Cross Training for Marathon Training

Over the past few years, runners of all abilities have discovered the many benefits of cross-training as a means to enhance their total conditioning and running performance. Yet despite its recent popularity, some runners still wonder why they should participate in other aerobic activities if the central purpose of marathon training is to complete a 26.2-mile event, not a triathlon!

To read about a marathon training program that involves only 3 runs a week plus 2 days cross training click here

Benefits and Purposes of Cross Training

  • Adds variety to your training and decreases the chance of burnout.
  • Can occasionally be substituted for “easy day” running (as an aerobic workout).
  • Can serve as an injury prevention measure – Certain activities such as cycling can strengthen related muscle groups and soft connective tissue.
  • Provides an additional means of burning fat.
  • Increases upper body strength – This is very important late in a marathon as neck and shoulder muscles often become fatigued. Upper body strength is an important asset in ascending hills.

Precautions and Considerations

  • Cross-training is not intended to replace running – In other words, don’t substitute three hour bike ride for a three hour long run. This is the concept of sports specificity (as a three hour bike ride won’t provide the training effect needed to run a marathon).
  • Refrain from lateral, stop and go, bounding, and high impact activities along with those with quick/sudden movements – It is crucial that you refrain from the following sports as doing so can traumatize the soft connective tissue that surrounds the knee and ankle regions: Tennis, racquetball, handball, basketball, soccer, volleyball, rugby, down-hill skiing, and aerobic dance. While this is not an exhaustive list, use common sense when deciding whether to add certain sports to your fitness regimen.
  • Rest Days – At least one day per week should be scheduled as a complete leg rest day. Prior to your long run, this is particularly important, as it is crucial to be as rested as possible. While participating in your favorite cross-training activities can be helpful as a means of losing weight, don’t overdo by skipping rest days, particularly for your legs. Over-training can lead to a variety of injuries.
  • Stretching – Stretch thoroughly after working out in any manner. If you choose to stretch prior to running, be sure to warm-up your muscles by walking briskly or by lightly jogging. See Stretching for more information.

Benefits of Specific Sports

The following are great cross-training options that when infused carefully into your workout routine will enhance your marathon training. Be sure to follow the precautions and considerations above. Whether you use a fitness center’s exercise equipment/gear or your own, it is vital that you obtain instruction in its correct use for the specific sports you select for cross-training. To receive the maximum benefit while minimizing your chances of incurring injury, it is also very important that you perform these activities utilizing proper form, technique, and posture. A certified fitness instructor can provide guidance in these areas.


Cycling exercises related muscle groups such as the quadriceps and shins, both of which don’t develop as rapidly as the calf muscles and hamstrings. Cycling also strengthens the connective tissue of the knee, hip, and ankle regions, thus reducing the risk of injury. After a stressful run, cycling also loosens fatigued leg muscles. Key points to remember: Don’t cycle on a scheduled rest day. Since it’s much more difficult to run after cycling, run first before heading out on your bike. Spin easily as opposed to grinding the big gears. Be sure your seat height and pedals are properly positioned. Finally, always wear a helmet and leave the music headphones at home.


Swimming is one of the best cross-training activities for several reasons. Swimming enables one to build muscular strength and endurance while improving flexibility. It is especially recommended for those who want to prevent injury, are pregnant, are recovering from an injury, are suffering from joint or bone conditions, or are overweight and want to exercise in a weightless environment. For the compulsive runner who has a hard time taking a rest day, swimming gives those fatigued leg muscles a breather while at the same time, provides an excellent upper body workout. Additionally, water is considered a healing medium, providing a therapeutic effect for all muscle groups. While gentle kicking alleviates some muscle soreness and fatigue, avoid using the kickboard for hard kick sets on your running rest day. Keep in mind that compared to other cross-training activities, your heart-rate may not reach as high a level while swimming (typically 10 to 20 beats per minute less than what it is for dry land activities) due to the loss of gravitational force, the horizontal position, and the cooling effect of the water temperature. Nevertheless, what truly counts is that the heart, lungs, and muscles are still processing oxygen.

Deep Water Running

This cross-training activity is just what the doctor ordered for the rehabilitation of many running injuries. Because there is no shock from foot strike, water running is a great alternative to a mid-week “easy day” run. For either purpose, it should be based on your current level of ability and present dry-land running schedule. While it is possible to run in the water without floatation aids, find a pool that has these devices (e.g., vests, belts, etc.) to make your workout easier.

Ergometer (Rowing) Machine

This is another great cardio-vascular activity that can be done on a rest day. It strengthens the hips, buttocks, and upper body while sparing the legs of heavy pounding. Be sure to learn proper rowing technique to maximize the benefits of this activity.

Nordic Track Ski-Simulator Machine

This challenging workout is highly effective in building/maintaining aerobic conditioning and endurance while strengthening the muscles of the upper and lower body. Because it requires the ability to balance and coordinate duel action movements of the upper and lower extremities, proper form must be learned and utilized. In short, this is great workout for runners interested in supplementing their training.


This activity provides a great cardio-vascular workout while being rather gentle on the skeletal system. To achieve maximum benefits, proper form and posture must be utilized. Because of the vigorous exercise the leg muscles receive from this machine, it is not recommended as a supplemental workout for a complete leg rest day.


This great cardio-vascular activity provides a total body workout because all the major muscles of the upper and lower body are fully engaged and thus strengthened. Because of the coordination required by the arms and legs (climbing against gravity, similar to the motion of ascending a ladder), it can be a challenging machine to learn to use correctly. Again, procure the guidance of a knowledgeable fitness instructor to learn proper technique. The Versa-Climber can serve as a “stepper” machine when only the handrails and foot pedals are used.

Elliptical Trainer

These machines provide a great total body cardio-vascular workout. Their oval-like (ellipse) motion provides the user with the feel of classic cross-country skiing, stair climbing, and walking all in combination. The elliptical trainer can be programmed to operate in either a forward or backward motion, providing a low-impact workout for all the all the major muscles in the legs. The backward motion emphasizes the gluteal muscles (buttocks). A great upper body workout can be achieved by using the two poles located on each side of the machine in conjunction with the leg motion.


This is a very under-rated activity that provides great therapeutic benefits following a long run or speedwork. While walking is not intended to be a substitute for an easy running day, a relaxed two to three mile stroll is a great way to loosen up the legs the day prior to a big race. Depending on the type of injury, speed walking is a great rehabilitation activity to maintain cardio-vascular fitness.

Weight Training

For more information see our separate section on Weight Training