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Sunday, January 02, 2005 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

How to cross train

Seattle Times staff reporter

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If you're starting a fitness program, pumping up for triathlons later this year or realizing that your knees won't last if running is your only workout, then cross training may be for you.

When done in moderation — triathletes, are you listening? — mixing up fitness activities such as running, swimming and cycling (and adding a little strength training and stretching), leads to higher overall fitness without the same muscle groups and joints being pounded every day.

The benefits

Flexibility — If it's wet outside, move inside, even if it's to get wet in the pool. If that shoulder is complaining, lay off the swimming and cycle instead.

Muscle balance — Different muscle groups get used, which can help joint stability and lessen overuse injuries.

Motivation — Keeps fitness interesting.

Think long term


Athletes work on an arc, says Matt Fitzgerald, a runner, coach and author of "Runner's World Guide to Cross-Training" (Rodale, 2004, $14.95). Lay the foundation now for competition or big challenges in the spring.

Start slowly and build up gradually. Take days off. Do an easy week every few weeks and gradually build up again after a peak event.

"Even if you're in decent shape and decide to start running, the bones and connective tissue in your legs and feet are just not prepared to handle all of that impact," says Fitzgerald. Through a small-scale healing process, he says, the bones react to the stress by becoming more dense and stiff and better able to absorb the impact.

But if you do too much too soon, the body will break down faster than it can build up.

That's why the period of time between activities is extremely valuable for bones, tendons, muscles and ligaments, says Dr. David Belfie, an orthopedic surgeon at Virginia Mason Medical Center's Sports Medicine Clinic.

"The body adapts very, very slowly to stress that is applied to it," says Belfie, who adds that injuries occur more often from exercising too frequently than from exercising too hard.

"Even with cross training, you have to modulate the frequency of your activity."

Running


For beginners

• Get fitted for a good pair of running shoes.

• Start by adding one-minute jogs about every five minutes in a 20- to 30- minute walk, says Fitzgerald. Increase that to one-minute jogs for every two minutes of walking. Keep increasing duration of the jogging segments over several weeks.

For experienced runners

• Vary your workouts so your body will progress by reacting to different demands. "If you keep doing the [same] type of workout every day through the year, you're not going to go anywhere," Fitzgerald says.

• Mix up long, slower runs with hill or interval (speed) training.

Hills: Hill work is especially good for making that transition from building a general base of fitness up to the next level because you can get your heart rate and breathing rate up with less impact than running fast on flat ground.

Intervals: After warming up, start with 20- to 30-second bursts of speed and then jog for a couple of minutes. Repeat a half a dozen times "but be sensible," Fitzgerald says.

Swimming


Swimming has a number of good things going. It's soothing, it builds the upper body, and it's easier on joints and muscles than most sports.

But it's technique intensive, and to improve, you may need a knowledgeable set of eyes to offer suggestions.

"One crucial improvement in your swim technique is worth six months of just building your condition in terms of performance," says Fitzgerald.

Beginners should take swim classes and "just practice," says Pat Patterson, aquatics supervisor for the Covington Aquatic Center at Tahoma, which offers classes for triathletes.

For more advanced swimmers

• Increase the distance each stroke takes you. Count how many strokes it takes to go a length of the pool and work on cutting one stroke a length.

• Don't think of your arms as merely pulling through the water, Patterson says. Focus on anchoring your hand in the water and pulling your body past it.

• Don't lift your head. Keep the top of your head pointed toward the end wall of the pool and your eyes pointed downward .

• Rotate your head to breathe. Lifting the head pushes the hips and legs down, causing unwanted drag.

• Train with fins once in a while to build cardiovascular ability.

• Try interval training to relieve boredom, monitor consistency of speed and improve quality. Swim four lengths of the pool. Rest five seconds. Repeat for 30 minutes.

Cycling

• Make sure your bike is in good order and that it fits you, which is important for efficiency and better for muscles and joints.

• Wear an ASTM-Snell- or CPSC-approved helmet that's snug and fits level on your head. Dress to make yourself visible but ride as if you're invisible to vehicles.

• Progress slowly, riding 30 to 45 minutes initially and at a lower heart rate, a pace in which you're breathing easily enough that you can still comfortably talk.

• Keep the spinning or cadence — the rotations per minute — high, which means with less resistance, and then increase 5 or 10 minutes an outing, says Stephen Higgins, a Seattle-area racer and owner of Zone 1 Sports Science coaching.

The higher cadence works aerobic muscle groups, stimulating slow-twitch muscle fibers. Rotations per minute should be 100 to 130, which can be measured by a cadence-counting device or by counting pedal rotations for 15 seconds and multiplying by four. Keep your heart rate low.

• When you have a good base of fitness, increase resistance and add workouts for the fast-twitch or anaerobic muscle groups, dropping the cadence to 60 to 65 rpm for 15 or 20 minutes two or three times a week. "Even in that lower cadence workout, stay in the lower heart rate," says Higgins.

The best way to pedal: Using toe clips or cleats, work on a "round" pedal stroke to keep motion and pressure on the pedal through the entire stroke. The goal is to push forward before pushing down at the top and to pull back before you reach the bottom of the down stroke and then pull up before you get into the upstroke. Think of your chain ring as a clock facing outward. Start the push forward with your right leg at the 11. Start pushing down at 1. Then start pulling back at 5 and start pulling up at 7.

"Each action needs to lead into the next," Higgins says.

For a program on how to train and prevent injuries, check out the UW's television station: www.uwtv.org and type in "Mountain and Road Biking." Try www.bicycling.com for information on pedaling and braking or check out Cascade Bicycle Club's classes at www.cascade.org/Education/classes_road.cfm.

The new strength training


Many strength trainers who work with fitness athletes borrow more from Pilates exercises and yoga than from Charles Atlas, believing that the core or torso is the foundation of power. They still work on arm or leg muscles, but do so in cooperation with exercises that strengthen the trunk so the movement has a flow, as it would when riding, running or swimming.

Along with or in place of free weights and weight machines, athletes use large fitness balls, resistance tubing, cables and medicine balls to work on balance, stomach and control while in motion, says Brent Davidson, a trainer at Ironworks Gym in Bellevue.

Here are two exercises to get the feel

• The "plank" is a pushup position on the floor where you balance on your forearms (fists together) and on the balls of your feet with your legs extended straight behind you. Squeeze in your stomach muscles and buttocks and keep your body as straight as possible. Hold for about 45 seconds.

"You have to engage your hips and core in order for the bridge to stay straight," Davidson says.

• The "two-arm twist" uses a resistance band attached to a door (either by a device attached to the door frame or loop on the other side of a securely closed door that opens away from you). Stand in a wide stance with your left side facing the door, Fitzgerald writes in "Runner's World Guide to Cross-Training." Grasp the handles in both hands low by your left shin, pull the band upward and across your body, finishing above your right shoulder. It combines twist, bend and lunge movements to create a total-body exercise.

Or attach the band high on the door and do the movement from high to low, Davidson says. (You can buy exercise tubing or resistance bands for under $50.)

• Consult with a certified fitness trainer to learn safe techniques. The American Council on Exercise says it's important to work all the major muscle groups to avoid strength imbalances or posture problems.

• Davidson advises people to warm up first with 8 to 10 minutes on a cardiovascular machine, and then stretch. Start with a weight you can lift for 8 to 12 repetitions in a set.

• If you plateau after six months, vary your routine and increase the intensity.

Sherry Stripling: sstripling@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company


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