There are generally two points of view on this topic. On one hand, many feel time spent doing anything that is not directly tied to improvement in their sport of choice is time wasted. For working athletes especially, the argument is if you already have limited time, why would you take any time away from preparing for your discipline? The flip side is the “variety is the spice of life” argument. No matter how focused and passionate you are, most people can only take so much of a particular activity before they get burned out. Engaging in other activities while maintaining or building basic cardiovascular fitness can be a nice change of pace. Furthermore, for runners, doing something non weight bearing can be a welcome break for legs that are constantly subject to the stresses of daily running. For cyclists or swimmers, adding some weight bearing activity to strengthen bones, muscles and ligaments that otherwise are not stressed regularly can enhance your overall well-being.
So what is the right answer? Well, again it depends. In general, I feel an off season cross training program can be beneficial to most single sport athletes with the overall general health and mental benefits winning out over any advantage gained from hyper focusing year round. However, there are obviously exceptions and it takes some analysis of each individual’s situation and experimentation to figure out what is right for each individual.
As a very informal case study, I feel like I represent the general approach outlined above, I tend to run and do a little cyclo cross between Oct and Feb mixed in with cycling and strength training, and then focus on cycling the rest of the year. On the other ends of the spectrum, I know of a very competitive elite master’s road cyclist who runs and kayaks in addition to cycling the entire year round. I also know of another road cyclist that has done nothing but ride since he was a junior. Both are extremely competitive and successful and seem relatively healthy and injury free. I think all of us are successful because we have found a combo that has worked right for each individual situation.
If you decide to engage in a cross training program, the best advice I can give is to start light and gradually build up in both volume and intensity. I have heard many stories of athletes going cold turkey and running 45 minutes or an hour right out the gate, or doing a 30 mile bike ride after not having ridden for years. In both scenarios, the participant is nearly crippled for days afterwards and immediately declares their hatred for running/cycling and never cross training again. The lesson is, start gradually regardless of your history with the sport. Even though I have a long history of running and use to regularly run an hour plus, when I start running again each cycling off season, I usually start with 10 or 15 minutes tops 2 or 3 times a week and gradually build up from there in 5 to 10 minute increments. A similar approach to cycling or swimming or any other non primary sport is recommended as well.
Whatever you decide, enjoy. “Forcing” cross training into your routine is probably a sign it might not be what you need, but if you find yourself needing a break and/or variety, missing a sport you used to do or wanting to try something new, give a different activity a whirl.