When it comes to fitness, there are few answers that suit everyone, but the benefits of cross-training have long been noted by athletes and their coaches.
It’s easy to get tunnel vision when you’re really into a sport. We’ve all been there, planning out our week to include as much running/cycling/swimming (insert sport here) as possible to gain those consistent improvements.
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However, by doing this we are jeopardising our chances of carrying on, and improving, indefinitely. Throwing in some alternative exercise might feel like a cop-out, but it could mean the difference between being a star player and sitting on the injury bench.
What is cross-training?
Cross-training is not a specific sport and it’s different for everyone. Simply put, it’s taking part in some training outside of the sport that you normally do. If you’re a runner, cycling comes under the category of cross-training. Or swimming, or Pilates, bouldering, stand-up paddleboarding… Anything really.
The main thing is that it’s different to what you do most of the time (or even just what you did last time you trained) so even if you don’t have a sport you feel is your ‘main’ pursuit, mixing up what you are doing is still considered cross-training.
What are the benefits of cross-training?
There’s really no downside to cross-training; whether you’re a seasoned athlete or picking up a sport for the first time, adding in an alternative activity will:
- Help avoid injury
- Keep you interested
- Complement the activity you already do
- Give you a well-rounded level of strength and fitness
The absolute number one reason to cross-train is to avoid injury. The two main reasons you might injure yourself in your sport are overuse and accident/error during training or performing. Cross-training will help minimise the effects of these causes and could even eradicate them completely.
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Think about it. If you are a runner, and only a runner, you are pounding the pavements day in, day out, never changing the style of your gait, never changing the way you’re moving, always using exactly the same muscles, putting the same pressure on your joints at the same angles.
After a time, your body will start to show signs of what is often termed ‘overuse’ but probably a better way to describe it would be fatigue.
Spread the load
These injuries occur when muscles in your body simply can’t sustain the support they have been giving you any longer. The entire network of muscles in your body works together, facilitating movement in your joints so that you can move efficiently and smoothly, putting the least wear and tear on any one part of your body.
But all of these muscles need to be used in conjunction with each other in order to remain strong and work properly. If you only ever train in one way, any muscle in your body that doesn’t play a large part in that particular movement will start to waste away, leaving the other muscles to pick up their slack, and put in support where they used to take care of it.
That’s when they start to fatigue. That’s when your body becomes less efficient, you get off balance and start to experience pain, discomfort and, eventually, injury.
A well-rounded body
If you've have spent time on these other muscles in their ‘supporting roles’ they can hold up their end of the bargain, leaving the primary muscles you need when you run to do their job and keep you going, injury-free.
Here we're mainly talking about resistance and strength training, rather than complementary cardio (high energy) cross-training. So something like a weights class at the gym, Pilates or yoga – anything where you move in different directions and the focus is on the muscles and improving their efficiency.
For this same reason, an ‘accident’ during your main sport is less likely to have a long-term effect if you have cross-trained effectively.
If you fall or have to change direction suddenly, those muscles that support different movement, different use, are ready and waiting to kick into action, making it more likely that your fall will be better, you will have the strength to stop yourself more efficiently, and your body will absorb the impact of any unexpected movement with little or no long-term damage.
All in the mind
Preparing for the worst isn’t the only benefit of cross-training. Although studies show that cross-training with a mix of aerobic activities has an almost identical effect on your cardio fitness as it would if you just stuck to one sport, mixing it up will have the benefit of keeping you interested. Forgetting about the physical benefits of exercise for a moment, the psychological effects of exercise are equally as important and therefore your enjoyment of the sport you are doing is paramount.
A huge reason people give up exercise is boredom. Even the most seasoned cyclist/runner/swimmer can get the blues about their sport and struggle with motivation. Mixing it up – going out on the bike instead of being in the gym or the pool, for instance – is going to keep your mind focused, make you less likely to get bored with your routine, and more likely to benefit from sticking to it and actually enjoying it… endorphins here we come!
How do I cross-train effectively?
It depends. Are you a beginner? Are you a hobby athlete? Are you a serious, competitive athlete? Levels of fitness, reasons for doing the sport you do and the type of sport you do will all have an effect on the best form of cross-training for you. But there are some basic guidelines that should help you figure out your best course of action.
Those new to exercise will have muscle weakness in every area so it’s important to cross-train to begin with in order to gain a good base to pursue a specific sport. This would involve at least two sessions a week of their preferred sport, then two of cross-training and making sure the remainder of the week is rest.
Alternate your cardio and resistance training types so you get a good rest from each before taking it up again. If you’re starting from scratch, even just mixing up the types of cardio you do will have a good effect, keeping that high-energy training going, and making a difference to your fitness, but also helping to keep you interested as you change from session to session.
If you’re doing your sport a few times a week quite happily, and have been for more than around six months, you can consider yourself a bit more seasoned and your body will probably be able to take more than one session in a row of your sport.
Adding in at least one or two cross-training sessions per week will reap benefits of course, but you can pick and choose when to do this. Think about when you might normally have put in a rest day and maybe add your cross-training in then if it’s low-cardio such as Pilates.
If you are seriously training, you’re probably out there five or six days a week and feel like you don’t have time to cross-train. It’s actually ok to cross-train the same day as your main sport, as long as you choose something that’s different enough so your body is getting a rest from the usual grind at least.
For instance, if you’re a cyclist, why not put some work in at the gym, concentrating on upper body? Or, if you can bear it, take out one of your cycling days altogether and put in a cross-training exercise instead, such as swimming, where your limbs will be moving in a different way, helping to make them stronger overall and giving you a better base to cycle from when you’re back on the bike.
In a nutshell
As a rule of thumb for the average active person, aim for somewhere between three and five days of aerobic activity, and support this with one to two days of flexibility/strength workouts. When you are choosing what your complementary exercise is going to be, do take into account what you’re aiming for overall – if you’re a cyclist, for instance, see if you can find a PT who specialises in cycling or a Pilates-for-cyclists class.
General fitness classes are great, but classes which focus on areas that might be a little weaker due to your main sport could offer a bigger benefit.
Surely to be better at my sport, I just need to keep doing it?
True. The best way to be a better runner is to do more running drills, run more miles. The same with cycling, swimming, boxing, anything – improve at your sport by practising your sport. But to make sure your body doesn’t let you down while you’re doing this, you need to give it some TLC – keep the whole thing in good shape so it can be the most efficient.
Strength plays a huge part in success: an ultra runner wouldn’t have 80+ mile runs in their training plan; sure they put in long runs, but they work hard on their strength too, which is what gets them through it on the day.