Importance of Cross Training in Endurance Athletes

Endurance athletes like to believe in training specificity to the extreme. Meaning runners just like to run, swimmers just like to swim, triathletes just like to swim, bike and run, etc. But what many athletes don’t realize is that cross training can be just as beneficial to performance as the actual activity itself. Endurance sports cause lots of repeated stress on certain joints and muscles over an extended period of time. For example, a runner puts lots of stress on the knees when going for several hours a week. All this stress can lead to overuse injuries that are all too common in endurance athletes. These can manifest themselves in the form of runner’s knee, shoulder injuries in swimmers, and hip injuries in cyclists, just to name a few. Many of these injuries can be prevented with cross training and strength training.

I’ll start with cross training. Many things can qualify as cross training, which is just some kind of physical activity that isn’t the original sport. One example would be a runner taking to the pool or the bike on a day away from running to maintain or increase cardiovascular fitness while not involving things like ground impact forces that come with actually running. Cross training can give certain muscles a break from training while working different muscle groups to create a more well-rounded body composition. This also lets the body receive some much needed recovery in the primary sport’s muscle groups. For instance, a runner taking to the pool would give the athlete’s legs a break from the action while still getting a good upper body workout and improving cardiovascular fitness. This can help save the body from overuse injuries as well. With rested muscles, things like biomechanical inefficiencies and breakdowns tend to happen less, allowing athletes to maintain good form farther into workouts. My own experience, which is similar to many others, is a good example of this. I came from a running background, being a competitive cross country and long distance track athlete in high school. But volume of training miles tended to always wear down on my body, causing knee and hip injuries nearly every season. I would tend to get injured towards the end of a season, miss much of the off season, and get injured again after several weeks of running in the new season. Towards the end of my high school career, my coach suggested I look into triathlon for the sake of cross training. The swimming and cycling would keep my cardiovascular fitness at a high level while strengthening my upper body and quad muscles (muscle groups that are notoriously weak in runners) while giving my knees and ankles a break with reduced running volume. I tried it, reduced the number of days I was running nearly in half, haven’t had a running related injury in 5 years, and have actually drastically improved my 800 meter, mile, and 5k times from what they were when I was running in high school. My story is not uncommon and is actually how many triathletes get into the sport, either coming from a swimmer, runner, or cyclist background.

Strength training can also be considered a form of cross training. When working in the weight room, athletes can target specific motions that apply directly to the sport in order to fix muscle imbalances, movement inefficiencies, and strengthen the muscles used in the particular sport. For instance, a cyclist can do heavy squats and power specific leg exercises to increase the maximal amount of power he can produce when sprinting for the finish line on race day or help him match an attack from his competitors. A swimmer can increase core strength by doing stability exercises in the weight room to help him keep his trunk in the proper position through the duration of the workout. A runner can work on quick firing hamstring and calf muscles to keep a high turnover rate during workouts and races. All these things can help increase performance in the specific sport while only concentrating on one aspect at a time for specificity. Next time you have a day off, or are suffering from over training, take a side step and try doing some other activities!