Cross Training

By Crystal D. Thomas, PT, DPT, CSCS

What is cross training and why is it an essential training method to prepare for a marathon? Cross training is the action or practice of engaging in two or more sports or types of exercise in order to improve fitness and performance in one’s main sport.  Cross training is essential for runners to prevent overuse injuries that are associated with repetitive impact activity.

Introducing Swimming, Cycling, Agility Plyometric training and Yoga, while adding one or more strength exercises to your routine can drastically improve your running technique, speed and stride length.


swimming cross-trainingNo-Impact water-based cross training in the pool helps to reduce impact for runners who suffer from quick mileage-increase injuries while maintaining a training schedule that focuses on runner’s breathing and oxygen capacity.  Swimming, aqua jogging/pool running can mimic workouts outside of the water. 

Swim laps for 30-45 minutes adding 4-8 lengths of just kicking with a kickboard. Use swim fins for faster movement and to help boost the aerobic/cardiac nature of the work out. Using fins also improves ankle range of motion and better recruitment of the lower extremity muscles.  Limited ankle ROM during the kick phase of swimming translates to inefficient work of the quad and hamstring muscles.

You may also consider, Aqua Jogging with a Speedo Hydro Resistant Jog Belt or contact your local Physical Therapist with and Aqua Treadmill, Alter-G for added programming.


Low Impact Cycling is one of the best cardio options for marathoners as it improves strength, endurance and range of motion in the lower quarter. Cycling and/or Spinning warms up the body and helps the muscles to contract thus increasing blood flow and release of any toxin build up from the normal running routine.  An added benefit of cycling is that it can provide you with an element of speed work and can be useful during periods of inclement weather.


Spinning can also be used as a structured interval-training program with riders completing a steady cadence seated program simulating flat surface and low hills working on endurance (slow twitch fibers) followed by a series of sprints or hard hill-climbing in the standing bike position increasing the intensity and the speed of the original cadence to activate the fast twitch fibers into an anaerobic training state to assist runners to finish strong.

Strengthening and Agility Plyometric Training

Plyometric Training is a quick, powerful movement using a pre stretch, or countermovement, that involves the stretch-shortening cycle to create an explosive movement for the purpose of increasing power.  Plyometric activities should begin after successful running and strength programs have been implemented.  Start with a basic 5 strengthening exercises and complete 2 sets of 10-15 repetitions of strength to plyometric exercises such as Static Squats before progressing to Squat Jumps, Heel raises before progressing to Two foot ankle hops, Static or Reverse lunges progressing to Split squat jumps, Lateral side step squats to Single leg zig-zap hops and High Knees to Power skips.


Yoga can provide a plethora of good to your body. It improves your flexibility, strength, body awareness, breathing techniques, insomnia and relaxation; If you’ve never attended a yoga class before, consider a beginner class program for a minimum of 45 minutes to allow the body to adequately warm up. Longer classes require more stamina and depending on time availability may or may not suit your specific needs for your training program. If you can’t make it to yoga consider a stretch program for the hamstrings, iliotibial band, quadriceps and piriformis muscles to start using a low load prolonged stretch holding for a minimum of 30 second intervals for 4 repetitions each several times throughout the day. Foam rolling is also an excellent form of dynamic stretching, self-kneading out the muscle. Foam roll for two sets of 10 repetitions each twice a day.

Now that we understand the basics of Cross Training for a Marathon, How do you apply these principles?

The marathon distance is becoming more and more popular for recreational runners. Many websites offer free training programs for the marathon that allow athletes to modify volume and intensity based on current race times, number of weeks before the event and current fitness level.

marathon runningIn general, Marathon Training should consist of at least 3 runs per week with 2 separate days of strength training and 2 days of rest/or light stretching to allow the body to heal. The running program should start with a Short Run, progressing to a Middle distance run to transition to the Long Run. A short run classification would be 3-8 miles. Be sure to allow your body to acclimate to the progression to avoid overuse injuries such as shin splints, muscle strains or tendon/ligament sprains by progressing to a middle distance run classified by 9-16 miles. Build your speed gradually so that your first mile is the slowest and your last mile is the fastest. Once you feel comfortable move forward to your long distance run of 17-22 miles.

Remember, as you train closer to your marathon date, to be sure to complete your peak run of 20-22 miles, three weeks prior to your marathon date followed by a running distance tapering period to avoid overtraining. This will allow you to replenish/gather energy for the race. 

Always prepare for each run the day before, beginning with proper hydration, nutrition and a good nights sleep. Cross training utilizing other methods of cardio provides variety and keeps the training program exciting.  Cross training coupled with running consistency and daily stretches is a confidence booster come marathon day. Establishing new habits early on improve confidence, decrease susceptibility to injury and decreased runner’s anxiety.

Speed and Endurance training are necessary but should not be performed back to back.

While preparing for your Marathon it is imperative that you embrace a strength resistance-training program. Resistance training, contrary to belief, improves your functional capacity by maintaining maximal strength and power, maintains muscle mass that can often times decrease with endurance training, and allows for correction of muscle imbalances. Resistance strengthening also enhances running economy thus resulting in improved performance.  Running economy as defined by Johnston and Quinn et al., is the steady state oxygen consumption for a standardized running speed.

Below is a Marathon Training Program from the Nike + Run Club (NRC) that outlines a detailed 18-week, distance-training program. The NRC provides alternative options on cross training based on experience levels to allow the individual runner to achieve their goals.

Distance Short Cut

  • Week 1 – 6 miles
  • Week 2 – 8 miles
  • Week 3 – 6 miles
  • Week 4 – 10 miles
  • Week 5 – 8 miles
  • Week 6 – 10 miles
  • Week 7 – 12 miles
  • Week 8 – 14 miles
  • Week 9 – 16 miles
  • Week 10 – 18 miles
  • Week 11 – 14 miles
  • Week 12 – 18 miles
  • Week 13 – 14 miles
  • Week 14 – 20-22 miles
  • Week 15 – 16 miles
  • Week 16 – 12 miles
  • Week 17 – 10 miles
  • Week 18 – Marathon Race Day

Now the question is, how do I break down the allotted mileage per week with the appropriate running and recovery periods? The Two Tables below described in a National Strength and Conditioning (NSCA) article by Hoffman and Brown outline a Beginner Training and Intermediate Training Program for a Marathon.

Will talk about pacing and how to specifically incorporate the Cross Training Methods into the NSCA and NRC programs listed above.

beginner training program

medium training program


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