Cross Training for Trail Running

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cross training exercise for trail running

Cross Training for Trail Running

For a long time, the thought was that the only way to become a better runner was to run. Any activity that was not running did not help and could hurt your running performance. Nowadays, more and more coaches and athletes are realizing that this is just not true. Across all sports, athletes use cross-training to achieve their ultimate goal. A basketball player may complete regular plyometric exercises to improve foot speed and vertical jump. Football players will spend a lot of time power-lifting to improve maximal strength and explosiveness.

Why Do Runners Need Cross-Training?

First, many runners have poor muscular-skeletal strength above the waist. We’re not necessarily talking about the size of your arms. More specifically, the influence of overall core, back, and shoulder strength on running. When running down a trail, picking your line, and bounding from side to side off uneven surfaces, your muscles have to respond differently. Each step brings a slight variation in arm swing and engagement of your core. Having a stronger core, back, and shoulders will improve running form and oxygen capacity. Strength in these muscle groups will also help propel your legs over hilly trails as the race miles add up.

Second, spending less time running and more time cross-training will reduce the occurrence of impact-related injuries. Fewer injuries occur from running less and when your body is stronger and more prepared to reduce impact forces with each stride. Combining cross-training with running may allow you to substitute 25 to 30 percent of your weekly mileage. Cross Training can be great news if you are suffering from a common running-related overuse injury.

We don’t expect you to spend hours in the gym lifting weights. We also don’t want you to think cross-training is the only key to becoming a better runner. It would help if you still had your regular dose of running long miles and days of interval work to build aerobic and anaerobic fitness. After all, being on the trails is much more fun and the best way to know you have prepared for a race. However, a little cross-training can go a long way in being a better runner and preventing injuries.

The critical element of cross-training is to mimic your trail running environment with exercises in all planes of motion. The activities also need to be completed efficiently, use muscles that are closest to those used when running and put similar stresses on your aerobic system.

Strength or Resistance Training

Incorporating a couple of days per week of strength training into your running routine is probably the biggest bang for your run performance. Just 15 to 30 minutes per session can get your heart rate up, muscles burning, and have significant benefits to multiple aspects of running. You will increase oxygen capacity, reduce body fat, and strengthen your muscles from the suitable variety of strength training. Stronger muscles will result in less stress on your joints, which is critical to the longevity of your running career.

What strength work should you do?

Single leg exercises, box jumps, and variations of lunges all engage various muscles with each repetition. Try giving yourself 20-minutes on one to two days per week to dedicate towards strength work. Pick four exercises (push-ups, squats, lunges, and leg raises for core, for example). Complete the workout in a circuit format, moving from one activity to the next without rest to keep your heart rate up. There are tons of exercises that you can do right from your home without ever picking up a single weight. We love the Runtastic Fitness App for its complete variety of activities, workouts, and video demonstrations. The app takes the guessing out of what to do and how to do it when it comes to strength work.


If you find yourself working through an injury or not getting enough aerobic benefit from other cross-training activities, then cycling may be worth a try. Cycling has the advantage of being a non-weight-bearing activity that has similar aerobic benefits to running. Thus, with the reduction in impact on your body, you will recover more quickly between sessions. Cycling, however, does use primarily the same leg muscles as running. So, use caution with how much you do during the critical parts of your running season.

How to add cycling to your running routine?

There are various ways to ride a bike that can have significant benefits to your running performance. Keeping a steady pace for a long ride will improve endurance. Riding uphill will build strength. Sprinting out of the saddle will improve speed. With cycling, there is also no limit to where you can ride. Head out on the roads, trails, or even participate in a spinning class. You could even cruise to your local grocery store or friend’s house. Just make sure you have the right equipment for the style of cycling and are fitted correctly on the bike.


A little less common among runners is the cross-training activity of swimming. However, this does not make it any less of a benefit to your running performance. Like cycling, swimming is a non-weight-bearing activity and a low-injury sport. Swimming gives your legs a break from all the pounding on the roads/trails, mainly using your core, shoulders, and arms. If you find yourself fighting running-related injuries that are caused by muscle imbalances, then swimming may be your best choice. The whole-body nature of swimming introduces a new range of motion in joints. Thus, improving your overall running form. Lastly, swimming allows for a large variety of workouts and technique drills that can hone in on weaknesses in your running.

How to add swimming to your running routine?

First, if not an experienced swimmer, we suggest taking an adult swim class or joining a Masters Club Swim Team. Here, you’ll find instructors that can quickly teach you the basics of technique and workout structure. Also, joining up with a swim group might lead to networking with other like-minded athletes.

Next, determine what your goals are for swimming. Are you looking for recovery from run sessions? Then, focus on drills and strokes that use arms and fewer leg muscles. Do you want to use swimming to improve anaerobic or aerobic fitness? Then, just like the running track, use short intervals for strength and long slow intervals for endurance. You may find you need to invest in some extra gear, such as a kickboard, flippers, or hand paddles. These additional tools will allow you to fine-tune your swimming workouts to maximize the desired carry-over to running.


Finally, if the thought of adding other activities to your running routine seems to increase your stress levels, then maybe a more holistic workout is proper for you. There are a variety of styles of yoga classes to explore, all with significant benefits to your running performance. One example is power yoga. This form of yoga strengthens all muscle groups, improves flexibility and posture, reduces stress, and promotes conscious breathing. Yoga is available in all sorts of settings as well. From yoga-specific studios, classes at gyms and recreation centers, and outdoor yoga, you’ll find yoga is in more places than you thought.

Developing a Cross-Training Plan

Think of cross-training as a supplement to your running routine. As highlighted, participating in different activities works for muscle groups in other planes of motion and develops cardiovascular strength. The benefits of each exercise can lend nicely to making you a more efficient and stronger trail runner. Pick an activity that focuses on your weaknesses in running, not one that further embellishes your strengths. Do your quads overpower your hamstrings? Do your arms get tired of carrying that handheld bottle down the trail? Does your form fall apart on uphill or downhill running? Does your lower back get sore late in your long runs and races? These questions and others can help lead your decision on the suitable cross-training activity for you.

Lastly, remember to scale up or scale down your cross-training based on your running season. If you are currently in season, then start with just one day per week of cross-training. Then, see how your body and running respond first before adding additional days. Always leave time in the year for complete recovery from running. We suggest focusing on more cross-training and less running for 8 to 12 weeks each year. Your recovery periods could be all at one time or split up into 4-6 week sessions. Always leave an open mind to new activities becoming a passion, just like trail running. You may find that your running performance reaches unimagined heights.

A Training Plan that Works for You.

Our collection of running plans will help you train year-round. From 5k to a 100-mile ultramarathon, we have a training plan built for your experience level and goals. Every plan is delivered via Final Surge, allowing you to sync workouts across devices, receive daily reminders of workouts and activities, and analyze workout and target zone details. Get started today with a training plan built for you, view our running plans here.

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