Cross-training has been an ever-present term in the running community over the past decade. It is defined as “training in two or more sports to improve fitness and performance, especially in the main sport.”
Google Trends data suggests high and sustained levels of interest and there are countless books written about it, including Cross-Training for Dummies.
Typically, most people will discuss some of the biomechanical benefits of cross training. They say that it improves overall fitness, reduces injuries, and enhances “active recovery” (Men’s Fitness). Some say it improves weight loss, and Runner’s World says that it can “increase the number of time runners spend training without accumulating fatigue or getting injured.”
As none of these articles cite genuine scientific research on the benefits of cross-training, we suppose one simply must take the authors’ word for it.
Or should we?
The New York Times in 2011 issued a report that looked at the body of scientific evidence behind cross-training. The conclusion? No significant evidence of improved performance and no significant evidence of reduced injury incidence.
Now, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine suggests cross-training because it is beneficial for one’s overall health. That is fairly intuitive of course. Just like running has a salutary impact on one’s “running health”, exercising other parts of the body surely boosts your health on a broader basis.
But here is what is said on actual performance improvements (emphasis added):
Hirofumi Tanaka, an exercise physiologist at the University of Texas in Austin, came to that conclusion more than a decade ago in a review of published papers. Studies comparing athletes, both trained and untrained, had found that only one factor mattered if performance was the goal: training in that sport.
Since then, he said, there have been numerous small studies, asking the same question and coming to the same conclusion. For example, two subsequent recent studies — one involving moderately fit runners and the other trained runners — found that adding cycling to a running program did not improve running performance.
The article continues by then examining the impact of cross-training on injury prevention:
Dr. Willem van Mechelen, head of public and occupational health at VU University Medical Center in Amsterdam, looked at data on injuries in runners and tried to tease out the factors that were linked to them. And he concluded that the only way to prevent running injuries is not to run.
The harder you run and the longer your running distances, the more likely you are to get injured. And, he wrote, among the factors “significantly not associated with running injuries” is “participation in other sports.”
Unless cross-training means you simply do less of your primary sport, then, don’t expect it to protect you from injuries.
In fairness, resistance training (like weight lifting) has been shown – in some cases -to produce improved performance. But the impact is intermittent and depends on the activity for which you are cross-training.
Nevertheless, there is one benefit to cross-training that is surely undeniable; there is a reduction in burnout risk with cross-training. Participation in a rigorous training program is tiring physically and mentally. Having an activity that keeps you moving (lowering frustration risk) but reduces your involvement in the core activity (e.g. running) reduces the risk that you will lose the love for your exercise and view it as a chore instead.
Keep up the cross-training! Not only will it make you faster or reduce your injury count, but b it will provide some degree of the mental piece, variability, and excitement for your morning workout.
(Image credit: TryCardio)