Why swapping your recovery run for a workout on the cross trainer could be a game changer

benefits of cross training
The benefits of using a cross trainer for runnersBojan89 - Getty Images

If you've ever trained for a goal race by following a structured training plan, you’ll know that it's not just about running more – it's also about running strategically. That's why a good training plan includes easy runs, long runs, speed work, tempo runs and recovery runs. And all this can add up to four or five (or even six) days of running a week, which can stress your muscles, tendons and more.

So why do training plans ask so much of you? 'Whatever you want to get good at, you have to do that type of activity to a high degree,' explains Ian Klein, a specialist in exercise physiology, cross training and injury prevention at Ohio University, US. In other words, to be a better runner, you must run more.

And each specific running workout within your training programme has a purpose – whether that's to developing fast-twitch muscle fibres for speed, to build your endurance or to help your tendons, ligaments, joints and bones to adapt to the stress of running. That's why it’s important to include all of them within your training routine.

However, one running workout which does offer a little flexibility is your recovery run. This low intensity activity, which is generally done at less than 70% of your maximum heart rate, is important for maintaining the base of your aerobic fitness and developing oxygen efficiency in the muscles. But if you’re injury-prone, dealing with any small niggles or joint pain, or even approaching burnout, it’s one workout that you can take off the road or treadmill and do on another piece of equipment: the cross trainer.

What is a cross trainer?

A cross trainer is a large piece of gym equipment that is also known as an elliptical machine or elliptical trainer. A cross-trainer usually has two pedals – one for each foot – that move forward in a circular motion, similar to riding a bike, except you stand upright, like on a treadmill.

Some cross-trainers have stationary handles, while others have handles that move forwards and backwards as you move your legs — which helps to work both your upper and lower body.

How is using the cross-trainer different from running?

The machine was literally invented to mimic the motions of running without anything like the same kind of impact forces that running generates – so you’re going to get a more running-specific cross-training workout than you would by exercising on a bike, turbo trainer or swimming in a pool. But ‘running’ on the cross-trainer ‘decreases the weight-bearing and muscle-pounding that running produces because it’s a much lower-impact exercise,’ says exercise physiologist Todd Buckingham.

What the cross-trainer does is ‘take out the eccentric contraction, that moment when you land and prevent your body from collapsing’, says Klein. That’s an integral part of running, and so you do need that in your training; but if you get too much of it, he adds, your muscles can fatigue and break down under all that stress, which can lead to injury.

The cross-trainer also cuts out the push-off phase of the gait cycle because your feet never leave the pedals. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, says Juan Delgado, director of Sports Science at the NY SportsScience Lab in New York, US. When you’re running, the tibialis anterior muscles (which are responsible for dorsiflexion of the feet) are almost never under maximum tension –which makes them more susceptible to overuse and makes you much more prone to shin splints and stress reactions, Delgado says. But when you’re maintaining constant contact with the cross-trainer pedal, ‘these muscles will have better isokinetic and isometric contractions and can reach maximum tension while becoming stronger without the impact of the lift-off/heel-strike motion’, he says.

Plus, the cross-trainer is more of a complete workout, equally recruiting the upper and lower body with its pendulum motion. ‘By using your body weight as resistance, it becomes an excellent way to prepare your body for the rigours of regular running, since the muscles engaged in running can become stronger and more accustomed to carrying your body weight without the impact of hitting the floor constantly, reducing your injury risk,’ says Delgado.

What are the benefits of using a cross-trainer as a runner?

1. Cross-trainers are low impact

It’s a low-impact activity, so it’ll feel easier than a run of similar intensity. ‘To combat this, use the cross-trainer for one-and-a-half to two times the duration of your run,’ says Buckingham. For example, a half-hour run would be equivalent to a 45-minute to one-hour cross-trainer session.

2. Cross-trainers are great for recovery

Spending time on the cross-trainer can be helpful on recovery days, too, especially if you have a tough time sticking to a recovery pace (or less than 70% of your maximum heart rate). It’s actually pretty hard to get your heart rate up on the cross trainer (without maxing out resistance), which means you’ll stay in the easy, low-intensity zone you need to be to get the benefits of that workout.

3. Cross-trainers are less taxing on your joints

It can also improve blood flow to the muscles without causing the muscle fibre damage that running does, so could help speed up recovery time between hard running sessions and allow you to complete these days at a higher intensity, leading to greater performance gains, says Buckingham.

That’s why you should always do your key workouts – speedwork, tempo runs and race-pace runs – as running efforts, says Klein. No matter how closely the cross-trainer was designed to mimic running, anyone who has ever stepped on one knows it’s not a perfect substitute. Consider it a valuable tool in your arsenal, especially on days you need to slow it down or recover, but not as a replacement for running.

Best home cross-trainers

Like most home gym equipment, cross-trainers range from basic models to gym-quality machines. As with treadmills, to some extent, you get what you pay for. Although you can get a good workout from lower-priced models with fewer settings, having more options will keep your training session interesting and challenging.

The best cross-trainers offer a broad range of adjustable resistance – often with more than 20 levels. They also include more adjustability, including auto-controlled incline height and stride length. Although some models cost as little as £200, they tend to break down more quickly. A higher-quality cross-trainer will provide a quieter, smoother ride. Just be sure to consider your space and budget when shopping.

1. The best compact cross-trainer: ProFormCarbon HIIT L6

This compact vertical trainer is quiet, smooth, and durable and takes up half the amount of space of a normal elliptical exercise machine. Plus, it comes with interactive training sessions and studio class workouts.

2. The best folding cross-trainer: NordicTrackSpaceSaverSE7i

With its vertical and foldaway design, the machine can be conveniently stored away, and then unfolded for a total-body workout in the comfort of your own home.

3. The best value cross-trainer: JTX Tri-Fit

This cross-trainer connects to both Apple and Android phones and tablets via Bluetooth, so you can easily connect to the Kinomap app and follow training videos where the cross-trainer automatically adjusts your resistance.

4. The best cross-trainer for beginners: Domyos Cross Trainer Essential 100

Available from Decathlon, the Domyos 100 cross-trainer is simple, easy to use and affordable – ideal if you want to use something just once or twice a week.

5. The best gym-standard cross-trainer: Technogym Elliptical

This cross-trainer from Technogym may be expensive but it comes with a whole host of features, including; automatically adjusting your resistance, fitness classes, a smooth (and silent) ride, and it even goes into sleep mode when not in use.

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