Cross-training: how to train for running without running

I did a duathlon on the weekend – my first – and it was surprisingly fun. It was short and sharp: 3.2km run; 19.2km ride; 3.2km run over an undulating course, but a big change from a typical weekend fun run.

The ride was an interesting interlude between the running legs and one pleasant observation I can make is that all the cycling training I've been doing lately has helped my running. I've been running less, but in the duathlon I ran just as strongly as I used to.

Strangely, the opposite doesn't seem to be the case – running doesn't help you become a better cyclist other than serving the useful purpose of performing some weight bearing exercise, which builds bone density and strengthens muscles, ligaments and joints.

A different cycle

Cycling on the road or on a wind trainer or stationary bike in a spin class, however, is great for running. You can work on cadences that mimic your running while steadily increasing your power output; you can push bigger gears that help develop the muscles needed to run up hills. A lot of specific interval work can help runners develop their cardio vascular fitness.

Cycling works muscle groups that are complementary to running, such as quadriceps, outer hips and gluteus medius; which helps mitigate the risk of incurring typical runners' injuries.

Who would've thought that not running could make you love running even more?

While all serious runners will say there's no substitute for simply doing the miles ("the way to become a better runner is to run more"), there is also a smart way to train for anyone who might be dedicated, but also pragmatic about their need to avoid injury. Overuse injuries in runners are common, which is why so many runners turn to cross-training, and cycling in particular.

Reduce the impact

As a non weight-bearing sport, cycling doesn't take quite such a toll on the body. An additional cycling session per week will not have the impact of an additional run session per week.

Using cycling as a form of active recovery between harder running sessions is a smart way to get fitter. In fact, doing any sport that strengthens non running-specific muscles will help you become a more balanced athlete.

And let's not forget the important matter of keeping the interest alive. Some people are happy to only run, but many others find doing the same activity - albeit mixed up in terms of speedwork, tempo, distance - a bit boring after a while.

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If you are still trying to make exercise a habit in your life rather than a chore, then limiting yourself purely to running could be part of the reason. Cycling has a lot of similarities to running: it can be done alone, in a group and can be done outdoors or in the gym. An advantage of cycling outdoors is you get to cover a lot more terrain – and therefore scenery – in a session.

The social network

Another advantage to mixing up your training week is the social value. I have friends I cycle with, friends I run with and others I swim with. There's overlap, but there's also the pure runners who wouldn't dream of putting a pair of swimmers on and there's the cyclists who dream of the days when they were able to run, before their knees, or whatever, made it impossible.

If you are a runner who blends some other disciplines into your training schedule, then not only will you widen your friendship group, but you'll manage the break from the sport better if the day ever comes that you can't run any more.

Of course, all of these disciplines benefit from additional sessions in core, strength and balance work, which can be tacked on to the end of a training session or done separately. It's worth getting a specific training program from a qualified coach who can tailor a mixture of exercises and teach you how to do them with good form.

Swimming lessons

Another option for runners is swimming, for upper body and core strength, or deep water running.  But frankly, the latter very quickly becomes a more tedious chore than the weekly supermarket shop. A stress fracture five weeks out from a marathon meant I got to know my local chlorine bath, a.k.a. the indoor pool, very intimately.

I kept telling myself as I ran like fury not getting anywhere that if it was good enough for Paula Radcliffe who did it all the time, then it was good enough for me for just a few weeks. The sales pitch for pool running is that it's not weight-bearing and the action mimics running with resistance, giving you a good cardio workout as well. All of that is true but it's still boring.

For runners who don't want to buy a bike or get involved in the life lottery that is city riding – or perhaps who just wouldn't be seen dead in head to toe Lycra – then I would recommend slotting one or two spin sessions per week into your training program.

As for the duathlon, that's a winter season sport and now the triathlon season is upon us. But for any runner who feels like changing things up a bit in their running routine, consider entering these events in the future.

And even if you don't, then get on a bike, stationary or otherwise, and discover for yourself how good it is for your running. Who would've thought that not running could make you love running even more?

How has cross training improved your running? Let us know in the comment section. 

Pip Coates is a running tragic who knows the euphoria of training for and completing a major race, but also the heartbreak of injury and every bend in the long road back. In between runs she is also the deputy editor of the Australian Financial Review Magazine.

Follow Pip on Twitter.

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