“If you want to be a better runner, most of the time, running is your best path to success,” says elite trail runner Chris Vargo, who has set course records at the Whoos in El Moro 50k and Golden Gate Dirty Thirty 50k and has been the winner of the Crown King Scramble and Way Too Cool 50k.
He continued, “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 second-place Western States 100 finisher and Oil Creek 100 Mile winner, Jared Hazen.
“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:
Cross Training Balances Running Fitness
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
Said Vargo, “A few years ago, my wife Alicia [Vargo] and I were skinning laps every morning and evening and came off of the winter very fit. To make a point of how great ski touring and ski mountaineering is for run fitness, we only rand for eight weeks leading up to the Transvulcania Ultramarathon after no running the entire winter. That year, Alicia finished fourth and I got fifth.”
Cross Training Is Helpful When Injured
During an injury timeout, 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.
The rest of this article contains 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 8- to 12-week strength-training cycle at 2 to 3 sessions per week, some runners can maintain the same pace while using 3 to 4% less oxygen; opening the door to new personal records.”
“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 romanian deadlifts, 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 2 to 3 times a week with efforts of 40 to 70% for beginners and more experienced athletes can work harder,” says Gregg. “Typically, we’ll stack the hard days and do strength work after a tough run workout. I suggest starting with 4 strength exercises and progressing gradually.”
“Focus on the whole body,” says Gregg, “and remember, there is more than just core and glutes to running. It’s beneficial to work on being a well-rounded athlete.”
Sundog Running Strength Routines Program Notes
- These are created in conjunction with Strongstrides.
- Perfect each movement before adding weight. Master each movement before moving to their corresponding progressions.
- Rate of perceived exertion should be around 6 to 7 during the workout, as noted below in the routines.
- If you do 10 repetitions at a lower perceived exertion, add weight (5 to 10 pounds) during the next session.
- Every fourth week is a de-load week. This means 1 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.
- First, complete the warm-up routine. Next, your routine is broken into double sets. Complete each double set before moving to the next set. For example, complete A1 and A2 (alternating) for the number of sets listed, then move to B1 and B2 before moving to C1 and C2.
Strength Routine for Runners #1
Prying Squat — 60 seconds
Strength Routine for Runners #2
Prying Squat — 60 seconds
A1: Elevated Deadlift (or Elevated Kettlebell Deadlift) — 3 to 4 sets, 4 reps before failure at 10RM (the maximum weight you can lift for 10 repetitions). Increase weight at 12 reps.
A2: Stir the Pot — 5 sets of 10 seconds to the right and 10 seconds to the left
A3: Pallof Press — 5 sets, 10-second holds per side
C1: In and Out — 3 sets, do a number of reps to achieve a 7/10 effort
C2: Elevated Hamstring Bridge Isometric — 3 sets, hold until to 5 seconds before failure. Build to 60 seconds at 30 degrees knee flexion.
Strength Routine for Runners #3
Prying Squat — 60 seconds
C1: Swiss Ball Hamstring Curls — Goal is 3 sets of 15 reps
C1 Progression: Single Leg Swiss Ball Hamstring Curl — Goal is 3 sets of 15 reps
C2: Lateral Band Monster Walk — Goal is using the black Theraband for 3 sets of 15 reps
Strength Routine for Runners #4
Prying Squat — 60 seconds
A1: Deadlift — Goal is perfect form with 45 to 60 pounds
A1 Progression: Add weight
C1: Kettlebell Swing — Goal is 3 sets of 40 with beginner bell
C1 Progression: Increase bell size
C2: Unsupported leg swings and hip circles (add Theraband for resistance if needed)
C2 Progression: Single Leg Ball Toss
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
- Cross-country skiing, ski touring, and ski mountaineering during winter months
- Rollerskis or roller blades
- Elliptical trainer or ElliptiGo
- Hiking (to increase difficulty, add 10 to 20 pounds to your pack)
- Pool running
- Yoga or other meditative movement
Reproduce running workouts during the cross-training session. For example, use fartlek-style workouts — such as 1 minute hard, 1 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. 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
- 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?
[Editor’s Note: As one of iRunFar’s best training articles, we’ve worked with author Ian Torrence to update this article before resharing it.]