My Perspective on Cross-Training for Trail Runners

As a long distance/endurance runner, I find it much too easy to push cross-training to the back burner or skip it all together.  It is not generally an intentional thing, but like most people with children and a full time job that is not running related, I have to balance my time while also maintaining my target mileage each week.  The truth is, I often have to remind myself just how important cross training is for a trail runners overall health and performance.  What many people don’t realize is that by giving a little leeway on your weekly mileage to allow for cross training is critical for reaching your goals.  For someone that is obsessed with the numbers, such as myself, this is easier said than done.  Still, over the years, I have more or less managed to find the right kind of activities and the right balance that works for me and I want to share some of these thoughts with you.  Here are some of the best cross training activities that I have found for trail runners.

Balance and Stability

I list this one ahead of all others mostly because, as a runner with weak ankles, I find it important to focus on my stabilizing and joint-supporting muscles.  This has helped my body handle the obstacles and uneven terrain found on most trails, which has helped prevent rolled ankles, messed up hips, and other alignment-based maladies.  There are a ton of workouts and tools out there to help with balance and stability; Yoga, one-legged strength workouts, and slacklining are a few.  These all help strengthen the stabilizing muscles that aid in balance and stability on uneven terrain.

My preferred exercises: Yoga, One-leg strength workouts
Recommended tools: Wobble board, slack line

Circuit Training

Circuit training typically incorporates quick, multi-directional movement alongside body weight strength exercises.  Most of these workouts provide a good alternative to speedwork because they are designed to develop you anaerobically.  The side to side speed movement often found in these workouts is also beneficial for strengthening the stabilizing muscles.  There are many different forms of circuit training.  I have personally found that using workouts, such as P90X or Insanity, are ideal for me because of their convenience and completeness of the workouts.

My preferred exercises: Home workouts (Insanity, P90X, etc.)


If you need something a little more engaging or “fun”, playing sports is also a great way to cross train.  The most common for runners seems to be biking.  Perhaps because it is also thought of as an endurance sport and can take place on the same terrain.  My personal favorite is basketball or soccer.  While I am not technically proficient at either, both provide an excellent cardio workout and much of the same explosive, side to side movements found in circuit training.  As team sports, they also are a great social activity…I just wish I did them more often.

My preferred exercises: Basketball, soccer

Strength/Body Weight

Most runners focus so much on their legs and core, but often overlook the importance of maintaining at least a degree of functional strength in their upper body.  Having a strong upper body is extremely helpful in maintaining your form, especially later in a run when fatigue starts to set in.  While many of the previously mentioned methods of training will work the core and legs, they don’t necessarily work the upper body.  I have found body weight-type exercises to be sufficient for most runners.  Adding a couple reps of push-ups, pull-ups, and bicep/tricep exercises in generally pretty sufficient.

My preferred exercises: Body weight exercises added at the end of a run

As a have said, it is difficult for most people to fit it all in while keeping up their mileage.  The approach that has worked best for me is to cut my mileage in half a couple days a week and then pair it with a 30 minute circuit training workout.  I try to stay flexible with what workout I do, but try to focus on things that target specific weaknesses.  Also, whenever I need to take a leg rest day, I will incorporate some level of upper body workout.  This gives my legs a rest day and frees up time to do something harder for my upper body.  During the offseason, I tend to lower my mileage to get some recovery in from running and substitute it in with added cross training.

The purpose of this post was to reiterate the importance of cross training and give you some ideas based on my approach.  In reality, everyone is different and therefore will need to determine what approach works best for them in the time that they have.  What does seem to be consistent across all endurance athletes though is that we all need some cross training to maximize our performance and reduce or even eliminate injuries.

If you like this post and would like to stay up to date when future gear reviews, race reports, and other related posts are released, please follow my Facebook page at Ultrarunner Joe!

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