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Get the cross-training edge

By Lisa Regan

If you're a devotee of any sport or activity that requires a high degree of cardiovascular fitness, you're probably always aiming to increase your edge. But getting into that next level can be tough. Many people spend long hours working harder and harder on their sport or activity of choice, only to hit a plateau that they just can't break.

Should you increase your mileage, boost your training hours to the max, or get up even earlier to prove your commitment? At some point you're going to max out those methods. You may even hurt yourself. It might seem strange, but the answer could lie in doing something completely different.

Welcome to cross-training.

The Benefits of Cross-training
The term "cross-training" is bandied about a great deal these days, and most of us think of it as just doing a variety of exercises to promote a general, overall fitness. That is certainly one purpose of cross-training. But cross-training is also used by most competitive athletes to improve their edge in specialized athletic disciplines.

Cross-training addresses three primary fitness issues:

  1. Proper muscle balance: Intensive training in a single discipline encourages the development of some muscle groups while neglecting others. The constant repetitive action of running, for example, means that runners tend to have tight, over-developed hamstrings. Cross-training can help to correct such imbalances, giving you the core strength you need to push through fatigue and helping to prevent injury.
  2. Better muscle response: Cross-training helps to elicit a better muscle response even within those muscle groups developed by your target exercise. The body becomes highly efficient at conserving energy in any exercise to which it becomes accustomed. Firing your muscles in different patterns than their normal ones forces them to readapt; they thus work harder—building strength—and become more responsive—building speed. Both help to develop resilience that can be utilized when you return to your usual exercise and when you "hit the wall" in intense sessions.
  3. Less psychological burnout: Cross-training helps to fight the inevitable periods of boredom that can hamper any exercise routine. Boredom not only threatens your will to persist with your training, it also causes you to put less effort into each workout, leading to diminishing returns. Cross-training can add the spark of enthusiasm that pushes you on.
Building a Cross-Training Plan That Works
A proper cross-training program helps you build a stronger, more balanced, and more flexible body. Devin Wicks, ACE, AFAA, a fitness operations director at the University of California, Berkeley, and specialty strength coach for some of the University's premier sports teams, says, "Every workout plan—for every level of athlete—should have a strength component with appropriate days of recovery; a cardiovascular program which changes intensities and modalities; and a flexibility component."

Contrary to popular belief, cross-training does not mean depriving yourself of intense training in your favorite sport. What it does mean is varying the modalities of your exercise routine. One of your modalities is your target discipline, and you can cross-train within it. For example, if you're a runner, integrate sprints within your longer run; for cyclists, make sure to do both hill and flat training.

But you will also want to develop a more comprehensive routine, one that goes outside your own discipline. For this you should have a strength component—at least two days per week in the weight room, or at the very least a couple of sets of push-ups and core training exercises before you set out on a run. You also want a flexibility element, for which yoga classes, increasingly popular at most gyms, are ideal.

For running, cycling, and other cardio-intensive sports and activities, Wicks suggests a varied training regimen like the one below. The actual days (Monday, Tuesday, and so on) aren't important; what is important is that you build in enough rest and recovery between similar workouts such as strength training to prevent overtraining:
  • Monday/Wednesday/Friday: Hit the weight room, with at least one exercise for each major muscle group. (Visit the Strength Training section of RealJock to learn more about building a strength-training regimen that meets your needs.) You can be efficient about this and develop a circuit. For improved flexibility, do a long stretch or, if you have time, a yoga class. If you want cardio, do either a less intense session of your target discipline or, better yet, a different kind of cardio-vascular activity. Runners, go swimming; swimmers, go biking. Best of all, try taking a class like aerobics or spinning, which will give you a great cardiovascular workout with the added push of group instruction with a licensed instructor.
  • Tuesday/Thursday/Saturday: Do intensive training in your target discipline. Here is where runners hit the pavement and cyclists take to the hills; whatever your sport, be sure to put in the hours and focus on getting the most out of your training.
  • Sunday: Rest and relax. It's important to give your body at least one day of recovery per week to allow for muscle recovery and prevent overtraining injuries.
The biggest pleasure of cross-training lies in creating an individual program that suits your schedule and interests. It's your time for trying new things and exercising your curiosity. But as you develop your personal program, remember that the strength component in any cross-training regimen is what provides the extra edge. "Repeatedly training different cardio-vascular activities alone will result in increased cardiac output just because of the variety—but overall ability to perform doesn't necessarily get trained," says Wicks. "The muscle fibers worked in strength training are what gives strength and final push in a pinch—like at the end of a race."

If you're looking for that final push in a pinch, cross-training is the way to go.

Lisa Regan is a freelance writer and aerobics instructor at the University of California, Berkeley.