Are you training for a specific event, like a weightlifting tournament, a triathlon, or a swim meet? Are you focused on a fitness goal like a new personal best in bench press or running a 5K? If you are, do you think you need to keep doing more of same to reach your goals? In other words, are you trying to reach your target run time by running every day, or your bench press by just doing chest workouts all the time?
Well, if that sounds like you, chances are you are getting frustrated with performance plateaus, injuries, or even just the monotony of training. Let us help you change up your workout and training routine with some cross training so you getter better results.
In fact, improved performance is just one of the five benefits of cross training that will make you a better athlete whatever your sport!
What is Cross Training?
‘Cross training’ describes a workout planning approach that incorporates a variety of sports and exercises into your training program. For example, if you are a runner, cross training might add sessions of strength training, swimming, or other activities to your weekly program, sometimes supplementing your run sessions, and sometimes even replacing them. There are many benefits to this approach, and we'll walk you through them so you can see how cross training can help you become a better athlete.
Benefit #1: Cross Training is Active Recovery
No matter how hard you train, or for what goals, everyone needs to build recovery time into their programs. For many athletes, that’s rest days, and they can drive some athletes crazy. Sure, you’ve been convinced of the importance of rest, but you might find it very hard to spend a whole day doing nothing! Well, you don't have to totally rest, and maybe you shouldn’t.
Active recovery is the idea that your body will recover faster, and make adaptations to training for fitness gains, faster and more efficiently if it's doing something, just not more focused training. So, for example, if you’ve been lifting heavy all week, on your rest day you might try hitting the pool for some laps instead of just staying home and resting on the sofa. The key to effective active recovery is two-fold - variety and intensity.
What do we mean by variety? Well, choose an activity that works different muscle groups, or has a different fitness principle than your regular training. If you are a road runner, your program will be mainly running, so you are probably doing a lot of high-impact cardio and endurance efforts. For your active recovery, you might try some strength training or weight lifting, or work on core, balance, and flexibility in a Pilates program. If you are training to bust your personal best in a bench press, on your rest day you might try some gentle cardio like a swim, a jog, or even joining in a soccer game.
As for intensity, remember that this is active recovery. That means whatever you choose to do, you won’t let yourself go all out. You’ll want to get your heart rate up a bit, but you want to always be at a level of effort where you could carry on a conversation. Getting your heart rate up helps improve your circulation, which will help your muscles recover and heal and prevent conditions like DOMS (Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness).
However, you don't want to work so hard that you need another recovery day! If you are feeling very tired or sore, remember even a yoga class is a great active recovery choice - it will help those tired muscles get the movement and activity they need to heal, but it won't wear you out for your next tough training session.
Benefit #2: It Breaks Fitness Plateaus
It’s easy for athletes to get so focused on their main sport or a major competition or goal that they end up just repeating the same workouts over and over. After all, it seems logical - you want to run faster? Well run fast and run often. Want to lift a personal best? Lift heavy every day. But the reality is, repeating the same function over and over will give you limited gains.
First, your muscles adapt, and you’ll soon find you’ve reached a ‘fitness plateau’ where you just aren't getting the same results anymore. It’s a recognized phenomenon where the body has become so good at adaptations that it just doesn’t need to make them anymore, and your progress or improvements slow down or even stop.
So how do you break a fitness plateau? The best way is to change things up a bit, called ‘muscle confusion.’ Basically, you surprise your muscles (and that includes the muscles of your cardiopulmonary system too) by switching your workout to put some effort where your body isn't accustomed to it. That might mean some cardio sprint session for a weightlifter, or a long, steady state swim session for a baseball player, or even a full on powerlifting session for a runner. You'll be asking your body to respond to some new questions, build fitness where you haven't asked for them before, and get your metabolism thinking about adaptation again. When you return to your focused workouts back with your main sport, you’ll see that your body is back in adaptation mode, ready to lay down gains again.
Cross training is a great way to build these muscle confusion sessions into your regular workout plan. Select one day each week where you’ll try something very different. This time, we aren't necessarily talking about active recovery. For plateau busting, you’ll need to work hard. But for this workout, you’ll work hard at something you don't normally do.
It’s even better if you can find three or four different activities that you can rotate, so you don't become bored with your cross training session, or worse still - start to get adaptations and plateaus in your cross training activities. Think of this session as an opportunity to get a killer workout in and have some fun - it might be indoor climbing, rowing, kayaking - it really could be anything, but it needs to be different, and it needs to be tough!
Benefit #3: Cross Training Prevents Injury
One of the best ways to end your athletic career is through an injury, and one of the best ways to get injured is to do the same thing over and over. Constant repetitive impact or strain on the same joints or muscle groups will eventually wear them out. Think about how you get fit - basically you create minor injuries and the healing process contributes to improved fitness. It makes sense then to realize that if you overdo it, you might just get badly hurt.
However, a lot of athletes are very reluctant to take the rest and recovery time they need to prevent injuries or get so focused on intense training they just don't want to ease up, no matter how much their body may be telling them to. Cross training is a perfect solution if this sounds like you. Instead of pounding out more miles on the track, swimming even more laps, or putting in extra sets and reps when you lift, try swapping out some sessions for cross training.
Cross training enables you to train hard, maintaining (and maybe even improving) your strength or cardio fitness, but still gives your main target muscles and joints a break. If you're a runner, swapping out a session for swimming or cycling will let your bones and soft tissue recover from all that impact. If you’re a soccer player, try a strength session or some plyometrics instead. If you’re a volleyball player, try sprints instead of box jumps for a change.
One of the most effective cross training approaches to prevent injury in almost any sport is core development. Adding a core workout to your program, even on the same day as a regular workout, can help build stability, balance, and muscle control - all of which helps to keep you safe from injury!
Benefit #4: It Keeps You Motivated
The old adage ‘a change is as good as a rest’ has some bearing for athletes. We’ve already talked about the injury risk of training for your event or sport by only training for your event or sport, but it also wears out your mind. If you are swimming dozens of laps, sometimes twice a day, pounding out the miles on your daily runs, shooting endless baskets in the gym, of pushing rep after rep in the weight room, sooner or later you’ll get bored, no matter how much you love your sport.
If you find that it’s getting tough to get out of bed and get your workout started, then cross training could be an ideal solution. Not only will you find some much-needed interest and variety by trying something different, but if you pick something challenging, you’ll get the added benefit of learning to refocus on skills and form.
For example, if you are a volleyball player, chances are you’ve also thought about or experimented with the benefits of rowing for plyometric jump strength. Don't just head down to the gym and get on the rower and discover a new kind of monotony - how about getting out on the water and trying some competitive sculling? Your mind will benefit from having to learn new skills, muscle control, and balance, and you’ll get back to the volleyball court refreshed physically and mentally. Not to mention that it’s a great excuse to get outdoors!
Benefit #5: It Improves Your Sport Performance
If you are thoughtful about your cross training, you might even find that the cross training activities you choose can actually improve your performance in your primary sport. If you are a very competitive, highly focused athlete, it’s easy to get yourself so wrapped up in targeted, sports-specific training that you forget that your whole body contributes to your success.
Taking some time to evaluate your recent progress and performance to see if there might be any points of weakness is the first step. Have you started to develop some niggling injuries? Do you find your form deteriorates as you get tired? Is fatigue or muscle weakness catching you out in particular movements or efforts? Analyze your weaknesses, and see if there are cross training opportunities that can help turn them into strengths.
Here’s an example - if you are a runner, and you find that your shins, back or neck start to hurt after a certain point in your runs, it could be because you are getting tired, leaning forward, and losing form, placing more strain on your spine and lower legs. Try something that can help with core strength and shoulder stability. Pilates, rowing, deadlifts - all of these can help improve your muscular endurance to protect your running form.
Or, if you're a cyclist and you are competitive on the flat but struggling to stay with the peloton when you hit a hill, you might try some off season cross country skiing to build your quad strength, balance, and lower body muscle control. Is basketball your thing but your shoulders are sore after a practice or a game? Try indoor climbing to build flexibility and rotator cuff strength.
Once you get the hang of how cross training can work for you, the possibilities are endless, and there's sure to be a great selection of cross training sports and activities that will help you stay healthy and even improve your performance!
Have these five science-backed benefits of cross training convinced you to add some variety to your training? If you’ve branched out into other sports to help prevent injury, improve your performance, or just keep your motivation going, we’d love to hear about it. Maybe you’ve even become a serious and successful multi-sport competitor through cross training!