What is the Best Cross Training for Ultra Runners

cross training for ultra runners

If you are like me, as I get older I find it difficult to run 5 or 6 times a week.

I need to add more aspects to my training that helps my strength, conditioning, and endurance that have less of an impact on my body.

Today I want to outline some great ideas for cross-training that you could consider within your routine.

Cross training for ultra runners
Cross-Training Ideas

What is Cross-Training

The dictionary quotes the following:

The action or practise of engaging in two or more sports or types of exercise in order to improve fitness or performance in one’s main sport.

There are many benefits to adding cross-training into your routine, so I have outlined a few below. Active Recovery – Like with any training plan we all need to have recovery and rest days.

  • Injury Prevention – Running every day can lead to overuse injuries in some cases. By adding a couple of Cross-Training sessions into your routine can help avoid this type of injury.
  • Enjoying other Exercise – We all love running right? But there is no doubt that doing other sports can keep things fresh.
  • Rehabilitation – If you are just coming back from injury, some cross-training exercises can be perfect. I know that cross-training has been invaluable to me at times when I couldn’t run.
  • Better Running Fitness – Some exercises when incorporated into your routine can improve running fitness and speed.
  • Increased Strength – Running uses a specific set of muscles. With Cross-Training, you can do exercises that use other muscle groups. Ultimately this will give better overall strength but also allow those running muscles to rest.

Cross-Training Options

Now to the good part. Time to outline what activities you can incorporate into your weekly routine that will help make you a better runner and help avoid those nasty overuse injuries that can occur.

Indoor Rowing

Learn to Row

The rowing machine is my personal favourite. Whenever I’m not running and I visit the gym, this is the piece of equipment I head for first.

As the video above shows, don’t just jump on and start rowing if you haven’t done it before. You really don’t want to be injuring yourself by using incorrect form.

If you haven’t used the Indoor Rower before then watch the short video

The indoor rower has so many benefits to the ultra runner.

It’s a low impact exercise. Meaning you avoid the overuse injuries that can be sustained by just running

A great way of exercising when recovering from certain injuries that prevent you from running due to the low impact nature of the exercises.

It offers a full-body workout including some of the major muscle groups like your Quads, Hamstrings, Glutes, Back and Core.

You can learn how to row fairly easily and it does give you a challenging workout – it’s definitely a love it or hate it piece of kit.

You control the workout. The pace and intensity are controlled by you.

Below is a great speed work routine that simulates a track workout for runners (courtesy of Concept2.com):

  1. Row easily for 5 minutes to warm up; get off and stretch briefly.
  2. Row two sets of (4 x 400m) as follows:
    1. Then Row 400m at moderate intensity.
    2. Row easily for 1 minute.
    3. Repeat for a total of four 400m.
    4. Row easily for 3 minutes.
    5. Repeat for another set of four 400m.
    6. Row easily again for 3 minutes.
  3. Row easily for 5 minutes to cool down.
  4. Stretch.

Strength Training

strength training for ultra runners

It had to be added. Strength training for Ultra Runners is a must.

You should be doing a strength routine twice a week alongside your running.

Now I’m not saying you need to become a powerlifter all of a sudden. However, the benefits of adding strength training are:

  • It will make you and your legs stronger which is important for those long hours on your feet.
  • It will make you faster
  • You will become more injury-proof

Personally, I don’t go with the big weighted barbells anymore. Although Squats and Deadlifts are the main lifts for overall strength.

As I have gotten older I have found that I love using Kettlebells and bodyweight exercises. Seriously, this is all you need.

No point in trying to push out ten 60kg Bench Presses if you can’t even manage 15 press-ups right?

Mix your kettlebell workout with bodyweight exercises and you have a great Strength Training addition to your running plan.

Elliptical Trainer

elliptical trainer for runners

The Elliptical Trainer is one of those pieces of equipment that are great to use if you are recovering from an injury and want to avoid any impact on your joints.

It is fairly light on the body to use, however, when you’re on it make sure you are giving yourself a decent workout.

Go to any gym and you will see countless people just going through the motions at the same tempo (slow and easy) and not getting the benefit they could from this piece of kit.

If you want to incorporate a good mid-week workout from this machine, here are a few you could try. The Elliptical has a number of settings you can use:

Rolling Hills – 30 – 40 minutes at a resistance that’s going to make you work (8 – 10).

Tempo Work (as you would Running) – 10 minutes easy at low resistance, 20 minutes at a comfortably hard resistance, 10 minutes low resistance easy pace.

Interval Training – 10 minute warm-up at easy resistance and effort, followed by 8 – 10 sets of 2 minutes hard, 2 minutes easy effort, finish with 10 minutes easy effort.


Not too much to say about this one. Just get out there and ride. Enjoy the scenery, this is active recovery and your legs are getting a decent workout.

I don’t tend to do any specific workouts for cycling as I look at it as a form of relaxing and enjoyment when I get the chance.


hiking for ultra runners

This one may seem a bit odd, but believe me, when you run Ultras this is one of the important training elements.

If you have done an Ultra you will know that there is a decent amount of walking. Especially up steep hills.

When your legs are shot from having just run 60 miles and you hit that big hill, you’ll be glad you did that hiking as you breeze up it.

Believe me, when I say this, I have been in multiple races where I have powered walked up a hill keeping up with people trying to run up it.

The other point is that when I reach the top of the hill I can start to run again. Those that tried to run the hill, or didn’t train to walk up them suffer badly.

Learning to hike at a reasonable pace will keep you on track for a decent time during your races and it’s a nice break from the running while still moving forward.


There are many other activities that fall under the Cross Training umbrella. Activities like Swimming, Yoga etc. All of which can be implemented by you if you so wish.

For me, Strength Training, Rowing and Hiking are huge parts of my overall training for the Ultra and Trail Marathons.

Do you have a favourite cross-training exercise that I didn’t share?

How do you implement Cross Training into your running schedule?

Please feel free to leave a comment below and I will get back to you as soon as I can.

Happy running,


5 thoughts on “What is the Best Cross Training for Ultra Runners”

  1. So I’m a vegan, nigh on eight years now and running was a big part of my life until injury took me out. I never got to the ‘Ultra’ stage which was a shame as it was something that I was aspiring towards, though quite a ways off. For the periods I wasn’t able to run I used a rowing machine at home. Watching the video at least made me realise that my technique was alright. Free weights and a mixture of Yoga and Pilates were also favourites, mainly done in the morning before starting the day proper. I never realised how much better my running became due to the ‘core strengthening’ It was only after I stopped and tried other forms of exercise that I came to respect the value my core. Cross training should be promoted way more as a compliment to any major sporting endeavour, I think it keeps your attiude to your own particular sport more keen. All that being said, I never quite got the same ‘buzz’ that I did after doing some really good runs. Do you think running is unique in that respect ? I struggled with cycling as it was to tempting to ‘coast’. 

    • Hi Twack, thanks for the great comments they are much appreciated. Sorry to hear about your injury.

      Wow, eight years Vegan – that’s about the same as my eldest daughter. It’s just over 2 years for me – best decision I ever made with reference to health.

      I completely agree with you about cross training being promoted way more. For me, it takes me away from doing too much running and causing injuries – something I was guilty of in the past.

      In terms of feeling the ‘buzz’ I must say that when I finished my 86 mile race last year I felt every emotion under the sun I think. It was exhilarating, very emotional and a huge sense of pride and relief. Something I haven’t felt with other sports I have done. I like nothing more than getting out on the trails and forgetting the busy life we lead for a few hours.

      I keep saying I will do Yoga as I know it’s really good for you and can hugely help avoid injury. I really must find a class somewhere and try it out.

      I must admit, I’m a bit like you, I do tend to coast when I’m on the bike. I just like being out in the fresh air though and it makes a nice change now and again.

      All the best,


  2. Hi, my vegan friend :).

    Excellent choice of additional cross trainings between the running days.

    If I have to choose my favorite training..that would definitely be strength training with kettlebells.

    To get the best recovery out of everyday racing, my recommendation is to change the diet.

    Six years ago I went to vegetarianism, and for the last 3 years, I’ve been fruit based vegan. And the change is incredible. I get much faster recovering. I have a lot more strength and endurance, and the recovery from the exhausting races is much shorter than when I was a carnivore.

    Have a nice day,


    • Hi Leo, thanks for your great comments. Wow! a Fruitarian….. I have read up a lot about this lifestyle and it’s very appealing. Maybe I will give it a shot in the summer and see how it goes – luckily I do love fruit.

      Like you, I have found that a change in diet has made major improvements to my recovery after races or workouts. Before I changed to Plant-Based I was very tired, sluggish and ached for days. Not any more.

      I agree with you with reference to the Kettlebell – it’s definitely my go-to item for strength training. I use them in the gym but also have them at home. They are the perfect work out anywhere tool. I would recommend anyone to give them a go.

      I also love the rower – a lot of people hate it but I can spend long periods on there with no issues. I think I just zone out, which is helpful for someone that has run for 22 hours straight lol.

      All the very best,


  3. hi mark, i really love your post because it open my eye to alot of things about gym, i use to do raod walk and biking but we do it in group but as travelling departed each other i taught of another method so and i took up another step by getting myself the  Eptical Trainer and i watched your video on youtube channel, this have really helped me so much to avoid lifting weight when am not a bouncer or wrestler. thank you very much for the information on your website.


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