Importance of cross-training for athletes of all ages

July 27, 2023
A family out biking. Biking is a good cross-training activity.
Photo: Getty Images.

A change of season often means shifting to a different sport and, unfortunately, can sometimes be accompanied by injuries when athletes have not undertaken the proper training to prepare for that change.

“Transitions from summer activities to fall and winter ones usually means using different muscles,” said Dr. Adam Wilson, an orthopedic surgeon in Steamboat Springs and a member of the medical staff at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. “You don’t want to put a strain on new muscles and joints that have not been used for a while, which is why cross-training during the off season is so important.”

More on how to prepare for winter sports.

Whether you’re a competitive athlete or just in it for the fun, a high school athlete or older adult, or someone just looking to stay in shape throughout the year, cross-training can be beneficial. It keeps you in peak condition, helps prevent injuries, and provides a change of pace that might prevent boredom and complacency from setting in as you work more muscles throughout the body.

“Cross training is also injury prevention, which is an important piece of approaching a sport no matter what the age,” said Wilson. “Plus, it lets you enjoy the social aspects of year-round sports.”

What is cross-training?

For high school athletes or others turning their attention to fall activities, he recommends balancing “explosive twitch” training that relies on high-intensity running drills for speed and quick bursts of energy with “slow twitch” ones that use muscles that help with endurance and stamina. For instance, those playing football, basketball and soccer could balance their workouts with weightlifting, swimming or riding a stationary bike to build endurance and strength. During the off-season, they might try wrestling or track and field to work on different muscles. Similarly, during the off-season, runners can cycle to build endurance, and swimmers can hike or rock climb.

Wilson recommends:

  • High school athletes work with trainers and coaches during the off-season to maintain their fitness and help maximize performance when their season starts.
  • Middle and high school athletes try different sports or activities.
  • Both young and old athletes check online for resources to help build fitness goals.
  • Parents help select the right program for their children and seek guidance if they have questions.
  • Athletes of all ages seek guidance from coaches, trainers, physical therapists and orthopedic surgeons if and when needed.

Benefits of engaging in more than just one sport

Wilson worries that student athletes specializing in just one sport at a young age and participating in that sport year-round could increase the risk of overuse of certain muscles. This could be shoulder muscles in baseball players or knees in soccer players, for example. Injuries affect not only a person’s physical health but take a toll emotionally and psychologically as well, especially on student athletes who can no longer participate in a sport with their teammates.

Why is rest and recovery essential for athletes? Learn more.

“An athlete risks injury in the short term, as well as years down the road into adulthood, by focusing intensely on a solo sport,” said Wilson. “For longevity’s sake, cross-training in multiple sports is integral to maintaining peak muscle and joint health.”

Locally, he lauds the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club as its student athletes partake in a variety of “dry land” training activities during the summer. Things like mountain biking, hiking, weight lifting and running help keep them in top shape as they wait for the next ski season to begin.

“This way, they keep fit in the summer, get to enjoy new activities and are ready to hit the slopes when competitive skiing begins in the winter,” said Wilson. “Plus, they’re having fun with friends, which is an important component of sports that we need to emphasize.”

This article was first published in the Steamboat Pilot.

About the author

Mary Gay Broderick is a Denver-based freelance writer with more than 25 years experience in journalism, marketing, public relations and communications. She enjoys telling compelling stories about healthcare, especially the dedicated UCHealth professionals and the people whose lives they transform. She enjoys skiing, hiking, biking and traveling, along with baking (mostly) successful desserts for her husband and three daughters.