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Cross training: what it is, how it helps and the best kind

Get the scoop on cross training benefits, straight from a sports doctor, and the best cross training workouts. I also shared how you can improve your running and reduce your risk of injury by adding cross training to your weekly workouts! 

If you run, you’ve likely run into an injury, right? IT Band problems. Glute issues. Plantar Fasciitis. Shin Splints. We’ve all been there. These injuries are often caused by overuse and could be prevented by modifying your training and/or adding in cross training workouts.

Whether your primary sport is running, biking, bootcamping, CrossFitting or doing all the workout things, there are areas of your body that get neglected by doing that workout and other areas that get overused. And that’s particularly where cross training can come in handy.

What is cross training?

Cross training is simply doing a different workout than you normally do. So if you’re primarily a runner, cross training is anything that’s not running.

Depending on your main type of workout, there may be different types of cross training workouts that will benefit you more than others. We’ll dig into that in this post! But first, let’s address why cross training is important.

running on long branch trail winston salem

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Cross training benefits

  • Injury prevention
  • Improved overall fitness
  • Active recovery
  • Preventing burnout

I know the importance of cross training first hand. When I was struggling with plantar fasciitis, cross training became one of my main roads to recovery.

I recently spoke with Dr. Patrick King from Novant Health about the benefits of cross training and it was so helpful to hear his perspective. A lot of times we know we should or shouldn’t be doing, but we just need someone else to call it out for us. And better understanding WHY makes me much more likely to implement something!

How does cross training help?

When you’re doing the same kind of workout day in and day out — let’s say running — you’re constantly using the same muscle groups and the same dynamics in your gait.

You start to get in to a comfortable zone. Your muscles get strong in those areas. You get better at running, and your body finds ways to cut corners — knowing or unknowing — to become even faster and more efficient, Dr. King shared.

The problem is while you’re getting really good at one thing, you are neglecting other muscle groups, again, perhaps unknowingly. Imagine if you only lifted weights with one arm. The other arm would be weaker, of course. Cross training makes up for those little errors in our training where we’ve cut corners.

Continuing the analogy, in order to be strong as a whole, we’d need to lift with both arms…and also not forget other parts of our body that are important for building arm muscles (back, shoulders, core). It all works together. The same applies with any type of workout and any body part.

Dr. King suggests shifting your thinking from “I’m getting so fast and my legs are strong” to a bigger picture question, “How is my overall strength in all areas?”

Because without that balance, you set yourself up for chronic overuse injuries. Overuse injuries are SUPER common among all athletes, but especially so with those who participate in just one activity and/or specialize early (e.g. high school athletes).

 

Cross training helps prevent overuse injuries

Let’s dive into what overuse really is.

If the breakdown of your body is greater than the repair process, an overuse injury will occur. This happens over a period of time, pretty slowly. And you usually don’t realize what’s happening until it’s really bad, and by that time, it’s hard to deal with.

Dr. King pointed out that we aren’t just talking about muscle groups. We’re talking tendons, muscles, bones and even joints. All of those areas can be prone to overuse injuries.

A good rule of thumb is to remember the 4 basic principles of training:

  • Overload
  • Specificity
  • Frequency
  • Intensity

When you try to rapidly increase one or many of those (e.g. increasing mileage AND adding speedwork into your workouts), you’re more likely to run into overuse injuries. If you try to return to workouts or a specific level of fitness too quickly after an injury, again, overuse injuries may flare.

When I was training for the 2018 Boston Marathon and also still trying to do CrossFit regularly, overuse injuries starting flaring like crazy – hamstring tendinopathy, plantar fasciitis, lower back issues, quad strain, you name it. That’s part of the reason I ultimately ended quitting up CrossFit entirely.

There are some modifiable factors involved in overuse injuries, and some that can’t be modified.

Non-modifiable factors include, for example, having a prior injury or women who are at an increased risk of tendinopathy. Those are simply situations that can’t be changed. Facts.

Modifiable factors include imbalances (e.g. too focused on one thing, unbalanced muscle strength, etc.), biomechanics (e.g. overstriding), and your training load (e.g. doing too much too fast).

The things that are modifiable are what we need to focus on.

What activities are considered cross training?

Anything that isn’t your primary activity could be considered cross training. So if you’re a runner, cycling would be cross training. If you’re a bootcamper who never runs, an easy run could be considered cross training. And so on.

However, there are certain activities that are universally accepted as cross training since they’re all low-impact and strengthen often-neglected muscles, including:

  • swimming,  pool running, water aerobics – the water removes impact while still getting your heart rate up
  • biking – this especially helps reduce the risk of stress fractures in foot and hip, which runners are prone to
  • core stability, including yoga, tai chi
  • hiking
  • strength training
    • Note: Dr. King called out that for endurance athletes, higher reps with lower weight will be more beneficial than heavy weights and low reps if your goal is to improve the muscle fibers for endurance (Type 1 muscle fibers… more on that in another post!)

What’s the best cross training workout?

Like almost anything in life, you’re more apt to continue cross training if you are doing something you like. It’s really easy to stop when you’re miserable. So pick an activity you enjoy!!

I personally HATE biking unless it’s an indoor bike – away from cars and without the risk of falling off – so that’s never going to be my cross training pick. And while I’m not a strong swimmer at ALL (i.e. I failed swim lessons as a kid three years in a row), I’ve taken water aerobics classes and really enjoy it.

But yoga, hiking and strength training are my FAVORITE activities when I’m not running – bonus points that they’re also great cross training!

afoodiestaysfit fire tower hike

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Does cross training make you a better runner?

It certainly can.

If you get injured less, that’s more uninterrupted time in your training to make progress.

If you strengthen your glutes and hamstrings, you’ll power up hills better, which will help you run faster on a race course that’s not pancake flat.

When you’re 10 miles into a half marathon or 22 miles into a marathon, all sorts of muscle groups start to fatigue. Shoulders, core, hips. If you can strengthen all the muscle groups (not just your quads!), your form will hold up longer, which will help you run faster for a longer period of time.

When I think back to times when running felt a bit more effortless, I was doing yoga or CrossFit or bootcamp. Yes, I’ve had PRs since I’ve removed those from my workouts, but I had added in lots of hip, ankle and core stability exercises. But is there room for improvement still? YES.

I went to yoga 3x last week and it was pitiful to compare my practice to what it was 5-7 years ago. But hey, that’s what happens when you stop going! And yes, adding CrossFit back into my routine would likely be beneficial – in moderation. It’s unreasonable to want to train for a marathons at a high level and also hit deadlift or back squat PRs at CrossFit each time (which, of course I wanted to do).

crosstraining

shorts | bra

The bottom line

Look at the BIG picture.

For most people (unless your job depends on running a fast marathon!), the biggest thing is enjoying fitness and good health for as long as possible. And cross training plays a role in that.

The goal is to find something you enjoy. Think 20 to 40 years down the road when may you have arthritis… you may not be able to run or bike or whatever at the level you’d like. So make sure you find a cross training activity you enjoy to help supplement your true workout love if you have to reduce activity.

Do you cross train? If so, what’s your go-to? If not, why not?

My biggest challenge is TIME. All things considered I would pick running over anything else and there is only so much time in a week to work out. But, if I schedule a cross training workout on my calendar like any other meeting, I’m much more likely to do it – so I do that every Sunday! My go-to’s these days are strength training (on my own, not at CrossFit) and I’m hoping to get back in the habit of yoga!

If you want to learn more about staying healthy and avoiding sports-related injuries, be sure to download the free guide from Novant Health here.

This post was sponsored by Novant Health. A big thank you to them for not only supporting my blog, but also supporting me and my readers in reaching our running goals and living long, healthy lives!

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1 Comment

  • Reply
    Kellie
    at

    My XT of choice is definitely swimming now, but my boyfriend and I go on long bike rides when we can. I do yoga daily in some capacity, usually restorative and gentle varieties now, and the elliptical has become less of a chore since it ultimately allowed me to train during my failed Big Sur training cycle (I credit that machine for helping me finish the marathon!)

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