We all remember Bo Jackson and his epic cross training commercials from the 90s, and if you don’t you better ask somebody. He was touted as the greatest all-around athlete, and all he needed was one pair of shoes. You don’t need those shoes, but in today’s age of specificity does cross training still make sense for triathletes? The principles of specificity of training tend to show that greater improvements are made in running, cycling, and swimming by primarily spending your time in those disciplines. There are very few studies that actually show performance gains made through cross training in these individual sports especially in highly trained triathletes. So why in the world would you want to do it?
We came up with a few reasons:
This time of year means snow, ice, sleet and cold for much of the country. This means you’re stuck on a trainer or treadmill more often than not. It is, however, the perfect time of year for other activities such as Nordic skiing, snowshoeing, fat biking, Pilates and yoga. Substitute a few of each discipline with activities that are ideal for your region this time of year. Ideally, try to substitute like for like.
Strengthen imbalances and promote recovery
If you read our last article on off-season strength training, we listed exercises to help correct imbalances often caused by swimming, biking and running. A cross-training routine that focuses on your imbalances could help improve performance and help prevent injuries. Choosing low impact exercises such as Nordic skiing, skinning or the elliptical machine allow your body to recover from all the pounding it took this season.
Keep your competitive edge
There’s nothing worse than hopping in your first meaningful XTERRA of the season only to realize you forgot how to suffer. Winter events can really help you keep your competitive edge without the stress of under-performing or racing below a certain standard you have set for yourself. If I race a 10k or half marathon, I have a time in the back of my head I want to achieve even if I say it doesn’t matter. However, if I do an event where it’s hard to compare times such as snowshoe, mountain/fat bike, trail running, obstacle course, Nordic, or SUP events I can compete without having a standard time in the back of my mind. You still get to suffer and compete, but without the extra pressure.
Refresh the mind
You’ve been doing the same three disciplines for months on end. Keeping up 3+ swims, bikes and runs per week all indoors, can lead to staleness before the season starts. You don’t want to lose all your fitness, but you want to cut back and keep your sanity. Take advantage of your winter environment by performing at least a couple outdoor activities each week.
Cross training can be fun and social. Find local groups that are doing the cross-training activities you want to do or learn something new. Hop in local events put on by your local running, cycling and Nordic clubs. This is a great way to meet people in your area that are as crazy as you are!
We are not saying that you will become a faster swimmer, biker or runner by incorporating cross training, but you can build a bigger engine that can be translated to sports specific speed later. Conquering challenging terrain on snowshoes, pushing against the resistance of a fat bike, or reaping the aerobic benefits of Nordic skiing can all help make you a stronger endurance athlete as long as you are maintaining some specificity of training in swim, bike and run.
I have often welcomed the winter months because of the cross-training opportunities around Vail. Living in the mountains in Colorado, I have been fortunate that there are so many ways to get a good aerobic workout with less impact than pounding pavement. My go-to cross training modes are snowshoeing/microspiking, Nordic skiing, fat biking, and occasionally skinning. Many know that I spend a lot of structured time on the CompuTrainer, but I also like the balance of getting outside with some sort of vertical component. The cardiovascular benefits of snow-running up mountains in the winter are huge. Often I perform net elevation gain runs by downloading chairlifts to get all of the aerobic benefit without the eccentric downhill. On groomed snow I wear Kahtoola Microspikes and for the trails and softer snow I wear Northern Lites snowshoes. I try to get out once a week on skate skis and/or once a week on the fat bike. For all of these modes, my perception is that it feels much easier to get my heart rate up for a sustained amount of time, therefore achieving a similar aerobic benefit without the intense focus sometimes required indoors. I believe winter cross training has helped add to the longevity of my endurance racing career for many of the physical benefits mentioned above and also the psychological aspect.
Cross Training Do’s and Don’ts
- Gradually introduce your cross-training activities
- Substitute cross training in place of existing workouts
- Choose low impact activities that limit pounding
- Add more than 2-3 cross training sessions per week or 50% of weekly training volume
- Replace your long run with a cross training session
- Overdue activities that require a lot of lateral and stop and go movements such as basketball and soccer.
- Add cross training activities on top of existing workouts
A Few Recommended Cross Training Activities (depending on where you live)
- Nordic Skiing
- Elliptical Machine
- Stand Up Paddle Boarding
- Fat Biking
- A strength routine that focuses on your imbalances
- Obstacle Course Training
Josiah Middaugh is the reigning XTERRA Pan America Champion and 2015 XTERRA World Champion. He has a master’s degree in kinesiology and has been a certified personal trainer for 15 years (NSCA-CSCS). His brother Yaro also has a master’s degree and has been an active USAT certified coach for a decade. Read past training articles at http://www.xterraplanet.com/