Published on: 06-Mar-2023
Most of us have one or two favorite sports activities, and when we have free time, we want to spend it doing what we love – skiing, training for a marathon, or playing golf or tennis. However, when you participate in just one activity, you are using the same muscle groups and skills repetitively, which can limit your capacity for athletic growth and lead to overuse injuries. Cross training helps ensure you are strengthening parts of your body other than the muscles, joints and ligaments used in your primary athletic activity. And, typically, it will help improve your performance in your primary sport as well. For example, runners have strong legs and hips, but cross training can improve their speed by developing stronger muscles in their legs using resistance and weight training.
Research shows that athletes who cross train are more fit and less prone to injury. So even though you want to spend all your time on the golf course or basketball court, employing alternative exercises in your workout program can improve your performance overall and in your specific field of interest.
What is cross training?
Cross training is the use of activities outside the normal drills and exercises commonly associated with a sport, to achieve overall conditioning. It is an effective way of resting the body from the normal sport-specific activities while maintaining conditioning. Typically, cross training provides a break from the normal impact of training in a particular sport, thereby giving the muscles, tendons, bones, joints and ligaments a brief break, and the activity targets the muscles from a different angle or resistance and work to balance an athlete.
Some typical cross-training activities include weight training, swimming, cycling, running, and even skiing. Circuit training and plyometrics, which are activities that use speed and force of different movements to build muscle power, are also outstanding cross-training activities.
What are the benefits of cross training?
Research shows that athletes benefit from cross training in several ways. Here are the top five:
Improves overall fitness
- Cross-training conditions different muscle groups and allows you to vary the stress placed on specific muscles and even your cardiovascular system.
- After months of the same movements, your body becomes extremely efficient at performing those movements. While that is great for competition, it limits the amount of overall fitness you possess and reduces the actual conditioning you get while training. Rather than continuing to improve, you simply maintain a certain level of fitness.
Cross training is an important tool in the injury prevention program of athletes.
- It gives athletes the opportunity to train hard all year round without running the risk of overtraining or overuse injuries. The simple process of changing the type of training changes the stress on the body.
- Cross training gives the muscles used in the primary sport a break from the normal stresses put on them each day.
- Cross training also helps to reduce or reverse muscle imbalances in the body. For example, golfers, baseball pitchers, or an athlete who primarily uses one side of the body may develop an imbalance laterally between the two sides of the body, as well as in the shoulder girdle of the swinging, shooting, or throwing arm.
Improves stamina and aerobic capacity
- When athletes focus on only one activity, they tend to burn out after a while, and must stop and recharge. With cross training, you can switch to a different exercise when a particular part of your body is feeling sore, allowing you to continue the length of your training and increase your stamina.
- By expanding your aerobic capacity this way, over time you will find that your stamina improves.
Provides a mental boost
- Cross training reduces the boredom that can set in after months of doing the same sport or exercises
- It can reinvigorate athletes, and help them get excited about other sports and activities
- Learning new skill sets challenges the mind and builds self-esteem
Promotes quicker healing
- Cross training often allows your body to recuperate faster from injuries because alternative exercises may help improve the condition caused by your regular activity. For example, Achilles tendonitis, caused by overuse, can be improved by eccentric strengthening of the calf muscles.
- Employing alternative exercises not only gives your body the opportunity to heal from your previous activity, but in many cases will help stretch and strengthen parts of your body that are causing pain.
How to create a cross training routine
When you’re developing a cross-training routine, select exercises that require different movements than your preferred activity. For example, runners may want to include mountain biking to target leg muscles from different angles. Swimmers may use free weight training to develop and maintain strength levels, or they may incorporate rock climbing to keep upper body strength and endurance up.
To customize your personal cross-training routine, select exercises that include strength training, cardio, and flexibility and balance training. Depending on how often you work out, aim to use this cross-train routine at least once or twice a week.
Even if you’re a dedicated golfer, runner, or cyclist, if you aren’t cross-training, you could be setting yourself up for injury or mental burnout. Adding variety to your exercise routine will improve your overall fitness by working more muscle groups, improving agility and flexibility, and reducing muscle imbalances. And finally, participating in other activities will keep your mind sharp, reduce boredom, and keep you motivated to workout.
Authored by Zach Meeker, Research Assistant for Midwest Orthopaedics at Rush University Medical Center