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What’s on your competitive to-do list this year? A half or full marathon? Or maybe it’s a triathlon or a century ride? Whatever it may be, cross-training could be your key to cardiovascular and strength improvements as well as injury prevention.

Research published in Arthroscopy, Sports Medicine, and Rehabilitation supports this concept. The scientific review found that trail runners who took a multifaceted approach to training significantly lowered injury risk through better movement control and reduced fatigue during runs.

“Athletes like marathoners and cyclists can improve their fitness and cardiovascular health through workouts that combine cardio and strength, rather than just complementing their regular sport-specific training with separate weight-lifting sessions,” says New York City-based strength coach and trainer Reda Elmardi, C.S.C.S.

When looking for cross-training activities, consider a fitness class that brings together multiple components. “With group fitness classes that combine strength and aerobic exercise, you’re giving your training a new dimension by introducing variety and having fun at the same time,” says Scott Brown, vice president of fitness at Orangetheory Fitness.

Here’s how cross-training with fitness classes can help prepare you to perform when the start gun goes off.

orangetheory fitness class

Orangetheory Fitness

Greater movement variety for less injury risk.

Stationary bicycling and treadmill running are the hallmarks of many fitness class cardio sessions. For most athletes, choosing a class that includes multiple modalities can help ensure they’re hitting their cross-training goals. Orangetheory classes, for instance, are heart rate-based interval workouts that include running, rowing, and resistance training and will complement your slower, long-distance road sessions. This allows you to hone in on specific aspects of your training (i.e. sprinting on the treadmill or rower to improve overall force production) that you might not do otherwise. But does it make sense to hop on these machines during a fitness class if you’re already doing these activities in your endurance training? It does, because you’re likely training differently in a class than you do in your sport-specific training sessions.

It can also be beneficial to cross-train against the repetitive activity that you’re training for—meaning, runners use a bike or rower and cyclists hop on the treadmill or rower. This creates movement variation that can expand your range of motion, activate different muscles than you normally use, and help reduce overuse injuries through different movement patterns. All things that could help make sure you cross the finish line.

Increased strength for faster times.

Ample research suggests that resistance training—whether that’s lifting free weights, using elastic bands, or doing bodyweight exercises like pushups, pullups, and squats—can have significant benefits for endurance athletes.

Scientific reviews found that concurrent strength and endurance training increased knee strength compared to endurance training alone, and improved running performance. Preliminary research reports that such concurrent training sessions can improve exercise economy—aka oxygen uptake per body mass or VO2 max—for runners, cyclists, and triathletes. Orangetheory is a good example of this, with endurance, strength, and power built into every class.

“Strength training helps improve the overall health and strength of long-distance runners and cyclists by increasing muscle mass and improving the ability to exercise for longer periods of time without fatigue,” Elmardi says, which is an important consideration if you’re training to cover long distances.

Improved overall fitness for better performance.

Rowing machines have been gaining popularity in fitness classes, and with good reason. Low-intensity and high-intensity rowing provide endurance benefits, and when done with proper form, the exercise works more than 80 percent of the body—creating a mix of strength and cardio in a single activity.

orangetheory fitness rowing class

Orangetheory Fitness

“Rowing is a great way to help with endurance and build muscle because it involves using your entire body, including your arms and legs, to move effectively,” Elmardi says. “This type of exercise helps improve overall cardio fitness, lung capacity, strength, balance, agility, and coordination. That’s crucial for people in endurance sports like running and cycling. Also, it helps train your mental discipline and focus.”

If you’re looking for classes that include a rower, look for an Orangetheory studio near you. Rowing is a signature activity in their classes.

How to Work Fitness Classes into Your Training

Like any training plan, your journey could be very different from the athlete next to you, even if you began running or cycling on the same day. Use these general guidelines to utilize fitness classes to support your endurance training efforts.

  • Start with one or two fitness classes a week. Consider this: Endurance performance can be maintained for up to 15 weeks as long as you’re training twice a week for 13- to 26 minutes at the intensity of your normal workouts, according to a scientific review published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. Basically, implementing fitness classes shouldn’t affect your long-term goal–even if that’s all you decide to do for a week or more. For the first month, ease into the new fitness classes you’re adding to your weekly schedule by going one to two times per week, says Brown. This will help you get a feel for the class and allow for ample recovery if it’s especially challenging for you.
  • Set a goal. Although you may have a specific race goal in mind, create an objective for what you want to achieve with fitness classes. For instance, it could be increasing your sprint speed, or bouncing back faster from a long ride or run. If you have more data-based goals like achieving a certain resting heart rate, consider a fitness class like Orangetheory that includes monitoring different heart rate zones and allows you to track your performance in real-time to ensure you’re getting the most out of your workout. Through its app, Orangetheory also sends performance recaps at the end of each class so that you can monitor performance metrics like speed and distance over a period of weeks, months, or years.
  • Pick a class with resistance training. One of the major benefits of fitness classes is to address full-body strength and power in a way you can’t achieve through simply running or cycling. Make sure resistance training is a key component of the class with ample time dedicated to functional exercises using free weights and body weight—as it is at Orangetheory.
  • Talk to a coach. A good class will have an instructor or coach who knows your individual goals and can help monitor your progress. At Orangetheory, for example, all classes are guided by certified coaches trained in physiology and sports science.
  • Look at the big picture. Integrating fitness classes into your race prep should look much like sport-specific training itself: Start slow, learn proper form, progress gradually, check in with your coach, and pay attention to its effect on performance and recovery. “It all comes down to listening to one’s body and adjusting as necessary,” said Elmardi. “Ultimately, how you use group fitness classes will depend on what works best for you and what you’re seeing in terms of overall fitness improvement.”

Orangetheory members have access to over 1,300 locations across the U.S. (with over 1,500 total locations in 24 countries) and can easily book classes through the Orangetheory app seven days a week at times that work best for their schedule. First-time visitors can try their first class free at participating studios. See for more details.

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