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Injury Prevention – Cross Training

What is Cross Training?

Cross training refers to a training routine that uses different forms of exercise, apart from the normal drills commonly associated with a sport. Cross training is often utilized for many reasons, including weather changes, facility and equipment availability, and most commonly, for injury rehabilitation purposes.

Although it is necessary for athletes to train specifically for their sport in order to excel, most include cross training as part of their regime to maintain a high level of overall fitness. Besides providing a break from the normal impact of training in the sport, thereby allowing muscles, tendons, bones, joints and ligaments a brief break, these exercises also target muscles from a different angle or resistance and work to balance an athlete. For example, you could alternate jogging and swimming during the week, and play a game of tennis on the weekend. All three are aerobic activities and use similar muscles, but in different ways.

Cross training is a great way to condition different muscle groups, develop a new set of skills, and even challenge the body after hitting a fitness plateau. A fitness plateau is reached when there is no apparent improvement in performance even though the intensity of the practice remains the same. This usually results after months of the same exercises, allowing the body to be extremely efficient at performing those movements, and thus, limiting the amount of overall fitness achieved and actual conditioning obtained.

Cross training also allows you the ability to vary the stress placed on specific muscles hence reducing the risk of injury from repetitive strain or overuse.

Benefits of Cross Training

  • Conditions the entire body, not just specific muscle groups - something you won't get if you concentrate on just one type of activity.

  • Exercising various muscle groups may help muscles adapt more easily to new activities.

  • Flexibility in training regime (If weight bearing activities are restricted for some reason i.e. injury, non-weight bearing activities such as swimming is handy).

  • Reduces exercise boredom - variety of activities to choose rather than the same drill.

  • Reduces the risk of overuse injury by alternating the way muscles are used while allowing others to rest and recover.

  • Improves your skill, agility and balance.

How does cross training prevent injuries?

Cross training can significantly reduce injuries caused by repetitive strain. Cross training gives the commonly used muscles in the sport some respite from the stresses exerted each day by reducing the amount of stress placed on weight bearing joints, muscles and tendons. The muscles may still be worked, even intensely, but without the normal impact or from a different angle. This allows the muscles to recover from the wear and tear built up over a season. This active rest is a much better recovery tool than total rest and forces the body to adapt to different stimuli. For example, in sports that depends heavily on running, swimming can be used as a cross training tool to reduce the stresses placed on the body, yet continuing to work the same muscles.

Cross training also helps to reduce or reverse muscle imbalances in the body that may result in injuries. A tennis player may develop muscle imbalances in the dominant side of his body especially in the shoulder of the serving arm. Thousands of serves over a season will cause the muscles in the playing arm to become stronger while supporting muscles and unaffected muscles will become weaker without training. Cross training can help to achieve balanced strength and stability of muscles in both the dominant and non-dominant sides. This balancing of strength and flexibility helps to prevent one muscle group, due to a strength imbalance, from pulling the body out of natural alignment. It also prevents muscle pulls and tears caused by one muscle exerting more force than the antagonist group can counter.

How to cross train?

Any exercise or activity can be used for cross training if it is not a skill associated with that particular sport. Weight training is a commonly used cross training tool. Other activities include, swimming, cycling and running.

A general fitness program has three components:

  • Aerobic exercises (i.e. running, cycling, ball sports) help improve cardiovascular fitness

  • Strength training (i.e. weight lifting) helps develop muscle bulk.

  • Flexibility exercises (i.e. stretching, yoga) help keep muscles flexible.

These three components can be incorporated into your fitness routine for cross training. Firstly, check with your physician to make sure that it's safe for you to begin a program. Some activities are not appropriate for people with certain physical limitations.

Consider the kind of activities that are readily available to you. Select activities that are convenient and enjoyable. With cross training, you can do one form of exercise each day, or more than one in a day. If you do both on the same day, you can change the order in which you do them. You can easily tailor cross-training to your needs and interests; mix and match you sports and change your routine on a regular basis. You should be doing at least 30 minutes of moderate activity on most days. You can break your exercise routine into short durations, so long as it adds up to at least of 30 minutes of physical activity daily. Remember to schedule rest days between days with intense workouts. Target different muscle groups on consecutive days to allow your body to recover between sessions.

A sample weekly cross training program might look like this:

  • Three times a week: 30 minutes of aerobic exercises, alternating activities such as walking, swimming and stair climbing.

  • Twice a week (not consecutive days): 30 minutes of strength training, working each major muscle group.

  • Every day: 5 to 10 minutes of stretching. It's also safe to walk every day.

Always start slowly and gradually increase the duration and intensity of your exercises. Try to follow the "10 percent rule": increase the frequency, duration, or intensity of an activity by no more than 10% each week.

Examples of cross training

  • A cyclist may use swimming to build upper body strength and to maintain cardiovascular endurance.

  • Swimmers may use free weight training to develop and maintain strength levels. They may incorporate rock climbing to keep upper body strength and endurance up.

  • Runners may use mountain biking to target the legs from a slightly different approach. They can use deep water running to lessen the impact while still maintaining a conditioning schedule.

The key to a successful cross training program is that it must address the muscles used in the sport and also allow a break from sport specific activities. Training the same major muscle groups, but in a different way keeps the body conditioned but helps prevent overuse injuries. -CG

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