Cross-training versus Supplemental Training

How to integrate both into your running plan

With the Door County Half Marathon nearly five weeks away, runners should be well into their training plans by now. But runners – and good race times – are not built by miles alone. Equally important is engaging and strengthening other muscle groups to help you run faster, longer and farther.  

To do that, it’s important to ensure that your training program includes both cross-training and supplemental training opportunities. According to Trish Araujo, personal trainer at Door County Fitness Studio and Sister Bay Athletic Club, cross-training and supplemental training, when used together and appropriately, are two of the best ways to improve running performance. 

“It is one of the best ways to add volume to your training program while minimizing risk of injury,” she said.
This is especially true when it comes to training for longer endurance races during which muscles are stressed more often and for longer periods of time.

“Setting big goals is great, but taking the time to get there is important,” said Gretchen Johnson, who also trains clients at Sister Bay Athletic Club and is a certified trapeze yoga instructor. “Cardiovascular and muscular systems tend to strengthen quickly, while tendons and ligaments take longer to adapt to stresses placed on them through exercise.” 

But what’s the difference between cross-training and supplemental training? And where do they belong in a half marathon or marathon training program?  

“I think a lot of times ‘cross-training’ and ‘supplemental training’ are used interchangeably,” Araujo said. 

But they aren’t the same thing, she said, and they shouldn’t be used in the same way. 

Said Araujo, “Cross-training, in general, should complement your running but not replace it.” 

Think of it like this: Cross-training involves any activity that is similar to your main activity in terms of the muscle groups it uses and the cardiovascular workout it provides. In the case of running, cycling would be considered a cross-training activity.

Cross-training is any alternative workout or activity that benefits your primary activity – in this case, running. By incorporating swimming, cycling or an elliptical workout into your training program, you lessen the stress on your muscles and joints, help prevent overuse injuries and keep your training fresh and interesting. Photo by Sara Rae Lancaster.

“Cross-training can help move the body in a different way than running, and can strengthen your muscles, and improve and even correct your imbalances,” Araujo said. “Additionally, it can reduce the overall impact to your bones, joints and muscles.”

In addition to creating stronger, healthier athletes, cross-training activities also add variety, reduce boredom and help athletes maximize their full potential. This not only makes cross-training a key part of any successful training plan, but also a great option for those “off” days or when bouncing back from an injury. 

As for which cross-training activities provide the most benefit, that’s up to the athlete. 

“The best type of cross-training activities are the ones that each runner enjoys,” Johnson said. “A biking, rowing or swimming workout would be perfect on a non-running day where you are still looking for the cardio workout and endurance, but want to give those joints and muscles a break from the run.”

Supplemental training, on the other hand, supplements – or enhances – one’s training by engaging complementary muscle groups (e.g., quads and hamstrings) and focuses on increasing strength, flexibility and mobility.

Strength training, a form of supplemental training, is an important part of any half marathon or marathon training plan. Strong muscles generate more power, and studies show it significantly reduces the risk of injury. Photos by Sara Rae Lancaster.

“Runners are notorious for tight hamstrings, which can also cause lower-back issues,” said Johnson, a strong proponent for incorporating yoga into any running training plan. “A good flexibility program is an absolute necessity, [and] a stretching protocol should be added after each run.”

Equally important is maintaining strong muscles.

“I’m big on strength training for preventing injury,” Araujo said. “Weight training strengthens and balances muscle groups targeting specific areas.”

Think lifting weights, yoga, barre, Pilates, lunges or squats to fill this space in the training plan, either during an active recovery or, for more advanced athletes, following an easy training day. 

With cross-training and supplemental training activities worked into your training plan, you’re all set for a successful race day, right? Almost. There’s one last component that’s often overlooked, yet it could be the deciding factor in whether you achieve your race-day goals: rest.

“Knowing when to ‘push through’ a lack of motivation and when it is your body telling you to rest is sometimes the hardest to figure out,” Araujo said.

Most training plans found online include a rest day, but signs that you may need to add an additional day include ongoing fatigue, muscle soreness that won’t subside, irritability and repeated lack of motivation. That’s when choosing complete rest may be your best training ally. 

“Rest days help reduce injury that can result when overtraining,” Araujo said.
Rest days allow muscles to repair the micro-tears in them and replenish glycogen stores. They also help combat mental fatigue and burnout. 

“Listening to your body and what it needs is often hard to do,” Johnson said. “Rest days are great days to go for a leisurely hike, play at one of Door County’s beautiful beaches, take a relaxing yoga class or go play a round of golf.”