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Cross Training

Cross training, can it help you? Well lets first determine who “you” are. This site has a diverse mix of training programmes, advice, workouts, tips, methods etc. That mix is made up of athletic training for any sport you can think of and also weight loss, training for the elderly, health and longevity and the list goes on.

Back to the original question; can cross training help you? Lets look at this from a broad perspective. We’ve covered specificity and training adaptations and the need to prescribe relevant training into a programme so as to produce a predicted result. Completely randomized workouts and group fitness classes will produce limited results. Having said that, most people, including athletes as well as the general population that simply want to “tone up”, lose weight and get healthy, tend to get tied up in a workout pattern and do the same things over and over again. This is a good thing and a bad thing.

When you train consistently your body develops adaptations in first, second and third waves. First wave adaptations are the raw physiological abilities in the broadest possible sense. So for example we take long distance running. A first wave adaptation would be the overall endurance, as in increased aerobic capacity at the central level, such as the heart size increase, the increased VO2 max etc. The first wave does not include running-specific changes.

Second wave adaptations are still physiological in nature, as in they occur on the physical and chemical level. So increased capillary density of the muscles used during running, increased size and density of mitochondria etc. This is running specific but has a slight cross-over effect into other areas. For instance if you take two people completely untrained, you put person A through an intensive running programme and person B does no extra activity at all. Neither of them have done any other exercise in the time of the programme. Persona A, even though he has done no cycling, will likely perform better at a cycling test than person B. This is mostly first wave adaptations, and somewhat second wave.

Third wave adaptations are both an extension of second wave and a biomechanical advantage, meaning that the nervous system is responsible for much of it. Using the running example for instance, by running consistently you will produce increased efficiency at that particular activity. So along with the other two waves of adaptations your stride will become more efficient and your muscles will be patterned essentially to run. This sort of adaptation carries over to absolutely nothing else besides the running. The same applies for anything else. If you cycle then you will be best at cycling, which makes perfect sense and now you know why.

What Does All This Have to do With Me?

As we have covered previously, in order to produce the best result for a given activity you must train specifically for it. Riding an indoor bike will have a small effect on aerobic fitness for running marathons, however it is not best practice.

But lets look at what happens when you are too specific in your training, meaning that you cover a large volume of training of a specific modality. This applies to athletes such as runners, swimmers and cyclists and also applies to the regular Joe at the gym doing a consistently similar programme throughout the months and years.

We’ll start by looking at the runner because this is a common feature in many exercise programmes, including ones that simply exist as a training modality for weight loss. When you run you produce the three waves of adaptation. This is great for the person wanting to compete in a running event and is also good as a yard stick for the non-athlete to measure progress. However if you stick to running year-round and don’t explore much else you will find that you begin to experience problems like sciatic nerve pain, shin splints, calf spasms etc. That’s because the runner is continuously repeating the same pattern of movement over and over and over and over again. Eventually it starts to take its toll and the body starts to give way by experiencing injuries. Some injuries are mild and they come and go, others are long term injuries that continue to get worse over time.

Now contrast that with the civilized and “safe” environment of the gym itself. Think of the cardio equipment and the fancy weight training equipment spread throughout. Machines are safe right? I mean with a machine it’s so much easier than free weights because you can’t drop them and strain muscles as easily. Ok, so lets analyse the chest press machine. You sit in a seat, put a pin in the stack and do a safe set with the handles traveling perfectly throughout the same path of movement without a single degree of variation.

Now take a look at the chest press’ effective big brother, the bench press. This is done with either a bar or dumbells. Every time you press the bar up it travels along a slightly different path for each rep. The reason being that there are many muscles working here to keep the bar from falling off to the side, so it is well stabilized. As you fatigue more and more you begin to recruit muscles that were previously only making a background appearance and hence the bar moves at an even more radically fluctuating angle each time it is lifted. Contrast this with the chest press where you do not have to stabilise and the path the bar or handles travel is exactly identical from first rep to last rep.

The problem with machine weights and other locked patterns of movement is that they will cause a muscle to respond with inflammation and eventually lead to excess wear and tear on joints, ligaments and tendons. This occurs with anything that is repeated too frequently with little variation. A tennis player often develops shoulder and elbow problems, a runner has hip, knee and back problems etc.

So back to what this has to do with you. Yes, you need training that is specific to the adaptations you are trying to achieve, and that means getting the right balance of first, second and third wave adaptations and using training that falls into the three levels of specificity; primary training, secondary training and tertiary training. This approach develops a broader base of complimentary movements to work with in order to achieve your goal.

But further to that, every single person can benefit from…..

Cross Training

Cross training is any kind of training that falls outside of your specific chosen performance goal, however it still needs to provide some kind of benefit. A sprinter would be silly to include long distance cycling to his programme because it is contradictory to what he is trying to achieve and would only hinder results. However if that sprinter began training with a javelin thrower or simply started some generic conditioning such as timed circuits and barbell complexes for a period of time outside of the peak season it would coincide with the strength, speed and power the sprinter needs, hence would somewhat transfer over to the events being trained for.

Cross training is simply non-specific, but helpful training. An athlete needs to be cautious of this because certain things will hinder results, so cross training must be planned properly. The non-athlete that is just looking for weight loss or general health can be a little more outlandish in their approach.

Remember the waves of adaptation? Well lets look at first wave for instance. Any first wave adaptation developed by the runner is beneficial to the cyclist, the swimmer and anyone else that needs to apply the same pattern of energy metabolism. So for a cyclist, running would be considered cross training, and for the swimmer maybe rowing would be included as a mode of cross training. You get the idea.

But Why do Cross Training at All?

Ok, so we’ve covered how overuse injuries can occur and the benefits of developing first wave adaptations from other means, but lets look at the benefits a little more closely now.

The Law of Diminishing Returns

As you train for something specific you get big results at first. Take strength gains for instance. Lets say you want to compete in power lifting competitions and you start training from scratch. Your bench press begins at a sad weight of 60kg for a measly three reps. But only a week later you’re punching out 70kg and a week after that it’s 75kg but you’re getting 5-6 reps now with that increased weight.

Within three months your bench has soared to a 1RM of 105kg. You train for a further six months and now your 1RM is sitting at 115kg. What happened to the rapid strength progression? You train for three years and manage to get up to lifting 145kg but you get stuck at that weight for a prolonged period of time. You take a short break from training and then start a completely different programme and manage to add a further 10kg to that over a period of a year. But now strength gains are very few and far between and you can’t seem to get past the wall you’ve hit.

This is the law of diminishing returns. Your body gets used to doing something and eventually puts a cap on it and tells you that you’re not permitted to go any further, you’ve reached your limit. It’s a very disheartening feeling isn’t it?

When you start any new fitness endeavour the body gets a bit of a shock because it is radically different to what you were doing before. So you begin to make rapid compensation for the increased physical activity and the relevant systems and muscles adapt accordingly to cope with the demand. But as time goes on your body gets wise and learns what it is doing, it gets more efficient at doing it. So quite often gains for some time pertain not to raw physical ability, but to neurological and biomechanical efficiency. Once you are about as efficient as you’re going to get with the activity in question you will begin to see a lack of return on investment and may find your fitness either halting where it is or even going backwards.

It’s unfair, right? Well it’s only natural and it’s the reason that people have not been able to keep training until they can run the 100m in three seconds flat and why humans can’t jump over power lines. If training could progress upwardly and consistently throughout a lifetime then we would see these kinds of things. We might see muscle growth to the point of 50 inch arms. We might see people bench pressing a small apartment building. As it is, this is not the case, which is purely a result of built-in physical limitations.

As you get closer and closer to elite standard your body starts to tell the various muscles and systems that it has gone far enough and needs to slow down to a complete stop. So as you get better you need to get more and more creative. The reason there are still world records being broken is because people have figured this out to a limited degree and started adapting their training programmes to suit. Periodisation is a good example of this, it aims to fluctuate in capacity but to ultimately go upwards in the long term. The same applies to variation of a training programme and the changing of training duration and how a programme is divided up.

Cross training comes into play by giving the body another shock. It’s not enough of a shock to produce a completely unneeded result, but it’s enough to experience gains that are possible, through some specific training, to be transferred to the desired outcome to a certain degree. These are first wave adaptations and this is considered cross training.

So lets say you’re a 10k runner and you have halted in your progress. Your times have not improved a lot in the past year or so. So what do you do? Generally you will probably just train harder and do more volume, which wears you out and begins to create even more frustration. But what if you begin cross training? Hmmm, lets try cycling and strength training circuits. But it’s not specific you say. However you engage in an intensive cycling programme to replace some of your running volume for a period of 12-16 weeks. In that time you also do two strength training circuits per week. After that time you resume a normal 10k running programme and voila, you are noticing some of the aerobic capacity and anaerobic threshold training on the bike have improved your overall capacity to improve in your running. The strength training has improved your output per stride and has allowed for greater biomechanical efficiency.

These changes won’t be immediate. After the cycling and strength programme you may notice that your running times have stayed the same or even gotten slightly worse. However what has improved is your ability to further adapt and run faster times. Your body was given the shock it needed to make some changes. It was like starting from the beginning again and stimulating those massive initial gains you likely experienced in the start.

Cross training works this way for any sort of training, even if you’re not an athlete and simply want to lose weight. Your body experiences a period of shock and confusion and then responds by ramping up the physical capacity. I recommend cross training throughout your training at various points when you notice results are slowly deteriorating and getting slower.

Overuse, an Ugly Problem

Overuse injuries are a horrible experience, they pop up in many athletes and simply those exercising for weight loss or general health. You’ve likely experienced it yourself, such as runner’s knee, shin splints, an aching hip or maybe your shoulders are experiencing a dull ache due to machine weights and their repetitive movement pattern. Keep going this way and you will develop a chronic injury that may require surgery. Almost all elite level athletes are experiencing this problem now or have experienced it in the past.

Here’s the good news, cross training using modalities of training that compliment your chosen goal will reduce the overuse from the continuous patterns you have been exposed to. Remember the law of diminishing returns? Well cross training will help you gain first wave adaptations and then can be transferred gradually back into the consistent and specific training required to produce your desired outcome.

Overall Physical Capacity

This is somewhat similar to the law of diminishing returns section, however it is here as a demonstration of your body’s ability to adapt to relevant stimuli. When you train for a single modality your body will adapt to that stimulus and then slow down and stop progressing, as mentioned earlier. However if that runner takes up cycling he is stressing his cardiovascular system in an entirely different pattern, hence stimulating the much-needed training adaptations.

Heavy squats will help you to perform better at 400m for instance, but so will one minute intervals on the concept two rower. Overall your body is better at taking in and using oxygen, therefore you have increased your VO2max and anaerobic threshold. This new-found capacity will gradually transfer over into other, more specific areas when you continue specific training.

Mental Clarity and Motivation

When you do the same thing over and over you tend to get a bit bored and motivation begins to slow down and fade away. This limits your greatest asset, your brain. When you train I am of a firm belief that you need the correct headspace, which is different for each person. If you want to do a maximum clean then it’s no good being bored with doing cleans.  This happens through mental fatigue from doing the same movements over and over again and getting slower and slower results.

Engaging in a cross training programme can help remedy this. Make it fun, shake it up a bit and ensure that it is transferable to the specific outcome you require.

Putting it All Together

Ok, so now you understand what cross training is and why you should do it. But how should it be implemented? We’ve covered that somewhat, so here we will just sum it up to give you a clear plan.

Know Your Outcome

You first need to know what it is you’re trying to achieve. If you’re a sprinter then you need to know what is going to improve your sprinting. If you want to lose weight then you need to have a plan for losing weight.

Have a Plan

In order to engage in cross training you must be following a programme or have some sort of plan in place. If you are training for javelin then obviously you have a plan for improving that and you likely have a periodised programme. You need to predict when you will hit a wall and stop progressing and you need to be producing some sort of consistent result from your efforts of planning.

Know What is What

Cross training is only of benefit when you know what does what. If you’re an Olympic weightlifter then cross training with long runs will ruin your progress. You need to know what is complimentary to what you are trying to achieve and not deviate too radically.

Start Doing it

Throwing random training into the mix is completely ineffective. If you’re making good progress for your chosen outcome by doing what you’re currently doing and you are at no immediate risk of injury or burn-out then cross training is of little benefit at this time. Having said that, small amounts of cross training done regularly can beat the monotony of a specific programme.

Plan cross training into your training schedule at a point where you need it or where it might benefit you. Determine how often you will need to do a cross training session and plan what you’re going to do. You need to ensure it does not conflict with other areas of training. For instance if you have a maximum squat session on Tuesday then it is unwise to do something on Monday that is of high enough volume to fatigue the lower body, hence hindering performance on your squat session.

Sample Cross Training Sessions

To finish off I would like to provide you with an example of how cross training can benefit an athlete or a member of the general population. This is a simple example and easy to implement.

Our athlete is an amateur triathlete and works full time.

The regular training schedule is as follows…

DAY ONE: Interval Session

Running for 7 x 2 minutes at faster than race pace with 45 seconds rest between each interval

Cycling for 10 x 1 minute at maximum pace with 30 seconds rest between each

Swim 5 x 50 metres at max pace with 40 seconds rest between laps

DAY TWO: Running

60 minute run at just below anaerobic threshold

DAY THREE: Cycling

60 minute ride at just below anaerobic threshold

DAY FOUR: Swimming

60 minute continuous swim at a moderate pace

DAY FIVE: Rest Day

DAY SIX: Anaerobic Capacity

Mini triathlon session involving….

Swim as hard as possible for 20 minutes

Cycle as hard as possible for 20 minutes

Run as hard as possible for 20 minutes

DAY SEVEN: Volume

Swim 60 minutes

Cycle 60 minutes

Run 60 minutes

All to be done at a moderate pace

DAY EIGHT: Anaerobic Capacity

Pick your weakest event and train for 60 minutes at just above anaerobic threshold, so about race pace.

Rest two days then continue from day one.

Obviously this is a very basic and simplified programme and there are many phases and factors to consider. However this is just here as an example. So how would a triathlete engage in cross training that would benefit?

Day one is swapped for a heavy strength session followed by power intervals of no more than 30 seconds each.

Day two could include a 30 minute run followed by Tabata intervals on the indoor rower at the gym.

Day three includes a moderate weight Olympic lifting session then move into the actual training for that day…..

You get the idea. Cross training is a simple concept but there is a lot of scientific reasoning to it. Choose your actions wisely. Cross training should be a part of every training programme at various points, so understanding how and why it works and what it actually is will provide you with a distinct advantage.

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YOUR COACH – Chris Lyons

Chris Lyons is an experienced strength and conditioning coach, having trained athletes of all ages and levels since 2002. Chris specialises in coaching athletes for speed and power specific to fast-moving sports such as rugby league, rugby union, soccer, Aussie rules football etc. Since 2002 Chris has conducted close to 15,000 hours of training and coaching directly with athletes and members of the general population. From this experience comes Sprint Ninja, based on tried and tested training methods combined with up to date research. Chris continues to challenge himself not only as a coach, but also as an athlete, competing in sprinting events, strongman and Olympic-style weightlifting.

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