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  • Writer's pictureLyns Romano

The Ultimate Guide to Cross-Training for Runners

Cross-training is an invaluable tool for runners, whether you're looking to prevent injuries, enhance overall fitness, or simply add variety to your routine. This comprehensive guide will cover everything you need to know about using heart rate and Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) to target specific training zones, provide best practices for duration and intensity, address the importance of nutrition and hydration, and much more. So, let’s go!

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

- Overview of Cross-Training for Runners

2. What Cross-Training Can Achieve

- Injury Prevention and Recovery

- Supplementing Overall Fitness

- Keeping Training Engaging

3. Pro Runners and Cross-Training

4. General Guidelines for Cross-Training

- Training Volume and Recovery

- Adjusting Interval Workouts

5. Popular Cross-Training Modalities

- Biking and Swimming

- Elliptical

- Pool Running/Aqua Jogging

6. Using Heart Rate and RPE in Cross-Training

- Heart Rate Zones

- Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale

7. Cross-Training Workouts

- Structured Workout Examples

8. Nutrition and Hydration for Cross-Training

- Pre-Workout Nutrition and Hydration

- During-Workout Fueling

- Post-Workout Recovery Nutrition

9. Cross-Training While Injured

10. How to Choose a Cross-Training Modality When Injured

- Non-Weight Bearing Activities

- Low-Impact Options

- Intensity Adjustments

- Consulting a Professional

11. When to Take a Complete Break

- Recognizing the Need for Rest

- Mental Health Considerations

12. Conclusion

13. References

What Cross-Training Can Achieve

1. Injury Prevention and Recovery

Cross-training is invaluable for both preventing injuries and rehabbing injuries. By engaging different muscle groups and reducing repetitive strain on the same tissues, cross-training can help mitigate the risk of overuse injuries. For runners recovering from an injury, cross-training can help maintain cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance while unloading the injured area.

2. Supplementing Overall Fitness

Cross-training can also be used strategically to improve overall fitness by addressing weaknesses and imbalances. Increasing training volume by adding in cross-training sessions versus running mileage is one of my preferred strategies for masters and injury-prone runners.

3. Keeping Training Engaging

Switching up your routine with cross-training can also provide a much-needed mental break. The variety keeps workouts interesting and can help maintain motivation and enthusiasm for training, reducing the mental fatigue that can come from doing the same activity repeatedly.

Pro Runners and Cross-Training

Many elite runners incorporate cross-training into their routines, whether to recover from injuries or as a preventive measure.

For instance, Parker Valby, a standout collegiate runner, has effectively used the elliptical / ARC to bolster her volume to mitigate injury. Her disciplined approach to cross-training has been highly successful and carried over into her post-collegiate career.

Similarly, Allie Ostrander, a professional steeplechaser and former NCAA champion, has often spoken about the benefits of cross-training. Ostrander uses activities like the elliptical and cycling not only to stay fit during injuries but also to enhance her overall athletic performance. She believes that cross-training helps her stay healthy and reduces the risk of injury from the high impact of running.

Other professional runners, like Molly Huddle and Emma Coburn, also incorporate cross-training into their routines. They often use elliptical machines and pool running to complement their running, ensuring they maintain a high level of fitness and prevent injuries.

General Guidelines for Cross-Training

Cross-training often involves less weight-bearing activity compared to running, permitting a slight increase in training volume as long as recovery is sufficient. For instance, substituting an hour of running with 70 to 75 minutes of a different exercise might be appropriate, but additional training time should not compromise the time needed for rehabilitation or strength exercises critical for injury prevention and healing. In intense interval workouts, the duration of hard intervals may be extended or rest periods shortened.

Biking and Swimming

Biking and swimming are excellent cross-training options, especially suited for those proficient in these activities. Stationary bike workouts can provide intense training sessions with controlled resistance. Outdoor biking offers a refreshing alternative with the potential for long, easy rides or intense uphill intervals. Swimming serves as a low-impact, full-body workout that significantly reduces the load on the skeletal system, making it an excellent choice for active recovery and injury prevention.


The elliptical is a favored mode of cross-training for runners. It is a weight-bearing machine; however, unlike running, it is a low-impact activity. This makes it suitable for maintaining fitness without aggravating certain injuries. It is beneficial to choose ellipticals that allow incline stride length adjustments to simulate a more horizontal leg movement, akin to running. Elliptical workouts can range from easy 'mileage' days to challenging interval sessions, where striving for high cadence and heart rate can mimic the intensity of running.

Pool Running/Aqua Jogging

Pool running, also known as aqua jogging, is a highly effective form of cross-training for runners. This low-impact exercise mimics the motion of running while reducing stress on the joints, making it an excellent option for those recovering from injuries or looking to prevent them. In pool running, you wear a flotation belt that helps you maintain an upright position in the water, allowing you to perform a running motion without hitting the ground.

Using Heart Rate and RPE in Cross-Training

Heart Rate:

Using a heart rate monitor during cross-training can be invaluable in managing workout intensity. Heart rate targets should be adjusted downwards for activities that are less weight-bearing. It is recommended to maintain heart rate levels on easy days similar to those of easy runs, but do not be surprised if your HR is lower at first as you gain strength and coordination. It is nearly impossible to work at as high an intensity when cross-training as you would while running from a cardio standpoint. If your HR is 10-15 beats per minute lower at a given intensity, that is totally normal.

  1. Zone 1 (Recovery/Easy): 50-60% of MHR

  2. Zone 2 (Aerobic): 60-70% of MHR

  3. Zone 3 (Tempo/Threshold): 70-80% of MHR

  4. Zone 4 (Lactate Threshold): 80-90% of MHR

  5. Zone 5 (VO2 Max): 90-100% of MHR

Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE)

Using the 10-point RPE scale tends to be the most successful way to monitor cross-training intensity:

  1. RPE 1-2 (Very Light): You should feel like you can maintain this activity level for hours without any fatigue. It's a leisurely pace.

  2. RPE 3-4 (Light): You're breathing a bit harder but can still carry on a full conversation. This might feel like an easy run where you can easily talk.

  3. RPE 5-6 (Moderate): Your breathing becomes heavier. You can still talk, but it's a bit tougher to keep up a steady conversation. This is akin to marathon pace or slightly slower.

  4. RPE 7 (Tempo): This level is hard but sustainable; it feels like running at a pace that's tough but maintainable for a half marathon to 10K distance.

  5. RPE 8 (Hard): You can only manage a word or two at a time. Think 5k effort or an intensity you could maintain for roughly 20 minutes.

  6. RPE 9 (Very Hard): Think 3k or 12-minute effort.

  7. RPE 10 (Maximal): This is an all-out sprint. You can't speak at all and can only sustain this effort for a very short period.

Cross-Training Workouts

Here are five structured cross-training workout examples that we use at SRC. Each is designed to target a specific, or combo of energy systems to create a well-rounded training program.

Workout 1:


10-15 minutes easy

Main Workout (50 minutes):

10 minutes at RPE 5 (Moderate)

15 x 1 minute at RPE 8n (Hard) with 1 minute easy

10 minutes back to RPE 5 (Moderate)


10 -15 minutes easy

Workout 2:


10-15 minutes easy

Main Workout (30minutes):

5 x 3 minutes RPE 8-9 (Hard - Very Hard) with 3 minutes easy


10 -15 minutes easy

Workout 3:


10 -15 minutes easy

Main Workout (50 minutes):

4 x (4 minutes at RPE 7 (Tempo) + 2 minutes easy + 1 minute at RPE 9 (Very Hard) with 3 minutes easy between sets


10 -15 minutes easy

Workout 4:


10 -15 minutes easy

Main Workout (50 minutes):

6-8-10-8-6 minutes at RPE 7 (Tempo) with 3 minutes easy between each rep


10 -15 minutes easy

Workout 5:


10 -15 minutes easy

Main Workout:

3 x (3-2-1 minutes (see below for intensity) with 1 minute easy between reps and 3 minutes easy between sets)

3 minutes at RPE 7 (Tempo)

2 minutes at RPE 8 (Hard)

1 minute at RPE 9 (very Hard)


10 -15 minutes easy

Nutrition and Hydration for Cross-Training

Proper nutrition and hydration are crucial to supporting your cross-training efforts, just as they are with running. Ensuring that you are well-fueled and hydrated before, during, and after your workouts is key to maximizing performance and recovery.


Fueling your body before all runs is imperative for both performance and recovery. Consuming carbohydrates, with or without a bit of protein and fat, provides the fast energy needed to support your workout. Skipping pre-exercise fuel can lead to slower paces, increased fatigue, higher Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE), and hormonal imbalances.

Hydration is equally important. Dehydration can cause reduced blood volume, increased heart rate, decreased skin and gastrointestinal blood flow, elevated core temperature, and quicker muscle glycogen depletion. Typically, 8-16 ounces of fluid before a run is recommended, but this can vary based on individual needs. If eating before a run is challenging, consider using a carbohydrate-rich electrolyte drink to meet both hydration and energy requirements.


Fueling during the run is crucial for any session longer than 60 minutes to maintain glucose levels and enhance athletic performance. Aim to consume 25-30 grams of carbohydrates every 30 minutes during runs over an hour.

Hydration during exercise is just as important. Symptoms of dehydration include decreased performance, difficulty maintaining paces, fatigue, gastrointestinal distress, increased RPE, and muscle cramps. To avoid these issues, it is important to drink fluids throughout your run and understand your personal hydration needs through sweat rate and composition testing. Adjust your fluid intake based on weather conditions and sweat loss. Most runners require 10-24 ounces of fluid per hour during a run to avoid dehydration which can negatively impact performance.


The primary goals of recovery nutrition are to replenish glycogen stores, halt muscle breakdown, and repair muscles. Delaying recovery nutrition can lead to fatigue, increased injury risk, decreased muscle mass, impaired immunity, and poor mood. Your body is most receptive to refueling and repair immediately after exercise. Consume adequate protein and carbohydrates within 30-60 minutes post-workout. Aim for 20-40 grams of protein to stimulate muscle repair and 50-90 grams of carbohydrates to begin restocking glycogen stores.

Cross-Training while Injured

When incorporating cross-training into a running regimen, it is crucial to prioritize recovery and rehab first and foremost. Starting gradually is essential to prevent any overuse injuries that could occur from cross-training. A typical schedule, once adapted, might include one or two interval sessions each week, interspersed with lower-intensity recovery days. A longer session once a week can mimic the endurance of a long run. Importantly, at least one day off should be taken to allow for complete recovery.

How to Choose a Cross-Training Modality When Injured

Choosing the right cross-training modality when injured depends on the nature and severity of your injury. Here are some guidelines to help you decide:

  1. Non-Weight-Bearing Activities: For injuries involving the lower extremities, such as stress fractures or severe joint pain, non-weight-bearing activities like swimming or pool running are ideal. These activities provide a cardiovascular workout without placing stress on the injured area.

  2. Low-Impact Options: If you have mild to moderate injuries, low-impact activities like cycling or using the elliptical machine can be beneficial. These exercises reduce impact while still offering a good aerobic workout.

  3. Intensity Adjustments: Regardless of the modality, adjust the intensity to ensure it does not exacerbate your injury. Start with lower intensity and gradually increase as your condition improves.

  4. Consult a Professional: Always seek advice from a physiotherapist or a healthcare professional to tailor your cross-training regimen to your specific injury and recovery needs.

When to Take a Complete Break

While cross-training can help maintain fitness during an injury, sometimes the best course of action is to take a complete break from training. This decision will reflect individual circumstances. It can also benefit or be entirely necessary for mental health, providing a much-needed respite from the demands of training. Further, if you suspect you are dealing with Overtraining Syndrome (OTS), low energy availability, or other health issues complete rest can be the needed course of action. Remember, there is NO shame in stepping away from your sport to nurture yourself!


Cross-training is an essential component of a well-rounded training program for distance runners. It offers numerous benefits, including injury prevention, enhanced overall fitness, and mental engagement. By integrating activities like cycling, swimming, elliptical training, and pool running, runners can maintain their cardiovascular fitness and muscular endurance without the repetitive strain of running. Additionally, cross-training is highly effective at maintaining fitness when dealing with an injury, allowing runners to stay engaged in training and preserve fitness while rehabbing an injury.


  1. "The Role of Cross-Training in Running Injury Prevention." American Academy of Podiatric Sports Medicine,

  2. "Incorporating Cross-Training into Your Running Routine." American Council on Exercise,

  3. "The Benefits of Cross-Training for Runners." Verywell Fit,

  4. "Cross-Training Workouts for Runners." Women's Running,

  5. "Using the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE) Scale in Training." Mayo Clinic,

  6. "Nutrition for Runners: Before, During, and After Workouts." Precision Nutrition,

  7. "Fueling: Before, During and After the Run."

  8. "Recovery Nutrition for Runners." Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition,

About the Author:

Lynsey Romano is the founder of Skyline Run Coaching which began as a small grassroots organization in 2018. 
Lynsey began running in 2012, having never ran or raced before. The last 11 years have taken her from 5 -10k's to the Boston Marathon. She's an NCCP Trained Club Coach,  RRCA running coach, Training Peaks certified coach, National Academy of Sports Medicine - Performance Enhancement Specialist, and RunDNA Gait Analyst. More importantly, Lynsey is a student of the sport -  a lifelong learner when it comes to the art & science of coaching distance running.

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