My Not-So-Secret Cross-Training Secrets

If you’re here because you’re sidelined from running, let me start with this: I feel you! This post is for you. I’m currently working through a heel injury that’s been plaguing me on and off for months, and my existence seems to revolve around my eventual (glorious!) return to full running: PT and doctor appointments, rehab exercises galore, a ton of pool and gym time, plus my normal weight, core, and stretch sessions. Some days it literally is a full-time gig! So much respect for injured parents, students, and 9-to-5 workers.

If, on the other hand, you’re healthy and ripping: Go you!! Slight sarcasm and envy aside, I hope you’ll stick around too. The unfortunate reality, if you run with any sort of consistency, is that you’ll almost certainly face a bump in the road that will knock you off your feet for a few days up to much longer. Bookmark this page for quick access when you’re in the trenches, or better yet, share it with a friend who’s trudging through a setback of her own.

There’s a LOT I could say about the injury process, but I want to focus this on one important and consuming part of every injury: cross-training. I have no credentials in this area besides a whole lot of experience; I’d estimate that all together I’ve cross-trained exclusively for about a year of my life. I’ve learned a thing or two, and I’m happy to share it. If my words spark any questions, please: leave a comment below or message me on Instagram. No doubt someone else is wondering the very same thing.

How to Cross-Train Like a Champ

1. First, establish your cross-training “coach.”

Maybe it’s your running coach, maybe it’s your doctor/therapist/trainer, or maybe it’s a friend who’s cross-trained through his/her own injury and come out the other side in good shape. Just don’t wing it as you go, or you’ll likely over- or under-do it, and question yourself all the while.

Along with my coach Jim Bevan, I’m fortunate to receive cross-training oversight from former Rice runner and current PT star Katie Gwyn. She knows running, swimming, and the human body really well, and I feel good about implementing her recommended training load.

2. Then, create your cross-training wheelhouse.

Start with my list below, and scratch out the activities that cause pain, that you don’t have equipment for or access to, or that you simply hate. (Not knowing “how” to do any of these is not a good reason to exclude it. Find someone who does, get them to show you, and get going!)

  • Antigravity treadmill (or alternative)- consider AlterG but also Lever and Lightspeed Lift
  • Underwater treadmill– a luxury often found at universities and hospitals
  • Water jog– try with and without a floatation belt (I find that my form is way cleaner with a belt, but I definitely have to work harder)
  • Lap swim– use a pull buoy if kicking doesn’t feel good
  • Cycle– try both upright and recumbent bikes, or venture outside
  • Elliptical (or ElliptiGO)- the machine I’m able to work the hardest on
  • Stair stepper– I’ve can’t imagine many injuries in which you can do this but not run… but maybe?
  • Arm Crank– my very last resort since it’s irrelevant to running and super hard to get your heart rate up

Don’t forget strength and core work! They’re easy to neglect when you’re so dialed on aerobic fitness, but extra important to stay on top of when you’re off your legs for an extended period. Just steer clear of anything that aggravates your injury.

During my heel injury, I’ve been able to swim, water jog, cycle, elliptical, and lift. The more things in the mix, the better, in my opinion; you’re less likely to get bored or to specialize too much in one non-running activity. As I get back into running, I’ll use a Lever Running unit on our treadmill to lighten the load and promote a smooth, even stride.

3. Rotating through whatever activities are left, try to roughly match your cross-training to your running.

It’s hard to say exactly how off-land training translates to land, and it does so differently for each person, but one rule of thumb that Katie shared with me is: at minimum, cross-train the same number of minutes you’d normally spend running. If you’re an 800-meter specialist, then, your cross-training should look quite different than that of a marathoner.

A pretty typical cross-training day for me, in marathon mode, looks like: 45-minute swim (with intervals) immediately followed by a 45-minute recovery session on a bike. Most afternoons, I finish up with 45 minutes of water jogging (with moderate efforts, mostly to pass the time). Even though it’s tempting to plow through, I build in one super light day per week of 0-60 minutes of cross-training, which gives my body and mind a much-needed rest.

4. Balance hard workouts with recovery sessions, and enter each session with a purpose.

If your goal is to preserve a high level of fitness and return to racing as soon as possible, know that you can do interval sessions more frequently than you do on land, since you’ll recover quicker and won’t beat up your legs from impact. I highly recommend monitoring your heart rate in the mornings (to be sure you aren’t over-training) and during workouts (to be sure you’re working at an appropriate level).

Swimming’s a little different, but you can’t go wrong by replicating some of your running workouts on a bike or elliptical. Start with shorter intervals (since it can be hard to maintain a tempo-like effort when you’re still adapting to a new exercise), play around with your recovery times (which should be shorter than on land), and try to keep your heart rate in a similar range as it would be during hard running sessions.

5. Make it fun!

It’s possible, I swear. Here are some ideas:

  • Recruit a cross-training companion. If you have an injured friend or teammate, treat him/her like your training partner. Keep each other accountable, commiserate together, and make the whole process a little easier on you both.
  • Build some bumpin’ playlists. It may seem insignificant, but I can’t overstate how much I rely on music when I’m injured. I constantly refresh my Spotify playlists with new songs, ask for recommendations from friends, and recycle pump-up jams from old races and cross-training stints.
  • Stockpile good podcasts and audiobooks. I can’t listen to them while I’m working super hard, but I love listening to podcasts and audio books during recovery sessions. They make the time fly and often teach or uplift me too.
  • Compete with yourself. Can you get your heart rate a little higher than in past workouts? Stay in the saddle a bit longer? Establish some new pool or lifting PRs? Try not to get too out of touch with that competitive instinct–soon enough, you’ll need it!

Here’s the playlist I’m jamming to right now. My favorite non-running podcasts include Ear Hustle, Milk Street Radio, The Sporkful, My Favorite Murder, and The Drive by Peter Attia.

Wherever you are in your injury process, I wish you swift and total healing–and maybe even heightened fitness from all of your off-land work.

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