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Top 6 Cross-Training Sports For The Triathlon Off-Season (part 1)

Posted Dec 15 2012 4:25pm


In some ways, we triathletes are like a hamster on a wheel. We finish a season of training and racing, then realize that we don’t really know how to do much more than stare at the bottom of a pool, spend hours in a bike saddle, or pound the pavement in our running shoes. We become accustomed and addicted to the wheels of swimming, cycling and running, and whenever physical activity beckons we begin turning those wheels.
And so, from October through March, many triathletes in cold climates spend the majority of their training time staring at the underwater lane lines, hunched over the aerobars of an indoor training bike, and wearing away the surface of a treadmill belt. At the same time, triathletes in warm climates just keep on swimming, cycling and running outdoors. The result is often a feeling of being stuck in an exercise rut, and being mentally and physically burnt out when the next race season finally arrives.

In reality, there is a wide world of sports just outside your front door – and many of these sports are not only entertaining and a fresh mental break from triathlon training, but also a perfect way to address cardiovascular fitness deficiencies, train weak muscles, stimulate and grow the mind and expand social circles. This article will give you a variety of off-season sports to choose as an ideal cross-training strategy, and give you tips for becoming involved in these sports – for both cold weather and warm weather triathletes.

6) Cross country skiing or skate skiing:
Your first clue that these snow sports have an incredible cardiovascular effect should be the fact that cross country skiers have a higher oxygen utilization capacity than any other athlete on the face of the planet. If you’ve seen the winter Olympics, then you may have witnessed the incredible pumping action required by both arms and legs during either sport. While cross-country skiing will strengthen hip flexors and hip extensors, the skate skiing motion shifts more force to the adductors and outer hip rotators, while requiring a high degree of single leg balance. Interestingly, all of these muscles and movements are chronically weak in many distance runners, and also necessary for enhancing cycling power. Both activities require a push-off arm motion that involves many of the same muscles as the pull phase of the swim stroke.
Triathletes who want to reduce risk of running injuries, improve tolerance to lactic acid, and enhance cycling power will benefit from these cross country or skate skiing. If you begin these sports, expect to experience not just flats and hills (there are no chair lifts in this sport), but also faster downhill stretches. While ski equipment is certainly expensive, many bargains can be found at used sporting goods stores and ski swaps – you can easily start skiing with a $200 investment.
Summary: Train weak running and shoulder muscles, and improve muscular endurance.

5) Downhill skiing or snowboarding:
I’ve put these two sports in a different category because from a physiological standpoint, they are completely different beasts. While cross country and skate skiing fall into the category of muscular endurance, downhill skiing and snowboarding fall into the category of power endurance. Power endurance fitness requires the ability to move slowly for long periods of time, interspersed by brief efforts of high intensity exercise.  While this may seem counter-productive to triathlon, research has shown that high intensity interval training with hard work periods followed by long rest periods can produce a highly beneficial aerobic training effect. In addition, explosive or dangerous efforts can stimulate a hormonal response that enhances testosterone product and lean muscle tissue formation.
In these higher speed snow sports, the rotational hip power and the required ability of the core to respond to quick changes in direction results in torso stability and strength, which is perfect for both swimmers and runners.
If you begin either of these sports, plan on working hard for 5-10 minutes, and then getting a long rest on the chairlift after each hard effort. If you do not plan on cross-training with this sport enough to justify a spendy season ticket, simply purchase a 5-10 visit punch-card at the beginning of the winter.
Summary: Improve power, hip rotation, and lower body lean muscle.


4) Indoor or outdoor soccer:
Like downhill skiing and snowboarding, soccer requires quick, explosive efforts, but each effort is followed by active recovery, rather than complete rest. As a result, muscular endurance and the ability to buffer lactic acid can be vastly improved by playing soccer. Although a similar muscular endurance effect can be achieved with cross country or skate skiing, soccer has the advantage of being biomechanically identical to a specific triathlon skill – running. Therefore, the muscular endurance can be enhanced with better leg turnover and stride length.
In addition, triathletes are notoriously weak in side-to-side motion, resulting in a higher risk of injury to overtrained front-to-back motion muscles. The frequent changes of direction and lateral movement in soccer can address this weakness.
Compared to triathlon, you’ll find some sports to be relatively dirt cheap, and soccer is a perfect example, simply requiring a stable pair of shoes (cleats are optional), and possibly a ball. If you are in a cold climate, look for an indoor soccer league in your area. If you are in a warm climate, and have difficulty finding a soccer game to join, try an ultimate Frisbee league instead.
Summary: Improve muscular endurance, stride turnover and length, and lateral movement ability.

Whoisben Ben Greenfield is the Renaissance man of the sport of triathlon.

He's a fast triathlete, a coach, a personal trainer, and much more more.

We recommend that you surf on over to , for more great training advice.

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