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
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 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
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.