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Running is a high-impact activity. When we run, we place three times our body weight of force through our joints. That’s an incredible amount of force to endure for upwards of 5, 10, 13, and 26.2 miles. Those pounding forces also put a tremendous amount of work through the tendons and ligaments in our feet, ankles, knees, and hips. This increases our risk of overuse injuries, such as Achilles tendonitis, plantar fasciitis, posterior tibialis tendonitis, iliotibial band syndrome, and greater trochanteric bursitis (to name a few), as well as impact injuries, such as stress fractures or stress strains.

Eliminating these forces with a lower impact cross-training option will allow those joints and connective tissue to heal, and at the same time, keep our aerobic capacity up. The key to effective cross-training is to select an exercise that will give you the benefits of cardio work without the high impact. Here are some choices:

  • Elliptical/Arc Trainer/ElliptiGO: These machines are low-impact cardio machines that provide a great alternative to running. In order to get the most out of this workout, try doing sprints or intervals on the machine. Either 30-second sprints to a 60-second recovery or quarter-mile intervals with a quarter-mile recovery time. Optimal workout time on the elliptical depends on your intensity, but if cardio work is the only workout for the day, a good rule is to make it 45 – 60 minutes—longer if you’re training for a marathon (60 – 90 minutes).
  • Cycling/Stationary Bike/Spin: This cross-training option is no impact, providing a good recovery option on your joints. To increase the cardio effect, incorporate hills and sprints. Outdoor cycling will allow you to bike on different surfaces and in different elements, which is optimal during your training, but an indoor stationary bike or a high-intensity spin class certainly will provide you with a top-notch aerobic workout.
  • Swimming: There is another no-impact cross-training option that adds the extra bonus of a good upper body and core workout. Unfortunately, swimming is not always an easily accessible option. Besides completing laps in a pool (or open-water swimming), you can add to your workout by completing some pool jogging. The buoyancy of the water makes it extremely low-impact on the joints, and the resistance of the water makes it a challenging cardio option.
  • Cross-Country Skiing/Snowshoeing: These, of course, are good winter weather options. Cross-country skiing will provide an overall upper body and lower body workout with very little impact. Snow shoeing is a surprisingly challenging workout and will zero in on the runner’s hip flexors, glutes, hamstrings, and core. Both of these options also get the runner outdoors and braving the elements.
  • Hiking: This cross-training option can have varying degrees of cardio benefits. A good highly technical trail with a high elevation grade will certainly be challenging. Keep in mind, though hiking is lower impact than running, it can be challenging to the ligaments and tendons of the foot/ankle if the hike is a highly technical trail (roots, rocks, scree, water crossings, high elevation). 
  • Rowing Machine: This exercise is no-impact that serves as a surprisingly good core/upper body workout. If you’re finding this machine boring, do some sprints on the machine or try doing 10-minute intervals on the machine to 10-minute intervals of a weight training circuit three times. Work your way up to six sets. This will give you 60 minutes of rowing time along with strengthening.

There are many options for cross-training. The key is to choose one that you enjoy doing and switch it up from week to week if you’re losing interest. The benefits of the cross-training will be apparent throughout your training—less overuse and impact injuries and greater muscle recovery time. 

Happy running!
Lee