Creating Your Plan
Creating an effective off-season cross-training plan is easy if you guide yourself by the following four principles.
Your cross-training program should incorporate a balance of training for all three components of your fitness foundation: core stability, aerobic capacity and dynamic flexibility. Do at least three cardio workouts for aerobic capacity each week and at least two workouts emphasizing core strength.
There are two ways to incorporate dynamic stretches into your cross-training program. You can either do a few dynamic stretches as a warm-up preceding your cardio workouts, or -- because many dynamic stretches are also good strength exercises -- you can incorporate them into your circuit strength workouts.
While half the point of cross-training is to get a break from your main sport, your cross-training activities should involve movements that are similar to those used in your main sport, or else the fitness carryover will be minimal. For example, if you're a swimmer, your strength workouts should include more exercises for the shoulders, chest and upper back than if you're a runner.
It's also best that you choose a sport-specific form of cardio exercise. Following are recommendations for a selection of sports:
Cycling/mountain biking. Many road cyclists like to mountain bike in their off-season, while many mountain bikers like to hit the roads. These are obviously very sport-specific choices, but they might not be different enough to provide the psychological break you need. Indoor cycling has the same advantage of specificity and the same potential drawback of being too similar to in-season training.
Lance Armstrong used to enjoy running in the off-season, and this is an excellent choice for cyclists and mountain bikers, as it provides a strong fitness carryover to cycling and is a great way to keep your weight down. If you live where it snows and want less impact, try snowshoeing.
For another option, incorporate elliptical training. Although designed to mimic the action of running (without its impact), the elliptical trainer provides a workout that's reasonably specific to the pedaling action too. Instead of pedaling in circles from a seated position, you're pedaling in ellipses from a standing position.
Running. The best off-season cross-training choices for runners are those that closely simulate the stride motion without impact. Options that fit this description include pool running, elliptical training, cross country skiing, in-line skating and ice skating.
Swimming. Unlike most other endurance athletes, swimmers use their upper body more than their legs. If you're a swimmer, choose an off-season cross-training activity that also develops upper-body endurance. Your best options include rowing, cross-country skiing, elliptical training with handles, cardio boxing and various types of group fitness classes.
Triathlon. As you might guess, the best strategy for triathletes when it comes to off-season cross-training is to do more than one activity: specifically, one from the cycling list, one from running and one from swimming each week. For example, do a rowing workout on Tuesday, in-line skating on Thursday and elliptical training on Saturday.
To make progress in any dimension of fitness, you need to perform exercises and workouts that offer just the right degree of challenge. If they are too easy, your progress will be minimal. If they are too hard, you'll get hurt. And as you do make progress, you need to periodically crank your workouts up a notch so they remain challenging.
At the beginning of your off-season cross-training period your body won't be well accustomed to the new sorts of workouts you're doing, so they should be fairly manageable. After the first week, make your cross-training workouts a little harder in each subsequent week.
There are several ways to make core workouts progressive. You can increase the difficulty level of exercises, for example, by moving from standard squats to single leg squats. You can also increase the number of repetitions of each exercise (eight squats to 10), increase the resistance (squats with no weight to those with dumbbells), increase the number of times you repeat each exercise (one set of squats to two sets), and/or increase the number of exercises you do in your core workout.
In aerobic cross-training workouts, progression is achieved by increasing the duration and/or intensity of the workouts (but not both simultaneously). And in the case of dynamic flexibility, you move forward by increasing the range of motion in a given movement, increasing the number of movements you do, and/or increasing the number of times you repeat a given movement.