Cross Training for Runners

Cross training for runners.

By on February 6, 2024 | Comments

“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.”

Jared Hazen running fast at the 2019 Western States 100.

Jared Hazen running fast at the 2019 Western States 100. Photo: iRunFar/Bryon Powell

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.

A runner cross training on a mountain bike.

iRunFar’s Eszter Horanyi mountain biking. Photo: Scott Morris

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.”

If you’re looking for a place to start, below are Sundog Running’s running-specific strength routines developed by Strongstrides.

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

Core: Bird Dog, Dead Bug, Side Bridge — 3 sets of 9 reps per side, hold 3 to 8 seconds per rep

A1: Ballistic Body Weight Squat — 4 sets of 8 reps
A2: Short Calf Raise — 4 sets, do a number of reps to achieve a 7/10 effort

B1: Lateral Step Down — 4 sets, do a number of reps to achieve a 6/10 effort
B2: Lateral Toe Tap — 3 sets, do a number of reps to achieve a 7/10 effort

C1: Step Down Off Box — 2 sets of 5 reps
C2: Elevated Hamstring Bridge — 3 sets of 3 reps

Strength Routine for Runners #2

Prying Squat — 60 seconds

Core: Bird Dog, Dead Bug, Side Bridge — 3 sets of 9 reps per side, hold 3 to 8 seconds per rep

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

B1: Step Up — 4 sets, do a number of reps to achieve a 6/10 effort
B2: Achilles Isometric — 4 sets of 30-second holds per side. Progress when weight feels easy.

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

Core: Bird Dog, Dead Bug, Side Bridge — 3 sets of 9 reps per side, hold 3 to 8 seconds per rep

A1: Goblet Squat — Goal is 3 sets of 15 reps with 40 pounds
A1 Progression: Front Squat with bar. Build by adding weight.

A2: Front Plank — Goal is 2 minutes
A2 Progression: Swiss Ball Plank

B1: Single Leg Romanian Deadlift — Goal is 3 sets of 15 reps
B1 Progression: Single Leg Romanian Deadlift with Counterweight
B2: Pull-Up — Goal is more pull-ups!

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

D1: Kettlebell Pass-Over — Goal is 60 seconds continuous per side with 25 pounds
D1 Progression: Add weight
D2: Single Leg Calf Raise — Goal is 3 sets of 20
D2 Progression: Add weight

Strength Routine for Runners #4

Prying Squat — 60 seconds

Core: Bird Dog, Dead Bug, Side Bridge — 3 sets of 9 reps per side, hold 3 to 8 seconds per rep

A1: Deadlift — Goal is perfect form with 45 to 60 pounds
A1 Progression: Add weight

A2: Front Plank — Goal is 2 minutes
A2 Progression: Plank Saw

B1: Bulgarian Split Squat — Goal is 3 sets of 15 reps
B1 Progression: Add weight
B2: Torsional Buttress on Knees — Goal is 5 sets of 10 seconds each side
B2 Progression: Torsional Buttress

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

Strength training for endurance runners 13

Trail runner Terry Miller strength training. Photo courtesy of Terry Miller.

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)
  • Biking
  • Rowing
  • Pool running
  • Swimming
  • 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.

Runner doing yoga.

Cross training with yoga. Photo: iRunFar/Meghan Hicks

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.]

Ian Torrence

Ian Torrence has more than 12 years of experience coaching runners of all levels. Ian has completed more than 220 ultramarathons, with 50+ wins, since his first ultra finish at the 1994 JFK 50 Mile. Ian and his wife, Emily, are online coaches at Sundog Running. Information about his coaching services can be found at