The Best Cross-Training Exercises for Runners

Build your own cross-training program with these essential exercises for runners.

Photo: GettyImages

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Why do you run? Maybe it’s for stress relief, to feel good, to burn calories, to build heart health or to support a bigger cause — there’s truly no wrong answer. Running can be an amazing way to support your mind, body, overall health, and even community.

But, like any exercise, running comes with the risk of injury. Running is catabolic; it breaks down your muscles. Breaking down muscles decreases muscle mass, lowers metabolic rate, and can even lead to injury if you don’t train, eat and recover properly.

The solution, thankfully, is easy! Set aside 30 minutes, two days per week for some strength-based cross training to complement your running. We’ve taken the guesswork out of exercise selection by analyzing the research for you.

Simply choose from the exercises below to create your own gym-based strength program to support your running.

Exercises by Muscle Group


The glutes occupy 60 percent of our hips’ real-estate. Not only are the glutes powerhouses, but they also protect your low back, hamstrings, and knees from excessive force while you run.

The top gym-based exercises for glute max activation are:

  1. Dumbbell Step-Ups
  2. Hex-Bar Deadlifts
  3. Barbell Hip Thrusts


Hamstrings are like glutes helpers since they have many of the same movement functions. They occupy real-estate, generate running speed and protect your knees.

The top gym-based exercises for hamstrings are:

  1. Leg Curl Machine
  2. Dumbbell Single-leg Deadlifts
  3. Kettlebell Swings


Quads are the counter-part to hamstrings. They create balance and strength surrounding your knees.

The top gym-based quad exercises are:

  1. Hack Squat
  2. Leg Press
  3. Barbell Front Squat

Lower Back

Your lower back is the link between your glutes, mid back, and shoulders. It transfers forces from your arms to help your running efficiency and speed. Sometimes we mistake the sensation of working our backs for creating back injury. Separating the idea of sensation and pain are important, as your back makes up half of your torso’s core strength.

The top gym-based lower back strengthening exercises are:

  1. Roman Chair Hyperextension
  2. Seated Back Extension Machine
  3. Supermans

Side Core

Your obliques and gluteus medius connect the front and back sides of your core.

You can actually target both of them in a single do-anywhere exercise:

The side hip bridge (aka side plank on knees)

When you do this exercise, aim for hold time instead of reps. Start with 10 seconds, and gradually work up to 90 seconds over several weeks – months.

Next steps

Now that we’ve identified the top strength cross-training exercises for runners, you need a program!

Follow these steps to build your program:

  1. Pick one exercise from each muscle category.
  2. If the exercise is new to you, start with just bodyweight, or the lightest machine setting or barbell. Build up to 3 sets of 20 reps.
  3. Once you can do 20 reps with good form, add 10-20 pounds. Aim for 3 sets of 15.
  4. Once you achieve step 3, add 10-20 more pounds. Aim for 3 sets of 8-12.
  5. Once you achieve step 4, add 10-20 more pounds. Aim for 4 sets of 4-6.
  6. Once you achieve step 5, you’re ready for a new program!

Repeat the process, selecting different exercises. Changing your cross-training exercises each month keeps you getting stronger, while minimizing wear and tear on your joints, ligaments and tendons.

Your turn!

Take 5 minutes to build your program so it’s ready for your cross-training days.

Then, save this post so you know how to build your cross-training program each month. Even better, share this post with a runner friend; you can design programs together to build more strength.