Broad Street Run Training: Do You Really Need to Cross Train?

For most of us, our time available to train for a race is limited by work, family and life’s more pressing issues. This can lead to either-or situations: “Should I run Friday or go to a cross-training spin class?”

You may recall a Broad Street Run training post from last year called “Why You Shouldn’t Skip Your Cross-Training Days.” In this post, I outlined four different types of cross-training activities: cardiovascular exercises, strength, flexibility (or what I call mobility) and drills. I included what they were, why you should do them and how to incorporate them. While I still recommend everyone should be cross training, not everyone should spend the same amount of time and focus on cross training. How much and what type of cross training you should be doing varies greatly depending on your experience level and goals.

Of the four cross-training activities I outlined in last year’s post, today I’d like to focus on the most common, what I called cardiovascular exercises. This includes the elliptical, spin, biking, swimming, rowing or any activity that provides an uninterrupted source of mostly aerobic exercise. Regardless of experience and ability level, every runner would greatly benefit from including strength, mobility and drills into their training, however not everyone benefits the same from substituting or adding cardiovascular cross-training exercise, mainly because, like I mentioned above, it becomes an either-or situation. “Do I run or cross train today?”

While running isn’t cross training, it’s important to say — and I know this may sound obvious — running is the best way to get better at running. No activity provides the same opportunity for improvement as increasing your time spent running. How much running you should aim for will depend on your experience level and how long you’ve been running. My general rule of thumb is beginners should aim for three to four days per week, intermediate runners should shoot for four to five days per week and advanced runners’ goal should be five to seven days per week. (If you need a training plan, we’ve got you covered here.) So now that we have how often you should be running outlined, let’s get to how often you should be cross training.

When Beginner Runners Should Cross Train

For beginners, cardio-style cross training is just as important as running and needs to be a high priority. Beginners should still aim for three to four days of running but should also include one to three days of cardiovascular cross training in their training. Limiting the running days and adding cross training is a key part of staying healthy for beginners. Here’s why: Beginners haven’t developed the musculoskeletal system (bones of the skeleton, muscles, cartilage, tendons, ligaments, joints, and other connective tissue) to support higher volumes of running like those who have been running consistently for years have. Adding low-impact activity, such as the elliptical, is a great way add additional volume, strengthening and developing the musculoskeletal system, without increasing your risk of injury. My preference is to follow a running day with either a rest or cross-training day, like some time on the elliptical.

When Intermediate Runners Should Cross Train

Intermediate runners who have been running uninterrupted and injury-free for six months or more and are aiming for a time goal can prioritize cross training less. Generally the longer you’ve been running, the more running you’ll be able to handle. You’re best off spending your time running versus on the bike or elliptical. I’d look to include four to five days per week running with one to two days cross training. Most intermediates will have one harder workout day per week, like intervals or tempo runs and one long run. The day after these harder days is the perfect time to work in cardiovascular cross training, like hanging out on the elliptical. Typically, you’ll be left sore and a bit beat up from a hard workout and a low-impact exercise is a great way to recover while still getting a workout.

When Advanced Runners Should Cross Train

For advanced runners who have been running for years and whose improvement has plateaued, substituting a spin class for a day of running may not provide that next-level fitness needed to break through a plateau. In your case, cardiovascular cross training should be looked at as secondary to running. If you’re able to handle the extra load, running is going to be your best option. If you want to include cross training, your best bet is to use it as a recovery activity the days after a hard workout or long run.

When Injured or Injury-Prone Runners Should Cross Train

One more category of runner and perhaps the most important that needs to be included when cross training is discussed is the injured or injury-prone runner. Regardless of ability level, this type of runner needs to include cross training in their training. Instead of increasing your running volume, it may benefit you to focus on increasing time spent cross training before running. Instead of adding an extra day of running, first add an extra day of cross training.

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Cory Smith, a Philadelphia based running coach, shares his expert advice as an American Cancer Society DetermiNation running coach; founder of Run Your Personal Best, a private running-coaching business; and head cross country coach at Penn State Brandywine. He is a level two USA Track and Field-certified coach and a 4:03 miler. As a student athlete at Villanova, Cory was an NCAA Division One Regional and National Championship qualifier. Contact Cory at cory@runyourpersonalbest.com. Read all of Cory’s posts for Be Well Philly here.

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