Most often, athletes put all of their efforts into training and excelling in one chosen sport.
But some athletes opt to train using a variety of different activities to enhance performance in their main sport.
This practice, commonly referred to as cross-training, boasts several potential benefits surrounding sports performance and overall fitness.
This article reviews cross-training, what it is, its benefits, the best activities for runners, and a few example workouts.
Cross-training is defined as an exercise protocol that utilizes several modes of training that are outside the athlete’s main sport to develop a specific component of fitness.
While originally popularized by runners, cross-training is now a common practice amongst cyclists, swimmers, triathletes, and a number of other athletes.
In most cases, athletes incorporate cross-training more heavily during their off-season, when sport–specific training volume is down.
Another popular reason for implementing cross-training is due to weather changes with the seasons. When the weather is less favorable for outdoor sports, some athletes may choose indoor variations.
Some common examples of cross-training include:
- runners using cycling as an alternative exercise to build and maintain endurance
- swimmers practicing rowing to keep up their exercise capacity and work similar muscle groups
- football players running to build endurance or lifting weights to build size and strength
- basketball players participating in a high intensity spinning class to build power in sprints
- volleyball players practicing yoga to help promote recovery from training
Cross-training is an exercise protocol using various modes of training that differ from an athlete’s main sport. The intent is to develop specific fitness components.
Incorporating cross-training in your conditioning regimen can offer several potential performance benefits.
Here are the main benefits that many athletes experience.
May boost cardiovascular endurance
Training with a different form of exercise can provide a new stimulus to the cardiovascular system, allowing for new adaptations beyond an athlete’s main sport.
One study compared the left ventricle structure and function in a group of elite swimmers and runners to examine cardiovascular output in land versus water athletes. The left ventricle is a major part of the heart responsible for pumping oxygenated blood throughout the body (
It found that the runners’ left ventricles functioned slightly different than the swimmers’; specifically, they filled with blood a bit earlier. Yet, the swimmers demonstrated higher cardiac output, meaning they pumped more blood at a faster rate.
An older study compared the left ventricle mechanics of a group of marathon runners (endurance athletes) with those of bodybuilders (power athletes). Similarly, researchers found differences in the way the left ventricle pumped blood (
These studies suggest that different types of exercise can lead to different sport-specific adaptations to the heart, creating a more well-rounded cardiovascular base for exercise and sport.
Trains muscle groups not used in the main sport
Another potential benefit of implementing cross-training is the ability to target muscle groups that are not generally used in an athlete’s sport of focus.
For example, if a runner were to use swimming as a cross-training activity, they’d target muscles of the back, which are not commonly used when running.
Alternatively, if a swimmer were to incorporate weightlifting into their training, they’d hit leg muscles that they may not use when swimming.
Incorporating various cross-training activities over time could therefore lead to a more well–rounded physique, which can contribute to an athlete’s overall level of fitness.
Furthermore, by varying your movement patterns to mobilize other muscle groups, you may notice more power in your movements when you return to your sport of focus.
Research that examined the relationship between opposing muscle groups implies that greater mobility in antagonistic muscles elicits greater power for agonist muscles, or the prime movers (3).
Allows recovery from main sport
One commonly overlooked area of training is recovery.
For example, if an in-season soccer player wants to keep up aerobic capacity between games, they may choose to complete a rowing workout.
This allows the muscles of the legs to recover from high impact movements, though it gets their heart rate up and maintains cardio capacity.
Without proper recovery, all of the effort you put into training may go unrealized, and you may be at risk of overuse injuries.
Cross-training can be a useful tool to help athletes recover from their main sport while preventing overuse injuries.
This concept can be applied to many sports, allowing athletes to train and recover simultaneously.
Keeps you mentally engaged
When vigorously training for a single sport, athletes tend to get burned out from time to time. Perhaps rightfully so, as it takes a significant amount of time, focus, and determination to complete daily training sessions and excel in a sport.
Cross-training can help keep athletes mentally engaged by providing a new activity and breaking up any monotony they may be experiencing.
Therefore, when returning to their main sport, athletes can feel mentally refreshed, in turn allowing them to train more efficiently.
May reduce risk of injury
Continually training the same muscle groups using one mode of exercise can lead to overuse injuries over time (
Cross-training can be a viable solution to reduce stress on an athlete’s most commonly used muscle groups while still building aerobic capacity or strength.
Over time, this may greatly reduce the athlete’s risk of injury, allowing them to get more playing time in their sport of choice.
Implementing cross-training in your strength and conditioning regimen may offer several benefits, including improved cardio endurance, training unused muscle groups, allowing recovery time, beating boredom, and reducing the risk of injury.
For athletes interested in adding cross-training to their training regimen, there are a few important questions to ask:
What’s your level of experience?
Less experienced athletes require less variety in their training to progress their fitness. As such, the less experienced you are, the less cross-training you may require.
That said, less experienced athletes may get overeager or hooked on a sport quickly, which increases their risk of an overuse injury. That’s why it’s ideal to implement cross-training into your training plan early on.
What phase of training are you in?
In-season athletes often choose different cross-training activities than when they are in the off-season.
What area of your fitness are you looking to improve?
Consider which area of fitness would best equate to better performance in your sport. For example, you may choose to lift weights if you’re looking to put on muscle, or you may select cycling if you’re trying to increase endurance.
What activities are you interested in?
This aspect often goes overlooked. Focus on activities that you truly enjoy, as they’ll be much easier to stick to over the long term.
When choosing a cross-training activity, there are several factors to consider. These include your level of experience, phase of training, the areas in which you’re looking to improve, and which activities you enjoy.
When implementing cross-training for running, you’ll first want to consider which activities will have the best carryover to improved performance.
In the case of running, you’ll also want to select an exercise that’s low impact and doesn’t interfere with your recovery from running training.
Here are the most common cross-training activities chosen by runners:
- Cycling or spinning: a low impact option that closely mimics the cardio requirements of running
- Rowing: a low impact option that works muscles of the upper body not typically used during running
- Swimming: provides a low impact alternative that allows recovery from running while helping increase aerobic capacity
- Weight training: strengthens the muscles of the body to complement endurance training and improve performance
- Yoga: excellent for recovery, as various yoga poses increase flexibility and may help prevent injury (
- Pilates: an effective way to both strengthen and lengthen tight muscles while increasing core strength
- Skiing (downhill or cross-country): cross-country skiing best mimics the cardio requirements of running; downhill skiing can also be a fitting for runners
While these are some of the more common cross-training activities for runners, dozens of other ones may be appropriate for improving recovery and boosting performance.
Some of the most common cross-training activities for runners include cycling, rowing, swimming, weight training, yoga, Pilates, and skiing.
When determining how many cross-training workouts you should complete each week, it’s important to keep in mind what phase of training you’re in for your main sport.
If you’re ramping up training volume in your main sport to prepare for a competition, it may not be the best time to include cross-training.
On the other hand, if you’re entering your off-season, including more cross-training workouts may be greatly beneficial, allowing you to recover while maintaining your fitness.
The table below provides a general recommendation for the number of cross-training workouts per week based on your level of experience in a given sport.
While this chart provides a general recommendation for the number of cross-training workouts you should complete per week, it’s important to take into consideration your individual training goals and level of experience.
When deciding how many cross-training workouts to complete per week, it’s important to consider your phase of training and level of experience in a given sport.
While cross-training is very individualized, here are a few sample cross-training workout examples to get you started.
It’s best to consult a certified trainer for advice on your individual programming.
Interval swim workout
Suitable for: runners, cyclists, team sport athletes
Sets: 10 x 50 yards (1 length of an Olympic-size pool)
- Warm up by swimming a few laps in the pool at a slow pace.
- Start the first set by swimming one 50-yard lap at a moderate pace.
- Rest 15–30 seconds.
- Complete the remainder of the sets, resting in between each one.
- Cool down by doing another couple of slow laps in the pool.
High intensity rowing workout
Suitable for: runners, cyclists, team sport athletes
Sets: 10 x 30 seconds at high intensity
- Warm up on the rower for 5 minutes to get your blood pumping.
- Start your first set by rowing for 30 seconds at a high intensity.
- Rest for 30 seconds by rowing at a relaxed pace.
- Complete the remaining sets in the same 30-seconds-on, 30-seconds-off pattern.
- Cool down for 5 minutes at a slow pace.
- Additional sets can be added as you become more advanced.
Beginner bodyweight strength workout
Suitable for: most athletes
Sets: 3 full circuits
- 20 bodyweight squats
- 10 pushups
- 10 walking lunges
- 15 bent-over rows (using dumbbells or milk jugs filled with water)
- a 15-second plank
- 30 jumping jacks
- Start by warming up with some low intensity cardio (e.g., walking, jumping rope, or the elliptical) to prime your muscles for movement.
- Start with the first exercise, moving immediately on to the next one once when you’re finished.
- Complete 3 full circuits of the exercises, resting for 30–60 seconds in between each circuit.
- As you advance, additional circuits or movements can be added to increase the difficulty.
While there are hundreds of potential cross-training workouts to choose from, it’s important to choose the ones that are most applicable to your main sport of interest. These are three options to give you some ideas and get started.
Cross-training is a common strength and conditioning strategy in which athletes use various modes of exercise outside their main sport to enhance specific components of their fitness.
Some of the major potential benefits of cross-training include improved cardio endurance, training unused muscle groups, allowing recovery from your main sport, keeping you mentally engaged, and reducing your risk of injury.
When determining the amount of cross-training to do, consider your phase of training and level of experience. You’ll want to choose activities that have the most carryover to your main sport.
If you feel you’re struggling to progress in your sport, incorporating cross-training may give you the extra boost you need to excel.