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Breathe Life Into Off-Season Exercise

Tribune Media Services

When I was skating, we skated exclusively on outdoor ice, and there was ice for only a fraction of the year. As a result, we had to do a lot of cross-training to stay in shape: lifting weights, running—which I discovered through Allan Claremont, an exercise physiologist at the Madison Speed Skating Club—and cycling. The physical requirements of skating and cycling are similar. In fact, it was cycling as a means of cross-training for skating that led me to start racing a bit, and I found I really enjoyed it.

Cross-training is essentially performing any type of exercise outside of your primary sport to maintain or improve your level of fitness. Cross-training is ideal under a variety of circumstances.

The classic goal of cross-training is to employ a variety of exercise so that the fatigue of a single muscle group doesn't prevent you from working your cardiovascular system and other muscle groups. When you're first starting an exercise program, cross-training can allow you to go longer than you might otherwise, which more effectively boosts your body's basic systems: heart, lungs, circulation and muscles. That, in turn, creates a very strong, wide base to support the pyramid of skills specific to your sport that you will develop over time. Remember, the wider your base of aerobic and muscular ability, the higher your skill pyramid can go.

Repetitive-use injuries can be avoided using cross-training. An avid athlete in any sport runs the risk of impact-related or repetitive-use injuries. To increase your exercise load without piling on more sessions of the same sport, add a cross-training workout instead. In addition to avoiding the risk of injury, you will also promote better overall fitness.

Alternative forms of exercise develop whole-body conditioning by recruiting muscles your primary activity may not activate. When a bicyclist does gym training, for example, she can specifically focus on muscle groups that cycling neglects. It can also accelerate weight loss. One study showed that runners who maintained their usual running schedules and added just one 30-minute cross-training workout (in this case, cycling) per week lost an extra pound of fat every 10 weeks, provided they didn't increase their food intake.

Cross-training can also hone individual skills essential to your primary activity by allowing you to focus on one pinpointed adaptation by cross-training. For example, do plyometrics to improve your explosive movements in soccer, basketball, dance or volleyball.

Once you have developed the habit of exercise, like an elite athlete you will very rarely want to go long periods without it, even when you need to stay away from your favorite sport when it's off-season or due to injury. Here are activities I recommend to my patients as appropriate cross-training modalities when they are injured or in other circumstances:

  • Runners can cross-train using cycling, cross-country skiing, hiking, skating, even martial arts.

  • Those who develop knee pain during running, soccer, basketball or aerobic dance can cross-train without pain riding a bike, in most cases..

  • People with Achilles tendonitis can often do aqua jogging or swimming without kicking (doing the breaststroke, for example)..

  • Rowers or tennis players with elbow or wrist injuries can run or ride a bike..

  • To lift weights when you have back pain, use weight machines rather than free weights. Instead of squatting with a barbell on your shoulder, use a leg press..

  • If you have a sprained ankle, you might run in water or ride a bike while you are recovering (stabilize your ankle if you do the latter)..

  • If you have shoulder pain, use your legs to get your heart and lungs working by running or using a StairMaster..

  • When it's too hot or too cold outdoors, the gym is ideal. You can use any of the ergometers (treadmill, cyclette, rowing machine or StairMaster) or weights..

  • "Active rest," such as stretching, works for a day or two off from any other activity..

( Eric Heiden, M.D., a five-time Olympic gold medalist speed skater, is now an orthopedic surgeon in Utah. He co-authored "Faster, Better, Stronger: Your Fitness Bible" (HarperCollins) with exercise performance physician Max Testa, M.D., and DeAnne Musolf. Visit

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