The goal of most athletes is to become stronger, improve performance and avoid injuries. It is difficult to achieve all of these goals by training in one sport alone.
Cross training can add the missing link. As a new approach to an athlete’s workout routine, cross training can increase power, add flexibility, build stability and increase motivation.
Adding cross training to a workout routine can lead to endless training possibilities. For example, instead of going for a 45-minute run or a 2-hour bike ride, you can do 15 minutes of each and then add some weight training, rowing or yoga.
It is the variation of stresses to the athlete’s muscles while cross training that tricks both the muscles and brain into believing the body needs to be prepared for all of these sports in the future. These variations trigger new neuro-muscular adaptations or, in other words, new pathways from the brain to the muscles.
These pathways allow the muscles to respond to stress, adapt, and strengthen, thereby facilitating more efficient muscle firing patterns and improved overall balance.
As a result, the athlete’s body can grow and strengthen in ways that improve overall health and optimize performance in their favorite sport. With better efficiency, more strength and power, and greater training volume, cross training can boost the athlete’s fitness and speed. When athletes cross train, they tackle a more diverse and novel set of challenges. This allows them to be more complete athletes.
The best motivator for most athletes is performance enhancement. Consider the following example of how this performance enhancement works: Watch a fatigued runner in the final miles of a marathon. What do they look like? They are hunched over with their neck jutting forward, pelvis posteriorly rotated, and their legs barely lifting from the ground to initiate each stride.
As the hip flexors, abdominal stabilizers and back muscles fail, the runner’s ability to finish strong is impaired. The lack of trunk stabilization allows the center of mass to deviate from a balanced position, requiring more energy from the legs to stabilize the body. With cross training, this same runner could gain core stability, maintain balance and posture, and waste less energy—translating into more power with less energy expenditure and more effective forward motion.
For effective performance, core strength is essential. It allows for central stabilization of the body, which enables the maximum force to be ultimately generated by our extremities.
For instance, the baseball pitcher’s throwing strength starts with his legs and moves through his abdomen and back before even getting to his shoulder, arm, wrist and fingers.
The same is true for the push-off during running, the pull of swimming, or even the golf swing. Why is it that we swing our arms when we sprint? It’s because they help us to balance and drive our legs. We need strong and stable core muscles in order to transmit power through our kinetic chain.
Cross training in the form of yoga, Pilates, or weight training can build core strength and stability, which leads to more power for the athlete. Cross training not only brings about positive changes in physical fitness and reduces the chance of injury, it can also provide the athlete with new motivation.
It prevents boredom of the muscles as well as the mind. It helps to keep workouts from getting stale while sharpening reflexes. If variety is the “spice of life,” then cross training is the “spice of exercise.”
Here is a list of sports that you may be able to add to your own workout plan:
Skate skiing: quadriceps strength and balance
Classic skiing (aka “striding”): gluteus and triceps strength
Snowshoeing: hip flexor and gluteus strength
Inline skating: low back strength and balance
Rowing: upper back and quadriceps strength
Cycling: quadriceps and anterior tibialis strength
Yoga: core strength and flexibility at low impact
Pilates: core strength and power
Elliptical trainer: leg and arm strength at low impact
Circuit weights: functional strength wherever it’s needed
Rock climbing: upper body and core strength
Swimming: shoulder and arm strength
Deep water running: run strength with increased resistance and low impact
Paul Krause, MD, is a family physician at Tahoe Truckee Medical Group; a US and German Ski Team physician; Ironman Lake Tahoe Medical Director; and UC Davis Medical Center assistant clinical professor. He has competed in over 50 triathlons from sprint to Ironman distance, as well as Nordic ski races, open water swims and marathons.