Off-season series No.2

cross-train for lasting gain

In the second of our off season series we explore what cross-training means and how it can help you freshen up your body and mind without losing base fitness.

Endurance athletes - whether triathletes, runners or cyclists - will often finish their season around this time of year and take a much earned rest. Perceived wisdom is that this a time for recuperation, recovery and relaxation; a time to indulge a little bit more than is usual. Much is spoken about the opportunity to have fun, explore new sports and activities and ‘cross-train’. But what does this actually mean, what are the pitfalls during this ‘rest’ period and how do you avoid them.

This is the first of our series of blogs to help you through the off-season. We hope to give you practical advice, founded in the latest sports science and clinical research, to freshen up your approach to winter training so you avoid the blues and hit next year in prime shape.

Become your best.

During a period of active training and the racing season, rest and recovery are both essential, yet often confused. Rest is an essential part of muscle development, leading to physiological adaptation and thus enhanced performance. It essentially necessitates placing minimal load on your physiology for periods between purposeful workouts. It is not a low intensity session. Without it adaptations do not occur, performance gains are severely limited in the short term, and in the longer term overuse injuries are likely. On the other hand, recovery could be better termed ‘active recovery’. The focus of active recovery is essentially to speed up the removal of metabolic waste from muscle tissues, by increasing blood flow and enhancing the regeneration of damaged tissues. This is your classic, low intensity session, but ideally performed at the end of another session not on a separate day.

During the off-season the term ‘recovery’ should be thought of much more broadly and the approach taken adapted accordingly. Endurance athletes will, during the course of active training and the racing season, stretch themselves and their bodies to the limits so they become stronger and improve performance in their selected sport. We know that athletes run the risk of overdosing on their particular activity, stressing certain joints, overusing particular muscles and becoming mentally fatigued. In single discipline activities these effects are often severely limiting: over-pronation issues in running; adductor dominance issues in cycling and pectoral imbalances in swimmers can cause athletes to sit on the side lines for extended periods and, even worse, force retirement. Multi-discipline sports such as triathlon encourage some cross-training benefit, but even here mental fatigue and overuse injuries abound. Consider, for example, the amount of time spent moving in a single plane during running and cycling and the lack of rotational or sideways movement. Swimming provides limited variety, with some rotational movement. But it is conducted in an unweighted environment and for a much smaller training or racing duration than the other two disciplines.

The off-season provides an opportunity not only to recover from overuse but also to ‘iron-proof’ your body against future injury and to freshen your mental approach. You should still rest more frequently and for longer to heal. And you can and should indulge a little more to refresh your mental approach. But continue to actively recover to help re-energise your body and reinvigorate your approach. Don’t fall into the trap of either simply doing less of the same or do nothing and completely lose your hard-earned base fitness level. Make exercising fun again by exploring new activities and challenging yourself.

Enjoying new styles of training and new sports and activities motivates the mind and enhances the body, potentially adding power, flexibility and stability to your armoury. Such activities should be, primarily enjoyable but also selected with purpose. When ‘cross-training’ you are engaging your mind with diverse, new and novel challenges allowing you to become a more complete athlete. Your body is being given time to recover from very specific stresses whilst being exposed to, and adapting beneficially to, others. You can even select your activities to help reduce weaknesses or build strengths for your main sport. Touch rugby, five-a-side football and most racket sports build in multi-directional movement and explosive attributes, whilst helping improve hand-eye coordination, agility, core strength and stability. Winter sports are great: skiing improves glute and triceps strength as well as proprioceptive control; skating enhances balance and quad strength; and cross country skiing hip flexor and glutes. Rock climbing works wonders for the upper body and core. And, although it is a bit ‘cliched’, core strengthening activities, such as pilates, yoga and functional weight training, facilitate central stabilisation of the body, allowing the maximal force to be generated from our extremities whether that be pushing off when running, catching during swimming or generating power from the cycle stroke.

These activities stimulate varied stresses on the neuromuscular system which prepare the mind and the body to be ready for anything; at least much more. They stimulate greater use of previously under-utilised muscles, taking the load off the primary movers in the main sport. New neuromuscular pathways are stimulated which facilitate greater adaptation when returning to active training. More efficient muscular utilisation reduces the propensity to fatigue, enhances power production and improves performance. Greater core stability and balance helps posture and the generation of more effective motion, in whatever sport. And best of all its fun, varied and stimulating. Explore new sports, stretch yourself and reap the rewards this off-season. Evolve.

Take Homes

  • Rest and recovery are different, if inter-related, concepts.
  • Don't just do less of the same during the off-season, you will simple cause more physical stress and more mental fatigue.
  • Continue to be active but freshen it up by trying different sports, ideally placing differing demands on your physiology.
  • Your body will respond to the differing demands, activating differing muscle groups and helping those that are usually used, replenish.
  • When you return to your main sport you will have a more rounded neuro-muscular foundation to evolve from.

Off Season Series: Cross-Training