The first time I signed up to run a marathon, I was understandably nervous beyond belief. But like any good first-timer, I did my homework. I researched the course, read article upon article about what to expect, made sure to find my perfect running sneakers — like the Under Armour HOVR™ Sonic 3 W8LS Running Shoes ($120) — and printed out a marathon training plan to hang on my fridge.
I'll never forget that Excel sheet printed out with exactly what distance to run on what day and when to cross-train. I'll also never forget the panic that ran through me. I have to do other workouts other than just run, I thought to myself. I thought running miles upon miles was chore enough, but to add in other forms of exercise, too, now that's a lot.
As I'd come to learn after that first training season, cross-training is as essential as my newbie marathon Excel sheet. According to Jim Economos, an ACE-certified personal trainer, triathlete, and coach at Formula Running Center, cross-training — an exercise routine that combines different types of training outside of your sport of choice — helps eliminate muscle imbalances and improves strength and cardiovascular endurance.
For runners particularly, he noted cross-training can strengthen those non-running muscles and give running muscles a break from the impact of running.
"It also can continue to build upon the same cardiovascular benefits of running," he added. "Marathoners especially can benefit from cross-training. As the mileage load builds, it's easy to burn out — a mix of training can give the runner a mental and physical break."
Although I can attest to the need to cross-train for the sheer mental break from a calendar of runs, I can also attest to the important part cross-training plays in injury prevention.
"Muscle imbalances and overtraining are the main cause of injuries in runners," Economos said. "By working the weaker muscles, you can become a stronger and more efficient runner. You will also give the weight-bearing joints, muscles, and tendons a break from the repetitive stress of running."
There were times in my training that I found myself feeling stiff and sore from my mileage, so I opted for a spin class or pilates class with a friend to break things up and give my running muscles a break. As I incorporated spin class into my program, I noticed I was becoming a stronger runner.
As Economos explained, cycling is actually a great option for runners, as it continues to improve the cardiovascular system and works the muscle groups in opposition to those used most in running. Another great option for cross-training is swimming, because it's a non-weight-bearing sport that supports upper-body strength, he said.
Of course, as you take your preferred method of cross-training into consideration, it's important to draw the distinction between a non-running-sport day and a rest day. One mistake I've made in the past was skipping my scheduled rest days because I was cross-training for a few days instead of running and assumed I needed to keep moving. But remember: a non-running workout is still a workout!
As Economos explained to me, a true rest day is just that — rest. Some runners, especially competitive ones, may opt for easier cross-training activities such as walking or yoga before or after a strenuous run workout instead of staying sedentary, said Economos. But for all of us recreational runners, a day off should be a true day off to rest and recover physically and mentally.