Cross Training: Getting the balance right 

Naturally, the majority of your training for a marathon will comprise running. One of the key principles of exercise is that of ‘specificity’. Put simply, it states that your training should be relevant and appropriate to the activity you want to compete in. This ensures that the process of adaptation which takes place within the body during training is pertinent to the specific needs of running. 

It all sounds simple enough, to prepare for a long distance run you need to do a lot of running. But it would be an oversight to ignore the benefits of cross training (engaging in two or more sports or types of exercise in order to improve fitness or performance in your main sport). That’s because the training and preparation for a marathon is a delicate balancing act.

Putting in the hard miles has multiple benefits. Not least it can help increase your metabolism, improve bone density, enhance your body’s ability to utilize oxygen and store glycogen, and even lower your resting heart rate. Crucially, it helps you prepare mentally for the psychological challenge of a long distance run. 

But focusing all your energy solely on running can have drawbacks. Running is a continuous, repetitive, weight-bearing form of exercise. By its very nature, it causes micro damage and inflammation in the muscles. As long as healing and repair is kept in check by proper rest, this inflammation need not be problematic. However, without sufficient time to recuperate, inflammation and swelling in joints and muscles can lead to chronic overuse injuries. 

Another potential downside of restricting your training solely to running, is the impact it can have on your immune system. Whilst shorter duration runs can help bolster your immune system, longer and more challenging runs can weaken it. That’s because during the longer and harder runs your body churns out more of the stress hormone cortisol. After a 16-mile run, your body’s immune system can be compromised for up to 3 days afterwards!

How cross-training can help runners

Committing a day or two per week to other forms of exercise will provide you with some crucial benefits. It can help you to restore a more balanced all-round level of fitness, and give you a psychological break from the rigours of running. At the same time, it can help to take pressure off overworked joints whilst allowing you to retain a good level of cardio-vascular fitness. 

Some forms of cross-training compliment long-distant running better than others. Here are some of the more beneficial options: 

Strength training 

This should be top of your list because some amount of strength training is almost essential to prepare yourself for the marathon. It can add strength and power to your running, and is also a good way to enhance your running economy

Look to get expert advice on the most crucial muscles to strengthen. This will vary from person to person. But whatever you do, don’t overlook some of the smaller muscle groups such as the adductors and abductors. Strengthening these areas can help add stability to your running stride. 

And whilst you are in the gym, consider using the elliptical machine. It is a great exercise for mimicking the running action, and improving your aerobic capacity, but it is non-weight-bearing, and will ease the load on your joints.  

Aqua jogging or swimming

 Aqua-jogging involves replicating the movement of a runner in the deep water of a swimming pool. A buoyancy belt is utilized to help maintain an upright position. It is a technique that has long been used as a method of rehabilitation, but it can also be used as an option for training. Swimming is a less closely related activity. However, swimming is also another good option for taking the impact off joints and can be good for stretching out limbs and mobilizing the joints. 

Cycling or Stair-climber

While cycling tends to recruit very different muscle fibres than those used in running, there is one specific situation where it can be a very useful form of cross-training. Many runners tend to overwork their hamstrings, yet have relatively weak quadricep muscles. This strength imbalance can increase the likelihood of injury. Cycling, and also using a stair-climber in the gym, can help redress these imbalances, as both exercises put a significant demand on the muscles of the quadriceps. 

To check whether you have any muscle imbalances that may affect your running, we highly recommend that you get yourself assessed by a physiotherapist.

Yoga and Pilates 

Both Yoga and Pilates have numerous benefits for long distance runners. They can help improve your flexibility, correct your posture and develop your core strength. All of these factors will help improve your running efficiency. 

Take, for example, the ‘crescent moon’ pose in yoga. It can help release tension in the lower back, and is also a great way to stretch out your hip flexors. Flexibility in these muscles is crucial, because it helps you to maximise your stride length. This can make a significant difference over the many thousands of strides you take during the marathon. 

Finally, practicing a few basic yoga moves after a long run can be restorative too. They can help reduce swelling in the legs, boost circulation and initiate the recovery process.


As an occasional break, consider a hike instead of a run. It can act as a relief from the repeated pounding on tarmac. And if you make the effort to get out into the country it can be a great stress-reliever. 

Furthermore, if you hike on reasonably challenging terrain it can help challenge the tendons, ligaments and muscles that are less challenged during normal runs. Your body needs variety to keep the joints firing fluidly, especially in areas such as the ankles. 

Hiking can also help you get used to long periods of time on your feet, but with a decreased risk of injury compared to successive long runs. A solid three or four hour hike can be surprisingly challenging and help to build up your resolve for an endurance event. 

Whatever your training regime, remember to take days to rest between exercises, to allow the body to recover from these different stresses.

We hope this information is useful for you. If you need advice or have any questions about our treatments, please contact us. You can find us in Mill Hill Broadway and Islington. We are always happy to help. If you like this blog, please share!

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