Cross-training.

It’s one of those things all runners know about — maybe even do — but few truly understand.

Do I need to cross-train? How do I effectively use it to make me stronger?

Chances are you’ve asked yourself those questions a time or two. Towards the end of last year, I was asking them myself.

I’ve always biked, hiked, practiced yoga, and been active outside of running, but I’ve never actively made cross-training a priority. I just like running more than most other activities.

But this training cycle I started taking a different approach. In part because I’m finally listening to the advice I’ve been giving with others (always the hardest part), and in part as an experiment to see firsthand the effect it has on my training.

For the past 4 months I’ve started incorporating weekly cross-training into my routine, and already I’m seeing, and feeling, the benefits. Which is why we’re talking about cross-training today.

Should You Cross-Train?

When it comes to cross-training, the first question on most runner’s minds is “Should I do it?”

The short answer is yes … but short answers are never enough …

So here’s the thing:

I believe that if you want to get better at running, you need to run more.

Just like playing the piano, learning a language, or building tables, the more you do it, the better you get. Your muscles, cardiovascular and respiratory systems, and mind are all challenged the exact way you need to improve as a runner when you … run.

While cycling, swimming, and many other popular cross-training activities are effective at building fitness and strength, they don’t translate fully to the running skills gained through running.

But of course, we can’t just run all day every day. A higher volume of running introduces new issues like injuries, mental fatigue, and time restraints.

We have limits to how much running we can handle, and if you want to continue increasing the amount of training beyond that limit, you can introduce other, less impact-heavy training.

Cross-training is an avenue to increase training volume, and reduce the risk of injury.

So should you only cross-train when you’re injury prone or at your running limit? Let’s turn to running coach Matt Fizgerald for his answer to this question in his book 80/20 Running,

I believe that most runners, including those who seldom get injured, should do at least one non-impact cardio workout per week when healthy. The reason is that runners who make cross-training part of their normal routine are more prepared physically and psychologically to fall back on an alternative form of exercise in times of crisis.

I agree.

When you already have the systems and habits in place for some (even just a little) cross-training, you can more easily transition into less running and more cross-training when needed — either due to an injury, recovery period, or mental break.

So that’s the long response with the same answer … Yes, you should cross-train.

But how?

2 Ways to Use Cross-Training

There are two main ways to effectively use cross-training as a trail runner.

You can:

  1. Replace runs with cross-training
  2. Increase your overall training volume with cross-training

Let’s break those down.

1) Replace runs with cross-training

One way to incorporate cross-training into your overall training regimen is to reduce the number of runs and replace with another activity.

For example, if your plan calls for 6 runs per week, you could reduce that to 4 runs, and replace the other 2 workouts with cross-training.

This is a good approach for some runners. Especially if you’re:

  • Coming back from a recent injury, and want to ease back in to higher running mileage
  • Injury prone, and do better with less running distance
  • Not as quick to bounce back from hard workouts as you once were
  • Out of shape and want to effectively build your overall fitness
  • Not a huge fan of running, and know that you need to mix up your routine
  • Using low-impact cross-training for recovery, either from a hard run or race schedule

If replacing 1-3 runs per week with cross-training is an approach you want to take, keep in mind that by replacing runs with another activity, you’re losing the specificity of the run.

Strategically choose which type of cross-training you’re incorporating to make up for that lost specificity. More on that later.

2) Increase your overall training volume with cross-training

Arguably the most effective way to utilize cross-training is to strategically add it on top of the running you’re already doing. For example, if you’re running 40 miles per week, and that feels like it’s close to your mental or physical limit, you can still increase your training volume with additional cross-training workouts.

You could run in the morning, and cycle in the afternoon.

You could plan a run-swim combo workout and add 30 minutes of swim time on top of your scheduled run.

The bonus workouts will increase your fitness without causing the additional strain of more miles, and balance out areas of your body not typically worked while running.

This approach is great for:

  • The peak section of your training, when increased volume is important
  • Those that know exactly where their mileage limit is, but still want to increase training volume
  • Using a second daily workout for a morning warmup or evening recovery session

Alright, so we know we should cross-train, and we’ve decided how to implement it.

Does the type of cross-training matter?

What to Look for in Good Cross-Training

The type of cross-training matters — even more so if you’re replacing runs on your schedule. The best types of cross-training mimic the movements and muscle use of running, without causing the same impact or strain.

We’ll dive deeper into different types of cross-training later, but the general rule of thumb is that if it mimics running, it’s a good form of cross-training.

For example, pool running, the elliptical, and cycling all require alternating movements of the legs, and somewhat mimic actual running (pool running being the best here). Swimming, on the other hand, less so.

Does that mean swimming isn’t a good option? Not necessisarily. Sports like swimming can be a great way to increase overall fitness, endurance, and core strength, which translates into better running performance. You just have to be strategic in how you use those supplemental sports.

What most runners want to avoid, however, are activities like heavy weight training and Crossfit (sorry guys), and sports that might risk injury like flag football, basketball, and the like. That’s not to say you can’t throw the ball around or shoot hoops with your buds — swishhh — but it’s not and activity I’d focus on in the middle of a training cycle.

8 Types of Cross-Training You Can Use Today

There are however a number of sports and activities I would recommend for trail runners. To make this easier for you to reference, I’m breaking them into two groups: Cross-trianing that mimics running and supplemental activities.

Cross-Training That Mimics Running

These are the best sports or activities for replacing a run, or trying to mimic the run through a more low-impact activity.

1) Cycling: Spinning spokes is easily one of the most popular and respected forms of cross-training. Runners have been using it as a training tool for as long as the bike has been around. It’s fun, impact free, and utilizes many of the same muscle groups as running. Cycling is a great way to build overall fitness, your aerobic base, and bulletproof quads, as they are the primary power source when you’re in the saddle.

2) Pool Running: Pool running essentially mimics the mechanics of running in deep water (where you aren’t touching the ground). It has been a popular activity for injured runners, and a training technique for those that like to get wet, because it’s basically zero impact running. The only problem is it looks a little silly, and no one wants to look silly.

3) Ski Mountaineering: I’m not going to lie, I know very little about skimo. It’s just not an activity we have around here. But considering it’s all the winter craze these days for elite ultrarunners, I couldn’t leave it out. If it’s something you’d like to get into, I’d start here or here.

4) Elliptical: The elliptical can be found in just about every indoor gym, and has even become an outdoor (elliptical bike) activity. It’s convenient, easy to pick up, and perfect for bad weather days or low-impact recovery.

Supplemental Cross-Training

I label the following as supplemental cross-training because they less-closely mimic the act of running. For the most part, these are best used for recovery or increasing your training volume on top of a vigorous running schedule.

5) Uphill Hiking: For many trail runners, efficient and effective hiking skills translate into better racing performance. The best way to get better at hiking is to hike. I regularly add uphill hikes to my schedule to increase weekly vertical gain, build leg strength, and practice the act of hiking.

6) Swimming: Aside from the bike, lap swimming has become my go-to cross-training addition. It’s incredibly effective at building full body fitness and aerobic capacity. It also helps with breathing technique, core strength, upper body strength, and Speedo confidence. For best results in the pool, design specific workouts.

7) Yoga: While some — cough, my wife, cough cough — may say I don’t do it nearly enough, I’m a huge fan of yoga for runners. It builds strength, dynamically increases flexibility, promotes recovery, and stills the mind. Add a gentle yoga practice to a recovery day or in the evening after a tough morning run.

8) Fastpacking: Extended backpacking or fastpacking trips are a nice run/hike supplement to the long run. While I would never encourage you to replace all your long runs with fastpacking, a big weekend out on the trail with mixed hiking and running can fulfill the “time on your feet” side of long run training. It’s also a ton of fun. Here’s a guide to get you started.

Start With As Much As You’d Like (And Go From There)

The advantages of cross-training for trail runners are real, and incorporating it now, while you’re healthy, is a heck of a lot easier than being forced into a new activity if something goes wrong.

But the beauty of cross-training is that it’s not an all-or-nothing training technique. You can start small, with just one activity every few weeks, or by simply cycling to work instead of driving.

Over time, as you get more comfortable with different activities or need to shake your regimen up, you can increase the amount of time spent cross-training.

In other words, start small and ride/swim/hike/elliptical/ski/downdog your way from there.

Author Doug Hay is the founder of Rock Creek Runner, host of the Trail Talk podcast, and fanatical about everything trail running -- beards, plaid shirts, bruised toenails, and all. He and his wife live and run in beautiful Black Mountain, NC.

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One thought on “Cross-Training 101 for (Trail) Runners

  1. Perfect(ish) timing of this article for me. Unfortunately I have a stress fracture in my left foot at week 16 of marathon training, so no marathon in May for me. I’ve known for ages I should be cross training but always just run so now I have to get my cross-training on as I can’t run. Starting to see these next weeks as an opportunity to improve my overall fitness and build some new good habits. Must say that I do find swimming laps boring and I need to get my bike fixed so I’ll start off with some yoga tonight.

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