Surprise! Triathletes Should Incorporate Cross-Training

By Stephan Schwarze – June 4, 2012

For triathletes, one of the great benefits—and one of the biggest challenges—is to reach a high level of all-around fitness. The weekly training volume for us is often higher than for athletes in other sports. Therefore, we often don’t even consider cross-training and engaging in other activities. My experience is that cross-training adds fun to the training and improves overall fitness, and swim-bike-run training benefits a lot from it.

There are plenty of cross-training and outdoor activities that are beneficial for triathlon-specific fitness and training. Whenever I am active in such activities, I don’t look at it as training. Part of cross-training is also “mental recovery” and getting a break from our routine days filled with swim, bike, and run. But at the same time, I am aware that quite a bit of outdoor and cross-training action builds or maintains muscular and/or cardiovascular fitness.

Back in the 1990s when I lived in Switzerland and Germany, the cold and wet winters (and lack of indoor trainers) prevented us from cycling between November and March. Instead, we did a lot of cross-country and downhill skiing. Both were challenging workouts and fabulous activities to enjoy the outdoors in the Alps. Once April came around, we were in good shape cardiovascularly (from Nordic skiing) and muscularly (from downhill skiing) and ready to quickly jump back into cycling. And after four to five months without cycling, getting back on the bike seemed even more fun.

Here in Austin, we don’t get such cold winters that prohibit cycling. But we do get hot and humid summers that make running quite unenjoyable, at least for a lot of us (including me). One option is to shift focus during those uncomfortable months a bit more towards cycling and swimming. Another option is to look for alternative outdoor activities to running. My wife and I enjoy hiking. Although not a complete substitute for running, going on half- or full-day hikes on the greenbelt or in the hill country is a good choice. Last summer we spent a few days in Colorado. We went for several hikes, some as long as eight hours, and got to see amazing areas in the Rockies, which was a welcome break from running and cycling in the heat. At the same time, I never felt I lost any fitness doing this. Rather, my cycling and running actually benefited from the long days on our feet in the mountains.

There are plenty of cross-training options in Austin:

Greenbelt Hikes – helps with overall leg fitness, gives some moderate cardiovascular fitness, and works small, stabilizing leg muscles more than running on flat trails or roads.

Rock Climbing – great for balancing and developing overall upper and lower body strength.

Rowing and Canoeing – a tough, all-around workout for upper and lower body that promotes cardiovascular fitness (and all that while you get to spend time on (or in) one of Austin’s lakes).

My advice is to look at any of these outdoor cross-training options simply as fun activities instead of training. You will get a training benefit as well as the opportunity to take a break from structured training. You can enjoy being outside while getting more fit, and all without planning it or thinking about it. I find that such breaks from the normal workout schedule only helps with being more motivated and refreshed as you get back into sport-specific training. In addition, occasional cross-training gives your body a break. This helps us to stay injury free and, if you do have an injury, allows you to stay active in the sport you love.

Stephan Schwarze has been active in triathlon for over 20 year as an athlete and coach. He raced his first triathlon in college in Germany in 1988. Since 1990, he has finished 45 Ironman races, winning his age group seven times. Stephan has raced at the World Championships in Hawaii eight times, finishing on the age group podium there twice. Over the last ten years, Stephan has worked as a coach with many Austin-area athletes. He passes on his experience, sets up training schedules, and works with them towards specific goals and target races. Stephan is married to Illiana and has lived in Austin since 1996. As an amateur athlete, he has a full-time job with a local technology startup company.


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