This is the second installment in a series on the three keys to optimal training. I n the first installment I spoke of the importance of consistency , but once you’re exercising on a regular basis, you need to mix things up – for variety isn’t just the spice of life, it’s the key to a challenging, well-rounded training program. It’s important to train your entire body, not just the muscles specific to your main sport. By incorporating a variety of fitness activities into your schedule, you’ll keep your body and your mind fresh and healthy.
Remember when you learned to swim? After 10 minutes you were completely exhausted. Then, after much practice you could comfortably do lap after lap without stopping because the physical demands of swimming diminished the more skilled and fit you became. In general, the more your body gets used to the same physical activity, the less energy (i.e. calories) you require to perform that activity. Likewise, in learning something new, you demand more of your neuromuscular system. As kids we were constantly learning new skills, but as adults we tend to stick with what we’re comfortable with, moving the same way every day. We need to bring back some of that excitement and challenge into our lives by regularly taking on new physical challenges.
Triathletes are arguably the fittest athletes in the world because they truly are balanced when it comes to their training program. Their sport demands that their bodies be fit for three very different activities that challenge a variety of muscle groups. As a result, their entire bodies are fit and adaptable. If they held a “Survivor” competition among athletes of different sports, I believe triathletes would win hands down. Probably because of the variety in their training, triathletes are also able to enjoy fairly long careers without mental burnout or serious injuries. But you don’t have to be a triathlete to benefit from cross training – and here are a few more reasons why you should vary your training program:
1. You can prevent injury and enhance post-workout and/or post-race recovery by working different muscle groups. Cross training is particularly useful the first few days after competition. Performing a different activity can help loosen sore, stiff muscles without taxing them further.
2.You can avoid mental burnout. No matter how much you enjoy it, training hour after hour for your sport grows tedious if that’s all you do. By incorporating a variety of activities into your training program, you’ll stay fresher both mentally and physically.
3. You can achieve a higher level of overall fitness by working neglected muscles while giving overused muscles/joints and ligaments a break. For example, swimming does little for your quadriceps muscles, so combining it with some spinning classes, which focus on the leg muscles, makes a great combination.
4. You can avoid overtraining. With a varied program you’re less likely to overtrain; however, it is possible to over- cross train as well, so beware of over-exercising in general.
Most of us would be bored if we ate the same meals every day, so why do we allow ourselves to train the same way day after day? Why not bring your sense of adventure to your training by trying a new skill or activity every six months. You’ll be surprised at how much fun you’re having; you won’t even know you’re working out! Now in my mid-forties I really enjoy the challenge of maintaining a level of fitness in a variety of activities so that I’m able to go for a run, practice yoga, take a long bike ride or a dance class, swim laps or lift weighs without feeling beat up the next day. It keeps my mind stimulated as well.
Now once you’re become comfortable and efficient in your sport and you’ve incorporated cross training into your fitness program, the next step is to raise the intensity in some of your workouts. We’ll tackle that important subject in the final installment of this three-part series.