Dedicated training is something to be admired. Many athletes strive for the ability to get up and get out every single day whether it’s for a specific race or event or even, simply driven by a goal. Often that can mean adhering to a training plan based on both repetition and incrementally increased difficulty–monotony and overuse be damned.
But you may get hurt. Or plateau. Or experience a disruption in your training schedule. These can all be detrimental to accomplishing a goal. Then there’s also that inevitable boredom of doing the same training day in and day out. You swear that footprint on the trail was yours from yesterday.
Enter cross-training, an exercise program usually employed outside of these intense training blocks to add some variance (physically and mentally) to workouts. It keeps the body guessing, and has many athletes reap the benefits for their main sport: decreased injury potential, and added strength to the most-used muscles.
Here, we’ll detail the science behind cross-training, how to work it into your schedule, and some new exercises to try. Your main sport will thank us.
This is Your Body on Cross Training
Simply put, cross-training is training in another discipline in improve your main sport. The options are almost limitless–runners can strength train, swimmers can paddle board, cyclists can do yoga. The goal is to supplement your main sport with training that’s beneficial for certain muscles, movements, or even, your brain and mood.
For most athletes, the inclusion of cross-training into a workout plan is triggered by an injury sidelining them from regular training. I was no different–hours of basketball and running led to knee pain (from patellar tendonitis, known as “runner’s knee” or “jumper’s knee”) . But I was stubborn. When I should have stopped the joint-pounding activities, I continued to beat them like a drum. It got to a point where the pain wasn’t worth the workout; but I couldn’t give up working out all together. So I started swimming and incorporating yoga into my routine, which delivered positive and painless results.
Turns out, I’m not alone. Up to 56% of recreational runners experience injuries, with most of those relating to the knee.1 Supplements can help (like glucosamine, which promotes the development of cartilage), but up to 75% of those are overuse injuries.1
Since a majority of injuries happen due to time dedicated to a single sport, cross-training can help prevent injuries for the simple fact that it forces athletes to spend less time training singularly. Cross-training doesn’t just maintain activity by reducing the risk for injury–it also can increase performance.
A study of 27 male runners were assigned one of three different resistance-training regimens (in addition to their normal endurance training): heavy resistance, explosive resistance or muscle endurance training. In all three groups, running endurance performance increased.2 The heavy-lifting group in particular saw improvements to high-intensity running characteristics, like sprinting at the end of the race.2
The benefits of cross-training aren’t just physical; there’s also a potential mental benefit of switching it up. Mental fatigue can impact physical workouts–you may be less likely to workout knowing that you’re facing the exact same exercise every day. Especially if an athlete is in-season or training for a specific event, cross-training can provide an exciting challenge. It’s easy to be training heads-down; cross-training can help you see the forest between the trees.
Implementing Cross Training
Divorce yourself from the idea that cross-training takes away from your regular training schedule. While you’ll inevitably be spending time away from your sweetheart sport, absence makes the muscles grow stronger.
There are three main groups of cross-training for endurance athletes: strength training, aerobic low-impact work and aerobic impact work, and each can be part of a cross-training program.
Touching upon all major muscle groups is important for effective strength training.
Incorporating strength training into an endurance regimen can enhance physical fitness, as it did in this meta-analysis of distance runners.3 Even just 30 minutes per week, once or twice a week, can suffice. And it doesn’t necessarily have to be done in a gym; you can take the at-home approach to incorporating plyometrics or things like push-ups.
Regardless of where you strength train, a full-body workout will maximize the time you spend training. Consider hitting all the major muscle groups such as arms, chest, shoulders, back, core and legs (more on this later).
Aerobic Low-Impact Work
Probably the reason many athletes experiment with cross-training: take stress off those weary joints and reduce injury risk.
Low-impact activities or no-impact workouts can be done two or three times as week. It’s easily implemented, as it can replace an active recovery day or even a harder workout day depending on the exercise; so for those who think they’re losing gains because of cross training, you may actually find yourself enjoying the cross training more than your main exercise.
Cycling, swimming and rowing are some of the most popular low-impact workouts. For flexibility and core exercises, yoga and pilates are go-tos. And you may even be able to workout longer and more frequently using these types of workouts due to the lack of stress they cause the body (swimmers can work out every day, and they’re hitting all the major muscle groups). For example, if you planned on running 45 minutes, you could easily spend 70 minutes cycling.
Aerobic Impact Work
Maybe the reason you’re reading this article is because of too much aerobic impact work.
If you’re training, the amount of aerobic impact work will likely be higher (and may be your only focus during that training block). But in the off-season, or times when you’d like to give your body a break, aerobic impact work should be done once or twice a week. As a general rule, cross-training is meant to limit the impact on the body.
Typically, cross-training is meant to offer your body a break from the impact it faces during regular training. You can play team games, train run, circuit train or do CrossFit as a cross-training method, as the impact is likely different from your normal routine. But be mindful: any impact work still puts strain on the body.
The Importance of Rest
Before getting into the specific exercises to try, remember the need for rest. Your muscles are asking for it.
The goal of every training session is to break down muscle and without recovery, a portion of that work might be wasted. During recovery, the body begins the process of rebuilding what has been broken down.
Muscle protein synthesis can increase by as much as 50% in the hours after a workout, helping encourage muscle growth.4 Concurrently, muscle fibers are rebuilt. These processes are a normal part of exercise, and recovery allows the muscles to become stronger. Fluid restoration is also key, as it helps deliver nutrients to organs and muscles through the bloodstream. And acids (via that hydrogen proton associated with lactate) accumulate during workouts–so recovery provides time for the body to restore intramuscular pH and blood flow for oxygen delivery.
In-season, professional triathlete, Kelsey Withrow, is laser-focused on training. When she’s not training, it’s all about recovery.
“As a professional triathlete, I focus all my time on swimming, running and biking. The rest of the time is for recovery.“
Kelsey Withrow, professional triathlete
Even though cross-training is meant to give the body a break from regular training, it’s still is a source of stress and requires recovery time (or you might burnout). For most athletes, it’s difficult to slow down. Many of us are goal-oriented, hardworking and ultimately–a bit stubborn. Budgeting recovery time is essential, as is providing your body with the necessary fuel to recover properly.
Doing the same exercise can be mentally exhausting, leading to a mental fatigue that wears down on your desire to even do the workout. Research has shown that the mind is usually a good gauge of the body,7 with a mental strain reported by a questionnaire being closely related to stress signals in the hormones of the body. By switching it up with cross-training, and also ensuring rest days, the mind will get a chance to recharge too.
Now is the time to incorporate cross-training workouts. The exercises below touch on several different areas of exercise, from strength training to both low-impact and impact aerobic activities.
You can begin by folding in some additional exercises to your existing workouts. Runners may try hills or cyclists may try 30 second sprints–this isn’t cross-training exactly, it’s just extra training. The benefits of cross-training come with learning something new and focusing on different areas of the body that regular training can neglect.
Try working some of these exercises into your routine. It’s important to pick which is best for your personal needs.
A great whole-body workout, swimming is one of the low-impact exercises most often used for recovery or cross-training. Interestingly, reports show many people enjoy water-based exercise more than land-based exercise.8
Swimming works the whole body; it increases heart rate without the joint-pounding stress of running, it builds endurance and can also build and tone muscle. Because of these benefits, it’s a great option for recovery–a study showed that patients with osteoarthritis showed reduced stiffness, joint pain and overall less physical limitation.9
It also torches calories. Swimming has shown improved body weight and body fat distribution when compared to walking.10 An average person can burn almost 450 calories when swimming at a low or moderate pace for one hour. At increased pase, that could go north of 700 calories. For comparison, running for one hour at a leisurely pace burns about 400 calories.
To incorporate swimming into your cross-training routine, first find a place to swim. Then gather the necessary tools (like goggles, swim cap, fins, etc.), and brush up on form before jumping in the pool. Try it one to three times a week for 30 minutes to start.
Another low impact workout, cycling is a great way to reduce stress on those joint while still clocking in the aerobic hours.
Similar to swimming, cycling burns calories at an impressive clip, anywhere from 400 – 1,000 per hour depending on the intensity of the ride. And since cycling is also a resistance exercise, it’s not just burning fat–it also builds muscle.
A systematic review analyzed the benefits of cycling, showcasing a myriad of results. There was a positive relationship between cycling and cardiorespiratory fitness, cardiovascular fitness and general fitness.14 Whether on the road, the track, or in the gym on a stationary bike, the benefits of cycling as a cross-training mechanism stem from the fact it’s a low impact, muscle building, aerobic workout. It can help athletes train if they have experienced an injury.
There are several ways to train on a bicycle. You can ride hills to build muscle and strength, or do shorter sprints to build speed. There’s also an option for endurance, with riders cycling hundreds or thousands of miles over the course of a long session. For beginners, get a feel for the workout on a stationary bike. As you advance, visit a local bike shop to get your bike properly fitted.
Many endurance athletes don’t consider strength training as part of their workout routine, but it can help prevent injury while improving strength for your main sport. For runners, maybe that’s improved core strength for economy. For cyclists, maybe the outcome is a higher power output. Regardless of your sport, strength training is imperative to improving endurance for runners15 and cyclists.
In a study of postmenopausal women, high-intensity strength training exercises showed preserved bone density while improving muscle mass, strength and balance.16 It can also help prevent injury. In a study of soccer players who strength trained in the offseason, hamstring strains were lower (and that group also saw increases in strength and speed).17
“You spend so much time beating your body down in-season, but I find that I’m healthier and stronger when I lift. With long distance, being strong helps. I try to put on a lot of muscle during a short period of time.”
Kelsey Withrow, professional triathlete
A good strength training regimen will focus separately on different muscle groups. There are several options for lifters of all different levels, but starting with some simple bodyweight exercises (like push-ups or pull-ups) can allow you to build toward free weight training, weight machines, or rubber tubing. A meta analysis of periodized training–varying your strength training workouts–has shown results for greater changes in strength, motor performance and lean body mass.20 So don’t get stuck doing the same routine over and over again. A good way to push yourself is to incorporate overload training into some of that strength work.
If you’re strapped for time, a full-body workout once or twice a week (with dedicated recovery time) should suffice. Make sure to also spend some time nailing down form in the weight room, as improper form and too much weight can lead to injury.
An ancient practice designed to create a union between the body and mind, many athletes seek out yoga for its ability to increase strength and flexibility while also promoting mental health benefits.
Yoga can improve performance by targeting specific aspects of flexibility and balance–one study, which took place over the course of 10 weeks in male collegiate athletes, saw improvements in both balance and flexibility.21 In older adults, studies have shown improved balance and mobility.22 Strength is also a target of many yoga programs, especially in the core. Even a study in which a specific pose (sun salutation) was used six days per week for 24 weeks, participants saw increased upper body strength, weight loss and endurance.23
But with yoga, the body is only half the game. It has been shown to decrease cortisol levels (the stress hormone),24 along with the ability to lower levels of depression, stress and anxiety.25 There have even been studies which showed overall quality of life improvements in seniors.26 Maybe part of these mental benefits are linked to better sleep quality. One study illustrated that a group participating in yoga fell asleep faster, slept longer and felt more well-rested in the morning.27
Yoga isn’t an aerobic workout, but it stretches muscles, builds strength and has been shown to improve mood. Because it’s low-impact, yoga can be done every day. Typically gyms or studios have beginner classes, and they will typically last between 60 and 90 minutes. Athletes can use yoga as recovery days, so between one and three sessions per week would be perfect.
Remember: listen to your body. Athletes always want to push the limit, and many may scoff that yoga is difficult (compared, say, to running). But extending a stretch too far, or practicing yoga without learning form, can lead to injury.
There are different activities that may be considered cross-training, outside of the usual suspects we detailed above.
Hiking, for example, is a great way to build strength and get outside during a recovery day. Same goes with exercises like kayaking or stand-up paddle boarding28–these can help build upper body strength while encouraging an athlete to get out of their comfort zone (literally, and figuratively).
“I spend a lot of time training indoors, so getting outside is a lot of fun. I’ll do one long run per week outside, and I’ll bring my dog. It’s a reset for me.”
Kelsey Withrow, professional triathlete
We wouldn’t recommend team sports because there’s a risk of injury. But tennis might be an exception. While there are of course injury concerns with every sport and exercise, tennis has shown to improve aerobic fitness, lower body fat percentage, reduce risk for developing cardiovascular disease and improve bone health.29
For more passive cross-training, think about everyday things you can do to improve strength and balance. Even investing in a standing desk, or sitting on a medicine ball at work can encourage better posture and more movement overall.
Cross Training for Athletes
During peak training season, athletes feel the grind. You’re putting in the hours with a race or event or goal in mind, laboring over the same path, the same laps, the same routine, with little variance.
Cross-training is meant to serve as a break, but one that’s productive. It can be a break from your normal routine, both physically and mentally. But it can also invigorate the mind, providing it with a new task to learn, a new challenge to face. And of course, the physical benefits of testing the body in new ways are evident.
To incorporate cross-training, try one or more of these exercises a couple times a week. See how you feel. You’ll likely find one you enjoy more than others, one that maybe provides better results than the rest. It’ll take some time to find a balance.