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Does cross-training work?

Posted by: pshields on Thursday, November 13, 2008 - 10:00 AM Print article Printer-friendly page  Email to a friend

Does cross-training work?

By: Dr Bridget Farham

10 Nov 2008

With tri-and duo-athlete events gaining in popularity it is reasonable to suppose that there is something to be said for cross-training, even if you don't see yourself actually competing. If you are a pure runner, cyclist or swimmer, can cross-training help you?

There seem to be conflicting ideas. Some authorities say that you should train exclusively for your sport, others see benefit in cross-training. Unfortunately most of the scientific studies carried out are on untrained people, so it's difficult to hypothesise on the effects of cross-training on elite athletes.

But it's elite runners who have contributed most to the growth of the triathlon since the mid-1980s.

They have shown themselves to be not only be top class runners, but excellent swimmers and cyclists as well. However, those of us who are recreational 'athletes' will do well to remember that elite athletes in any sport are always going to outclass us. So don't use cross-training as part of the road to overtraining.

Cycling and running

Does cycling help or hinder running performance? The 'Lore of Running' by Tim Noakes is unclear on this as there have been no specific studies. Certainly a lot of runners also cycle and vice versa.

Noakes feels that young competitive runners should only run and that cycling will actually hamper their running performance.

But for older runners training for the marathon and ultramarathon, cycling may give the metabolic demands of distance running without the risk of muscle damage or injury.

In fact, Tim Noakes feels that cycling is best for those runners whose training is limited by injury. Certainly, elite triathletes run lower weekly distances than pure runners, possibly because cycling aids their running performance.

Can running help you if you are a cyclist? Mark Beneke in 'The Lore of Cycling' (Oxford University Press, 1989) feels that "an all-round well-conditioned cyclist will usually outperform the 'pure' cyclist," as long as road mileage is not sacrificed.

He suggests circuit training, stretching exercises, weight training, mountain biking and swimming.

If you have time to fit all that in, and still cycle, you are probably an elite athlete anyway!

I think that for the recreational athlete one of the most beneficial aspects of cross-training is that you don't get bored with your sport.

After a season of doing nothing but cycling or running it is sometimes necessary to change to something different such as circuit training to prevent yourself from giving up training altogether.

Weight training

Weight training is popular with most athletes and has particular benefits to women and older people in general, since it can help prevent osteoporosis and slow the inevitable loss of muscle mass as we get older. So even if you do not feel that you are remotely competitive in your sport add regular weight training to your programme.

Studies have shown that resistance training in the form of weight training has definite benefits for cyclists.

Dynamic muscle strength is an essential component of competitive road cycling which requires anaerobic and short-term power output such as attacking, responding to an attack, climbing a short steep hill or sprinting.

In fact, in studies in the USA, increases in endurance cycling capacity have resulted in increases in the lactate threshold, or turnpoint. These results are applied particularly to resistance training specific to the leg muscles.

Mark Beneke also suggests concentrating on strengthening not only the leg muscle groups used in cycling, but also the triceps (upper arms), deltoids (shoulders), back muscles and abdomen. Certainly if these muscles are strong, cycling long distances is a lot more comfortable because you use them more than you realise.

It seems logical that weight training should help distance runners, since muscle strength is needed to sprint in the final minutes, cope with an attempt to overtake, and climb hills.

The literature shows that the fastest long-distance runners have the most powerful muscles. There is certainly some recent evidence to suggest that weight training can improve running economy, that is, resistance-trained runners may be able to run for longer.

However, the literature on running and weight training is far from clear, and I think that it is best to make up your own mind as to whether you feel that weight training is of benefit.


Can weight training help with endurance swimming, that highly aerobic sport? There are many studies showing that upper body strength is one of the main determinants of distance swimming performance.

But it seems that conventional weight training is not specific enough to improve swimming performance.

The dynamics of muscle work and movement in water is completely different from that in air. So swimmers should concentrate on swim-specific resistance training such as biokinetic swim bench training, reverse current hydrochannel swimming and in-water devices which athletes push off from while swimming.

So if you are an elite athlete then seek the advice of your coach. If you are more recreationally inclined then follow your instincts and, above all, enjoy whatever you chose to do.

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