ISSA, International Sports Sciences Association, Certified Personal Trainer, ISSAonline, Cross Training for Trail Running: Benefits & Workout Options

Cross Training for Trail Running: Benefits & Workout Options

Reading Time: 6 minutes


Date: 2022-11-09

A 2021 survey found that, since the pandemic, three in five people now prefer being outdoors over spending time inside. Most of the respondents also said that they exercise in nature more than five hours per week. (1) One activity that is tailor-made for this type of environment is trail running. 

If you have clients who participate in trail running, cross training is important. Here we explain why, while also providing other training activities that are good for runners. We also share several cross-training workout options when developing an exercise program for trail runners, along with a few other important training tips.

What is Cross Training?

Cross training refers to a workout program that includes multiple forms of exercise. Typically, the forms of exercise used for cross training work different areas of the body, or they train it in a different way. 

The idea of cross training is widely promoted in sports, and for good reason. Yes, mastering one’s sport of choice is critical to performing optimally. But adding in other training activities is beneficial as well, especially for trail runners.

Benefits of Cross Training for Trail Running

When trail runners do multiple types of exercise, it adds variety to their training program. Variety is good from a motivational standpoint. If you do the same activity day in and day out, monotony can set in. When this happens, it becomes easier to stop working out altogether. Conversely, cross training can keep exercise both fun and interesting.

Cross training can also reduce injury risk. One way it does this is by lowering the chances of an overuse injury or repetitive stress injury. If the only form of activity a person engages in is trail running, they may be overworking the muscle fiber in their legs, hips, and glutes. Cross training helps stop this type of injury by introducing forms of exercise that work other body parts as well. 

Another benefit of cross training for trail runners is that it reduces the risk of muscle imbalance. Running relies primarily on muscle groups in the lower body. If other forms of exercise aren’t added in, the upper body is effectively ignored. This places the body out of balance.

Cross training can also help your client become a better runner. It works, in part, by improving their running performance. It can also promote a faster running speed while bolstering endurance.  

Finally, when cross training includes resistance exercise, it improves muscle strength. Strength training for runners is an important concept. With more strength comes greater running power and speed. Strength training also helps build muscle groups in the upper body. This provides more symmetry and balance.

Cross Training Exercise Good for Trail Runners

In a study of master-level female runners, 97.1% engaged in cross training. For 77.9% of these athletes, their cross-training activity of choice was strength training. Other common cross training activities for these athletes included (2):

  • Cycling – 64.7%

  • Swimming – 47.1%

  • Yoga – 30.9%

A 2022 study supports cycling and swimming as good cross training exercises for runners. It notes that swimming can help improve a runner’s endurance, flexibility, speed, balance, and agility. (3) Cycling can boost each of these aspects as well, also helping the runner increase their power. 

Another study connects working out on an elliptical bike with better functional movement in runners. This exercise modality also improved the participants’ running economy. Benefits were found with outdoor cycling as well. (4)

These types of activities can be modified to provide even more variety. For example, cycling on the street can be swapped with mountain biking. Aqua jogging is an activity that can be used in place of swimming.

What Strength Training Exercises Should a Trail Runner Do?

While some contend that strength training serves no valuable purpose for an endurance athlete such as a trail runner, research indicates otherwise. In fact, an article published in the American Journal of Human Biology stresses that strength training can actually boost running performance. (5) But what type of resistance exercises should a trail runner do?

Bodyweight exercises are a good option to consider. These exercises don’t require any equipment to perform. And if your client would rather exercise outdoors, they can build muscle in nature using nothing more than their body weight instead of forcing themselves to work out inside a gym. 

The squat is a good exercise for building muscle in the lower body. Variations of this strength exercise can be included to work the muscles in different ways. If your client does a back squat one day, for instance, have them do a single-leg squat the next. To build muscle in the upper body at the same time, add an overhead squat into their strength training program.

Other resistance exercises that build upper body strength include rows, presses, pulldowns, and pullovers. Push-ups are an option that helps build upper body and core strength. The plank is another.

3 Cross Training Workout Plan Options for Trail Runners

When developing a training plan for trail runners, you have several workout design options. Neither is superior to the other. It’s more a matter of how much time your client wants to put into their training program. Options to consider include:

  • Option #1: Add cross training to the current workout plan. If your client currently runs in the morning, they can do other forms of exercise—such as upper body strength training—in the afternoon. This enables them to follow their current workout plan while simply adding in other activities.

  • Option #2: Alternate trail running and cross training. This training approach involves running one day and doing another type of activity the next. The benefit of this option is that it gives the lower body time to recover, especially if engaging in upper body exercises on cross training days.

  • Option #3: Swap recovery runs with a cross training activity. If the client doesn’t want to add more time to their training program, they don’t have to. Replace their current recovery runs with some type of other activity. For example, yoga is a great way to stretch tight areas while also building strength. This helps them receive the benefits of cross training without increasing their training time. 

Whichever option you decide, also include stretches to help relax the hips and legs. These areas can become tight with repeated runs. The seated butterfly or forward bend are good options for runners to stretch their hips. Knee hugs and standing quad stretches can help relax the legs.

Additional Training Tips for Trail Running Clients

Cross training is only one aspect of a training program for runners. There are other tips you can provide this group of clients to help them train safely and effectively.

For instance, wearing the proper footwear is important when running trails. But what are the best trail running shoes? In a 2022 survey conducted by the International Trail Running Association (ITRA), 36.6% of respondents reported using a Salomon running shoe. Hoka trail running shoes came in next at 35.3%. (6)

It’s also important to replace their running shoes regularly. Like any other type of shoe used for regular exercise, this footwear will break down. When they do, they can’t provide the feet the support they need. The ITRA’s survey indicates that most trail runners (40.8%) use two pairs of shoes per year.

If the client is a beginner runner, encourage them to start slow. Trying to do too much too quickly can result in injury. Instead, a safer and more realistic training program boosts time, speed, and distance in small increments.

Also remember that, as a running coach, it’s important to keep your clients motivated. This requires understanding why your client is a trail runner in the first place. Do they want to reduce their body weight or reconnect with nature? Are they looking to increase how much they exercise and find that trail running is an activity they enjoy? 

Maybe your client recently registered for a trail race (such as a trail half marathon) and they want to be fully prepared for race day. Identify their ‘why’ and use this to keep them going on days they want to give up.

Also, encourage your runner clients to take days off. Cross training isn’t an excuse to overtrain. Taking rest days is good for both the body and mind. So too is mixing up training runs. If your client does a long run one day, have them do an easy run the next. 

This is the same type of approach used in marathon and half marathon training. Varied runs can help improve different training aspects. Some build endurance, for example, whereas others help boost speed. 

Finally, stress the importance of listening to their body. Do they feel pain or discomfort in their hips or legs? They may need to shorten their running sessions. Have they noticed that they seem to be getting sick more often? More recovery days may be needed.

If you want to learn the best tips and tricks for clients who like to run, ISSA offers Running Coach Certification. This program teaches you how to develop effective running training programs for clients. It also discusses injury prevention tips for runners, resulting in a safer workout plan.

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Lose yourself on the track? Get the most out of your running ability with the NEW Running Coach Certification with ISSA and share your passion for running with others while training them to reach their personal goals.


  • Why Americans are saying "yes!" to the great outdoors. Verv. (2021, August 12). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from 

  • Loudon, J., & Parkerson-Mitchell, A. (2022). Training Habits and Injury Rate in Masters Female Runners. International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy, 17(3), 501–507.

  • RODAS, DONNAVIE F., & OFRIN, DARWIN D. (2022, July). Training Environment And Athlete Runners’ Physical Development: Basis In Designing Cross Training Program. INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF ADVANCED MULTIDISCIPLINARY STUDIES. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from 

  • Paquette, Max R.; Peel, Shelby A.; Smith, Ross E.; Temme, Mark; Dwyer, Jeffrey N. The Impact of Different Cross-Training Modalities on Performance and Injury-Related Variables in High School Cross Country Runners. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: June 2018 - Volume 32 - Issue 6 - p 1745-1753 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000002042

  • Best, A. W. (2020). Why does strength training improve endurance performance? American Journal of Human Biology, 33(6). 

  • Trail Runner Habits. International Trail Running Association. (2022). Retrieved October 31, 2022, from 

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