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Run Substitutes 

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2010 issue of USA Triathlon Life.

By Wayne Spaulding

winterWinter cross-training will sharpen performance based on my experiences with teams, clubs, and individuals who use proven methods to stay healthy, have fun and take a purposeful break from the rigors of running. My forum is a personal globetrotting tale of cross-training that encompasses the ebb and flow of my 20-plus years as a triathlete indelibly tied to the people I've met and the places I've practiced the art of our sport.

Water running

While on assignment in Germany, I was first introduced to the invaluable aspects of deep water running while training with a small team of triathletes year-round. Our standard trail and road running involved periodization, tapering and rest for seasonal run development. When winter training arrived, however, we donned life jackets and headed to the "schwimmbad," which in Germany refers to the king of all indoor swimming pools. This particular site had towering platforms and crystal clear waters of an indoor diving well where we submerged ourselves while running through the water doing our best impression of a poorly trained synchronized swim troupe.

When done properly, the movement mimics running and the water's resistance provides an excellent catalyst for strength and conditioning. By the way, this stage of my globetrotting was over 20 years ago. Darn those Germans for always thinking of the most  innovative training years before the rest of us! The team included pool running as part of their base season program 3-4 times per week, for a period of four to six weeks.


Three years later and half a world away, I settled in with another multisport crowd that lived, played and worked at a lofty 6,000 feet above sea level. Cross-training with my newest friends meant strapping snowshoes to warm boots and dressing wisely for the wintry conditions.

Snow is a necessary ingredient in Colorado Springs, and snowshoeing gives you a feeling of floating across deep snow while mixing up the variables of your exercise. A weekly effort to make Bigfoot tracks while exploring winter landscapes is an excellent cross-training tool to replace your running. Hot chocolate or tea after traversing high mountain aspen glades never tasted so good.  Key benefits of snowshoe exercise focus on minimization of impact while building aerobic and run specific muscular strength.

Stair climbing

Still further down the road of my journeys, I found myself closer to sea level and further from the benefit of frequent snowfalls during the cooler months. Just outside of Louisville, Ky., not far from the banks of the Ohio River, I discovered another cross-training gem hidden in tall buildings made of steel and glass - stair climbing. 

When the rain falls heavily or it's just time to give running a break, all you need to do is find a staircase. The friends I shared early morning ascents with still challenge me at Wildflower and other races famous for hilly terrains with their strong legs and lungs due in part to the time they spend in the bellies of steel mountains. Climb with rhythm - keep your perceived exertion the same as if you were exploring a distant mountain trail with a pack on your back and a campfire to reach before nightfall. Take one step at a time to promote turnover, and while ascending, minimize the use of the handrails. Hear the echo of your steps bouncing off the walls and unlike the ascent, while heading back down the stairwell, use the handrails to protect from stumbling.

Ball sports

Next in my adventures with fellow triathletes, I traveled south to spend time with friends where toilet water drains the opposite way. Now, my Southern Hemisphere friends have no inherent ownership of this cross-training recommendation, but it's where I connected it as a valuable substitute for running, so you can take it from me.

Ball sports are a fun friendship-building way to veer from running for your offseason training. Soccer can be brutal on the joints, as can tennis, racquetball and squash, so harness your competitive drive and use the effort more as a workout and less to work over your opponents. You will benefit from the multidirectional movements, balance requirements and the need to keep your center of gravity in control. It's not surprising that many of the top Kenyan runners were originally excellent soccer players.

Cross-country skiing

Those I met on my journey continued imparting wisdom and insight as I loped back north across the equator and settled in Big Sky country, otherwise known as Montana. I took part in a few triathlons there that involved horseback riding, canoeing and running, but that's a story for another time.

What's relevant is another grand cross-training opportunity that once again capitalizes on snow, but this time with rail-thin boards strapped to the feet - let's go cross country skiing! Red Lodge, Bozeman, Butte, Missoula, Helena - you name somewhere in Montana, and I probably have glided across a sun-kissed field, over a wind blown mountain trail or along the frigid winter waters of Yellowstone River, all the with ease of skis. My job there had me traveling all over the region on a regular basis, which paired nicely my desire to see the backcountry of a beautiful state. The folks I trained with were mostly from ski clubs, and some of them were triathletes capitalizing on the opportunity to be outdoors, away from the treadmill while still working toward their racing goals.  Cross country skiing, at a minimum, is great at developing deep hip muscle strength, critical to run efficiency.


It can be cold - really cold! - for weeks on end in Montana. Sometimes, strapping on skis in sub-zero temperatures just was not going to happen, at least for me. When the mercury dips below the measurable scale on your thermometer and you need an engine block heater to start the car, I hearken back to another alternative to running - Aerobic dance. Yes indeed, sign up for an aerobics class that utilizes a group atmosphere, loud music, a spandex-wearing, hyper-motivated, microphone-clad, energized instructor and a room with enough mirrors to make Narcissus blush, and you have yourself yet another cross-training option.

Build coordination, core strength and aerobic capacity, all while staying warm during the coldest of cold days. If you can maintain the heart rate, keep the body moving and keep your attention focused, you can definitely reap the benefits of group fitness to improve your run performance.

Other alternatives

For the past 11 years, my wife and I have lived in California. From my perspective, it is a gold mine of running and cross-training opportunities, sometimes to a fault. Good weather year-round and an abundance of group training efforts leads me and many fellow triathletes to run like Forrest Gump, non-stop, year-round. Those of us in states where the temperature rarely, if ever, drops below zero, and the trail shoes always beckon, give running a break. Roller blade, head to the local mountain for hiking, jump on a stair stepper or join a water aerobics class. Choose your alternative, and make it part of your plan.

Cross-training shouldn't be approached carelessly, but instead with a plan. Use a few simple rules to guide your cross-training efforts. Just because you are a great runner does not mean you're ready for prolonged exercise in another sport. Approach new activities with caution. Whether ascending and descending Trump Tower or cross country skiing for 2 hours, you should temper your entry into new activities as those sports may leave you too sore to complete other aspects of your program. When you try a new adventure, limit your first effort to no more than 20 minutes. These are alternative workouts, which means you'll be taking running off your plate, and you'll need to be confident that your performance will benefit from the cross-training program.

Avoid activities that might aggravate running injuries. For example, runners with plantar fasciitis or lower-back stiffness often don't respond well to long-distance walking or court sports. Match the duration of your alternative workouts to the length of your usual running sessions. Vary your perceived exertion during alternative workouts. For example, if you usually run 45 minutes a day, make your snowshoe workouts last for 45 minutes. Within the 45 minutes, throw in a couple of tough 2-minute intervals, increasing the density and duration of the intervals gradually over time.

Most importantly, don't overwork the cross-training component of your program. Fatigue is a sign that your body needs rest, not extra work. Remember that the whole idea behind cross-training is to keep your fitness and interest in running high over the long term, not to leave your body drastically depleted.

The allure of triathlon is its diversity of challenges, its rewards of accomplishment and the unique nature of how we each bond to it with heart and soul.  Being injured or not performing to our expectations takes away from the fun. Cross-training is meant not only to recover or to prevent injury but also to enhance our performance. The efforts you strive to put into your cross-training regiment will indeed aid you in attaining goals, staying healthy and minimizing injuries.

Wayne Spaulding is a 20-year veteran coach and triathlete. He is a Level II USAT certified coach who lives, races and coaches in Northern California. He can be reached