Runners can up their game and avoid the impact by skating, cycling and skiing.
Until recently, it was generally agreed that the best way to improve running is to just run.
But today, more and more runners and trainers are adding cross-training to their regimens, saying it reduces injuries, hastens injury rehabilitation and facilitates recovery while helping runners improve power and efficiency without the impact of additional miles of running.
We turned to three of the top running coaches in the sport to see what kinds of cross-training will help runners improve.
Adam Saint Pierre
The Coach: Former collegiate cross country athlete Adam Saint Pierre coaches cross-country skiing and trail running today. For the last twelve years, he’s coached the Boulder Nordic Junior Racing Team and several high performing trail runners including the very accomplished Hillary Allen. He has coached himself to seven 100-mile finishes and a handful of 50k and 100k trail races. Saint Pierre has proudly coached endurance athletes for the last 10 years including ultra runners, Boston and NYC marathon qualifiers and Ski Mountaineering World Champs competitors.
The Sport: Cross-Country Skiing.
Saint Pierre doesn’t like the term cross-training. Still, he urges athletes to supplement their running with cross-country skiing in the winter. “I prefer to call it training. Athletes train,” says Saint Pierre. “Skiing is just a new way for runners to train.”
Cross-country skiing has two disciplines: classic and skate. Saint Pierre says that classic is a simpler technique, analogous to running and uses similar muscles and similar timing; like running with a glide phase. Skating is more technique-intensive with a lateral motion complementing winter run training.
“It uses the same muscles as running, but differently,” he says. “You will feel your hip abductors, particularly gluteus minimus and medius, working hard. They are working to stabilize and balance, as well as to provide propulsion. Strength and stability provided by the glutes are invaluable to runners, especially those who’ve struggled with injury in the past.”
In addition to legs, skating also strengthens the upper body and core, helping propulsion and training the body to resist rotation, which is critical for running strength.
“In skating, approximately 70 percent of propulsion comes from the legs, 30 percent from arms and core making it a great way to stay strong during the winter months,” Saint Pierre says.
The Coach: Corrine Malcolm is an accomplished athlete, having won the 2016 Trail 50 Mile US Championship, a two-time US Worlds Team Member and ninth place at the 2018 Western States 100. She’s also a full-time coach training runners and skiers ranging in skill from novice to accomplished veterans at CTS.
The Sport: cycling and skiing.
As a former elite cross-country skier, becoming a runner and running coach meant thinking outside the box for Malcolm. To handle the demands running places on the musculoskeletal system of elite-level runners, she turned to cross-training.
“I don’t do well running six days a week,” she says. To maintain the intensity of her training, she turned to cycling and skiing. She soon found that the approach worked well with many of the athletes she coaches.
“Instead of running 5-6 days a week many of them benefit from replacing two to three of those days a week with a lower impact activity,” says Malcolm.
Malcolm says cycling is an easy, low-impact running alternative. When it replaces an easy recovery run, it creates a nice aerobic low-intensity workout without adding additional musculoskeletal stress to the body. It’s also a way that injured or injury-prone runners can get in added volume or intensity.
“I know many athletes who can’t quite handle that second high-intensity workout a week,” Malcolm says. “Putting it on the bike is a great way to get that Vo2max or Lactate threshold work without breaking down the body as much.”
Malcolm advised runners to consider biking during the run-up to a big race, when they need the extra training but can’t risk an injury.
“Getting on the bike allows you to get that aerobic engine work in without flaring up that niggle or creating an over-exhausted state,” Malcolm says. “This past year I had an athlete whose hip wasn’t allowing him to run the weekly volume or intensity he needed to meet his 100-mile race goal. We switched him to a three rides and three runs a week program and got creative, which allowed him to finish the race successfully.”
The Coach: A three-time Olympic trials qualifier, three-time USATF mountain runner of the year, three-time USATF National Championship and nine-time member of Team USA, Addie Bracy’s athletic rap sheet is as stellar as it gets. But her coaching resume is equally impressive. She has seven years experience coaching at the collegiate, high school and sub-elite level, co-founded the popular training group Hudson Elite and co-authored Brad Hudson’s The Little Black Book.
The Sport: Technical Mountain Biking
Like Malcolm, Bracy goes for the bike when she needs a hard workout. But Bracy bike workouts happen on the most unforgiving terrains available. She’s a fan of technical mountain biking and espouses it for her clients.
“I have found that a lot of the qualities translate really well to trail running,” she says.
Bracy says mountain biking’s flexibility can be a great tool for runners. They can use mountain bike workouts as low-impact recovery days or do fartlek intervals or a long climb for a more demanding workout.
“Mountain biking on challenging uphill terrain provides a fantastic aerobic stimulus,” Bracy says. “I also believe that learning to ride on the technical downhill can drastically improve downhill running performance. If you can learn to read lines while bombing a hill on a bike, you’ll be that much better at doing so on foot.”