John Davis

Written by John Davis


What Type of Cross Training is Best for Injured Runners?

You love running.

At least, you love it when you can run.

But you can’t right now—you’re injured.

When you’re looking at a long stretch of time off from running, you have two options.  Either you start the long slide towards being an out-of-shape couch potato, or you cross train.

Today we are going to look deeper into cross training to try to give you (and us) some comfort while you allow your body to rest up.

Make sure you are getting plenty of recovery foods in to speed healing, and consider listening to our podcast episode with Brad Beer, who believes every single runner (yes, you!) can run pain and injury free if you follow his 5 steps. It is a great companion for those hours ahead while you cross train!

Hopefully by the end of this article, you feel confident in which method of cross training you can use and will be ready to transform that to running fitness as soon as your body is ready!

Injuries suck. Cross training is never going to be as fun as running, but if you do it right, you could come back stronger and faster. I always wondered which type would keep me fittest, this is helpful to understand which activities work best for runners!

What Type of Cross Training is Best for Runners?

Though nothing can replace running perfectly, doing cross training can keep your cardiovascular fitness up, assuming you cross train as hard as you run when you’re healthy.

However, the options are staggering.  You can swim, you can aqua-jog, you can use the elliptical, you can bike, you can recumbent bike, or even Nordic ski, if the weather cooperates.

Are any of these options better than the others? How should you evaluate what method of cross training you should do?

What have studies found about cross training?

Fortunately for us, these questions have been tackled by exercise scientists.

A 1961 study by Per-Olof Åstrand and Bengt Saltin in Sweden examined how seven well-trained subjects performed on a variety of aerobic activities, including cycling, running, skiing, swimming, and arm-cranking.1

By tracking the subjects’ maximum oxygen intake during a very hard effort on each of these exercise methods, Åstrand and Saltin were able to see how the various exercise methods stacked up against each other.

As a rule, the exercise methods which allowed for the greatest oxygen intake (and thus, the biggest stimulus on the cardiovascular system) were the ones which were upright and involved the leg muscles.

Standard cycling, for example—sitting upright—resulted in 15% higher maximal oxygen intake than cycling laying on your back (as you might do on a recumbent “sit-down bike” machine you’d find at the gym).

Predictably, the arm-crank machine drew a vastly lower maximal oxygen intake than more standard exercises, probably because arm cranking doesn’t involve very many muscles.

Surprised? Us neither!

Check this out:

Despite involving practically every muscle in the body, swimming also resulted in about 15% lower maximum oxygen intake than running or cycling, a finding that’s been replicated in other research and holds true even for elite swimmers.2

The other popular aqueous cross training exercise—aquajogging—also suffers a loss in maximum oxygen uptake when compared to treadmill running, so being in the water probably has something to do with it.

Remember we have an article on 7 workouts that will make your heart feel like it is going to explode (not really! Just will work VERY hard!), if you are going to use pool running.

Does that mean cycling and nordic skiing are the best cross training exercises?

Standard cycling, Nordic skiing, and treadmill running all achieve the same maximal oxygen uptake values, meaning they are all equally good at stimulating your cardiovascular system.

However, training your aerobic capacity is only half the battle when you cross train; the other half is specificity.

[bctt tweet=”Injured? This is the cross training post you need while you recover.”]

How does similarity to running affect cross training?

Though it may sound like a hopelessly vague concept, specificity just refers to how similar a particular exercise is to running.

Swimming, for example, is not very similar to running, but aquajogging is quite close.

To maintain your running fitness as best as possible, you should try to cross train in a way that both stimulates your cardiovascular system and is highly specific to running.

The elliptical machine fits the bill pretty well—research published in 2001 by John Mercer, Janet Dufek, and Barry Bates shows you can reach the same maximal oxygen uptake on an elliptical as you can on a treadmill, and the action is fairly similar to running.4

It get’s better:

For those of you lucky enough to have access to an ElliptiGO, this is a great cross training option, and means you will not lose your mind in the gym! However, if you are confined to your local fitness facility, take a listen to our podcast episode on cross training. We can give you something to enjoy for at least 1 hour each week (subscribe here!).


Cycling and Nordic skiing are great cardiovascularly, but not so much in the specificity department.  Aquajogging strikes a nice balance: Only about an 9% loss in maximal aerobic capacity, and very good specificity.5

And finally:

The gold standard, and what elite runners use, are underwater or antigravity treadmills—these essentially let you do treadmill running, just with a bit less impact.  Sadly, this kind of technology isn’t exactly commonplace, nor is it cheap!

What if Cross Training Hurts my Injury?

Another important point to consider when choosing what cross training activity you should do is what type of injury you’re rehabbing.

Some types of exercise will put too much strain on an injured area, preventing it from healing.

A metatarsal stress fracture, for example, would not do well on an elliptical, but should be okay in the pool.

In contrast, a hip injury might require something that doesn’t involve moving your legs at all, like swimming with a pull buoy.

If you’re not sure what you can and can’t do with your particular injury, ask your doctor.

Finally, the issue of facility access is a reality for anyone who’s not a professional runner.

Aquajogging is great, but only if you have pool access. A gym membership can go a long ways towards ensuring you have access to a wide range of cross training exercises, but even then, you’ll have to fit in your cross training with the realities of your schedule and daily life.

It will be worth it in the end!

Finding the best way to keep up your fitness while you’re injured involves finding the best combination of aerobic demand and specificity that does not aggravate your injury.

In most cases, this will probably be aquajogging. 

Research demonstrates that you can maintain the same level of running fitness for up to six weeks in the pool!3 Alas, we can’t all make it to the pool every day.  Various other types of cross training, like cycling, the elliptical machine, and swimming, can all be useful in certain situations.

If you want to learn more about cross training, and how you can actually run faster after an injury if you keep it up, make sure you take a listen to our podcast with Alan Webb (American Record Holder in the Mile), Lynda Huey (Pool Running Olympic Coach), and Darren Brown (ElliptiGO rep and elite runner). 

It will give you hope, and show you that cross training can bring you back to running stronger and faster than before the injury!

As you return to running, be sure to follow our guide for returning to running safely, as that is one of the worst feelings a runner can experience; the excitement of starting to run again, followed by a flare up of the injury as you jumped back into it a little too fast.

We have some specifically for returning to running from a stress fracture, and others for returning to running from other injuries. If you know which injury you have, check out our injury page for all the advice you need for every running injury…..okay, maybe not every, but all of the common ones!

[bctt tweet=”Find out what form of cross training will suit you best when injured.”]

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1. Åstrand, P.-O.; Saltin, B., Maximal oxygen uptake and heart rate in various types of muscular activity. Journal of Applied Physiology 1961, 16 (6), 977-981.
2. Holmér, I.; Lundin, A.; Eriksson, B. O., Maximum oxygen uptake during swimming and running by elite swimmers. Journal of Applied Physiology 1974, 36 (6), 711-714.
3. Reilly, T.; Dowzer, C. N.; Cable, N., The physiology of deep-water running. Journal of Sports Sciences 2003, 21 (12), 959-972.
4. Mercer, J. A.; Dufek, J. S.; Bates, B. T., Analysis of Peak Oxygen Consumption and Heart Rate During Elliptical and Treadmill Exercise. Journal of Sport Rehabilitation 2001, 10, 48-56.
5. Chu, K. S.; Rhodes, E. C.; Taunton, J. E.; Martin, A. D., Maximal physiological responses to deep-water and treadmill running in young and older women. Journal of Aging and Physical Activity 2002, 10, 306-313.

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