Will Cross-Training Benefit Your Triathlon Performance?

When looking at what makes a successful athlete in any sport, there is more than single sport training that goes into maximizing potential.  But how much more is the question, what should we do and how does it apply to triathlon?
First, let's look at single sport athletes. Take just about any sport and look at the top athletes.  Then look into their training programs.  Typically you will find that the MAJORITY of the work is done in their primary sport.  Then the athlete usually spends a much smaller amount of time doing exercises that compliment their sport.  Benefits may help build cardiovascular fitness, improve power, agility, mental acuity and speed.  
Examples - Think running for boxers, plyometrics for runners and agility training for football or hockey players.
But what about triathlon?  
That statement usually gets a few laughs because most single sport athletes would look at a sport with three disciplines and ask why an athlete would want to add any MORE variety. But assuming we do, here are some thoughts for some of the following questions.
QUESTION 1 - Does any one of the three disciplines in triathlon (swimming, biking and running) help me become better in another?  
ANSWER - Generally not.  There is a small cross-over from an increase in bike training to improved running. However, running does not help cycling, neither helps swimming and swimming doesn't help either one of those.
There is generally one exception and that is the new athlete. When athletes first get into endurance athletics, general aerobic conditioning will give them small gains across the board, regardless of where the training is being done. This is usually because the individual is coming from doing almost nothing, to something.
QUESTION 2 - Does cross-training (outside of swimming, biking and running) help triathlon performance? If so, what are the best cross-training methods to implement into the training?
ANSWER - That answer is: it depends.  There is an improvement in performance for some work done in a sport specific manner, assuming the athlete is still swim, bike and run training. 

Here is a short list with exercises and benefits.
- Functional core strength. This helps limit breakdown of form, improves flexibility, which can improve economy.
- Plyometrics. The easiest way to understand this is think about this giving us more returned energy from our foot strike.  This also improves motor skills, agility, power and economy.
- XC skiing and snowshoe running. This is a great way to improve general cardiovascular fitness, increase strength within your running and maintain core strength.  XC skiing tends to help cycling and snowshoe running tends to help running. This doesn't mean you cut out biking and running, it just means that it can complements them well.
- Outside of the benefits from the exercises listed above, cross-training can improve:
- Agility
- Handling of the bike
- Mental acuity
- Motivation
Consistency and motivation are huge keys to success in endurance athletics and there is a lot of success to be had by integrating them appropriately within an athlete's year. 

Generally speaking, athletes who are cross-training should not take their focus away from swimming, biking and running. By doing so, the fitness lost will outweigh any benefit made.
Keep in mind that the above is geared toward the performance oriented athlete.  If you are a social butterfly type of athlete, then by all means, pay attention to that and cross-train with the seasons, you will be much happier in the end.
Lastly, for those performance oriented athletes, there are no short cuts, if you want to be better at something, you need to do more of it. This is of course, assuming that you recover from the work that you are putting in.


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