What is Cross Training?
Cross training is defined as exercising in a way that minimizes the shortcomings of your usual athletic endeavor by emphasizing aspects of physical fitness that it may not include. That could mean training in a sport that is different than your own (or your main sport), or targeting muscles and muscle groups that don’t get as utilized in your regular routine. It can also mean training aerobically versus anaerobically, or vice versa.
The main reasons for incorporating cross training into your normal regimen include reducing risk for injury and to improve overall physical fitness in a balanced way. Cross training can also allow you to continue to challenge yourself outside of your normal sport or outside of your usual ways if you’re recovering from injury. In addition, cross training and changing your normal work-out routine serve to challenge your body in a different way, which minimizes the training effect (ie your body improving in a sport-specific function because of your training, which, while desirable, may only allow for progress in that specific area) and enhances overall fitness.
How do you do it?
It’s important to maintain a balanced approach for your overall fitness now and for your future self. Most injuries come from overuse, injuries that no athlete is immune to. If you are looking to target certain muscle groups that you don’t normally utilize in your own sport, you first need to examine what IS required.
For example, if you’re a cyclist, cross training in more of a weight bearing position may be beneficial, especially if you’re someone who doesn’t tend to stand much as you ride. I know several runners who cross-train by swimming. Football players who spend a lot of time in the weight room might also benefit from yoga or Pilates to balance strength with flexibility. Dancers often benefit from turning in at the hips so as to not lose this motion (especially ballet dancers).
Outside of targeting certain muscle groups, you can also cross train by working aerobically, anaerobically, or using interval training, depending on what your main sport is. Sprinters and weightlifters would benefit from cross training aerobically since their sports are anaerobic. As walking is more aerobic (especially on relatively flat surfaces), cross training with something short and intense would challenge their anaerobic system. Many athletic endeavors contain both aerobic and anaerobic moments, such as skiing, soccer, and gymnastics.
In that case, you may think, “Great! I’m already getting both,” which is true.
But interval training outside of practice can continue to benefit such groups. You can even alternate cross training methods to target both systems by working aerobically one day and anaerobically at your next work-out. Some examples of aerobic activity include hiking or long-distance jogging (on fairly level surfaces), or other activities that probably come to mind when you think “cardio”.
Anaerobic activities include things like sprinting, burpees, and squat jumps. Interval training usually involves bouts of intense, anaerobic exercise interspersed with periods of lower-intensity, aerobic exercise or rest periods. Some people may walk for a period of time, then sprint for a period of time, and then return to walking. Some may do high intensity intervals, such as a set of squats for 30 seconds, followed by a set of jumping jacks for 30 seconds, followed by a set a push-ups for 30 seconds, and repeat these sets multiple times. We’ll look deeper into some of these training methods (and others) and the science behind them in a different blog post, as the focus of this one is the science of cross training in general.
A word on stress
I’d be remiss here if I didn’t mention exercise and stress. I’m not talking about how exercise can help reduce stress and improve mood (which it can); I’m talking about what type of exercise you should or shouldn’t be doing depending on your current stress levels.
Most of us in Western civilization tend to be on the go all the time. Stress is inescapable, and seemingly seeps into our lives at every turn. Be aware of how much you push your limits to achieve your goals. It’s sometimes easier that one might think to quiet that internal voice telling you to rest. If this becomes habit, overtraining results, and burnout can occur quickly.
If you know that you are already overtaxed and overstressed, you risk injury if you keep pushing. You risk injuring not only your muscles, but you also risk HPA axis dysfunction (hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis), which in turn can impact your immune system, digestion, mood, energy storage and expenditure, and sexual function in a negative way. We’ll go more into this in a future blog post, but for now, just know that if you’re feeling overly tired and run-down all the time, high intensity cross training may not be the best option for you. Opt for things like hiking in nature and restorative yoga for the time being and return to more rigorous activities once you feel restored and resourced.
What does all this mean?
No one is saying to stop doing your favorite sport or activities you love. Practice will always help you hone your craft and be an integral part of your training for as long as you wish it to be. That being said, cross training outside of your favorite exercise or sport, even if only once a week, can reduce risk for overuse injuries, allow for some activity during rehab or recovery, lead to overall improvements in physical fitness, and can even enhance your primary sport. Make sure to include it somewhere in your life. Heck, you may even find a new passion!
Want to know more about exercises or types of training you can incorporate into your current exercise regimen? Stay tuned!