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Running: The Best Cross-Training You'll Ever Need

By Brittany Vermeer, 02/01/23, 12:15AM EST


Calling all cyclists, tennis, and soccer players! Up your game by incorporating one of the best activities for all-around fitness.

FEB 1, 2023

When it comes to improving cardiovascular fitness there’s nothing quite like running. Aerobic exercise, of which running is a prime example, also improves endurance, an essential ingredient for athletes competing in other sports like soccer, basketball, and cycling. An athlete with a big aerobic engine can go longer, faster, and running helps build that system.  

“Running is one of the most efficient forms of training and the quickest way to improve your overall cardiovascular health,” says Carrie Tollefson, Olympian, running coach, and host of the CTolleRun podcast. “There’s also efficiency to running in the way that it gets the heart rate up and works different muscle groups. The way you run works different systems as well, whether it’s race pace, sprint work, or hill work. You use a variety of muscles that make up who we are as athletes.” 

Run training for other sports 

Former San Francisco 49ers running back, Roger Craig, knew the value of run training. After retirement, he helped bring the Rock ‘n’ Roll Running Series to San Jose, Calif. At the 2014 edition of the race, the three-time Super Bowl champion finished in 1:47:28 alongside his son, Alexander.  

It’s not just running backs who can benefit from run training. Soccer, basketball, and triathlon are all sports that incorporate running in some form, but it also has relevance for those that are less obvious, like cycling, cross-country skiing, boxing, and tennis.  

A study done by Øyvind Støren at the Telemark University College in Norway hypothesized that the VO2 max of an elite cyclist could be improved by replacing some of his cycling training with high-intensity running. He was right! Not only did the cyclist show improvement in both VO2 max and lactate threshold, but his time trial performance also increased by 14.9 percent.  

Basketball is a sport that involves a great deal of running up and down the court. A study out of Italy classified basketball as a hybrid sport, “because the player must have a high anaerobic capacity to deal with explosive actions and aerobic capacity to endure the duration of the match and help in the lactate clearance phase.”  

When it comes to another run-heavy sport like soccer, a study by Jan Helgerud of the Norwegian University of Science and Technology showed that soccer players improved their performance by working on aerobic endurance. A regime of aerobic, interval training consisting of four times 4 minutes at 90 to 95 percent of maximal heart rate, with a 3-minute recovery jog, twice a week for 8 weeks had numerous benefits. It increased the distance athletes covered during a match, as well as the number of sprints and involvements with the ball. In addition, their VO2 max increased, lactate threshold improved, and running economy benefitted.  

Strength work and dynamic drills 

For all the benefits running provides, it’s lacking in one area: lateral movement. Running takes place in only one plane of motion—the sagittal plane—with the arms and legs moving in a forward direction only. For this reason, runners can suffer from weaknesses like inactive glutes, weak hips, and poor balance. Lateral movement comes into play with sports like tennis, lacrosse, and soccer that incorporate rotational motion and side-to-side movement. 

“I played basketball growing up, and I use a lot of those skills and training tips now as a runner,” Tollefson says. “I love basketball drills like side shuffles, skipping, bounding, and carioca. We need lateral movement, because we’re not just runners, or just cyclists, or just swimmers—we’re athletes. It’s important not just because it will make us stronger, but also to reduce injuries.” 

Tollefson explains that incorporating dynamic drills is a great way to engage other muscle groups. “Having fun with plyometrics, doing drills on the playground, or even playing a safe game with your kids are all great ways to incorporate lateral movement,” she says.  

Other sports can also help with your run performance: Inline skating can strengthen hip muscles, tennis promotes glute engagement, and cycling improves quad strength. So bring on the cross-training! 

Tollefson says her agility coach liked using football drills as a way to improve her explosive power and agility. She’s also used rock climbing, boxing, pilates, and yoga for the various strength and balance benefits.  

“He would throw a football and have me burst off the sideline to get it,” she says. “We would do cone drills, sled pulls, and speed skaters. I did rock climbing, because it was something different and fun, but didn’t feel like a strength workout. Boxing was a really cool way to work my hips. It’s about being a well-rounded athlete, not just a runner.” 

Hill repeats for all athletes 

One way to use running as a method of training for other sports is by incorporating HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training). These workouts are short in duration, but pack a punch because they include a burst of intense exercise followed by a period of rest. A good example is running hill repeats.  

The process is simple. Warm up for 10 to 15 minutes on flat terrain. Pick a hill with 4 to 7 percent grade and run up it at your 5-10K effort, not pace. Then, jog or walk back down the hill to start again. Repeat 4 or more times before a good cool down that includes dynamic drills. Maintain good form with a short stride, quick cadence, driving arms, and a slight lean forward at the hips.  

“Hill repeats are a workout every athlete should use,” Tollefson says, explaining that she used to train college football players who wanted to run a half marathon yet had a hard time wrapping their brains around doing that distance. “We went to a hill and did 12 x 200-meter repeats. By the fourth one, they were about done!” she recalls. “I had them visualize holding a ball in their right hand, and we played a mental game with it. They were soon able to get through 8, and then 12, and they got so fit.”  

Hill repeats can improve your run speed, strength, endurance, cadence, and technique, but the best part is the versatility of the workout.  

“It’s something you can incorporate into a tempo run or even on a medium to easy day finishing with strides up a hill,” Tollefson says. “It has so much benefit strength-wise and is an easy workout for all athletes to do.” 

So run for run’s sake, or as part of training for another sport, and you will certainly reap the rewards of this highly cardiovascular, and enjoyable, form of exercise.  

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