could go through this circuit 3-5 times, depending upon your fitness level. Before starting the circuit, it is a good idea to warm up by doing some light exercises and dynamic stretches.

There are a variety of different ways to configure circuit training, some of which may include light weights. You could create circuits that alternate between high intensity and low intensity segments, circuits that focus on the whole body or upper or lower body, circuits that work your heart at a designated intensity for a certain time, and so on .

Many of these types of workouts you can do easily at home with some light weights, a mat, a swiss ball and an exercise band.

Here are some core/functional strength exercises you can start with:

Walking workouts

If you are a runner, the idea of walking may not seem like a suitable replacement for running. However, just like any other type of exercise, the intensity of walking can be modified to meet your training goals. We have an athlete who has knee problems, and can’t always run. When he is having a flare-up with his knee, we schedule various types of walking workouts that can be just as challenging as a solid run.

Try walking on an incline. If you have access to a treadmill, you can use the settings on the treadmill to increase the inclines. But, even if you don’t, you can still do incline-workouts on any type of elevation – bridges, grassy knolls, mountains – whatever you have near you.  (We are located in Southern New Jersey, so our inclines come mostly in the form of bridges or treadmills.)

Do a warm up. Then, walk briskly up the hill, keeping your arms pumping, at a 90-degree angle (or less). Keep a steady walk uphill for 5-10 minutes (depending on your fitness level), then either walk downhill or return the treadmill incline to zero for a few minutes. During the downhill portion, you should still be walking briskly, but because you are no longer going uphill, you will get a slight recovery. Repeat this several times. Cool down when you are finished.

Another option is to mix in a mini-circuit of functional exercises in the middle of your walk. For example, you might walk for 10 minutes, then do a round of the following: pushups, bicycle crunches, and lunges. Return to walking for another 10 minutes. Insert another mini-circuit, using either the same exercises, or switching them up.

Water Options

We feel it is important to emphasize how beneficial swimming can be for runners. In fact, I became a triathlete after using swimming as recovery from marathon training. I have no doubt that swimming has made me a better all-around athlete, and it’s low impact effort makes it a great pick for people with injuries. If you have access to a pool or a body of water in which to swim, we highly recommend it.

However, swimming is not the only way to workout in the water. Aqua jogging is another great option for running. And, lest you think running in the water has limited benefit, let me share my story with you. I struggled with ITBS for over a year, which meant that a good portion of my run training was done as aqua jogging. I went on to run a personal best marathon time at the Boston Marathon last year. Trust me, it works – and if you are doing it correctly, it’s a heck of a workout!

Flotation belt for aqua jogging.

You will need a flotation belt and a pair of water shoes or an old pair of sneakers. The shoes help add resistance. You want to be in water that is deep enough so you cannot touch.

When you first try it, be prepared to get used to the technique.

  • Lean slightly forward with your upper body. This position allows you to get your legs at just the right angle. Be certain not to lean so far forward that you are almost swimming. You should still be mostly vertical in the water.
  • Run by pushing your legs in a circular motion (more like oblong), rather than simply just pumping up and down. Push your feet backward, just as you do when pushing off the ground.
  • Pump your arms with your legs, again, just as you would while running. The more vigorously you pump my arms, you should find it easier to move your legs more quickly–this can be useful if you want to do interval style training while aqua jogging.

You will notice that this will cause you to move ever so slowly through the water. That’s fine. If you are in a pool and start to get into the shallow end, then turn back into the deep end.


Cross training is a great way to keep your body moving during periods of injury, or to give your joints and muscles a break from the repetitive motions of running. These are a few options to help keep you moving.

Cross Training Options for Runners
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