What is cross-training?
Cross training refers to any form of training that differs from running activity – it therefore includes gym training (resistance training), swimming, aerobics/taebo, spinning, rowing, elliptical training and cycling.
Cross training gained popularity with runners as a form of alternative training to reduce injury risk and improve overall whole body fitness. There is some rationale for believing that this may be true.
The primary reason cross training is beneficial is an indirect one, because it allows the runner to manipulate the load on the normally used muscles and joints without necessarily compromising fitness and training status. In other words, they can obtain benefits from running at the same time as relieving the workload on those muscles and joints that running focuses on.
The risk of injury from excessive running is high specifically because these joints are chronically overloaded, and so cross training reduces the risk of injury simply as a result of the rest given to muscles and joints that are typically used for running. The alternative to cross training would be complete rest, but this begins to affect the fitness and cardiovascular status of the runner. Also, many runners feel compelled to exercise and so a complete rest day is seen as wasteful, meaning that cross training is the only practical alternative.
Cross training may also play a direct role in preventing injury, because the alternative forms of exercise recruit other muscles, which running may not necessarily activate. This develops overall, whole-body conditioning, and would, in theory reduce the risk of injury because weaknesses are eliminated. This effect is most pronounced when doing gym training that specifically focuses on muscle groups that running may neglect
Is cross training better than running?
The answer to this question is most likely no, in normal circumstances. If given a choice between a running session and an alternative session (swimming, cycling etc.), the running session is preferable from a performance point of view. The law of specificity applies here – specific training is needed to achieve a specific goal, so if the goal is better running, then running training is more effective.
However, in reality, this is often not as clear cut. For the reasons outlined above, you may be more susceptible to injury if no alternative forms of training are done. So in any situation, there are three choices:
1. Do a running session
2. Take a complete day off to rest and recover
3. Do cross training, which is essentially a compromise, because it allows muscles and joints to be rested, but not the whole body – there is still some stress on the body, which enables fitness to be maintained or even developed.
In order to make this choice, you need to ask the following questions:
1. Do I feel that I am in need of a rest day? Are there any signs of impending overtraining, injury, aches and pains, slight discomfort in muscles and joints that may indicate that a rest day or alternative day is needed?
2. If yes, then the next issue is whether the fatigue that is felt is indicative of localised or whole body fatigue?