Athletes are forever looking for that special something to give them a competitive edge. At some point, however, longer, more frequent or more intense workouts in a single sport will lead to injury or burnout.
"The most common reason for injury in recreational athletes is overtraining: too many miles, too quickly," says Justin Carson, a lead physical therapist at Jackson County Physical Therapy in Medford and a triathlete, himself.
"If you do one sport exclusively, you will overdevelop certain muscle groups at the expense of others. Cross training will keep you more in balance," Carson adds.
Cross training can be defined simply as adding workouts in different sports to improve cardiovascular fitness or to develop complementary muscles. Carson often sees athletes after they've overtrained and have injured themselves.
"A stress fracture is something I see a lot in runners. I switch them to biking and swimming, non-impact sports, while they're healing," says Carson.
Extra cardio workouts have a hidden benefit.
"They promote weight loss. Rowing machines, elliptical trainers, other non-impact cardio training will help you burn calories. You'll lose weight faster and ultimately improve in your chosen sport," Carson explains.
Strength training is the most common type of cross training recommended by coaches and doctors.
"Swimming is a very repetitive motion," says Jodi Marthaller, a personal trainer and fitness instructor at Oz Fitness in Medford. "So cross training should start with strength training that involves strengthening shoulder joints," Marthaller adds.
Marthaller coaches two nationally ranked youth swimmers, and she has them using dumbbells — rather than machines — for shoulder and chest presses.
"More muscles are activated when you use dumbbells instead of bars or machines: You have no fixed positions, just like in the water. Also, push-ups on (exercise) balls are great," says Marthaller.
There's a good physiological reason to strengthen other muscle groups.
"When your muscles get tired, they either tighten up or switch (the burden) to other muscles. So when you're training, don't forget the accessory muscles.
Swimming is a linear motion. If you're predominately a freestyler, even breast and back strokes and different kicks can help your muscular stability," Marthaller advises.
Marthaller is a triathlete who has taken cross training to a new level in her own workouts. While balancing on an exercise ball, she lifts a leg to strengthen her core while simultaneously lifting barbells to strengthen her arm muscles. She refers to this as integrated strength training.
"A triathlon is an integrated sport. So neurologically, it (integrated training) builds responsiveness into your body," says Marthaller.
Running and bicycling also use a linear motion and require strong accessory muscles.
"Hip extensors and flexors are strong in long-distance runners while the abductors and adductors are underdeveloped," says Dr. James Holdermann, a Medford podiatrist and himself a competitive runner, bicyclist and cross-country skier.
Something as simple as changing a training route can make a big difference.
"Trail runners have more developed, well-rounded abductors/adductors than road runners," Holdermann says.
Holdermann has developed unique ideas for cross training.
"The two best cross-training sports for runners and bikers are Ultimate Frisbee and soccer. These are sports that require lateral movement (of the lower body)," Holdermann says.
The best single cross-training sport, says Holdermann, is cross-country skiing.
"Skiing gives a more rounded fitness. You're using a multitude of muscle groups. It's also a good winter cross-training sport for runners," Holdermann says.
A change in training to accompany the change in season can be positive in other ways.
"I encourage runners to cross-country ski in winter for a good break from racing. The change of scenery is a visceral one in cross-country skiing, one that immediately gets you away from your day-to-day. That kind of shock to your system is positive for an athlete, constantly giving you a fresh perspective not only to your body, but to your mind and emotions as well," says J.D. Downing, coach of Team X-C Oregon in Bend. Many of Downing's skiers compete at a national — even international — level.
Downing also works with masters athletes, including skiers and runners. For cross training, he recommends a regimen of summer strength training, including kayaking, rowing and paddling.
"These sports have upper-body benefits. Rowing (in particular) has core and lower-body benefits," Downing adds.
Hill running has great strength benefits, says Downing, because you're pushing yourself hard without the pounding endured by traditional speed work on a track or road.
One of the best forms of cross training is the cheapest and can be the most fun.
"Hiking is something we don't think about often. We're lucky in Oregon to have hiking trails almost at our back door," Downing adds.
Having fun is what it's all about.
"Do something you enjoy," says physical therapist Carson. "To avoid mental burnout, once a week do something that's pure fun."