I often get questions about cross training. This is one that came in today from “Jack.” Most of it had to do with the athlete’s advancing age and having read my new book, Fast After 50. I’ve omitted all of that, but I’m most appreciative of his kind comments. Here is the focus of the email that gets at his question about cross training…
“I continue to train and ride, seeking the next sportive challenge. I’ve got my eye on the Assault on Mt. Mitchell in 2017 (May timeframe). That will be at age 53. I know, I know, I’m still a young pup. Anyway, I do have a question for you if I may. Although the book was quite extensive, I wish to know more about benefits of cross training. As I’m still working (Mon-Fri), I have a limited amount of time to spend training and therefore, devote almost all of it to cycling or the gym (two to three times per week). I don’t see a lot of room in my schedule for something else, but if there is a benefit, I’m willing to reconsider.”
And my reply…
Thanks for your note. And for your kind comments about my book.
Cross training is an interesting topic. Many do it who have “health” goals instead of “performance” goals. It’s great for health in part because the variety makes for high motivation and since many who are focused only on health are limited by lack of motivation for such a vague goal.
In answering your question I’m assuming that you are quite serious about cycling, as your email suggests, and that performance is your primary focus. If that’s the case then in order to reap a benefit from cross training the other activity you choose must overlap considerably with the physiological demands of cycling to prove beneficial. There are two broad categories for these demands—cardiorespiarory fitness and muscular fitness. Essentially, any mainstream endurance sport (swimming, running, cross country skiing, etc) will benefit the heart and lungs. This is actually not much of a challenge. The muscular system is a big challenge. If you’re not using the muscles in the same way they are used when on the bike then there is no significant muscular benefit. It may even be a waste of training time for achieving a high performance goal. For example, while you may use your legs quite a bit while running, the two movements are not even close in terms of the muscles. One relies on eccentric contractions of the calf muscles primarily (run) while the other calls for a great deal of concentric contraction from the quads primarily (bike). One of the best cross training activities for cycling has been shown in research to be weight lifting—especially heavy loads with low reps. But even then the movement must simulate cycling. Doing curls or even knee extensions won’t be of much benefit. Compound (multi-joint) strength-building exercises such as squats, step ups, and lunges come quite close to replicating the muscle activity on a bike.
The other issue is periodization. When should you do cross training activities and to what extent? There’s nothing in the way of research I’ve seen on this. My 35 years of experience as a coach and athlete tells me, however, that the closer you get to a targeted event, the more like the event your training must become. So the other side of this coin is that the farther away in time your event is, the less like the event your training can be. All of this suggests that cross training is best done many weeks and even months before the event. In common periodization-speak that would be the “base” period. But in the “build” period (last 12 or so weeks leading up to the event) you should make your training increasingly like the demands of the event. That implies cutting back on cross training in the build period. How much you do of it is determined by how lofty your performance goals are. For example, I can guarantee you that you won’t see a pro Tour de France GC contender running, swimming, or XC skiing in the last few weeks before the event starts. It would have to be an extremely unusual circumstance (perhaps an injury that precludes riding) for that to happen. And it would be a sure death knell for his race performance with such a lofty goal.
So bottom line is, some cross training is ok, especially well in advance of a high-goal event, but less so in the final few weeks.