When you love to run, it can be hard to tear yourself away from the trail -- even for a day. But cross-training (training in different ways to improve overall athletic performance) is a necessary practice for both serious and recreational runners.
Why is cross-training so important? For starters, it allows you to enhance your fitness by working muscle groups that your predominant activity -- running, for example -- doesn't typically employ.
The result of working other muscle groups is a holistically stronger body, translating into heightened performance.
Cross-training also promotes injury avoidance. Because running is a high-impact exercise, the potential for injury (in particular, repetitive stress injury) is fairly high. Effective cross-training minimizes this potential by strengthening other muscle groups, warding off muscle imbalance -- a chief contributor to injury -- and giving the oft-used muscles (in running, the hamstrings and calves) a greater opportunity to repair and recover.
The biggest advantage to cross-training, though, may lie in what it does for your run. While allowing you to work other muscles, the following activities arm you with new tools to increase your speed, hone your agility, and up your endurance.
Cycling. Cycling allows you to have a heart-pumping, lower-impact workout. Cycling strengthens the quadriceps, while running more directly works the hamstrings. Harmonizing these two major muscle groups reduces the chance of debilitating leg injuries like Iliotibial Band Syndrome, a condition that may arise when either the hamstring or quad is stronger than the other, creating imbalance.
Cycling also strengthens the core muscles, lending to greater stability. When cycling, open your chest and visualize pulling your navel up and back. Try to maintain this posture throughout the duration of your ride, keeping your core continuously engaged.
Swimming. A zero-impact workout, swimming presents an ideal form of cross-training for runners. Whereas running mainly works the lower body, swimming engages the entire body, working all major muscle groups. Water jogging is another effective low-impact workout for the pool; the water provides natural resistance.
Power yoga. Power yoga may be the ultimate holistic workout -- it strengthens and tones all major muscle groups, while increasing flexibility, improving posture, and promoting mindful breathing. Hip opening poses such as pigeon are ideal for runners, lubricating the hip joints and helping prevent injury.
Plyometrics. An exercise training designed to yield fast and powerful movements, plyometrics is practiced by many athletes who desire to enhance their overall performance. In plyometrics, musles are loaded and then contracted in rapid sequence, enabling an athlete to jump higher, run faster, etc. The "explosive" movements associated with plyometics might help a distance runner, for example, run a faster and stronger 800 meter -- something she may otherwise find too taxing.