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Cross-Training: Is it an effective alternative for runners?

Dr Larry W. McDaniel and Clarice Bauer discuss "Cross-Training" as conditioning and rehabilitation for runners.

McDaniel and Bauer ask the following questions:

  • Does cross-training have the same physiological effects on the body as running?
  • May a runner maintain their present level of conditioning when cross-training?
  • When performed as a method of rehabilitation, does cross-training prepare the runner for competition?

Many athletes and trainers have wondered if there is a significant difference when training for competition between running and cross-training. If the athlete or trainer implements cross-training, will the athlete regress, maintain, or improve their present fitness level? If the coach or trainer alters training methods for their runners and utilize cross-training as a conditioning program, such as swimming or biking, will runners lose speed or endurance? If athletes used cross-training as part of their weekly routine, would this modality increase or decrease injuries? Many athletes and coaches consider these questions.

Johannes (2006)[5] found that pool workouts maintained levels of fitness when recovering from leg stress fractures. Johannes performed several weeks of pool workouts following an injury to prepare for running at or about the same level of conditioning before the injury. The two runners stated that taking the activities to the pool was beneficial. A world record holder, Paula Radcliffe, recommends swimming and cross-training to prevent the athlete from overtraining and reducing training injuries (Little 2007)[6].

Eyestone (2008)[4] stated that cross-training is not the same as running. However, Eyestone found that if the athlete performs cross-training at high levels of intensity for one hour, the same aerobic benefits will be obtained as running for 5 miles. Bloom (2003)[1], the author of "Head for the Pool", stated that pool workouts might be beneficial for runners with injuries such as plantar fasciitis, stress fractures, and shin splints. Bloom (2003)[1] mentioned that pool workouts are perfect for the colder seasons since training at high levels of intensity is difficult to achieve in ice, snow, or rain. Dudney (2006)[3] stated that cross-training might be beneficial to older runners by reducing the wear and tear on their joints and connective tissues. These articles dealt with personal experiences and how cross-training has helped individuals. However, it is also important to discuss how these experiences affected them, why they affected them, and if cross-training can benefit others in the same way.

Rodriquez (2000)[7] found that in trained swimmers, VO2 peak values have been reported to be 6-7% lower than runners and approximately the same in cycling. But the significant finding in this study was that peak oxygen uptake and pulmonary ventilation after maximal free-swimming unimpeded was not significantly different from a V02 peak and VE peak during running or cycling compared to trained swimmers. These findings were again tested in "Maximal Physiological Responses to Shallow and Deep Water Running". Those training in this environment found that deep water running can be used to replace running while an individual is recovering from an injury. The above article stated a difference in VO2max, but the difference is less than 3.05, which is insignificant. In "Physiological Effects of Deep Water Running", following a land-based training program, the authors found that VO2 max dropped after they ended the deep-water training program.

The articles above produced several positive benefits related to cross-training. The information in these articles stated that cross-training as a mode for conditioning athletes has maintained cardiovascular itness levels and expedited the return to competition following an athletic injury. Cross-training benefits fitness levels in runners since many running injuries result from overuse and the high impact produced from training on hard surfaces. Cross-training benefits allow the athlete to maintain fitness levels and reduce the stress on joints and soft tissue. Research has demonstrated that there is no significant difference in VO2 max between running, swimming, and biking when comparing pool and running workouts. Trainers have found that most runners do not decrease in fitness while suffering from an injury if they participate in aerobic and anaerobic cross-training workouts.

In conclusion, this study found that cross-training is a beneficial training modality for runners. Cross-training may assist runners in maintaining current levels of fitness and health without losing their competitive edge. If a runner were to cross-train once a week for approximately an hour, they might be able to prevent or reduce the occurrence of overuse injuries. Most athletes will use cross-training to either recover from or reduce injuries during their careers. McDaniel and Bauer found that cross-training may have similar physiological effects on the body as running. By incorporating cross-training programs into their running schedule, most athletes may maintain their present fitness level when reducing or discontinuing running. Cross-training, when performed as a result of an injury, assists in the processes related to rehabilitation and may prepare the athlete for re-entry into a competition.


  1. BLOOM, M. (2003) Head for the Pool. Runners World, 05 Aug. 2003.
  2. DOWSER, C, et al. (1999) Maximal Physiological Responses to Deep and Shallow Water Running. Ergonomics, 42, p. 275-281
  3. DUDNEY, G. (2006) Run for Your Life. American Fitness, 24, p. 16-17
  4. EYESTONE, E. (2008) Training: Workouts. Runners World, 12 Mar. 2008
  5. JOHANNES, K. (2006) Pool Workout Keeps You in the Swim. Knight Rider Tribune Business News, Washington, 22 Sept. 2006
  6. LITTLE, W. (2007) Going the Extra Mile EXERCISE: World Record-Holder Paula Radcliffe Tells William Little How to Prepare for a Marathon. Financial Times
  7. RODRIGUEZ, F.A. (2000) Maximal Oxygen Uptake and Cardiorespiratory Response to Maximal 400-M Free Swimming, Running and Cycling Test in Competitive Swimmers." Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, 40
  8. QUINN, T. et al. (1994) Physiological Effects of Deep Water Running Following a Land-Based Training Program. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 65, p. 275-281.

Page Reference

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About the Authors

Dr Larry McDaniel is an associate professor and advisor for the Exercise Science program at Dakota State University, Madison SD USA. He is a former All-American in football and Hall of Fame athlete & coach. Clarice Bauer is a student of Exercise Science at Dakota State University, Madison, SD USA.