Cross Training for Runners

“If you want to be a better runner, running, most of the time, is your best path to success,” says coach Chris Vargo, the course-record holder for Crown King 50k, Whoos in El Moro 50k, and Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50k. “However, my problem is that I really love to ride and ski! I prefer them.” As a runner who’s put in a ton of training miles and raced a lot, Vargo’s draw to cross training is uncommon. When given the option, most runners prefer to run, like third-place Western States 100 finisher and Oil Creek 100 Mile winner Jared Hazen. “Yeah, I would much rather be running than anything else,” says Hazen. “I only cross train when I’m injured. If I can go and spend a few hours on the trails with just a water bottle I really like that.”

Cross training implies participating in a sport or form of exercise that is different than our primary discipline. And whether we enjoy this deviation from our true passion or not, cross training becomes a necessity for every runner at some point. Runners cross train for one or more of the following reasons:

  • Ancillary work complements running fitness by building running-specific strength, aiding in recovery, and improving muscle balance. “Cross training balances my running fitness,” says 2:32 marathoner and Lake Sonoma 50 Mile winner Emily Torrence. “Once or twice a week I do weight work with a strength coach. I see improvement in my running efficiency and less injuries crop up. It’s great to see the gains in the gym which lead to improvements in my running.”
  • Cross training allows us to retain or build fitness during an off-season. “A few years ago, Alicia [Vargo] and I were skinning laps every morning and evening and came off of the winter very fit,” recalls Vargo. “To make a point of how great ski touring and skimo (ski mountaineering) is for run fitness, we only trained (running) for eight weeks leading up to the Transvulcania Ultramarathon after no running the entire winter. Alicia finished fourth and I got fifth.”
  • During an injury time-out, non-specific running exercises maintain routine and athleticism. “The biggest benefit of cross training when I’m injured is that when I do return to running I have this part of my day where it’s normal to head outside and exercise,” says Hazen. “Having that daily routine in place helps to keep me going and pushing forward.”

Cross training doesn’t fall into a one-size-fits-all category nor does adding a new training stimulus come without its challenges. Non-running exercises, when we’ve not practiced them, will often target specific and previously unused muscle groups, come with a learning curve, and place us in different, and, sometimes, unfamiliar environments. Here are a few guidelines to help you choose your optimal cross-training modality:

No Matter Your Running Goals or Experience Level, Hit the Gym

Strength work can boost running economy,” says HYPO2 Chiropractic physiotherapy coach Dr. AJ Gregg. “After an eight- to 12-week strength-training cycle at two to three sessions per week some runners can maintain the same pace while using (three to four percent) less oxygen; opening the door to new PRs.”

“AJ will put me through 45-minute workouts,” says Torrence. “Sometimes the sessions are rehab-based if I’m dealing with a muscle or tendon that isn’t cooperating, but otherwise, core work and hip strength take priority. We incorporate deadlifts, single leg roman dead lifts, TRX work, hamstring sliders, stir the pot, and plyometrics. I also do strength routines on my own at home when my schedule gets busy.”

“Generally these training cycles consist of workouts two to three times a week with efforts of 40 to 70% for beginners and more experienced athletes can workout harder,” says Dr. Gregg. “Typically, we’ll stack the hard days and do strength work after a tough run workout. I suggest starting with four strength exercises and progressing gradually. Focus on the whole body, and remember, there is more than just core and glutes to running. It’s beneficial to work on being a well-rounded athlete.”

If you’re looking for a place to start, below is Sundog Running’s running-specific strength routine developed by HYPO2 Chiropractic.

Sundog Running Strength Routine

Created in conjunction with HYPO2 Sport Chiropractic & Performance Training.

Program Notes:

  • Perfect each movement before adding weight. Master each movement before moving to their corresponding progressions.
  • Rate of perceived exertion should be around 6 during the workout.
  • If you do 10 repetitions at a lower perceived exertion, add weight (5 to 10 pounds) during next session.
  • Every fourth week is a de-load week. One (to 2) less sets per exercise and 5 to 10 pounds less. Resume normal training the following week.
  • Take 1 to 2 minutes rest between sets.

Strength Schedule Protocol:

  • Weeks 1 to 3: Weight 70 to 75% of 1-rep maximum. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
  • Week 4: Weight 70% of 1-rep max. Do 2 sets of 10 reps.
  • Weeks 5 to 7: Weight 72 to 78% of 1-rep max. Do 3 sets of 10 reps.
  • Week 8: Weight 70% of 1-rep max. Do 2 sets of 10 reps.
  • Week 9: Program change (75 to 80% of 1-rep max. 3 to 4 sets of 6 to 8 reps.)

Strength Routine 1: 

  • Goblet squat (Goal: 3 sets of 15 reps with 40 pounds) / Progression: Front squat with bar. Add weight.
  • Front plank (Goal: 2 minutes) / Progression: Stir the Pot
  • Swiss ball hamstring curl (Goal: 3 sets of 15 reps) / Progression: Single leg swiss ball hamstring curl (Goal: 3 sets of 15 reps)
  • Lateral band monster walk (Goal: black theraband 3 sets of 15 reps)
  • Single leg Romanian dead lift (bent knee) (Goal: 3 sets of 15 reps) / Progression: Add weight in opposite hand
  • Kettlebell pass-overs (Goal: 60 seconds continuous per side with 25 pounds) / Progression: Add weight
  • Single leg calf raise (Goal: 3 sets of 20 reps) / Progression: Add weight
  • Pull-up (Goal: more pull-ups!)

Strength Routine 2:

Specificity is Key

When looking for the best bang for your cross-training buck, unless injury precludes them, activities that mimic the running motion will better complement your running. A cross-training hierarchy might look like this:

  • AlterG antigravity treadmill (for those of us who are lucky enough to have access)
  • Cross-country skiing, ski touring, ski mountaineering (skimo) during winter months
  • Rollerskis or roller blades
  • Elliptical trainer or ElliptiGo
  • Hiking
  • Biking
  • Rowing
  • Pool running
  • Swimming
  • Yoga or other meditative movement

Reproduce running workouts during the cross-training session. For example, use fartlek-style workouts (like one minute hard, one minute easy for 30 minutes) to imitate hard repeats and build VO2 max; increase resistance and crank away for 20 to 40 minutes to simulate a hill climb or tempo run to improve stamina; or exercise for 90 minutes or more to replace a long run and build endurance. If you simply need to recover from a hard running effort, pedal, walk, row, or stroke easily for 30 minutes or so.

Be More Than a Runner, Be an Athlete

Implementing a smart cross-training routine provides the opportunity to create an all around fit and healthy body. Include modalities that challenge and eventually improve your coordination, flexibility, strength, speed, and endurance. However, the ultimate goal—becoming a better runner—shouldn’t be overshadowed. Dr. Gregg cautions, “Any extra work spent (other than running), should be targeted. There is economy to a training plan and extra time and energy should be spent wisely. More is not always better.”

Cross training can be fun! We all love to run but when suddenly we can’t, the world can become a gloomy place. Prepare yourself by finding an appreciation for a secondary sport—one that both challenges you and gets you off the couch and out the door.

Call for Comments (from Meghan)

  • Do you cross train? If so, what disciplines and routines?
  • Have you used cross training to help stay healthy as a runner, or only to keep fit when injured?

There are 6 comments

  1. Karen Green

    Love articles with specific prescriptions such as the Strength Routines. “Reproduce running workouts during the cross-training session” – awesome advice.

    Most competitive runners I know only cross train when injured.

    I do the following a few times a week to supplement 4-5 days a week running:

    Fitness Blender HIIT and freeweight videos (free on YouTube) (some are similar to Strength Routines above)
    Hiking
    Mountain biking
    Rowing
    Rollerblading
    Snowshoe running in winter

    Mixing it up prevents injury and has given me a wicked core. I always bike the day before a race (or bike to the race if not too far) to loosen everything up.

  2. Craig T Smith

    The Tri Guys are showing us how you can run real fast and long on only a few runs a week thanks to the cycling and swimming!

    Nice article! Thanks

  3. Max

    I throw around in the climbing gym, highly recommended after a couple of beers. Ski in the winters, and gonna get me a packraft to enjoy running water come springtime.
    I’m surprised rock climbing is hardly ever mentioned in cross-training related discussions. The full body coordination required for climbing translates very well into running from having to flail so many body parts with precision. Most of the top runners I run into are also strong climbers. Every large city where ultrarunning isn’t boring should have a climbing gym, if not access to the real thing, and even plastic is so much more fun that picking things up to put them back down.

  4. John Vanderpot

    As much as I dread it, and I dread it a lot, 4-5 mornings a week, in the sauna, core reps, 500-700 depending…hate it!

    But it pays its dividends plus the heat training and you absolutely feel the difference —

    JV

  5. Cameron

    This is excellent! Strength training this year not only rehabbed my hurt hip, but allowed me enough fitness to complete the TranSelkirks 5-Day Run with minimal weekly mileage. Glute strength and core strength are great for runners!

  6. Brian

    Is it possible explain the rationale for doing exercises at a low rate of exertion (i.e. 6)? Is the primary motivator injury prevention, or preventing excessive muscle soreness that would interfere with running, or something else? I usually do exercises to the point of failure or form break down from muscle fatigue on the last set.

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