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A beginner's guide to the importance of cross-training

Many individuals regularly run because they simply love running. Therefore, the idea of completing other training sessions during the week that are not running seems quite preposterous. Admittedly, I will put my hands up here and admit that, in some ways, I am guilty of this too. Never have I been one to enjoy getting on two wheels and spending a cardio session each week pedalling away, however I do try and incorporate spin and HIIT classes regularly into my routine to provide some variance. Swimming is another, excellent form of cross-training that is extremely low impact, making it an ideal way to get in cardio whilst allowing your body recover from the stress of running. When I first began running regularly, I had no idea cross-training was even a term, let alone quite an important part of a training plan. Therefore I am hoping this post may provide a bit more clarity on what cross-training is and why and when you should be adding it into your fitness routine.

What is cross-training?

Firstly, lets address the key question here, what actually is cross-training? In essence, it's introducing another sport/training method into your routine that ideally supports your goals within your main sport. Athletes use cross-training to improve performance in one form of exercise by training using another form. For example, you could add yoga in alongside your running schedule in order to improve on your mobility and flexibility and strengthen your core. Generally, cross-training should strive to either improve your cardio, strengthen your muscles or help speed up your recovery and it can be either high or low intensity activities. Even walking can be classed as a form of cross-training since it can help promote recovery after a high intensity session, therefore can be great to add in to your active recovery days.

Why should you cross-train?

Whilst cross-training can be highly beneficial in improving general, overall fitness levels, there are also other reasons that it can be extremely key in an athletes exercise regime.

Injury prevention

Cross-training can be a great way to prevent injuries occurring, especially injuries that arise from overuse of certain muscles or joints. Continually only pursuing the same activity may result in muscle imbalances in your body that can likely lead to injury or, simply, overuse injuries such as 'Runner's Knee'. Cross-training is an effective way to try and limit or alleviate these imbalances. One study found that athletes who specialising in only one sport had an 85% higher chance of getting injuries than those who did multiple activities. Cross-training can make you a more well-rounded athlete, and in doing so can ensure you build strength in all of the right places. Additionally, purposely adding resistance exercises as a form or cross-training will increase muscular strength and endurance and ultimately help to prevent injuries occurring.

On the same note, if you do gain a physical injury or experience signs of overtraining, cross-training can be an excellent method during rehabilitation periods. It often allows athletes to maintain, or even improve on, performance during their road to recovery. This is because you can still exercise through utilising different muscles or parts of your body and ensure no pressure or stress is inflicted where the injury has occurred. However, you should always consult with your GP first on which exercise you should and should not be doing in order to recover quickly and effectively.

Performance enhancement

Utilising cross-training sessions can also show great benefits for your sporting performance. Many studies have shown this in action, for example one study that tested adding swimming to baseline running versus just continual running found that those in the swimming condition improved greatly on their time trial performance in comparison. Additionally, cyclists implementing a strength training routine were found to have great improvements due to an increase in endurance and flexibility, particularly in their sprinting and climbing ability.

Similarly, as mentioned before, cross-training has been found to increase muscular endurance and aerobic endurance which ultimately has positive influences on an athletes performance in their sport due to an improved, all round physical fitness. Although other types of training are advised in order to see greater levels of performance improvement, this increase in overall fitness is a great way to build a strong base and begin seeing positive influences in your sport.

Which activities can I use to cross-train?

I've mentioned a few during this post, but there are really endless different activities you can use as a cross-training method. Anything that provides benefits in cardio, endurance, strength or recovery. For runners in particular, the most common sports to add in to your schedule are probably cycling and/or swimming. Of course, adding strength training is also essential but it is often advised that isn't your only form of alternative training. Studies have found that outdoor cycling and eBike cross-training are one of the most effective modalities to incorporate into training in order to improve on your running performance. So, if you're like me and don't enjoy getting out on two wheels on the road, opt for a good session a bike at the gym or a high intensity spin class to help boost your cardiovascular fitness.

HIIT is another form of exercise that I think many people overlook when considering cross-training, yet it also provides excellent benefits to your overall fitness levels. As previously mentioned, Yoga is also an excellent addition to your routine since it helps with flexibility, recovery, strength, breathing and mindfulness - if you're interested in learning more about how Yoga aids running then give this post a read! Yoga is also incredibly low impact, which makes it an ideal alternative to heavy strength training after some intense training sessions or if you're experiencing niggles you wish not to aggravate.

If you'd like more information on some examples of specific, different forms of exercise you could be incorporating into your schedule and how they could align with your fitness goals, then check out this article.

Additionally, if you want to start increasing your strength training but aren't sure where to start, this blog has loads of useful tips in how to craft your own home workout routine - perfect for if you're still not back in a gym.

Do you have another sport or activity that you love, besides running? Personally, alongside the gym and classes, I love going bouldering/indoor climbing (even though I am definitely not very good at it). But, sadly, it's something I haven't done since before lockdown! Let me know your other favourite sporting hobbies in the comments.

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