Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Become a Member

Get access to more than 30 brands, premium video, exclusive content, events, mapping, and more.

Already have an account? Sign In

Brands

Trail Tips

Cross Training Can Make Some Athletes Stronger And Faster

Get access to everything we publish when you sign up for Outside+.

If I had to choose the place where real-world application has changed my coaching philosophy the most over time, it would be in how cross training relates to top running performance. Over and over, I have seen athletes absolutely demolish their goals with consistent doses of cross training throughout the year.

And I’m not talking about riding the bike or hopping on the elliptical as a supplement to running miles. I’m talking about reducing running frequency and volume in favor of other activities.

Over and over, I have seen athletes absolutely demolish their goals with consistent doses of cross training throughout the year. And I’m not talking about riding the bike or hopping on the elliptical as a supplement to running miles. I’m talking about reducing running frequency and volume in favor of other activities.

Some Ground Rules

That observation comes with a basketload of caveats. I used to be a lawyer, so disclaimers are my love language.

First, there is often no substitute for the trial of miles, that mythical time when a runner goes all-in and changes what they think they are capable of. Most of the runners that I have seen succeed with the approaches in this article have explored some of those limits earlier in their running lives. Yes, Kilian can ski and win running races. But Kilian has run more miles in his life than most people have driven. Plus, it wouldn’t surprise me if one of his cross-training activities was walking on water. What works for Kilian (or athletes with similarly incredible backgrounds) might not work for everyone.

Second, the type of race and cross-training protocol probably matter a lot. For trail runners, a balanced cross-training approach almost always helps since some of the repetitive-motion stress is diminished. Running and hiking up a mountain isn’t all that different from biking up one. For Olympic road runners, the relationship is much less direct. I would say that in many cases, an elite athlete training for a 100-mile trail race can do far fewer miles than the same athlete training for a road marathon (or even track 10K) due to the specific neuromuscular and biomechanical stresses of those events.

Cross training can build general musculoskeletal strength as well, which may not be as universally beneficial, but rarely has drawbacks for trail runners. It’s about finding your strong, and cross training can help with strength development right alongside pizza.

Third, and most importantly, the benefits of cross training likely vary by how adaptation works for each individual based on their unique backgrounds. It’s helpful to think about it in terms of the physiological adaptations.

Biking or elliptical or swimming all build the aerobic engine, increasing capillaries and mitochondria that enhance oxygen-processing ability. That’s unequivocally good, as long as an athlete isn’t overstressed.

Cross training can build general musculoskeletal strength as well, which may not be as universally beneficial, but rarely has drawbacks for trail runners. It’s about finding your strong, and cross training can help with strength development right alongside pizza.

The questionable area is how the specific neuromuscular, biomechanical and musculoskeletal stresses of cross training interact with running-economy development over time. It’s possible that the engine can get bigger while the running outputs get lower. There’s a reason Tour De France cyclists aren’t winning running races anytime soon despite their 30-hour-per-week training volumes. Great aerobic systems and strong legs without specific running economy adaptations risks creating inefficient athletes.

Individual Variability 

There is probably additional variability based on the underlying physiology of each athlete, including muscle-fiber distribution and overall stress load. That’s supported by the cross-training studies, which generally show that adding cross training on top of running is usually good and replacing running with cross training can go either way. However, the constraints of the studies (length, number of participants, variable measurements protocols) likely prevent any universal rules.

Gender and age likely make a big difference here, too. Female athletes generally have lower bone-mineral density than male athletes, which could make the impact from running high volumes riskier. The same goes for aging athletes. However, there is tons of individual variability that goes far beyond gender and age. Past injury rates (or even qualitative metrics like sustained soreness and fatigue) may indicate a higher need for cross training.

Why Cross Training Can Work

So let’s zoom back to the beginning and my evolving views on cross training. I used to think like any good disciple of Lydiard and Canova, who had read Once A Runner and gone through the trial of miles myself. Give me an athlete that can do 100 miles per week and one that does 50, and the 100-mile-per-week athlete will almost always be faster.

But wait. My experience showed me that it’s much more complex than that. I saw Scotty Hawker podium at UTMB off of under 50 miles per week in training, Nicole Mericle become a running star after she started training for obstacle-course races, Abby Levene become a trail superbeast with plenty of cycling. There’s the obvious reason—you don’t want to be injured too often. Layered on top, though, was some more interesting data. Even controlling for health, I saw some athletes excel over long time horizons with less of a focus on chronic training stress from running. Instead, they focused more on specific, acute running stress mixed with overall sustainable training levels.

Even controlling for health, I saw some athletes excel over long time horizons with less of a focus on chronic training stress from running. Instead, they focused more on specific, acute running stress mixed with overall sustainable training levels.

Three possible reasons I have written about before. One, feeling good in running and life is a proxy for the type of physiological context that allows for running-economy development, even if that means less training stress overall. Two, compounding those gains over time requires some space for growth, which is supported by sustainable training stress. Three, the body doesn’t differentiate too much between different sources of stress on the cellular level, so smart training can let the body adapt at all sorts of training quantities as long as stress isn’t too low or too high.

Cross training can get positive feedback cycles going between aerobic development and running-specific output based on a stress-related framework. It makes the work more joyous for some athletes, supporting good feelings. It provides more room for growth, since maybe you’ll get capped out on miles you can do, but add cross training and you have a plethora of additional training options. The cells don’t really care too much about whether you’re running or cross training, so as long as systemic adaptations are supported long-term (i.e. working on speed and event-specific stresses), the underlying physiological capacity should only be helped.

Putting It All Together

To summarize: if an athlete runs mostly easy, develops top-end speed year-round and focuses on being prepared for specific stresses required on race day, then I think they can excel at relatively low running volumes, particularly if they have done high running volume in the past. Add cross training to the mix, and I think they can reach their ultimate genetic potential (and, in some cases, reduce injury risk).

That got out of hand. When I started writing that intro, it was supposed to be a couple hundred words. Get me talking about this stuff, and I turn into a wannabe-Kerouac on speed (fun fact: he wrote On The Road in three weeks on a continuous 120-foot typewriter scroll). This article was intended to be about the three cross-training approaches I have seen work for athletes and how you can use them.

I’ll be writing with biking in mind because it’s the option that’s most convenient for many athletes, but any cross-training option can work that doesn’t cause you too much stress. … Nicole Mericle likes a mix of a bunch of activities, some of which involve heavy sandbags and throwing spears. Don’t mess with Nicole—her OCR training would prepare her to stab from a distance, then carry a body to the nearest lake.

I’ll be writing with biking in mind because it’s the option that’s most convenient for many athletes, but any cross-training option can work that doesn’t cause you too much stress. Scotty Hawker uses the bike, trail-running national champion Ashley Brasovan likes swimming, Nicole Mericle likes a mix of a bunch of activities, some of which involve heavy sandbags and throwing spears. Don’t mess with Nicole—her OCR training would prepare her to stab from a distance, then carry a body to the nearest lake.

Approach 1: Add cross training to existing run schedule via “doubles

Here is the option that I am confident can work for almost anyone with tons of time and stress to spare, including top-level road racers. Run like normal, add 30- to 60-minute cross-training sessions in the afternoon anywhere from 1 to 4 times per week, occasionally going farther for an adventure or harder for a workout.

With this schedule, it’s most important to embrace that cross training is not focused training—keep it mostly easy and never force a session when tired or busy. Only do it when it’s fun and you’re feeling energized, which is a good proxy for when you’ll also have optimal adaptation.

A typical schedule might look like this:

Monday: rest; optional easy bike

Tuesday: easy run and strides

Wednesday: running workout; optional easy bike

Thursday: easy run; optional easy bike with permission to add intervals

Friday: easy run or easy bike

Saturday: long run with race-specific focus

Sunday: easy run and strides; optional easy bike with permission to go longer and harder

Approach 2: Run 5 times per week and cross train the other days

This is the schedule that is ideal for athletes who are working cross training into a busy life, possibly due to injury concerns or just enjoying the variability of movement. The key is to make sure you’re still developing running economy and top-end speed, even as overall running volume decreases. My theory is that if you combine adequate neuromuscular/biomechanical stresses from strides and relatively small amounts of high-output running, you can get a feedback cycle going with overall aerobic development so that cross training directly contributes to running growth.

A typical schedule would be the same as above, but with an easy bike on Friday. An athlete who wants to have an adventure day each week could alternatively run on Friday and use Sunday as an extra-long, unstructured cross-training adventure.

Approach 3: Run 3-4 times per week and develop cross training option into more of a focus

This schedule is not one I have used for top-level pro runners often, but it has worked for athletes with injury history and those over 40. It has also worked for athletes who love to ski in winter or are pursuing top performance in cycling races too. Now, cross training becomes a primary workout focus, with running emphasizing specific stresses. These athletes are usually doing most of their running intervals on uphills to reduce impact forces.

A typical schedule might look like this:

Monday: rest; optional easy bike

Tuesday: hill workout running or easy run

Wednesday: bike workout

Thursday: very easy run (possibly with hill strides)

Friday: easy bike

Saturday: longer run with race-specific stress

Sunday: easy run with hill strides and/or easy bike (with option to bike longer and harder, or switch key effort to cross training altogether)

Add strength training to the mix, and you can have a well-rounded, low-running-volume athlete. For strength work, I am partial to 3-minute mountain legs, band work, and core/upper body strength of your choosing. Advanced athletes may add deadlifts, squats and military press or similar, ideally partnering with a strength coach that can monitor form.

All that said, I have seen athletes win the biggest races in the world without ever doing cross training (or strength work). So individual response is likely heavily variable.

This article is not telling you that you have to cross train. This article is telling you that running fewer miles is OK, particularly if you add some enjoyable cross training to the mix. Plus, cross-training options are amazing when injured or facing burnout.

Dreaming big and going for it in running sometimes means replacing running with other activities, including couch sitting. That is weird. The body is weird. Adaptation is weird. And that unpredictable weirdness is part of the fun.

David Roche partners with runners of all abilities through his coaching service, Some Work, All Play. His book, The Happy Runner, is about moving toward unconditional self-acceptance in a running life, and it’s available now on Amazon.