Coach Alex Willis’ Top Cross Training Tips For Trail Runners

Alex Willis, born and raised local from America’s highest incorporated town, Leadville, Colorado (situated at 10,200 feet), has made a name for himself as an accomplished athlete and endurance coach in a variety of sporting disciplines. Willis is a former USA Triathlon Team Member, collegiate runner and currently competes at the elite level in many disciplines including snowshoe and trail running. Willis has coaching expertise in both road and off-road running, XTERRA and road triathlons, cycling and Nordic skiing. He is the coach of many incredible trail runners including Ultra Running magazine’s number three “Ultrarunner of the Year” Annie Hughes.

As an athlete and coach of many endurance sports, Willis is a proponent of incorporating “cross training” activities into his trail runners’ training plans. Cross training can include a variety of physical activities that supplement or replace running training to improve cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, running form, balance, and prevent injuries. Ultimately, cross training can help trail runners become more well-rounded athletes and achieve better race performances.

Willis speaks on the benefits of cross training, “Not everyone has the genetics to allow them to run high weekly mileage and may need cross training to stay healthy or build up to higher mileage. Cross training should be tailored to the athlete, their background and their life. Your training should take into account your background and skill sets and know that your journey to your best self might not look like someone else’s.”

For this article, I asked Willis to share some of his tips on cross training for trail running. We discuss important considerations including the best types of cross training for trail runners, how to incorporate them properly into training plans, and potential risks to be aware of when including new activities in your training regimen.

Cross Training

Alex and his wife in the mountains. Photo: Alex Wilis.

[TAYTE POLLMANN] What types of cross training are best for trail runners?
[ALEX] Strength Training: This helps with power development and will help prevent injuries by addressing imbalance, weaknesses, and tight areas in the body. I find that most trail runners can rebound with their fitness fairly quickly after the off-season. What is harder to do is build the power and muscular balance needed to stay injury free and feel strong through an entire trail running season.

  • Cross Country skiing and Skimo (ski mountaineering): These activities are basically winter trail running. They are excellent off-season cross training compliments to trail running. Athletes can get vertical and cardio in while adding a bit of upper body and glute strength.
  • Cycling and Swimming: This isn’t just for the triathletes and off road triathletes (XTERRA Triathletes) in the trail running ranks. These activities can help develop fitness while pulling back on impact. Depending on an athlete’s background, their ability to handle high running mileage can vary. Cycling and swimming are great low-impact cross training activities. So, if cycling and swimming are an option, why not use these tools to increase fitness while reducing impact forces and preventing injury?
  • Snowshoe Running: This is a great winter option for trail runners that live in a wintery area where running on trails and roads are not attractive or even fun for training. Snowshoe running has a vastly different rhythm and feeling than road or trail running, but there are still benefits. It will definitely help with your running power.

[PRO TIP: Check out ATRA’s dedicated snowshoe running page or find a snowshoe race near you!]

Cross Training

Heart Rate Zones. Source:

[TAYTE] How do you incorporate cross training activities into an athlete’s training plan?
[ALEX] When I work with my athletes to incorporate other sports into their plan or add cross training elements, I look at time spent in heart rate zones. If a trail runner wants to incorporate cross training into their plan, I would worry less about mileage in a week and look more at overall time spent in heart rate zones.

For example, I would look at time spent climbing for skimo cross training. I generally prescribe cross country skiing for roughly the same amount of time as one would do running. For cycling, I suggest 1.5 to 2 times as long as what an athlete would do for a run. Swimming comes down to the athlete’s skill in the sport.

[TAYTE] To what extent can athletes rely solely on cross training for increased running fitness?
[ALEX] Specificity is important. You do need to maintain a baseline of running, but this may vary depending on the athlete. It may be a long run or two to three runs per week in the midst of your cross training. There’s no need to completely stop running unless there’s an overuse injury you’re trying to heal. It’s fine to lower the weekly mileage and aim for time-based training instead. For example, I might prescribe an athlete eight hours per week of training and they will complete this goal with a mix of running and cross training.

Cross Training

Alex (#52) finished 2nd at the 2020 U.S. Snowshoe National Championships. Photo: Tayte Pollmann.

[TAYTE] Are there risks associated with cross training?
[ALEX] There are always some risks in learning a new sport. I would recommend taking a lesson before diving into cross country skiing, skimo, or swimming in particular. These sports are more technique heavy. Thus, learning proper form will not only improve your enjoyment of the sport, but you’ll be less at risk for developing an injury resulting from poor form. Also, with better form and technique you’ll be able to get your heart rate in the correct zone.

Likewise with cycling, either road or mountain biking, there is much more to be aware of if you are suddenly training in road traffic or maneuvering through trails much faster than your running pace. Visit your local cycling shop and chat with the experts and even consider taking a lesson or two. When it comes to strength training, form is by far more important than weight or number of repetitions. Don’t shy away from a class or a lesson from someone to make sure you are lifting safely.

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