Cross-Train to Become a Better Athlete
In the not-so-distant past, athletic success was equated to practicing at every available moment to continue the quest for excellence. It was not until orthopedists started noticing an increase in injuries in our young athletes that the importance of recovery started being stressed to coaches and parents. In the popular book, "Outliers", Malcolm Gladwell writes about the 10,000 hour rule. This principle holds that 10,000 hours of deliberate practice is needed to become an expert in any field. But a new Princeton study tears that theory down. In a meta-analysis of 88 studies on deliberate practice, the researchers found that practice accounted for just 12% difference in performance in various domains. I think we can all agree that practice and repetition does improve skill but it’s also known that it takes much more to be a champion than just skill. The mental state of athletes are often times what separates the best from the very best. The question is how much practice is needed and and at what point does it become detrimental to the athlete’s overall well-being.
It's a common dilemma. Tennis players can't get enough of practicing every possible shot from every possible angle, runners can't get enough of pounding the pavement, and swimmers, let's just say it's tough to keep them on dry land. Athletes love their individual sport and competitive athletes become hyper-focused and yes, it's a problem. Not giving the body enough rest and recovery will lead to nagging overuse injuries and mental burnout. Pain related to injury is a SOS our bodies send us to let us know that the ratio of work to recovery is off.
In the world of sports today, many sports are year-round. I strongly recommend for the serious athlete to create their own off-season or if that is not possible, to take one day a week away from training and participate in another sport. Ideally the sport used to cross-train with should be using different movement patterns and a new set of mental skills. This article focuses on cross-training being used for recovery and staying mentally sharp. Cross-training can also be used in other scenarios. Surfing for example is a sport that is highly dependent on the conditions. No waves, no surf. A surfer may cross-train by skateboarding when there are no waves because there is cross-over in the skills and muscles used for both of these sports. Cross-training can also be used while recovering from an injury. A runner for example may cross-train with cycling in order to keep up their cardiovascular fitness while rehabbing a running injury, or a swimmer may run while rehabbing a shoulder injury to maintain their aerobic capacity.
Below are just a few of my favorite sports to cross-train with. The sports I mention fit within a warmer climate but the principles can be applied to winter sports as well.
I can quickly spot a pilates instructor or a pilates-junkie in a room by the beautiful posture they carry. In pilates, the quality of movement is stressed over the quantity of repetitions. The idea of “I am going to get this over with quickly” does not fit into the pilates philosophy and I find that refreshing. Pilates requires mental focus and reinforces the important bond between the mind and muscles. This is why a pilates session extends way past the actual class time. Once the mind-body awareness is established, the idea of being tall and strong in those small stabilizing muscles will circle back when your back wants to rest in the shape of a banana. Because pilates is gentle on the body with no impact, it is a great cross-training activity to mix in with high-impact sports such as tennis, running, basketball and soccer. I have had great experiences at Pilates of Charleston www.pilatesofcharleston.com in Mt Pleasant and The Mindful Body Pilates Studio in West Ashley www.themindfulbody.net.
Ever wondered why most surfers walk around with a big grin on their faces? This is because surfing, like most sports, deliver endorphins but I believe surfing provides a surge of endorphins that are doubly dosed. There is a huge sense of accomplishment in catching a wave. There is also an element of overcoming fear which provides a confidence boost. Lastly, since ancient times humans have assigned healing properties to water. Being in water, provides a sense of calm and clarity. I love surfing for its mental benefits and full-body workout with no impact. Surfing is a lot of paddling which is an incredible strengthener for the upper body and the so-important scapular muscles. Once you’re up on the board, core strength is essential to staying standing. A lot of work goes into catching a wave and those core muscles will do all it can to stay up on the board. Choose surfing if you are looking for a fun, mood-enhancing way to cross-train. Ignore the sharks and they should ignore you too.
Climbing is fun but it ain’t for sissies. Climbing requirers much more than upper-body strength. Completing a route relies on intricate footwork, lower body strength and flexibility. Another side of rock climbing that has peaked my interest are the mental skills used in climbing. In bouldering, a type of climbing that is done unroped, routes are actually called problems. Many studies are showing that because climbing requires complete focus on figuring out where your next hand and foot placement will be, it is a great activity for people with ADHD. Climbing has virtually no impact on the joints, require flexibility and trains determination and problem solving skills. If you don’t live near a mountainous region, most big cities have indoor climbing gyms. In Charleton, Coastal Climbing Gym located on upper King street offers classes to help beginners get started. Coastalclimbing.com
Paddle boarding on still water (not to be confused with paddle surfing) is another wonderful low-impact activity. It is great for strengthening the core and working those obliques used in golf and tennis. It requires all of the small stabilizing muscles in the foot and ankle to fire and is thus great conditioning for athletes prone to overuse foot injuries such as plantar fasciitis and posterior tibial tendonitis. Standup paddling is a godsend for shoulder health when done correctly. Most of the actual work is done by the lats, serratus anterior, obliques and the hips. Paddle boarding thus reverses the damage done by sitting and staring at a screen all day. You also can’t beat the simplicity of paddle boarding. Once you have a board, it requires no special equipment other than a tube of sunscreen. I am not good at traditional meditation, but being out on the water on a paddle board invites mediation and prayer.
Like sports, dancing requires dexterity, athleticism and timing. Dancing is low impact and improves flexibility and balance skills that help in all sports. NFL player Lynn Swann was called “Baryshnikov in cleats.” In the early 1970's he opened the door for professionals in many sports to participate in various forms of dance. The hit TV show Dancing with the Stars have featured several football players on the show who have commented on the similarities between ballet and football. If you are looking to improve your agility, balance, flexibility and strength, take up dance. Who knows, you may even impress your friends with the new dance skills you have acquired all the while looking better on the field.
I won’t bore you with all the obvious benefits of running but would love to recommend running as a sport especially for athletes who participate in low impact sports and could use a little bit of pounding to build up their bones. There is a clear link between weight bearing exercise and fewer fractures in older age. My favorite things about running are that it cost nearly nothing, you can participate at a variety of different levels, you can run in a group or alone and because of it’s cardiovascular demands you can get the job done in a short amount of time.
The world of competition is physically and mentally intense. Our most successful athletes are our athletes who stay healthy and can train consistently without having to take big breaks to rehab overuse injuries. Choose to cross-train to protect the body from injury and to avoid mental fatigue. Be careful to compare your training schedule to your competitors. Teddy Roosevelt spoke truth when he said: “comparison is the thief of joy." Our bodies are all designed differently and so it makes sense that our training schedules should be individual. When your body is asking for rest, be kind to your body and it will be there for you for the long haul.