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Cross Training: How You Can Benefit From Switching Up Your Routine

Many of us stumble upon cross training out of necessity. We sustain an injury that prevents us from being able to run, so we pick up a different activity in the meantime, so we don’t go nuts without exercise. Although it is true that cross training is a great way to stay active during an injury, cross training has many other benefits and applications.

What is Cross Training?

Definitions of cross training vary. In this context, I am referring to using an alternative form of exercise besides your primary sport activity. Typically, we think of cross training as being used to replace running when you sustain an injury, and it is true that this is a great way to maintain fitness. Let’s take a closer look at what cross training can include, how your body benefits, and specific considerations for how this applies to youth athletes as well as adults.

No Perfect Substitute

Scientifically, cross training means the transfer of training effect gained in one mode of training, to another. By this strict definition, cross training will never be as beneficial as the original activity itself. The reason for this is “specificity of training.” This means no other sport will be using your muscles in the exact same ways as your primary sport. For example, if you swap out swimming for running, you will be using your arm muscles more heavily than your leg muscles. Thus, the direct benefit of this mode of exercise will not translate 100% to making your legs more efficient for running.

This can be a good thing. When you are cross training, you are using different muscle groups, making you a more rounded, injury-proof athlete.

When we cross train for the intention of maintaining or improving cardiovascular fitness: Cardio is Cardio is Cardio

Your cardiovascular system, which comprises your heart, lungs and the vessels that transport oxygen throughout your body via your blood, becomes more efficient in response to stress. If you are stressing this system in the correct manner, it will adapt, regardless of the mode of exercise you are using to drive aerobic adaptation. Essentially, your heart and lungs can’t tell the difference between running and biking, for example, it just knows that you are working hard.

When your goal is to improve your aerobic fitness, which is the energy system primarily used in longer duration activities like cycling, rowing, running, ect, these benefits can be achieved in a variety of ways.This means, its ok to swap out a run for a swim.

In fact, if you are someone prone to running injuries, or are new to a sport, an activity swap a few days a week may actually be BETTER than only running. In this manner, you can save your legs for your tougher intensity days, and continue to build fitness with cross training. You may even find that the “specificity of training” concept discussed above can be worked to your advantage. For example, if you swim instead of running the day before a workout, you may find your legs are fresher the next day when you do a higher intensity run, because you didn’t tax them as hard the day before.

Not Just for Adults

For kids, cross training may take on a slightly different form. Essentially, it entails playing multiple sports, not just focusing on a single sport. There is a plethora of research indicating that delaying sport specialization is highly beneficial. Kids who don’t specialize in one sport have been found to have better bone health, and lower incidence of injury than those who do. So, “cross training” for kids should be a no brainer.

How We Can Help

At Zenith Performance and Wellness, we offer performance physical therapy and personal training as well as physical therapy. We take the time to get a feel for your training plan and how it fits with your goals. We can work with you to determine the optimal dosage and type of cross training whether it is to enhance your training program or to supplement conditioning while navigating injury. At Zenith, both Jesse and I have significant experience in this area as we are athletes ourselves. You can contact our office or follow the link here to get started working with us today.

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Mallol M, Norton L, Bentley DJ, Mejuto G, Norton K, Yanci J. Physiological Response Differences between Run and Cycle High Intensity Interval Training Program in Recreational Middle Age Female Runners. J Sports Sci Med. 2020 Aug 13;19(3):508-516. PMID: 32874103; PMCID: PMC7429439.

Oja P, Titze S, Kokko S, Kujala UM, Heinonen A, Kelly P, Koski P, Foster C. Health benefits of different sport disciplines for adults: systematic review of observational and intervention studies with meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2015 Apr;49(7):434-40. doi: 10.1136/bjsports-2014-093885. Epub 2015 Jan 7. PMID: 25568330.

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