Cross Training for Triathletes:
Cross Purposes
By Roy Stevenson

Has the running section of your triathlon stopped improving, leaving you wondering what you can do to give it a kick-start? Have you reached a point where you just cannot squeeze any more running into your triathlon training schedule because you'll get injured? Are you getting injured frequently? Are you finding training runs boring and you're looking for something to make it fun again?

Recent research shows that supplementing, or even replacing part of your running program with other forms of exercise might be just what you need to avoid boredom, minimize injuries, and take your running to a new level.

How to Improve Your Triathlon Running Performance

Many triathletes feel they are maxing out on their running mileage, and (based on past experience) further running would precipitate injury. Cross training using other techniques may be the answer to improve the running part of your triathlon training. Substituting some of your running with other cross training enables you to do extra endurance training with less strain on your running muscles and joints because you're using the same muscle groups in a different (non weight-bearing) way.

Even better for the triathlete who has reached a plateau, the added workouts can be done at higher intensity, giving increased gains in maximal oxygen uptake. A high intensity cycling session for example, helps the runner develop increased lactate tolerance, buffering capacity, and fuel resynthesis, without undergoing the high impact stress on the legs from an interval-training workout.

A triathlete already performing 2-3 high-intensity running workouts each week cannot add more running workouts at this level. But throwing intense stairclimbing or cycling sessions give an extra workout that will help take him to a new level without the added trauma of high intensity running.

Cross Training for Injury Prevention

Many of us have found out the hard way that repetitive running movement operating within it's restricted range of motion makes it easy to overwork the same muscles and joints, often leading to injuries. Cross training, if done correctly, will re-establish symmetry between your muscle groups.

But be careful you don't overemphasize one particular activity-mix them up. A study by Murphy et al found cross training might not reduce injury rate, and another study found that, "cycling can be a great choice for runners to loosen the repetitive stress of running that contributes to overuse injuries. But cycling may come with its own set of problems, particularly back pain".

By doing extra endurance work in low impact or low weight bearing aerobic activities like cycling, stair climbing, swimming, deep-water running, or using the elliptical trainer, you get an "active rest", with virtually no stress on your joints, making them ideal complementary activities for the triathlete.

The Principle of Specificity

Note that all these exercises use the legs for a major part of propulsion. Despite this similarity, cross training appears to defy an important principle of exercise science - specificity.

This aged principle states that if you are to improve in a specific sport, you should practice that activity solely, and by throwing other similar activities into the mix you confuse your neuromuscular system, thus actually retarding your running progress. Indeed one cross-training study actually found that although cross training did improve running performance it was not as much as a running only program.

This explains why world-class athletes in one endurance sport like Tour de France cyclists are not world-class marathoners. Although elite cyclists exercise most of the muscle groups used in running, they do it in a very different way.

But more recently, contradicting research shows that some activities can actually improve other sports. A study by Ruby et al. had three groups of exercisers do a ten-week training program of running, or cycling, or a mixture of both. Their results found that all groups improved VO2 max.

Another study (Millet et al), looked at cross-training effects in elite triathletes. It concluded that a certain amount of cross-transfer training occurs between cycling and running (but not with swimming).

One of the most promising studies to validate cross-training, conducted by Mutton et al., looked at the effects of running four days/week compared with a combined cycling (2 days/week) and running (2 days/week) schedule, for a total of four days/week, over a five week training program.

The results for both groups were almost identical, both groups improving VO2 max significantly, and reducing their 5 km run times by 7% (running only) and 8% (running/cycling). These results proved that augmenting a running program with cycling showed no decrease in performance over a running only program.

Another cycling/running study at the university of Toledo found similar results. The running/cycling group times improved by almost 30 seconds, from 18:16 to 17:48, or 3%, which was almost the same reduction as the running only group's average. The researchers concluded that adding extra running sessions provided no advantage over adding extra cycling sessions.

Similarly, a California State University study also used two groups of runners for a study on cross training. A running only group and a cycling only group performed a 9-week training program. At the end of the training both groups performed the same in running tests.

At the very least these studies prove that certain activities such as cycling preserve and maintain running fitness while the runner reduces, or even does no running. This in itself provides a solid reason for the triathlete to cross-train to improve his running. This could prove especially useful at the end of a grueling season when the triathlete could cease running for a while, and switch to cross training for a physical and mental break without fear of losing any hard-earned fitness. Other non-weight bearing, low or no-impact activities such as aquarunning, and stair climbing, may also yield similar benefits.

How then, can the triathlete use cross training to improve performance? And what activities are the best to help running? Perhaps we should first look at activities that are not ideal cross-training substitutes for runners. Any high impact sports (with the ground or other people), and sports that involve a lot of lateral bounding, or stop and go movements, should be avoided. These include soccer, tennis, racquetball, handball, volleyball, rugby, and aerobic dance.


First, it's doubtful that cyclists could improve their cycling by adding running to their training schedules. But it appears that cycling has a great impact on running. Unfortunately for triathletes swimming shows no correlation with improving running performance. To be effective, cycling should be done at a fast cadence-similar to your running cadence with the resistance being one you can handle for intense 5-20 minute workouts.

Deep-water Running (aka aquarunning)

Running in place in water can help your running. This is done with a life preserver or special belt or vest that helps keep the runner afloat. One study found that runners who did deep-water running for 6 weeks retained their racing times.

Stair Stepping

Use the Stairmaster for a no impact workout. According to one study, people who did stair-climbing workouts for 9 weeks improved their running performances. Not surprising really, as stairclimbing mimics uphill running, which consistently rates near the top in terms of improving VO2 max. The main criticism with stairclimbing is that it's hard to set a fast step cadence on this machine.

Elliptical Fitness Trainers

The elliptical or oval movement can be used backwards or forwards, providing the opposing muscle groups some balance in the workout. It works the gluteals and hamstrings, two important muscle groups for runners. To date no research has shown this improves running performance, however common sense would indicate that if done at a high enough intensity, elliptical training certainly would not lose any running fitness.

Other Cross-Training Advice

Try several of these recommended cross-training methods.

* Decide whether you are going to substitute any of your training runs with cross-training activities, or if you're adding in one or two extra workouts each week.

* Cross training is best added to your training program on your easy running or rest days.

* Gradually add in your cross-training workouts, instead of adding 2-3 sessions in one week. But always allow at least one complete rest day each week.

* If you're a semi-serious triathlete running 3-4 days each week, you can add in 1-2 days of cross training, or substitute 2-3 days with cross-training activities.

* If you're a competitive triathlete, running 5-7 days a week, you can substitute 1-2 running workouts each week with cross training sessions.

* Make sure you maintain your long weekly run-this should never be substituted with cross training.

* If your running schedule calls for a 30 minute run, which you are trying to substitute with a cross-training workout, attempt to exercise for 30 minutes on cross-training equipment.

* It's important that you work out at a high enough intensity to achieve improvement.

* Ask your fitness trainer to show you how to operate each piece of equipment before you use them.

* While you're adjusting to the machines early in your workouts, you may not be able to complete a full 30-minute workout, so gradually build up your time on each machine or in the pool. Start at 10-15 minutes, and add 5 minutes on to each workout.

* As a general rule, you can substitute as much as 50% of your total volume (in minutes of exercise) from cross-training exercise in your off-season, and up to 25% in your competitive triathlon season.

* Use a heart rate monitor to ensure you get full benefit from your cross-training workout.

* Try to get your heart rate up into a similar zone to your normal running heart rate, or at least within 10 beats per minute. You probably won't be able to get your HR right up to running levels because the cross-training exercises recommended here are non-or low weight bearing. Thus they don't use the legs as much for anti-gravity work, and to support your body mass.

Of the studies done on cross-training most indicate it's possible to improve your running and thus your triathlon running performance by incorporating or substituting other aerobic activities into your training program.

In addition, you may be able to squeeze one or two high intensity workouts in, on top of your regular running workouts, without the added impact trauma to muscles and joints. This should lead to reduced injury rates. But the devil's in the details. Make sure you do high intensity cross training, rather than just "junk" time on the cross-training equipment.

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