Incorporating Cross Training Into a Marathon Plan

The best way to supplement your running: cross training

The start of any marathon training plan is exciting and nerve-wracking.  We’re pumped to begin training and we’re doing our best not to look too far ahead!  But then we look at the 20 mile run we’re supposed to do in 13 weeks like it’s climbing Mount Everest.  How do we get from where we are at the start to running 20 miles to running a freakin’ marathon?!

Supplementing cross training with your marathon plan can keep you healthy and improve your performance
Use cross training to supplement your marathon training plan
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We incorporate small doses of cross training to help bridge the gap.  That’s how.

Now let’s get one thing straight: if we want to run a good marathon, where we’re finishing fast and feeling strong at the end, nothing takes the place of running.  Marathon training requires that we do some “life-sacrifices” and put in a considerable amount of mileage. There’s just no substituting two-hour-plus long runs, tempo runs, and threshold workouts.

The best cross-training modalities to use when training for a marathon
The best cross-training modalities to use when training for a marathon

That being said, I am a very strong believer in using non-running activities to help increase our stamina, reduce the risk of injury, and log “time on our feet” that the marathon requires without the constant pounding that is associated with running.


Cross Training Examples

Below are great examples of ways to cross train while training for any race.  Remember, when attempting to run a race, the most beneficial workout will be running, but with these cross training methods, you’ll keep your legs fresher, work on different muscle groups, and build overall body strength that running cannot provide.

I like my cross training a lot more when I keep it fun.  That usually means putting some kind of workout or game into play.  After each type of cross training example, I’ll give you some ideas you can implement on your own.


Swimming

The idea of swimming for some people is just straight up scary.  For me, though, the scary part is the boredom. To combat this, if I’m swimming, I’m bringing a friend with me.  Especially someone who is faster in the water than me. I get to mimic their form, practice being efficient and have someone to pace off of.

Since I don’t swim often – but I DID compete in a tri, once – I went out and bought a good racing swimsuit by Speedo and a decent pair of goggles.  These keep me in contention when I do race in the water, but who would want to swim laps in baggy running shorts?  Certainly not me.

Instead of swimming just laps – boring! – I mix it up with workouts.  

Cross training enhances your marathon training by allowing you to do more work without the pounding from running
Marathon training and cross-training go well together!

Workout

Ladder Laps:  

Warm up with 10-15 minutes of easy lap swimming and finish with 10 minutes of lap swimming

  • 1 hard lap 1 easy lap
  • 2 hard laps 1 easy lap
  • 3 hard laps 1 easy lap
  • 3 hard laps 1 easy lap
  • 2 hard laps 1 easy lap
  • 1 hard lap 1 easy lap

Pool Running

As a runner, this was always my go-to form of cross training when I was in high school and college. It helped that I had a pool with a deep end in my backyard and in college, we had an Olympic sized pool for the swim team.

Think of pool running as marching in place, in the deep end of the pool.  For newbies and those that don’t want a killer workout, I would invest in an aqua running belt.  The belt helps prop you up and gives you just a bit of assistance while doing the pool running.

When I pool run, I try and mimic what workout I’d be doing on land.  Tempo run? Longer efforts in the water. Speed workout? Short, hard reps with little rest. 5k pace work? 1-3 minutes of hard work with “floating” recoveries.  The big thing to know/remember about pool workouts is you don’t need as much recovery as you do on land. Try to keep work to rest ratio at 3:1.


Workout:

Interval Reps:

Warm up with 10-15 minutes of easy lap swimming and finish with 10 minutes of lap swimming

  • 10 x 30 seconds HARD w/ 10 seconds rest
  • 3 x 5 minutes @ comfortably hard effort w/ 1:20 rest after each

Find Trainwithmarc on Instagram
Find Trainwithmarc on Instagram

Biking

Indoor cycling (spin class) versus riding.  While they both are good, they operate slightly differently.  For me, a spin class is a one-hour, ass-kicking session. You may not “ride” a ton of miles, but boy are you gonna get a hearty workout in!

Outdoor cycling is a bit different. It’s more of a slow burn.  The drawbacks of an outdoor ride are flat tires, traffic, and time required to get in a good workout.

Workout:

Indoor cycle:

Let the spin instructor guide your workout

Outdoor ride:

Long grinds:

  • 5 x 5 minutes @ tempo feel with 1-2 minutes of regular paced riding.

Yoga

Yoga is super great for runners in a totally non-running kinda way.  A lot goes into performing the exercises and I think a good dose of yoga is a really good way to stay limber, flexible and balanced.  I personally prefer hot yoga (where the room is 90+ degrees) as that’s how I feel I truly did work. However, I think any form of yoga is really beneficial to runners.

How to combine cross training and running to improve your running
Cross train + marathon running

Elliptical

The elliptical is going to mimic running the most, so if you have a running injury, chances are an elliptical is not going to be the answer.  I do workouts similar to what I would be doing if I was running – tempos, intervals, etc that keep me engaged in the session and provides a stimulus that improves my running.

Workout:

Cut down reps:

Warm up for 10 minutes at an easy effort.  Finish with 10 minutes too.

  • 8 minutes 1 minute
  • 6 minutes 1 minute
  • 4 minutes 1 minute
  • 2 minutes 1 minute
  • 1 minute 1 minute
  • :30 seconds 1 minute


Summary

Cross training is a very popular and supremely effective strategy to use in conjunction with your running.  As I stated earlier, there’s no real substitute for running, so the primary focus of your marathon plan should be running.  

If you’re going to cross train, make sure you’re keeping it fun so that you consistently get in a good workout.  Vary what you do and don’t just slog through 30 minutes of easy efforts. Cross training can be done at a higher intensity and shouldn’t negatively affect your running because you’ll be able to recover quickly.  

One last thing to note about cross training when I’m training for a race: I keep track of my running miles and my cross training time differently.  I aim for a certain amount of miles per week as normal, but I also factor in the time I spend cross training. The goal should be to supplement your running, not take over your running.  So if your running starts to suffer because of the cross training, then you need to back off.


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Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT & USATF Certified Running Coach
Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT & USATF Certified Running Coach

Marc is a USATF Track and Field & Dr. Jack Daniels VDOT O2 certified running coach. I have more than 19 years of experience running and more than 10 years of experience coaching runners. Click for more information!


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19 thoughts on “Incorporating Cross Training Into a Marathon Plan

  1. I’m all about cross training! I do a lot of unilateral stuff with my sandbag as well as spin bike workouts!

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  2. I used to be terrible at cross training. Since becoming a CPT I’ve found it easier. Mostly because sometimes I do the workouts with my clients. 🙂

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  3. I’ve seen some of your workouts – if we don’t have a sandbag, what’s a good alternative?

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  4. That definitely helps. Do you ever prescribe workouts based on how you’re feeling/what you’ll be doing with them?

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  5. I am a huge believer in the power of cross training. I really think that it helps you become a more well rounded runner. Sometimes I would rather do cross training than running to be honest!

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  6. These are all great options for cross training during marathon training. My choices are usually to cross train with strength training and (occasionally) yoga.

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  7. I know you are right.
    I might try some of your tips.

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  8. Kim at Running on the Fly May 29, 2019 — 9:59 PM

    I have always been a believer in cross-training. Those running muscles need down time, but the other “supporting” muscles still need action to keep things in balance.

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  9. Cross training for the win! I am all about swimming, biking and yoga! I especially love the extra stretching I get in yoga! Thanks for all these awesome workouts!

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  10. Organic Runner Mom May 30, 2019 — 11:00 AM

    Swimming, biking, and yoga are my go to’s when it comes to cross-training. I have to admit I have to get back at it with the swim and the bike. Great tips!

    Liked by 1 person

  11. It gets tough to get it all in! Do you have a favorite type of yoga? Personally, I like hot yoga.

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  12. Thanks – hopefully some of the workouts are an inspiration to get back in the pool!

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  13. Exactly. Off days and recovery days don’t have to be “nothing” days.

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  14. Oooh yes, do so! Which one are you most likely to try?

    Liked by 1 person

  15. Very good choices. If I’m not running, it’s most likely going to be on the elliptical (most convenient for me)

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  16. Woah woah. I don’t know about that!

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  17. Hopefully sign up for some yoga classes. Go to the gym and use the bike on non running days.

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