Cross Training 101

exercise and chronic pain

So after over 4 and half years of recovering from CRPS, I have now re-joined an Athletics club and started training. While I have been slowly getting back to running and my fitness certainly isn’t up to scratch. The coach suggested I needed to run about 18km weekly but also to further improve my fitness I needed to do an extra cardio based cross training session.

This led me to the question:

What is Cross Training?

Cross training is when you add a workout into your training plan for your chosen sport that is not directly related to it for example doing swimming or cycling as part of your running training plan.

What are the pros?

Cross training allows you to increase your fitness without over-straining on repetitive movements that’s you normally do from your sport. If you’re already doing 2 or 3 hard sessions for your sport the chances are you will be using your muscles and joints in a very similar way in each session even if each session is structured differently. However if you cross train you will be able to work and develop strength in the same muscle that you need for your sport but due to the different biomechanics you can be safe from overuse, receptive strain style injuries. Research has identified 4 key contributing factors to over use injuries, which include inadequate recovery, biomechanical irregularities and muscular imbalances as well as improper footwear or equipment. Cross training will be beneficial to all these conditions minus the footwear, which may or may not be relevant to your chosen sport.

If you know you have a weakness, recovering from an injury or simply want to develop a particular muscle group, cross training maybe a more efficient way of achieving this goal. For example if you want to have stronger quadriceps and hamstrings while running will help develop these muscles, it’s not necessarily the best way to target these particular muscles. Cycling on the other hand primarily uses your quads and hamstrings to drive all movements and therefore would be working on average harder when cycling than running, which will lead to quicker conditioning of the muscle. Depending your individual situation and your muscle imbalances you could use cross training as a way to strengthening a weaker area at the same time as increasing your general fitness.

If one of your main goals of your training is to increase your fitness, cross training is an excellent option. At the end of the day; your cardiovascular system doesn’t really care the method of how you exercise as long as you are pushing your limits. Therefore taking the strain off certain muscle and joints by using them in a different way but still achieving your goal of increased fitness is a win win situation. Different sports will work your cardiovascular system a slightly different way for example swimming has a completely different breathing pattern than if you were to play tennis for example. A larger variety into how you push you cardiovascular system can only make you a more rounded athlete as a result.

While you may you love your sport it is all too easy to get bored with the same training plan and style of workouts day in and day out. Cross training will allow you to add some variety to your workouts at the same time as maintaining and improving your performance. For ideas on which sports are best for which check out my other blog post on crossing training.

What does the research say?

The research is rather mixed when it comes to cross training and increasing your performance in a particular sport with many stating that sticking to your sport is more beneficial.

However most of the research including a study by the University of Toledo in the US showed that there was the same improvement in performance regardless if some of the session were substituted with cross training. The study looked at athletes that instead of training 4 times a week for a 5km event they did two sessions of cycling and running. Both groups of athletes improved by 30 seconds on average. It is not alone others including the Universities of New Mexico and Cal State Northridge supported the notion that cross training will maintain and help your fitness as much as doing your chosen sport.

This is great news if you get injured, pregnant or are unable to do your sport at all or to the level as you would normally train but are able to other sports. It may give you more options in terms of a training plan. You may find that you are susceptible to getting an Achilles or plantar fascia injury for you increase your training over a certain amount. This is where cross training can be beneficial you can still do your mileage for a marathon for example without having to go for a large amount of long runs.

Cons?

While giving your body a break from your normal sport and the movement’s associated with it does mean it works the other way around. Poor form or less developed muscles that maybe stressed more when you cross training sport may lead you to acquiring a completely different set of injuries. This was the theory behind why the injury rate in collegiate swimmers actually increased when the added cross training into their training plan.

Furthermore at the end of the day if you want to get better at a certain sport then you need to be training on average 3 hard sessions a week in that sport. You wont get used to the sport any other way. This is particularly important if you sport is outdoors or can be affected by the environment, terrain or weather. While it may be nicer to train indoors when its raining and cold it won’t prepare you if then have to race in them. Cross training should be a way of supporting and supplementing your training not as a complete replacement for a session.

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