The modern athlete not only has to put in many hours of practice at what she is good at but also put in a good shift doing other workouts away from their chosen discipline. For example, the long distance runner earns her miles in the morning and does core work and strength training in the evenings; the weightlifter needs to focus on strength, but also has to complete her weekly quota of cardio workouts. The cyclist also lifts weights while the boxer runs, swims or cycles or does all three.
What they are doing is “cross training”. This is a routine that combines several kinds of exercises—ranging from weight/power lifting to body weight exercises, cardio and gymnastics— that are different from a person’s main sport or form of workout, explains Pothen Cherian, partner and head coach at Pune’s Crossfit Chakra and a weightlifting and Crossfit Level 1 coach. The American Council on Exercise defines cross training as an exercise regimen using several types of training to improve overall health and fitness.
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Professional athletes look to their coaches to programme their training regimen. This includes carefully planned cross training that’s central to their physical development and improvement. However, the average fitness enthusiast does not have recourse to private coaches or instructors to design their workout routines. “When I ran my first marathon in 2008, it was still early days of the running revolution in India and I hadn’t done my fitness courses yet. I found a plan online on some running group and just ran. It was only after a couple more years did runners start talking about cross training, and started doing some strength training,” says Sandeep Sachdev, co-founder and coach at Easy Human fitness studio in Mumbai.
Cross training helps to condition different muscle groups and the element of variety that it introduces helps reduce the boredom that comes with sticking to the same exercise routine week after week, says Cherian. “Since cross training enables us to keep changing the routine, the programme not only increases one’s cardiovascular capacity, but also reduces the risk of injuries caused by muscle over-training. It improves one’s overall fitness and allows one to develop a better lifestyle,” he says, adding that cross training ought to be incorporated in all fitness programmes.
A study conducted by the University of Wisconsin in 2017 backs Cherian’s claim. Researchers found that high school athletes who specialised in a single sport experienced more leg injuries than those who participated in a variety of sports.
Cross training taps into the core of all sports: that of maintaining a high level of fitness. As a result, it serves as an excellent training method for everyone, be they runners, cyclists, swimmers, yoga enthusiasts or gym buffs. Top cyclists, whose season lasts about nine months, cross train with running and weight sessions during their off season to maintain their fitness conditioning. Naveen Raj, a bronze medal winner in team time trial in the recently concluded 25th Road Cycling Nationals, attests to this.
“For seven to eight months we are constantly cycling, which causes muscles to get tired and fatigue. Cross training gives those overused muscles an opportunity to recover without letting our fitness levels slip,” he says. Raj is also a cycling coach at Life of Tri, a triathlon training centre based in Bengaluru. Even during the season, Raj schedules two strength and conditioning sessions every week to build up his muscle strength and endurance.
The frequency of doing this type of training depends on various factors such as one’s fitness level, age and medical history. Pothen suggests at least two days of cross training a week, adding that one could also cross train for six days and then rest for a day.
Elite runners cross train for up to six days a week: running workouts in the mornings or late evenings and strength and core sessions in the afternoon. Recreational runners, on the other hand, ought to include at least two strength training sessions a week to train their core and leg muscles. Those who do weight training or yoga, should try to add a couple of cardio sessions into their routine, while CrossFitters and fans of functional fitness could turn to yoga to stretch their fatigued muscles, suggests Sachdev.
Shrenik Avlani is a writer and editor and co-author of The Shivfit Way, a book on functional fitness.