We idolize Olympic runners, professional football stars, top-ranked tennis players—their bodies are strong, disciplined, well-oiled machines in peak physical health. Of course, they spend hours training their bodies and mastering their sport. But it takes more than repetitive practice to obtain the kind of physical perfection these athletes have achieved. In fact, any expert in the field of fitness will tell you the number one rule to heed in training is to avoid burning out. In trying to maximize your body’s potential, you must be wary of running it into the ground.

So how does one reach and sustain his or her maximum potential while avoiding injury? Many experts recommend cross-training as a way for the casual athlete to remain fit and to keep a diversity of activities in the workout regimen.

What Is Cross-Training?

Cross-training incorporates diverse forms of exercise into a training regimen or workout plan. This is the ideal way to maximize and develop the various components of fitness. The benefits of cross-training range from the obvious—injury prevention and rehabilitation—to the more subtle—maximizing the potential of a physical body. It strengthens different muscle groups, allows over-strained muscles time to rest, reduces boredom, helps to train and develop new skills, and improves form. Without exerting your body in new and unfamiliar ways, you risk reaching a plateau and inhibiting yourself from attaining optimal fitness.

A cross-training fitness plan can be tailored to anyone—from a beginner to an elite athlete. A basic regimen includes cardiovascular exercise, strength training, and flexibility conditioning. From there, an even more thorough plan will add speed, agility, and balance drills. More advanced athletes will further improve strength and agiligty by adding circuit training, skill conditioning, and plyometrics—modes of training designed to produce rapid, powerful movements, and improve the functions of the nervous system. By incorporating these diverse forms of exercise, a person challenges his or her respiratory and musculoskeletal systems, while allowing a break from sport-specific activities. This helps to limit the impact put on an athlete who continues to condition and strain the same muscle groups over and over.

As cross-training plans gain popularity and become more widely understood as an integral part of an athlete’s conditioning program, diverse forms of exercise have been cropping up. The more widely recognized of these plans—swimming, cycling, and weight training—have been joined by more unique and surprising exercises such as yoga, Pilates, dance, kickboxing, and even virtual exercise.

Indoor Bicycling & the Elliptical

Indoor bicycling and use of the elliptical trainer are great methods for engaging muscles and preventing injury. By altering the resistance and incline on these machines, you can improve cardiovascular endurance; build muscles in the legs, glutes, and hips; and reinforce cartilage in the joints.

The impact of pavement on the joints that occurs during outdoor running causes wear-and-tear of the body over time. Low-impact training machines, such as stationary bikes and the elliptical trainer, can allivate this problem. Long-distance, outdoor running jars the body, and the feet and joints of the legs absorb an excessive amount of impact. The low-impact machines offer the same benefits of long-distance running, while avoiding the detrimental effects of pavement pounding.

Free-Weight Training

Free-weight training has long been regarded as an integral component to many athletic training plans. Repetitive practice of a specific sport does not offer enough excess strain on the muscles to allow them to reach peak development. Weight training allows for continual increase in weight and resistance, so the muscles are constantly broken down and rebuilt to become stronger and more durable. Lifting weights helps to cultivate the muscles in the back, arms, chest, and legs.

Strength training is especially important for distance runners and helps to prevent shin splints, lower back pain, knee problems, hip injuries, and stress fractures. In general it offers the following benefits.

  • maximizes and enhances performance
  • minimizes tissue trauma
  • improves muscle strength
  • develops joint flexibility
  • increases cardiovascular endurance and basal metabolic rate

Yoga

Yoga has emerged as popular cross-training techniques for everyone from tennis, football, and soccer players to runners, divers, and skiers. Not only does yoga help build strength and muscle mass by utilizing ones own body resistance, but it also increases flexibility and loosens the joints. This eases injury and helps prevents overexertion muscles and tendons.

Yoga works more than just the body, though; it cultivates mindfulness and concentration. The focus, mental presence, and stress management required during both the asana and meditation portions of yogic practice can be translated to most any type of sport.

Pilates

Pilates, which focuses primarily on building core muscle, strengthens the body from the center out. Many injuries, whether located in the back, the leg, or the hip, can be traced back to the muscles situated in the core. A strong and stable center, appropriately termed the “powerhouse,” begins at the bottom of the ribs and extends down to the hip line. It includes the abdominal, lower back, and hip muscles; the Kegel muscles within the pelvic floor; and the glutes. A strong core aids in energy, stability, and strength and aids in performing other exercises.

Virtual Cross-Training

Virtual outlets provide surprising but still effective forms of cross-training for all ages. The Nintendo Wii Fit offers a variety of training options ranging from yoga to dancing, from boxing to balancing, and from step aerobics to strength training. Aerobic videos are easily available online and offer new and unique ways to improve cardiovascular endurance. Short bursts of jumping jacks, jump rope, and boxing moves exert the body in quick and beneficial ways.