As he does most years, Steve Waryan is preparing to compete in the Birkebeiner, the legendary 50-kilometer Nordic ski race in far northern Wisconsin. So you might think he’s skiing as much as he can. But no. He’s roller skiing, cycling, running, strength training, and completing HIIT (high-intensity interval training) workouts.
And when he plays golf, he runs the hills of his local Minnesota course while carrying his clubs. “For me, it’s the ultimate cross-training,” he explains. “And the more cross-training I do overall, the better shape I’m in for skiing the Birkie.”
Cross-training is simply doing a beneficial activity that’s different from your go-to exercise. Physically, cross-training typically engages different muscle groups, helping to prevent sore joints, overtaxed muscles, and injuries that can come from focusing on only one sport or one type of training.
Psychologically, cross-training allows you to experience the highs of learning new skills and perhaps meeting new people. It also gives your brain a break from the routine of relentlessly pushing toward one particular goal.
It’s as simple as that. But the benefits can be huge.
Waryan is one of many people who are reaching their athletic potential by infusing their regular routines with cross-training that supports their primary sport and its movement modality. You might be lifting weights so you can tackle gnarlier singletrack on your mountain bike, or hitting the rowing machine as a break from laps in the pool.
“If you’ve gotten stuck in a rut physically or mentally, or you’ve stopped seeing results and feel like your successes have plateaued, then it’s time to switch up your workouts and try adding something new,” says Jasmine de la Cruz, AFAA, NASM, Life Time group fitness instructor and trainer.
Cross-training isn’t reserved for only the most serious athletes: Anybody at any fitness level can reap benefits
And cross-training isn’t reserved for only the most serious athletes: Anybody at any fitness level can reap benefits. “A reduced risk of injury, improved total fitness and mind–body awareness, and exposure to new methods means you can say goodbye to boredom,” explains de la Cruz.
Cross-training also helps you adapt to the changing seasons. Many cyclists turn to Nordic skiing in winter, and vice versa in summer; and almost all of us tend to retreat indoors in subzero weather or when faced with freezing rain.
How do you add cross-training to days that may already be packed with work, workouts, and life?
“There is no one-size-fits-all schedule for cross-training,” says high-performance endurance coach Joe Friel, author of numerous training books. Running and strength training are often go-tos because they’re familiar and offer fast results, but as Friel notes, choosing something you truly enjoy is important.
When evaluating possible cross-training activities, consider what you hope to accomplish by doing them:
- Remedy muscle imbalances?
- Improve strength?
- Increase mobility?
- Boost conditioning?
- Take a mental break?
With these goals in mind, our experts offer their favorite cross-training options for a few common activities.
If you like running, try indoor cycling.
“Cross-training for running is an activity that does two things: It mimics running form, and it grows our cardiorespiratory abilities,” says Randy Accetta, PhD, the director of coaching education for the Road Runners Club of America.
“Cross-training for running is an activity that does two things: It mimics running form, and it grows our cardiorespiratory abilities.”
An indoor-cycling class provides the stress-adaptation response runners need. When you’re rising from the saddle to climb an imaginary hill, for example, your body responds in much the same way it would if you were running up a real one. Your heart rate increases, and your quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core kick in to power you through the movement. But because you’re on a bike, it’s a great low-impact alternative to running.
“When the weather is bad or when the body is creaky, you can still do run-specific cross-training to get the gains made by running,” says Accetta. So, signing up for a class is a no-brainer if Mother Nature gets in the way of your daily run, or if your joints ache from pounding the pavement.
Make the crossover:
For runners, one or two days of cross-training with indoor cycling is best. Although many indoor cyclists ride several days a week, that’s too much for runners, who are also taxing their bodies in other ways. If you’ve been running solo, chances are you’ll get a mental and motivational boost from the instructors and fellow cyclists.
Arrive early to claim your spot and adjust your bike. As you ride, remember to keep your chest lifted and arms forward, which will help you breathe and protect your back. Upgrading to cycling shoes and padded shorts can improve form and efficiency and help reduce aches and pains. These benefits carry over to better running performance. (For an indoor cycling workout, see “The Power-Cycling Workout“.)
If you like mountain biking, try lifting weights.
Longtime mountain biker Jen Parsons was living in Vermont and coping with the cold, gray winters when she began strength training using lower weights at higher intensities. The next summer, she found herself riding the state’s singletrack with more confidence than ever.
“Building upper-body strength through shoulder presses and push presses gave me the ability to ride strong through rugged downhills I used to be afraid of,” says Parsons, who now lives in Telluride, Colo., and strength-trains year round. “Deadlifts and core stability mean I know I can handle a big drop and not end up like a rag doll.”
Like any good mountain biker, she keeps her arms loose and flexible, but lifting weights has improved her body awareness so she can activate her body “in a hot second” and still stay stable.
Make the crossover:
Parsons recommends these five strength-training moves for mountain bikers: overhead squats, deadlifts, side planks with leg lifts, jump lunges, and one-legged pushups. They’ll give you the strength to handle corners, absorb unexpected bumps on the trail, and be better able to stay centered on the bike as you move backward and forward, side to side, and up and down. (For more on strength training, see “Why Strength Training Is Essential“)
If you like racquet sports, try yoga.
Whether you play tennis, pickleball, or squash, you’re likely working out harder than you think. “You’re using a lot of the same muscle groups over and over — it’s not a balanced physical activity. So a lot of injuries and wear and tear that happen from racquet sports are overuse and imbalance,” explains tennis coach Justin Baker, founder of Mindful Power.
Racquet sports contort your body, take you to the edge of your range of motion, and then ask you to be balanced and strong at these edges, he says. “You have to build strength in a lot of surprising areas, and you have to have range of motion and stable joints. The body-care needs of a racquet-sports player are pretty significant.”
“The body-care needs of a racquet-sports player are pretty significant.”
Yoga answers those needs — and more — during sessions dedicated to using nearly all the muscle groups of your body in a balanced way.
The breathwork of yoga brings a further benefit for racquet-sports players. “Yoga can help you learn to breathe more effectively while the ball is in play, reducing muscle tension and leading to more efficient movement and stroke production,” Baker says.
Make the crossover:
To reap the maximum benefits of yoga, Baker suggests, mix one yoga class into your weekly workout routine. “Once you’ve learned how to do yoga, then you can start integrating it in really simple ways,” he says. “You can use it as part of your warm-up before you go on the court, and you can use it as a cool-down when you come off the court.” (For a yoga workout, see “Yoga for Athletes“.)
If you like swimming, try rowing.
Coaches and trainers for many sports often recommend swimming as a cross-training option because it’s low impact. “Swimming is one of those all-around body exercises that just enhances your overall aerobic capacity,” says -Ellen -Johnston, head coach of the Water Rat swim team in Westport, Conn. “It also helps to relieve some of the pounding that you might get from running — on your legs, your knees — and even from biking.”
When you need a break from the pool, sliding onto a rowing machine is a natural shift into cross-training.
But what if your primary focus is swimming? When you need a break from the pool, sliding onto a rowing machine is a natural shift into cross-training. “Machine rowing is an all-around aerobic activity that helps strengthen the core, back, legs, and shoulders,” says Johnston.
Like swimming, rowing is good for people of all fitness levels, and it’s an efficient, low-impact calorie burner that uses all the major muscle groups. Plus, because rowing machines can measure distance in meters, the workout brings a layer of familiarity to swimmers accustomed to counting laps and distance.
Make the crossover:
Many pools offer rowing machines right on the deck so swimmers can mix up their workouts or exercise while waiting for a lane. Otherwise, chances are there’s one, or several, in another part of your health club or fitness center.
It’s worth spending some time learning proper technique. Initiate the stroke with your legs, not your arms, for instance, and keep your wrists flat and relaxed. Avoid lifting with your back and bending your knees too early. Two days a week for 20 to 30 minutes works well for cross-training, says Johnston. (For more on rowing form, see “BREAK IT DOWN: The Row“.)
If you like yoga, try rock climbing.
Going from a downward-facing dog to an upward climb is one of the best ways to keep your body limber when you’re ready to look at something other than a mat or a mirror in the yoga studio.
“Rock climbing complements yoga, as it heightens your senses for using spatial awareness as well as your center of gravity.”
“Rock climbing complements yoga, as it heightens your senses for using spatial awareness as well as your center of gravity,” says personal trainer Ben Walker. “This improves your motor senses and enhances your coordination when doing a yoga flow.
“Climbing also improves how you functionally use your entire body. As all the necessary movements are different, it requires balance and strength from all body parts assisting each other. This boosts transitioning through different movement patterns when performing yoga.”
Make the crossover:
If you’re climbing for the first time, chances are you’ll rely on your upper-body strength to reach handholds and ascend walls, indoors or out. But the most efficient and body-friendly technique is to rely more on the larger muscles of the legs.
Plus, Walker says, “core strength and strong hip flexors are also essential for controlling how you mobilize the upper body in different directions.” (For more on climbing, see “How to Get Into Rock Climbing“.)
If you like lifting weights, try hiking.
When Tyler Barnes isn’t coaching weightlifting classes in Vermont, he’s hiking the Green Mountains — and not just for the picturesque vistas. Hiking naturally works the core muscles required for strength-training moves such as the squat, lunge, and clean-and-press.
Almost every movement in hiking mimics gym work.
In fact, almost every movement in hiking mimics gym work: You’re bending over to pick up your pack like a deadlift; you’re hoisting it onto your shoulders like a clean; you’re squatting to admire a wildflower or tie your hiking boots; and you’re lunging over rocks and roots.
Hiking also offers the steady cardiovascular training you may miss while hoisting heavy weights. “Because hiking is more aerobic than lifting, you’ll have a higher respiratory rate. You’ll need to learn to keep the spine braced while your heart rate is elevated,” Barnes says. “At the end of the day, you’re not going to go wrong by introducing some regular metabolic conditioning to your exercise routine, provided that you do it consistently, and that you’re intentional with how you’re implementing it.”
Make the crossover:
Hiking requires a steadier breathing rhythm than weightlifting. Barnes suggests you find a rhythm that allows you to focus less on your pace and more on keeping your spine braced and your chest open and upright. “This will also give you the opportunity to take in your surroundings and enjoy the activity rather than being too focused on a metric like output,” he says. (For more on hiking, see “How to Up Your Hiking Game“.)
What happened When I Stepped Into Cross-Training
By: Sarah Tuff
As a lifelong runner, I live and breathe my sport. Rolling out of bed and lacing up my shoes is as habitual as brushing my teeth. And I’ve also been lucky enough to avoid the typical injuries that plague runners, as well as recover from a broken leg the doctors said would put an end to my running. So, I saw no reason to cross-train.
But when I stumbled upon group weightlifting classes at my gym, I was hooked. The encouragement — and laughs — from my fellow participants kept me going week after week.
“The gym is the ideal place to discover which activities will be your next cross-training obsession,” says Life Time trainer Jasmine de la Cruz, AFAA, NASM. Many health clubs feature not only elliptical trainers, treadmills, rowing machines, and free weights, but also lap pools, rock-climbing walls, basketball courts, tennis and pickleball courts, and a slew of group fitness classes.
I’ll never forget the feeling of those group fitness classes at my gym: My brain was buzzing as much as my body while I showered afterward, thinking of the heavier weights I’d lifted and the witty exchanges I’d had with my new friends.
After a few months, I was running faster than ever, thanks to the core strength and upper-body stability I’d developed in class, as well as leg muscles that were more limber from end-of-class stretching. When I moved from Vermont to Colorado, I instantly found like-minded people in group strength training, and it became nearly as habitual as my running.
When COVID-19 hit, I felt just like so many fitness enthusiasts: I was adrift without the energy from my instructor and classmates. I was, however, able to follow the routines through an online app, which led me to a life-changing discovery: dancing.
There was a series of prerecorded videos focused on movement and music, and I became a devotee, learning the steps and then laughing along with the instructors’ comments. Suddenly, Snoop Dogg, Salt-N-Pepa, the Ying Yang Twins, and Pitbull were back in my repertoire, as were new pop songs, contemporary ballads, and timeless jazz tunes.
My mind crackled with energy and my body flooded with euphoria as I learned to move in new, powerful, empowering ways. Dancing helped me heal from divorce, and dancing made me a more balanced, confident, and graceful runner. I suddenly found new joy, fulfillment, and purpose.
This article originally appeared as “Mix It Up” in the November 2022 issue of Experience Life.