Originally published on HVMN by Nate Martins
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 improving 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 incorporate 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 a 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 work out 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 maybe 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 runs, 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 a 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 the 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.
Supplementing recovery may help expedite that process and get you back in the saddle faster. HVMN Ketone has been shown to improve recovery by decreasing the breakdown of intramuscular glycogen and protein during exercise (when compared to carbs alone).5 It also expedi