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Is Cross Training a Waste of Time? Am I Getting Worse Because I'm Spending Time Away?

by Dr Peter Windross

posted in Health and Fitness

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Opinion varies about how much and what type of cross training to do.
When you train for a sport, the muscle groups that you use the most will develop the most. The way that you use your joints will affect how you develop strength around them. The supporting ligaments strengthen and coordination improvements develop which will be very specific to the activity that you are performing. The motor groups within the muscles are enhanced and become more powerful. These muscle groups contract harder and more efficiently when they are trained. In addition to the muscles, the nerves become more efficient too. Through regular use, the neural pathways in your brain will actually thicken and conduct the nerve impulses better. These nerve pathway changes are enough to actually change the shape of your brain. These thicker nerve pathways then work to power your muscles and body in such a way to make it more efficient.
These changes are all in response to repeated specific stresses. They take months and years to develop. This is the response to training. It is also why the benefits are not instantly achieved. This predictable response to training is why the professionals do this a lot. Every day. Up to four times a day.
This training response is why Olympic champions are usually only very good at the sport that they've trained for and aren't international standard at any other. Of course they are fit, strong and well coordinated but sport specificity is crucial if you want to compete at the very top of the game. This sport specificity is because the brain and the body physically change during the many hours of hard and carefully tailored training over years. The neural pathways in the brain are altered during training in such a way that makes it quicker and easier for the body to perform those actions you have rehearsed. The body changes are highly specific too. The muscle groups that you use in the actions you perform in training are reinforced and made stronger.
The outcome of these changes are that when you train for one thing, you will get better. These changes won't however make you necessarily any better at other sport or activity. Weight lifters may not make very good ice skaters, gymnasts might not be great at the shooting and those who are excellent at sailing might not be quite so good at the marathon. This is useful to know, because if you want to be a great trail runner, you will have to work at trail running.
It is not necessarily a bad thing that working at one sport doesn't give you a free pass to be brilliant at all the others. These different and sometimes distinct changes which occur are good because they happen in a particular way which is very predictable. It is this very predictability we can take advantage of. Tailoring our training to maximise these changes. We can work on the very things which will help to make us better and more efficient at our chosen sport.
This explains why the world's elite athletes may be really rather average when turning their hand to something else outside their chosen arena. It is not that their skills, attitude, tenacity and dedication aren't transferable - it is because their bodies (and their neural pathways) are very well adapted for just the one thing.
Each sport requires different actions and muscles. Using your non preferred sport as part of a training regimen or regime is referred to as cross training. This is why cross training on something like a stationary bike will have limited benefits for someone who just wants to get better at running. The benefits of cross training do include that it can be a break from your usual training routine. A break which can be nice for the variety, along with a well earned rest for your joints from repetitive actions. Cross training can be beneficial but has its limitations. Knowledge of these pros and cons will better inform your choices.
There is a place for cross training in maintaining fitness while resting an injury. For example if your shins hurt you may still be able to cycle. While resting an injury, cross training can prevent you from going stir crazy with cabin fever. You may notice that if you can cycle but can't run, this provides a hint that they use different muscles and that in your main training time spent on a bike may not make you much of a better runner. Some people feel that cross training stops you from becoming bored of running the same routes and routines.
Cross training can give the benefit while resting an injury that you may not lose all of your hard earned cardiovascular fitness. Your fitness starts to drop after a couple of weeks of not exercising and in highly trained individuals it can take three months to return to the baseline fitness of the general population. So you don't need to panic too much if you need a week off for injury, work or pressing social commitments.
Cross training can deliver key benefits to your core muscle strength. Having a strong set of muscles around your middle is pretty invaluable for your running generally, but when you are on uneven terrain wearing a heavy pack, being equipped with a rock solid core can make a huge difference to your running economy and efficiency.
Being a more efficient runner feels nicer, moves you faster and hurts a lot less. In multi-day events, you finish faster and therefore get more time to relax and recover. In indulging yourself to play at other sports you can take advantage of they way they these different sports work your core in different ways from running and help keep your abdominal muscles in good shape - this is definitely a good thing and highly beneficial to your running.
Cross training is not quite as good as actually doing a daily specific core work out - but few of us actually manage that. I don't enjoy it. Because my core isn't good enough, it hurts. So I tend to avoid it despite knowing how important it is!
My way of achieving some core work in is to play tennis once a week - which is fun and I enjoy the competition. Running is all a bit solo, often in the dark and I'm my only competition in the cold and the rain. Sadly I'm only too aware that the tennis isn't as good as a proper gym session, but I justify it to myself anyway.
Please do cross-train if you want to and enjoy it, but appreciate its limitations as well as its benefits. It is of course better for your body to be doing something rather that eating doughnuts on the couch. Don't tire yourself out so you get less from your next running session. When you are tired, your injury risk goes up. Injuries sustained in this way are really unhelpful and unnecessary.
More another day...
About the Author: Dr Windross works as a GP with a special interest in weight management. 'The Waist Management System' out now on Amazon and on Kindle:
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