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Alternative Training for Runners: Practical Guide

Alternative Training for Runners: Practical Guide

Discover how to effectively integrate alternative workouts like cycling, swimming, and cross-training into your running. Boost your performance and stay injury-free with these practical guidelines.

Discover how to effectively integrate alternative workouts like cycling, swimming, and cross-training into your running. Boost your performance and stay injury-free with these practical guidelines.

Christophe Roosen

Christophe Roosen is the co-founder and coach of Trenara. Runs a marathon in 2:31:34.

In the previous blog, we delved into the importance of specific training and how we can incorporate alternative training (also known as cross-training) in alignment with our running goals.
In this blog, I provide practical guidelines on how to implement these alternative workouts. Endurance runs are the easiest to switch to an alternative sport, as you read earlier, so that's what I'll focus on.

1. Which Alternative Sports Can You Combine with Running?

Now that you know which training types are best suited for alternative training, we can specify these further. The following are guidelines, but I realize that applying these guidelines is not always easy, as there are often limitations in terms of time or infrastructure/availability.

a. Cycling

The alternative training form most often combined with running. Very accessible – most of us have such a thing on two wheels. It scores reasonably well in terms of functional muscle use but requires a significant time investment. To achieve the same training effect, you need to cycle 2.5 to 3 times the duration of your running session. So, 1 hour of running = 2.5 hours of road cycling. Your heart rate should be about 6 to 8 beats lower when cycling to target the same zone.

When you don't have that much time to invest, but do have a mountainbike to your availability: perfect as well! The training time should be 1.5 to 2 times the running session when riding your MTB.

b. Swimming

The least specific in terms of muscle use, but also (and precisely because of this) the least taxing. Technically a challenging sport and therefore quickly (too) tiring if you are not an experienced swimmer. Include rest periods after a few lanes. Heart rate is not a good a reference here, as the water temperature is a major variable. The swimming time depends on your technical capabilities: if you have high buoyancy, your swimming time can even be slightly longer than your running time (up to x1.15). If you’re like me and sink like a stone, it’s important not to overdo it.

A ‘long run’ in swimming would then be more of an interval to avoid focusing too much on power instead of capacity. For example:
- WU: 10’ easy warm-up
- Main set: 4x 10’ at a steady, moderate pace, with 2’ rest in between.
- CD: 5 to 10’ to let the heart rate drop calmly.

c. Cross-Trainer

Partially mimics the running motion but with the advantage of lower impact. Here, you can almost copy a running workout 1:1 in terms of time (including intervals), except that you are often indoors where the effort might be higher (less oxygen). My advice is perhaps rather 1:0.8. Heart rate is a bit lower (about 8 beats), so keep an eye on it to ensure it doesn’t get too high.

And you might not expect it, but there is also a technical component involved here: coordination. If you are in a good shape, it often takes a lot of coordination effort to get the heart rate up. Unless you also have a good amount of fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are naturally lacking in endurance athletes. That’s why we looked for an alternative for Mieke (a runner at Olympic level deserves the label of 'being in good shape'), which became the airbike.

d. Elliptigo

An Elliptigo, a type of running bike, almost perfectly mimics the running movement in terms of the lower limbs. Very specific training without the ground impact. However, your upper limbs are not ‘free’ because you have to hold the handlebars. This makes it a bit cumbersome, as you are moving in traffic. Training sessions can be translated almost 1:1 in terms of time, but your heart rate ‘must’ be about 8 beats lower because it is less ‘full body’ than running (no cross-coordination). A similar heart rate likely means you are going too hard.

e. Other Alternatives

  • Do you know the AlterG? It’s a treadmill with an ‘airbag’ that you can inflate to relatively reduce your body weight. Unaffordable as a private individual, but for (injured) runners probably the best alternative method to gradually return to 100% running load.

  • Aqua jogging is typically the alternative for those who are injured. I don’t think any athlete does this voluntarily. But the running motion can be perfectly mimicked – the other name for aqua jogging is ‘deep water running’ for a reason. It is perfect for ‘long runs’ and intervals. Fun, however, is something else.

  • Rowing machine: also popular in the gym and at home. Heart rate is very comparable in terms of intensity, and the impact on the lower limbs is limited (no ground reaction forces, pulling on core and arms).

2. How Can I Implement This in Trenara?

And now, of course, the question is: “All well and good, Christophe, but Trenara doesn’t account for the alternative training in your schedules, right?”. True.

But Trenara is just as naive as I am. We accept a little white lie. So, when you perform an alternative workout that is also automatically synchronized in Trenara, you need to manually enter the replaced run session. So: a long run of 60’ planned at 6’/km, but cycling for 2.5 to 3 hours? Then create a manual running session in the app of 10km in 60’. The app will then calculate as if you had run, my digital alter ego won’t pull your ears, and the algorithm will keep doing its thing.

3. Conclusion

As previously stated, specific training is crucial. Therefore, alternative workouts should only form a part of your training workload.

But that part can be very important. Mentally, variety can be beneficial; physically, it is certainly a very responsible method to reduce the load on your body. This, in turn, provides the best guarantee in the long term to keep running long and healthy.
Therefore, I am a strong proponent of alternative training, provided it is strategically approached. With this blog, you now also know how to incorporate alternative training into your running schedule.
It’s important to note: strength training is not alternative training but supportive, and therefore an absolute must.

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