The Secrets to Success of Cross-Training for Trail and Ultrarunners

Three trail athletes share their best cross-training tips on when, why, and how to incorporate other sports into your routine

Photo: Getty Images

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The term “cross-training” or simply “XT” might be familiar to you as a normal part of your training routine or perhaps it stands apart as a lofty dream of something you’d like to do more of. (In the midst of a 100-mile training block, who has the time or energy to do much else aside from run?) 

Toprunners like Kilian Jornet and Heather Jackson regularly share their cross-training regimens through various activities such as skiing, cycling, swimming, and rock climbing, making us wonder if that’s the secret sauce to success. Whether you’ve been a long-time cyclist and runner or you’re wondering about how to incorporate other sports into your training, there are many ways to approach other outdoor pursuits without them taking away from your running.

Why cross-train for trail running

Cross-training is a great way to improve your running performance and prevent injuries, especially through the off-season. It can help you stay injury-free by strengthening different muscle groups and improving your overall fitness. It can also help you improve your running economy—how efficiently you use energy while running—by improving your running gait

There are many different ways to cross-train, and the best type of cross-training for you will depend on your individual goals, fitness level, and background in various sport disciplines. Some popular cross-training activities for runners include swimming, cycling or biking, strength training, and yoga.

When approaching cross-training, it’s important to start slowly and gradually increase the amount of time you spend doing it, while balancing volume and intensity alongside your running. You should also listen to your body and take a break if you feel any pain or signs of overdoing it.

What benefits do top trail athletes get from trail running??

Hillary Allen, a Boulder, Colorado-based professional trail runner, gravel cyclist, coach, podcast host, and author of Out and Back shares: “I started out as a tennis player, so the agility in that sport helped me on the trails. But for cycling and other endurance based sports, like uphill skiing or nordic skiing, the benefit for me and so many athletes (I’m a coach too, so I prescribe lots of cross training), is to tax the cardiovascular system without the pounding. This is great for injury recovery but also just lessens breakdown in a training cycle. I also find that it’s helpful mentally—to either take a break (seasonality) from running or even throughout the week to change it up each day or throughout the season.”

RELATED: 13 Cross Training Exercises Runners Can Do At Home

Lucie Hanes, an avid trail runner, rock climber, and recent second-place female at 2023 Leadville 100, who lives in Eagle, Colorado, shares: “I can’t say that I climb for the sake of benefitting my running or vice versa. I do them both because I love them both equally and couldn’t imagine my life without them. But I do see a lot of benefit for ultrarunning specifically from climbing because it works the entire body and builds a foundation of well-rounded strength that a lot of runners miss out on. The upper body strength and core strength helps as the legs fatigue at long distances. For that reason, I think that climbing or other strength-based sports offer the best cross-training for runners, because we’re already getting plenty of cardio in.”

Rachel Drake, a Nike-sponsored professional trail runner from Portland, Oregon, shares: “I truly believe that we all run faster when we’re happy. Aside from physiologic benefits of cross-training, there are real positive or negative emotional and mental impacts as well, depending on what activities you enjoy. If you enjoy a particular cross training activity, do it! I went splitboarding while I was in the thick of training for the U.S. Olympic Trials Marathon. Most would argue that this is not ‘optimal’ training, but I think the joy that it brought me led to a net positive in my ability to deliver on race day. Conversely, if you force yourself to spend hours doing an activity you do not enjoy, while it may boost your fitness in some ways, if you’re miserable I think it will lead to a net negative with your running and in life.” 

Cross-training offers a wide range of benefits for athletes across various disciplines. Allen draws on her experience in tennis and endurance sports, highlighting how cross-training like cycling and skiing can stress the cardiovascular system without impact, aiding recovery and reducing breakdown during training. Hanes emphasizes the synergy between climbing and ultrarunning, noting that climbing’s full-body engagement and strength-building contribute to better-rounded physical preparedness. Drake adds a psychological dimension, emphasizing the emotional wellbeing brought by enjoyable cross-training, asserting that happiness and diverse activities not only foster overall fitness but also positively impact race day performance and life satisfaction.

What types of cross-training are best for runners?

Rachel Drake: “Biking, splitboarding, cross-country skiing, hiking and weight training are all other ways I like to move my body outside of running. I don’t think any of these endeavors necessarily compete or interfere with running, but rather enhance running because they can all help bolster your cardiovascular system without the impact of running.”

Lucie Hanes: “Alongside ultra trail running, I’m also an avid rock climber! I actually climbed before I ever ran. I mostly sport climb and have achieved the 5.13c/d level, and have recently started working on my first 5.14a. I’m really proud to be participating in both sports at an advanced level and feel that it says a lot about my passion for exploring the limits of my body in relation to nature. I do notice energy losses by training and participating heavily in both, and have to be very intentional with my training schedule, fueling, and rest to make sure that I stay healthy.” 

Hillary Allen: “For the past four years I’ve been participating in and now competing in gravel bike races. At first it was just a way to boost my fitness and overall endurance and to help me recover from injuries, but now it’s a staple in my training. I do workouts on the bike and I also compete and race. I’m on the Pinarello gravel bike team and it’s a great way to improve my competitive edge, to work on weaknesses in my racing tactics (such as surges). This summer, I also picked up mountain biking. The mountain bike is a great way to work on power and overall climbing ability. It also helps with downhill running since it forces you to look ahead and anticipate the terrain.”

We can’t forget about other long-time trail athletes like Kilian Jornet and Scott Jurek. Both note the importance of cross-training in their own routines. Jurek shares: “I do yoga and Pilates to help strengthen my core and improve my flexibility. It also helps me relax and de-stress,” while Jornet says, “I like to go rock climbing and skiing to help improve my balance and coordination. It’s also a lot of fun and a great way to get outside.” 

As you can see, there is no one perfect type of cross-training. Whether you are cycling, skiing, or rock climbing, each activity has its place in your routine. It’s more important that you enjoy these activities, as they’re only going to benefit you if you’re having fun doing them. One common theme that arose in each interview? Allen, Drake, and Hanes all shared that strength training was a critical tool for each of them. Drake commented on return to postpartum running; Hanes highlighted the contrast of climbing; while Allen noted the benefits of injury prevention, overall resilience and volume tolerance.

What mental training benefits do you see from cross training?

Hanes believes there are a lot of crossovers in the mental sphere. The fortitude that it takes to persevere through discomfort, fear, and intimidation during ultra distances on foot is similar to the experience of climbing limit routes, she says. “I also think that the knowledge that each sport gives me about my body is especially useful,” she adds. “Running teaches me that I’m capable of keeping up consistent forward motion almost indefinitely, and reminds me that I have a lot of leg strength and stability that comes in handy when my upper body begins to fatigue while climbing. 

“Climbing teaches me that I have the ability to be creative with my body and emphasizes the importance of my core, which comes in handy as my legs fatigue while running and the terrain gets more technical. I also think that the meticulous planning that has to go into my training schedule helps keep me from overtraining in either sport specifically. I don’t experience many injuries in either sport, and I’m forced to be very wise with my time in either one so my focus skills are quite sharp.”

The takeaway here? Consider how cross-training can impact your mental game. What lessons can you learn or practice from each sport? How can you take a beginner’s mindset to a new pursuit or set micro-goals in your strength training routine to make this activity more appealing? One tip I often share as a running and strength coach is to focus on setting goals in your cross training or weight lifting routine (such as a new deadlift PR, increasing your plank time, or getting your first pull-up) to help set a foundation for success and keep you motivated.

RELATED: The Do’s and Don’ts of Cross Training

How to incorporate cross-training into your routine:

  • Start slowly and gradually increase the amount of time you spend cross-training.
  • Listen to your body and take a break if you feel any pain.
  • Choose cross-training activities that you enjoy and that will complement your running.
  • Ideally, limit your cross-training to two to four times per week for each activity, particularly if running is your focus (this might be two days of strength and a day or two of cycling or swimming, perhaps on the same days when not running).

Check out this article for examples on how to incorporate cross-training into your week: Cross-Training Can Make Some Athletes Stronger And Faster.

Common pitfalls runners can fall into with cross training:

  • Not cross-training enough or at all, especially strength training.
  • Doing too much cross-training, which can take away from your running.
  • Choosing cross-training activities that are too similar to running (such as cycling or cross-country skiing with the same or higher levels of volume and/or intensity).

As you can see, there are many different ways to cross-train and the best type of cross-training for you will depend on your individual goals and fitness level. If you’re looking to improve your running performance and prevent injuries, cross-training is a great option. 

Hanes leaves us with a beautiful takeaway: “I like to say that running gives me the mental space to think about everything, and climbing gives me the mental focus to think about nothing but what’s right in front of me. Both are incomparably valuable. I encourage other runners to explore other sports/activities if only for the sake of seeing how they affect the way they see the world and understand themselves. Running lets us explore so much of our surroundings, but not all of them. There’s a lot of beauty out there to be found via other mediums, and many more layers to our personalities waiting to be discovered through other challenges!”


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