Cross training: An Introduction
By Charles Doxat
Charles Doxat was county swimming champion in the early 1960s, and went to be many times British Age Group swimming Champion and record-holder. He won 7 British Age-Group Triathlon Championships in the 1990s (at Half Ironman, Olympic and Sprint distances).
Two expressions have increasingly become part of sporting vocabulary over the last few years: cross-training and multisports. They are, of course, related – multisports require cross-training; but cross-training has also developed in its own right to benefit competitors in single discipline sports.
My own definition of cross-training is training across 2 or more disciplines for the primary benefit of one chosen sport. The variety of disciplines I would perform are: running, cycling, rowing (including ergonometer), swimming, Nordic ski-ing (machine), in-line skating, aerobics and weights. There can, however, be many other successful combinations.
Because multisports have grown quickly, definitions are woolly, however I accept the following as the most definitive (I have included typical event distances):
Swim/run 400m/4k (Note: In the Olympics ‘Biathlon’ is a ski/shoot event!)
Although tough multi-discipline events in their own right, modern pentathlon, heptathlon and decathlon are normally excluded from the general definition as the different parts are not run continuously.
The purpose of this article is to give a personal commentary on cross-training especially for older athletes (over 35s) who are contemplating it for the first time, or indeed are considering entering multisport competition either in its own right or to provide variety within their overall competitive programme.
I have no wish to usurp any guidance received from a professional coach, although I do remember the first "professional" advice I received as an up-and-coming Junior Swimmer: to achieve the best swimming results, I was told, the nearer a fish you can behave the better – in other words spend as much time as possible in the water swimming! To an impressionable young mind this seemed logical, but it was, of course, total nonsense. It ignored the quantity:quality equation and it ignored the problems of physical and psychological tiredness. This leads us to the first two of the three key benefits of cross-training.
Overcome mental fatigue
Running is enjoyable. In my view more enjoyable (and sociable) than most other sports. But even running, nearly every day, for 20 or 40 years can extend "focus" (a normally positive attribute for an athlete) into "narrow-minded" or "blinkered" which are negative. Almost without knowing an athlete starts to live for and be dominated by only one aspect of human endeavour.
Obviously variety in training (intervals, Fartlek, hill-sprints etc) can help, but running is actually (even) more fun if you mix it with other activities – social, yes, but also sporting. Do about half the mileage and enjoy each mile twice as much.
Incidentally I believe a significant factor in mental (and to a lesser extent physical) fatigue are the logistical problems of training times, travelling, crowded venues etc. It is imperative to minimise these problems, otherwise too much effort is expended worrying about your training arrangements to the detriment of the quality of the training itself. Let me give you an example: it is difficult if you live and work in Central London to train on a bicycle – too much danger, dirt and disruption. Therefore nearly all my cycling is done on a "lifecycle" machine at a convenient gym (alternatively a turbo machine at home). It’s not quite the same as racing the real machine, but more than compensated for by a hassle-free facility allowing total focus on the training session required.
The benefits delivered by running to the efficiency of heart, lungs and certain muscle groups are well documented, but it can also place significant strain on ligaments and joints leading to injury, always irritating and sometimes long-term. There are sensible precautions to minimise injury-risk, but not to eradicate it. 10% of all serious runners are injured at any one point in time. Well isn’t it blindingly obvious that if you hammer away at the same muscles and joints all the time they’re going to suffer ? Spread the load! Use more of the body’s thousands of muscles, and feel the benefit.
Most athletes strive to see improvement in their performance, and obviously this gets more difficult, nay impossible, with mature (aka ancient) athletes. However, try cross-training and you’ll get some remarkable improvements in your 2nd or 3rd string activities. I took up competitive cycling at age 47 and it didn’t take much training to improve my 40km time by 20minutes. It’s stimulating. However, remember it’s never a straight line improvement year over year. More a diminishing curve.
In my own experience your no. 1 discipline will also improve if you cross-train. When I radically reduced my swim-training and substituted two other ‘unrelated’ sports I had my best ever Masters swimming results including my fastest times for 20 years.