A First-Timer’s Guide to Cross Training

It’s winter for many of us right now, and whether you are a newer runner, longtime runner, or something in between, winter can make running tougher. Rain, mud, snow, and ice, slippery trails, the dark, and the cold all add up to make things difficult for us runners–unless you live in Phoenix, Arizona, and then you probably love winter! For me, reaching for a cup of hot chocolate usually comes to mind before reaching for my wet, muddy, and inevitably smelly running shoes. In winter, procrastination becomes an art. I get dressed for a run and then clean the kitchen, do some laundry, and check Instagram 12 times before finally grabbing my jacket and heading out the door. Last week I jumped in a lake on my run just to make the relentless rain of winter in the U.S.’s Pacific Northwest seem more trivial. It didn’t really work, but in that moment I had a grinch-like epiphany.

Winter training doesn’t have to make me sore. Maybe I can figure out how to enjoy it a little bit more, I thought. After some mild introspection, I realized that mountain biking in the rain is fun (with proper attire), skiing in the cold is a good time (again with the proper-attire thing), and both of these activities can be great workouts. So, I asked myself, Can I switch out some of my running for these cross-training activities to make the doldrums of winter more enjoyable?

The answer is yes for me and virtually everyone. While cross training can make everyone’s running life more enjoyable, this article was created for those of you who are considering cross training for the first time.

Cross Training with a Purpose

When it comes to cross training (or just about anything for that matter, but that’s a pretty deep philosophical question) it’s good to ask yourself why you are doing it. Maybe you want to add aerobic volume with little impact. Maybe you are struggling with an injury and want to maintain fitness. Maybe, like me, you are in the middle of winter running and need something to break up the dark, wet monotony. Maybe you just plain enjoy another sport–don’t worry, we won’t tell. Whatever the reason, knowing your ‘why’ will help you cross train better.

Once you know your good reason for your cross training, you can choose the kind you want to do and build it into your regular training schedule. Let’s assume that most of us are looking at cross training to supplement our running. If so, it makes the most sense to choose exercises that mirror the running motion. Exercises that best mirror running include aqua jogging, the elliptical, hiking uphill, and all-terrain or Nordic skiing.

Now you’re at the gym, sitting on the spin bike or standing on the elliptical trainer, not entirely sure how hard or long to go. Does cross training mean mindlessly spinning while scrolling through the latest trail-running news on Twitter, or do you need to be blasting your quads for 90 minutes and have a puddle of sweat form around your machine? Just like with regular running, your cross-training session’s effort depends on its goals. Unfortunately, when it comes to cross training, using heart rate as an indicator of effort doesn’t always match up with your running heart rate. Using a perceived-effort, one-to-10 scale instead can give you a clearer picture of how hard you are going.

More simply, an easy cross-training session should feel similar to an easy run and be of a similar or slightly longer duration. On an easy run you should be able to talk–maybe not in complete sentences but pretty close. To match this effort you should be able to also talk whether you are on the bike, skiing, on the elliptical, or aqua jogging. Outdoor cross training like mountain biking and skiing usually dictates your effort by the activity itself or the terrain you’re on rather than having to impose an effort on the activity. But remember these training activities have significantly higher risks than spinning on a bike in the gym. Be intelligent, safe, and aware.

How to Cross Train

It’s important to remember that resistance is your friend when cross training. You can set a program incorporating resistance (aka ‘’hills’) into your workouts on most indoor cross-training machines. If you’re outdoors finding a real hill can be great, but of course the terrain will often dictate the nature of your workout.

If you want to add hard workouts into your training, mirror them from your running workouts. Always start with a 15- to 20-minute warm-up, do the workout, and finish with a 15- to 20-minute cooldown. Here are a couple simple workouts that are easy to do on a bike, elliptical, or in the pool. Keep reading for full explanations of these workouts.

  • Bike, elliptical, or ski: 20-minute easy warm-up, 6×2 minutes at threshold effort with 1-minute recovery, 15-minute easy cooldown
  • Spin bike: 20-minute easy warm-up, 20 minutes progression gradually increasing the resistance or speed every 5 minutes, 15-minute easy cooldown
  • Aqua jogging: 20-minute easy warm-up, 20 minutes alternating threshold effort and easy effort every minute, 20-minute easy cooldown
  • Bike, elliptical, or ski: 20-minute flat warm up, 3×6 minutes uphill at threshold effort with 2 minutes recovery downhill, 20-minute easy cooldown

These examples are easy to expand upon as you get stronger in your cross training.

The terms ‘easy,’ ‘progression,’ and ‘threshold’ deserve a little more description:

Easy: Easy should be an effort where you feel comfortable, your breathing is not labored, and you can converse in complete sentences. This should be your effort for recovery days, warm-ups, and cooldowns from workouts. This effort falls at about a 3 to 4 on the perceived-effort scale.

Threshold: Your lactate threshold is a controlled but comfortably hard effort, whether you are cross training or running. Your breathing is harder but controlled and you can speak in choppy, few-word sentences. This should be your effort for some workout days, but not easy days. When running, your pace is usually about 20 to 30 seconds per mile slower than your 5k race pace. During a threshold-based cross-training workout, you should feel like you are working hard but that you can work harder if you needed to. I love this effort because it includes the fun of working hard, and yields a ton of benefit without the pain of the hardest work we can do. This should fall at 7 to 8 on the perceived-effort scale.

Progression: This feels like slowly pressing the accelerator harder and harder for the duration of the workout. In running, you may start out 10 to 20 seconds per mile slower than threshold pace and finish 10 to 15 seconds per mile faster than your threshold pace. The effort feels easy to begin and hard to finish. Your heart rate will increase through the workout. It is very easy to start too hard during a progression workout, and this can derail the entire effort. Start slow to finish fast!

When to Cross Train

Wondering when to fit cross training into your normal training? Again, this answer depends on what you are trying to get out of the alternative work. If you are using low-impact training as recovery, then put it on a recovery day and choose a type of cross training with which you can actually recover–no mountain biking up a steep mountain! If you are using a bike workout as your week’s hard effort, then put it on your hard day. Whatever you do, don’t get caught in the false idea that cross training is simply ‘recovery’ or something to do on your ‘rest’ day, regardless of the effort. Cross training is training stress.

Transitioning Back to Running

So, your injury has healed up or the weather has warmed and it’s time to get ready for the spring racing season. You are itching to get back to pounding pavement and shredding trails. The transition from more cross training to more running should be done carefully. Just because you are getting a certain number of hours of combined running and biking or a certain amount of vertical feet together between skiing and running each week doesn’t mean your body is ready for that volume in running alone. Your cardiovascular system may be ready, but it takes time for the legs to rebuild and match the strength of the engine.

Imagine drag racing a Geo Metro with a race-car engine under the hood. You’re going to twist the chassis in half before you get off the line. Almost all cross training has less impact than running. Soft tissue takes weeks to develop and strengthen once you start adding more running volume. Add running volume back slowly, and don’t increase your run volume by more than 10 to 15% per week regardless of how much volume you have been doing in low-impact training.

So, do something different this winter, get stronger, heal up, enjoy some variety, just plain take a break from running, and see something new. There are plenty of great reasons to get cross training. Pick yours and get going.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Are you trying cross training for the first time? What questions do you have?
  • What kind of cross training do you like to do in the winter? And what kind of cross training do you use to supplement your running year-round?
  • Do you have any cross-training workouts you’d like to share or tips that you’ve learned on crossing back and forth between cross training and running?

All photos: David Laney

There are 3 comments

  1. Henry Bickerstaff

    I hurt my knee at Bandera 100k and ended up dropping at 50K. After an MRI and x-rays the orthopedist told me I will heal but I have some arthritis in my left knee. I can start running February 1 and until then it has been a heavy dose of swimming with some elliptical and Stairmaster. I told my doc I am close to 65 what do I need to do to be running when I am 85, his answer was cross-training. Therefore, with the help of my coach we are devising a plan whereby my easy recovery days will be more cross-training than running. We are both anxious to see how much my quality workouts can improve with less running. So far, I have enjoyed the cross-training. The swimming, up to two hours straight, keeps my aerobic base, the elliptical helps keeping my cadence high and the Stairmaster helps with my leg strength.

    1. AT

      That’s fantastic to hear. Just last week I met up with some older more veteran local runners, a few in the group are in their late 60s, one in his mid-late 70s, ya’ll inspire me more than you’ll ever know! I’d imagine any kind of supplementary strength work engaging hip and core mobility wouldn’t hurt either.

  2. Ella

    I am coming off a severe overuse injury in my foot/ankle – it remains undiagnosed but it’s clear I’m a month or so off running! I’ve been doing a lot of aqua jogging to make up for it, but all of it in Lake Washington, without a wetsuit, in semi-freezing Seattle temperatures! I’m not sure it’s great cardio but it’s certainly good for my mental stamina. Great article!

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