Why Cross-Training Exercises are Important During Marathon Training

Completing a marathon is an impressive achievement. The journey through 12 – 20 weeks of training leading up to the race takes dedication, motivation and ultimately makes an athlete feel accomplished. Cross-Training exercises are important during marathon training because one of the challenges for many athletes training for marathon is to stay injury free. In my experience, middle age athletes who successfully achieve their goals also included some form of cross-training or Crossfit exercises in their marathon training.

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Typically, athletes want to do cross-training that compliments their main sport. So cross-training isn’t a substitute for running.  However, to provide variety, help with recovery, build strength and help in injury prevention, runners can complete a number of cross-training or CrossFit activities during their training cycle. Be it running outdoors or doing a workout on CrossFit equipment at your home gym, you have plenty of options. You can always add difficulty to these workouts by including body weight exercises between each rep. Consider adding push-ups, sit-ups, planks or burpees and other applicable exercises from https://totalshape.com/equipment/crossfit-home-gym/.  In this post, I will add a little more structure to these activities, as well as share different cross-training exercises runners should integrate into their marathon training plan to maximize the benefit of these activities. 

Cross-training vs Crossfit

To be clear, Cross-training & Crossfit are 2 different activities and neither should be considered a substitute for long runs, recovery runs, hills, tempo workouts or other running activities included in marathon training plans. Instead, these “cross” activities are used to add variety and when completed properly, can help to improve an athlete’s power, speed, balance, coordination and overall fitness level. Cross-training can help increase endurance, cardio, and build muscles faster.

For middle age athletes, who may be more susceptible to injuries and the effects of overtraining, Crossfit or cross-training can be low impact workouts that give runners a break from the pounding of running. Crossfit is actually a branded fitness regimen that involves High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) plus gymnastics and certain Olympic weight lifting movements. Basically it’s a strength & conditioning workout that involves weights and other equipment to complete various pushing, pulling & squatting movements.

 

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I would caution any athlete that Crossfit shouldn’t be an activity they complete on recovery days. The workouts can be intense and wouldn’t allow for proper recovery from a previous day’s hard or long runs. Instead, I typically recommend less intense cross-training & conditioning exercises as part of my marathon training plans.

Swimming

Swimming for runners

Swimming can help reduce common running injuries while improving cardiovascular performance. It is an effective resistance training for your legs without the pounding of running. Swimming reduces pressure on the body’s weight-bearing joints, which minimizes stress on muscles, tendons and ligaments. As long as it’s not performed at a high intensity, swimming is an excellent way to recover from long runs. Depending on your ability, swimming for 35 – 45 minutes will provide benefit without exhaustion.

Cycling

cycling for runners

Cycling is an excellent cross-training & recovery exercise for runners. The benefits of cycling for runners are outlined in this article. Cycling is relatively easy on an athlete’s joints, tendons and muscles. It can be completed on a stationary or wheeled bike. Like swimming, cycling can help a runner stay active during injury recovery. For injuries like stress fractures, cycling can be completed (along with other low impact activities) as a part of an active recovery plan. Riding a bike strengthens legs and can provide a solid aerobic workout without the impacts of running.  Cycling can be completed on a stationary bike or on the road.  I recommend one of 2 stationary bike activities.  40 – 45 minutes at varying speeds so heart rate varies from 65 – 80%.  Another is a alternating workout with 1 minute on the bike with 1 minute of various bodyweight + dumbbells. I call this 50 minute workout, “bike blast.”


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Pilates

Pilates is a low intensity physical activity that improves breathing, posture, flexibility and mobility. Pilates is a low impact exercise that can help athletes gain strength and flexibility. Doing Pilates for 30-45 minutes per session makes for an ideal cross-training session. Here’s a good pilates routine for runners.

Pilates can help improve stability which is essential for good running technique and to help avoid injury.

Hiking

Hiking can benefit runners in many ways. It improves leg strength, core stability and strengthens stabilizing muscles in an athlete’s ankles & legs.

In addition to the glutes and quads, the balance required to maintain a steady pace while hiking engages your stabilizing muscles which can improve your running form and make you stronger overall. I think that hiking is a nice way to add variety to your routine, give your body a rest, while building strength that will enhance your running.  Hiking is also really enjoyable with others on a scenic trail. 

Elliptical or Stairmaster

Stair Master for runners

There’s a lot of benefits for runners to workout with an elliptical or stairmaster. For aerobic conditioning, you don’t have any impact like with running, so you can maintain fitness while injured. I’ve coached runners who are recovering from stress fractures and using the elliptical 2-3 times per week, along with other low impact activities like a stairmaster.  These machines really helped them maintain a decent level of fitness. If you have access to an stairmaster or elliptical, you don’t need any special gear. Word of caution: get Dr’s approval to use either of these machines if you’re recovering from an injury. Bottomline, if it hurts while on the stairmaster or elliptical, stop.

Some of the keys to a good stairmaster or elliptical workout include, varying the resistance, staying on long enough and going at a sufficient pace to get your heart rate up to 140+ beats/min. How fast of a cadence you maintain depends largely on the distance of the race for which you are training.

Here’s a good Elliptical workout. 10 minutes easy effort at a low resistance (3-4). Gradually increase resistance over next 5 minutes to 6-10 and maintain that effort for 20-25 minutes. Finally complete cool down for 15 minutes at low resistance (2-3).

Rowing

Rowing for runners

Photo Courtesy of Victor Freitas (Unsplash)

Rowing, if completed correctly, doesn’t just work your arms. It actually targets your glutes, back, shoulders, hamstrings, quads & core. If you have access to a rowing machine, you can get a great low-impact aerobic or even anaerobic workout where much of the fitness gains from running transfer easily. I wouldn’t substitute multiple days of rowing each week for running if you’re injury free and training for full or half marathon. Instead, rowing can be a part of a cross-training workout or if used to maintain fitness if you’re rehabbing from injury and have your Dr’s approval.

Here’s a sample rowing machine workout that will help to build endurance and work various muscles.

Complete dynamic stretching
Row easily for 7-10 minutes to warm up;
Row two sets of (4 x 400m) as follows:
Row 400m at moderate intensity (heart rate elevated, but still comfortable)
Slow/row easily for 1 minute

  • Repeat moderate intensity and complete another 3 x 400m with 1 min recovery between
  • Row easily for 3 minutes.
  • Repeat for another set of four 400m.

Row easily/recover again for 8-10 minutes.

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Conditioning:

This can also be referred to as strength training. Unlike machines or hiking, these include workouts that strengthen the legs, glutes, core, shoulders, hips and other muscles/joints used when running. There’s a few links to YouTube videos where I will show specific conditioning routines that I recommend. Most of the exercises are simple bodyweight exercises. A few use a BOSU Ball or resistance bands just for variety. Below are some exercises that I recommend.  For a full workout, you can check my post, Strength Training Workouts For Runners.

Resistance Bands

Resistance Band Workout For Runners

Resistance bands are perfect because they help to boost your power and strength in your calves, quads, and glutes. I provide a complete & challenging resistance band workout in this post.

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Squats

Squats build increased leg power and improve knee stability. To complete a squat, use a your body without additional weights, dumbbells or a barbell with free weights. Start slow (light weights) if you have never completed squats. The key is to keep the head in a neutral position, looking forward (not up or down). Keep your straight back as you squat down. Also keep knees behind toes and hips below parallel. Just imagine that you’re sitting in a chair. You can rest on your heels and then slowly push back up. Breathe in on the way down and out as you stand up. Start with 7-8 and increase to 10 – 12 before increasing weight. Complete 3 sets before moving to next exercise or complete all exercises as part of a circuit and come back to the squats (2 complete sets of all exercises).

Bear Crawls

Bear crawls for runners

Bear crawls are a tough exercise because they work many muscles and really can get you tired. It’s a great exercise for runners. You’ll increase your heart rate and burn plenty of calories when you complete bear crawls. When properly performing a bear crawl you strengthen entire body including the shoulders, chest, back, glutes, quads and hamstrings. You only need about 15 – 20 feet to complete bear crawls. The key is that your hands and feet can only touch the ground (no knees). Go forward 15 – 20 feet and then go backward to where you started. Complete as many as you can in 1 minute.

Clam shells

This exercise strengthens the gluteus medius (hip abductors), which is on outer edge of the butt and is responsible for stabilizing your pelvis. Strong hips, helps to avoid knee pain, For runners, this is an essential exercise to ensure good running form and ultimately to prevent injury. You can complete this exercise with or without resistance bands.

• Lie on your either side with your feet and hips stacked. Bend your knees about 90 degrees and rest your head resting on your arm. • Draw your knees in toward your body until your feet are in line with your butt. This is your starting position. • Keeping your abs engaged, squeeze your glutes and keep your feet together. Then raise your top knee as shown without rotating your hip or lifting your other knee off the floor. • Hold for 1 second. Continue to squeeze your glutes through the top of the move and then slowly lower your left knee to the starting position. • Start by completing 20 reps on each side.

Bicycle Crunches

bicycle crunches ab workouts

This exercise reaches the deep abs and the obliques. To perform, lie on your back, knees bent, feet flat on the floor, and hands on the sides of your head. Contract your abdominal muscles as you bring your knees up to a 45-degree angle. Straighten and bend your knees as you alternate crossing and touching right elbow to left knee, then left elbow to right knee. You can also perform this exercise on a BOSU ball.

Plank and side plank

Strength Training for Runners

Plank exercises help strengthen core, which will improve your running form. Start by holding a plank position as shown for 30 seconds. Increase up to 45 seconds as you can. Proper form includes keeping hips level, core & glutes firm. An alternative exercise is the side plank or introduce a twist. To complete this exercise, while on your side resting on one forearm, raise your hips while also raising your body on your forearm. Hold this position for 30 seconds before switching sides.  For added difficulty, raise your arm and leg as shown. 

Lunges

Lunges are essential for a better, stronger and quicker stride. This exercises helps to strengthen your back, hips, and legs, while improving mobility and stability. Complete lunges by stepping forward with one leg and lower your hips till both your knees are bent at about a 90-degree angle. Keep your front knee over (not past) your ankles. Add weights and dumbbells. Also consider incorporating other moves with lunges, such as arm curls.

Burpees

Burpees are a full body strength training exercise. They work your arms, chest, quads, glutes, hamstrings and abs. The basic movement is performed in four steps. Start by standing with your feet shoulder-width apart, weight in your heels, and your arms at your sides. Push your hips back, bend your knees, and lower your body into a squat. Next, place your hands on the floor directly in front of your feet. Shift your weight onto your hands. You can jump back up or complete a push-up and then jump up.

Mountain Climbers

Mountain climbers are great for building endurance, core strength and agility. Many athletes hate performing mountain climbers, because they’re tough. This is exactly why you need to make them a part of your cross-training routine. You get a total body workout with just one exercise. When you perform mountain climbers, you target your triceps, deltoids, abs, back, hip flexors, quads, hamstrings and butt. You also increase your heart rate.

There’s a lot of variation for mountain climbers. You can start by going as fast as you can – for 30 seconds and then 15 seconds rest. Do this 4-5 times. Alternatively, go for 1 minute or as as long as you can manage with good form.

Combining Cross-Training Exercises to Optimize Your Marathon Training

There are many more exercises that you can incorporate into your cross-training routine that help prepare you for your race. I like including multiple exercises into circuits. This works best with the conditioning exercises.  For example, try any of the 3 above conditioning exercises for 1 minute each with no rest between. After taking 30 seconds rest after your 3 minute circuit, perform 2-3 additional circuits of the same exercises. Each 3 exercise circuit is a set. Perform 2 – 3 sets. If you have access to a stationary bike, treadmill or elliptical, you can work in 3-5 minutes on these machines between each set.  Bottomline, get creative and mix/match your cross training exercises every week.  If you’re using dumbbells, steadily increase weight as you get stronger. 

If you can, I recommend setting up your own home gym. There’s a number of very informative posts with ideas for equipment you can include in your home exercise studio.

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