Cross-Training Featured

The Complete Athlete – Why Cross Training is Key to Optimal Health and Performance

In the world of sports and training, or life in general…who settles for being “just enough”?

Not me.

Being an athlete is about being the exception, not the rule.

This has nothing to do with winning; it’s all about being the best athlete you can be – mentally and physically…and, sometimes, that means throwing out the rulebook in terms of everything you thought you knew.

As a lifelong athlete, I experienced a broad spectrum of exercise strategies and regimens. Some focused solely on skill and endurance, with little or no attention to strength. With weightlifting, I noticed a huge emphasis on body aesthetics and the “bigger is better” mentality. This always surprised me and I often wondered why anyone would sell themselves short by not developing all three core aspects of athleticism: endurance, skill and strength.

In other words, cross train.

Let’s go back to the fundamentals of why cross training is so important. Physical activity that incorporates both endurance, skill and strength training is ideal for your overall health and athletic performance. It’s that simple.

Traditionally, high endurance athletes like runners and cyclists forgo strength training because it eats into their time on the road and, in their minds, adds “bulk” muscle affecting their pace. Likewise, many bodybuilders fall into a similar trap, avoiding cardio because they fear it’ll diminish their muscle gains. Even in team sports, players become tunnel-visioned, working on a very specific set of skills only to the detriment of their overall athleticism.

Singular Athlete vs Complete Athlete

Singular training is not conducive to optimal fitness, though. It’s the combination of all aspects that creates the complete athlete – someone who can compete and perform at a very high level. Elite athletes – the ones at the top of their game in any given sport – cross train. World-class runners, like Olympian Meb Keflezighi, incorporate strength exercises into their training regimens. Basketball legend Kobe Bryant is famous for his 666 workout plan that includes a hefty dose of cardio and weightlifting alongside his basketball skills practice.

Ryan Hall, former American half marathon record holder, started weightlifting because, in his own words, “I’ve been small and weak my entire life—just, like, totally underdeveloped.” After putting on 40 pounds of lean muscle, he still belts out a speedy 5:20 mile pace.

Cross training is not just limited to traditional models either. Ballet is used by professional football players to further refine their agility and deep core muscle endurance. Spinning is a great low-impact choice for runners with injuries, while improving their endurance and upper body strength. Yoga improves mobility, flow and form, helping athletes focus on proper alignment and body awareness.

For me, cross training is paramount. After undergoing specialized training in my early 20’s, building a solid foundation of endurance, skill and strength, I realized the singular training model was inadequate. This was especially significant in my running game – distance and sprinting, both of which improved dramatically after I began weightlifting. Endurance training compliments my strength training by keeping my muscles flexible, lean and long.

Injury Prevention

When I first tore my meniscus, I spent several weeks in a leg cast and couldn’t run properly for years without the aid of a metal brace. It took a second tear to realize my weak knee ligaments and muscles were to blame. After embracing body building – lower body strength training, in particular, I run without a brace and I have yet to re-injure my knee.

Athletes who focus solely on one sport and/or method of training are constantly using the same muscle groups, resulting in repetitive injuries. For example, runners notoriously suffer from bad knees, torn ACLs and IT Band Syndrome (ITBS). Incorporating lower body weight strength exercises into their training will not only prevent injury, but improve their running. Likewise, weightlifters must embrace cardio and not forget to train the most important muscle of all – the heart.

Cross training has made me a much better, stronger all-around athlete.

Try it. I promise you, it will do the same for you.

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DR J 2211 – Rachael Jezierski, PhD