Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Trail Tips

Ask the Coach: Cross Training

Lock Icon

Join O+ to unlock this story.

Already have an Outside Account? Sign in

Outside+ Logo

All-Access
Intro Offer
$3.99 / month*

  • World-class journalism from publications like Outside, Ski, Trail Runner, Climbing, and Backpacker.
  • Annual print subscription to Outside Magazine + 2 Gear Guides.
  • Outside Watch – Award-winning adventure films, documentaries, and series.
  • Gaia GPS – Premium backcountry navigation app.
  • Trailforks – Discover trails around the globe.
  • Outside Learn – Expert-led online classes on climbing, cooking, skiing, fitness, and beyond.
Join Outside+
Trail Runner Magazine

Digital + Print
Intro Offer
$2.99 / month*

  • Access to all member-exclusive content on TrailRunnerMag.com
  • Ad-free access to TrailRunnerMag.com
Join Trail Runner


*Outside memberships are billed annually. Print subscriptions available to U.S. residents only. You may cancel your membership at anytime, but no refunds will be issued for payments already made. Upon cancellation, you will have access to your membership through the end of your paid year. More Details

Does cross training (like biking) help training?

—Josh F., Charlestown, New Hampshire

Cross training (like biking or swimming or playing aggressive tug of war with your dog) is surprisingly controversial in the coaching world, a place where controversies are delightfully low stakes. But the general principle from the research is that cross training as a supplement to running is beneficial, and as a substitute for running may be beneficial in some circumstances and detrimental in others.

Many studies show that adding cross training is helpful if running volume stays the same. So if you like to bike in the afternoons after a morning run, that should be great.

Where it gets murkier is when cross training replaces some or all running volume, with conflicting results across studies. Cross training should be good for aerobic adaptations, primarily by increasing blood volume and mitochondria and capillary density. Activities like biking can increase muscle strength. And low-impact cross training decreases injury risk, which is especially beneficial for injury-prone or older athletes.

However, some of those positive adaptations could be offset by running-specific benefits to higher-volume training, primarily those related to running economy, or how much energy it takes to go a given pace, which has large neuromuscular and biomechanical components.

Thinking about pro cyclists may be helpful. In Boulder, some of the fastest running times on local hill climbs are held by cyclists. That makes sense when you think about it—they are aerobic monsters with strong legs. Since climbing workouts place fewer demands on the neuromuscular system (running fast/coordination) and biomechanical system (absorbing impact forces), they translate well to your fitness. However, if the same pro cyclist tried to run a 10K on the track, they’d get lapped many times over.

Lacking definitive answers, it’s important to find what works for your body and mind. For my athletes, the general rules are: they can always add cross training except during the specific phase of training in the final month before a key race; athletes that are susceptible to injury can cross train to replace some miles; and athletes over 40 can cross train more aggressively.

Finally, remember the golden rule of training: the body knows stress, not miles, so don’t overdo it.

This article originally appeared in the June 2018 issue of Trail Runner.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. With Megan Roche, M.D., he hosts the Some Work, All Play podcast on running (and other things), and they wrote a book called The Happy Runner.

Have questions for Coach Roche? Email them to zrom@outsideinc.com