Depending on where you live, your off-season might be filled with seemingly-endless weeks of bitter cold, snow, ice, and other weather-related obstacles. It can be tough to keep up the motivation to train.
Endurance athletes know the winter “off-season” can be an excellent time for a bit of cross-training. It allows you to change things up, give over-used muscles a break, and even build strength and endurance!
3 Benefits of Cross-Training for Endurance Athletes
Most endurance athletes think of injury prevention when talking about cross-training. While injury prevention or rehabilitation is beneficial, there are many other reasons to incorporate cross-training into your winter or off-season training.
1. Rehabilitate over-used muscles and joints: Endurance athletes tend to over-use certain muscle groups and put a lot of strain on specific joints when training and racing throughout the season. The off-season is a great time to utilize different muscle groups or activate muscles differently.
Cross-training gives those over-used muscles, tendons, and joints time to rehabilitate, and it helps strengthen those under-utilized muscles. Greater overall strength and balanced muscle development can help with injury prevention.
2. Maintain or boost overall fitness: Cross-training is a reliable way to maintain your current fitness and even build greater base fitness in the off-season.
3. Keep things mentally and physically fresh: No matter how much passion you have for your endurance sport, it gets boring if you train too much. Variety is the spice of life, and off-season cross-training helps you maintain that enthusiasm. Fanning that passion enables you to train harder and more consistently when it really counts, ultimately leading to greater performances overall.
Cross-Training Activities for Endurance Athletes
Hopefully, you’re convinced that spicing up your off-season with a bit of cross-training can only benefit you. Now let’s explore some great cross-training activities for endurance athletes.
Cross country skiing: Cross country skiing is a natural crossover for runners and cyclists. It will provide shockingly good cardio and full-body workout while allowing you to enjoy the winter trails. It’s a go-to off-season activity for countless elite endurance athletes. And, with the advent of winter triathlon, you can even hone your cross-country skiing skills to venture into a new form of endurance racing!
Rock climbing: While not technically a winter sport, with more indoor rock climbing gyms opening around the world (and the summer Olympics fueling interest in the sport), this is a great off-season activity! Climbing requires excellent core strength, mobility, and precision of movement under physical stress.
Not only can climbing hone your physical strength and endurance, it’s also a great way to practice focus, mental toughness, and quick problem-solving under pressure. Plus, most climbing gyms are open year-round, so you can add it into your general training rotation to keep things interesting if you fall in love with the sport.
Running for endurance cyclists: If your primary endurance sport is cycling (mountain biking, gravel riding, crit racing, etc.), consider adding some running in during the off-season.
Though the winter weather isn’t always conducive to running, it’s an efficient way to maintain cardio fitness. Even cold, snowy runs can become enjoyable with the right running apparel (and maybe a pair of Yak Trax).
Hiking or snowshoeing: Whether you live in a winter wonderland that gets loads of snow or a milder climate, hiking can be an excellent off-season cross-training activity that the whole family can enjoy together.
Hiking on uneven terrain can help build those core stabilizing muscles. Hiking with even a mid-weight pack can really test your core and leg strength while maintaining cardiovascular fitness. Even walking briskly enough to elevate your heart rate while still carrying on a conversation provides a good workout.
Snowshoeing tends to be more difficult than hiking because you’re lifting the snowshoes with every step. Snowshoeing also requires a wider than normal stance, which stresses different muscles. Overall, it’s a stellar way to maintain fitness, build strength, and enjoy the great outdoors.
Rowing machines: Many gyms have rowing machines in their collection of cardio machines. When using proper form, it’s a full-body workout. Though most of the power is generated by your legs, it also engages your back, shoulders, and arm muscles. You’ll build strength throughout your entire body without the pounding of running.
Swimming: Swimming is an excellent off-season cross-training activity for endurance runners and cyclists. It’s an excellent aerobic exercise, and many pools offer winter masters classes for structured workouts.
One factor to consider is that swimming doesn’t use many core muscles that cycling and running activates. Make sure to complement off-season swimming with other aerobic activities to maintain your core and overall strength.
Yoga: Yoga (or Pilates) can help you address physical imbalances, build core strength, and calm your mind. It can also help increase flexibility, which can significantly benefit runners and cyclists.
Many cyclists report that building strength with yoga helps them feel more balanced and relaxed in the saddle. Maintaining (or improving) flexibility can help you hold more aero positions comfortably and for longer periods.
Pilates combines all the focus and “self-awareness” practices of yoga with the intensity of strength training. It balances flexibility training with a full-body workout that will challenge your core muscles.
It’s impossible to maintain peak fitness year-round. Everyone’s off-season will look a little different. Some endurance athletes respond very well to significantly less structured training and more “play” fitness. Other athletes choose to maintain more structured workouts and add more rest and cross-training sessions.
Working with a coach is a great way to find the right balance of intensity, structure, and play for your overall mental and physical health in the off-season. The right mix can set you up for greater performances in the coming season and can keep you training and racing for many years to come.
Gregg Edelstein is a certified USA Triathlon Level 1 Coach, an IRONMAN University Certified Coach and a USA Cycling Level 3 Coach based in the greater Boston area. Gregg offers his athletes insight on the principles of exercise, nutrition, sports psychology, and injury prevention, working to make them well-rounded and engaged athletes that share his passion for sport. Gregg can be reached at Greg@TeamMPI.com