Thinking of Joining USA Triathlon?

Be a part of our 550,000 member community of multisport athletes. Membership benefits include a subscription to the quarterly USA Triathlon magazine, discounts from USA Triathlon partners, inclusion in the national rankings, excess accident insurance at events, and savings at races. To see why you should join or renew today, visit the membership benefits page. Already a member? Login below.

Forgot Password  |  Forgot Member ID  |  Help Renew Membership Become a Member

Variety is the Spice of Training

By Jason Gootman and Will Kirousis

Should you go rock climbing? Should you go snowshoe hiking? Should you play soccer every once in a while? Or should you swim, ride, and run all the time? After all, the principle of specificity states that you get better at what you specifically do. Can cross-training actually up your triathlon game or is swimming, cycling, and running inherently enough cross-training? Enough of our 20 questions—let’s get to four truths about cross-training.

trainCross-training reduces repetitive stress.
Anything you do over and over again has the potential to cause a problem as a result of repetitive stress. Swimming, cycling, and running impose specific demands on your body. These demands are not “good” or “bad”—they just are. And done repetitively, they stress specific structures of your body.

When you do something different, you change how you stress your body giving the parts of you that are used a lot while swimming, cycling, and running a bit of a break. This helps to prevent injuries and also prevents other recovery-related problems such as the inadequate-recovery syndrome (a.k.a. the overtraining syndrome). And when you recover better, you improve at a greater rate (workout stress plus recovery from workout stress equals improvement).

A great way to mix things up to reduce repetitive stress is to play game sports like basketball, ultimate Frisbee, soccer, flag football, tennis, racquetball, and/or similar sports. You’ll move faster, more reactively, and in a much larger spectrum of movement when you play these sports.

Cross-training maintains body balance.
You’ve heard of “muscle imbalances” and of having good posture. The idea is that your body’s structures (bones, muscles, joints, organs, and all of you) have an ideal arrangement with everything in balance. Various factors can take you out of balance including how you workout. When you swim, ride, and run, your body literally conforms to being good at swimming, cycling, and running. Of course, this is beneficial to you in your quest to race faster. But, over time, only swimming, cycling, and running can gradually take your body out of balance.

As an example, triathletes tend to become atrophied in the musculature that plays a large role in frontal-plane-dominant movements. These are movements where you are propelling yourself in a side-to-side fashion. A few super ways for triathletes to maintain body balance are to inline skate, go cross-country skiing (skating style), or skate on a slide board. If you are not familiar with a slide board, it’s a simple, relatively inexpensive device that allows you to skate in place in your home (like an indoor trainer allows you to ride inside). Skating is outstanding cross-training for triathletes.

Cross-training sets you up to do more productive swims, rides, and runs.
Let’s say you are simply passionate about cycling. You absolutely cannot wait to get home from work to ride each day. And that’s what you do—you ride after work almost every day. Then you don’t ride for a week or two for some reason—work is super busy, you’re moving, or something like that. Then you get back to riding after a brief absence. How does it feel? Awesome, right? And how strong are you in those first few workouts back? Really strong, right? You get to ride again—you savor it and you put a lot into each ride!

Cross-training can help in this same way. You still get to do some fun workouts, but you get to do something other than swimming, cycling, and running. Then when you get back to these workouts, you are super fresh and able to put lots into them leading to high-quality workouts. This is why rest weeks are a great time to cross-train. We hear a lot of people talking about cross-training after their race season is over. This is certainly a fine time to cross-train, but you don’t have to wait until then—you can cross-train all year long. In a rest week, replace a few swims, rides, or runs you’d normally do with something different. Rock climbing (outdoors or indoors), yoga, hiking, rowing on a rowing machine, and group-exercise classes are all great ways to mix things up. 

Cross-training is a gateway back to play.
Many people have lost the ability to play. Play can be hard to define, but you know it when you see it. Watch a kid run around a backyard and notice how spontaneous they are. They are not running and jumping and throwing for any reason other than it’s a perfectly outstanding way to be alive. There is no objective. Swimming to set a personal record in your next race is not play. Running to get your heart rate up for 45 minutes is not play. Bringing a sense of play back to your triathlon training can help you have a lot more fun (and ironically help you get better since you’ll persist with what you have fun doing). But many triathletes have trouble playing while swimming, cycling, and running. They’re always hyper-focused on measuring how they are doing.

Cross-training is a great way to learn how to play again. Since you don’t race in these other activities, you’re less likely to turn them into pressure-filled activities that are only about progress. Mountain biking is a great option. You get to ride, but the varied and challenging terrain inevitably makes measuring your ability more challenging. Plus, if let yourself go there, it can be simply riding in the woods with your friends—just like you did as a kid. Snowshoe running can have similar effect is a great way to be outside on winter day. Truly, the sky’s the limit with cross-training and we’ve only mentioned a few of your many options here. Anything you like to do or would like to try can be effective cross-training. Have fun out there!

Learn more about Jason Gootman, Will Kirousis, and Tri-Hard at