In 1980, with the US Olympic trials looming, marathoner Alberto Salazar had a sore knee. So he hit the pool…and got hurt. ‘I swam so much I gave myself tendinitis in my shoulder – so severely that I could barely manage to brush my teeth,’ he recalled in Alberto Salazar’s Guide to Running. The lesson? When it comes to any cross-training, build your volume and intensity gradually, and know the risks.
Former US Olympic swimmer Tom Malchow is not surprised by Salazar’s account. ‘You’re asking your shoulders to do things that are a little unnatural,’ he says. The primary risk is to the rotator cuffs, whose development can easily become unbalanced. The solution, he says, is to supplement your swimming with strength work using resistance bands or weights to make sure all parts of the cuff develop evenly. It also helps to learn proper swimming technique.
Cycling has its share of repetitive-stress injuries. The most effective way to avoid such issues is to have your bike properly fitted. When sitting normally on the saddle, your leg should be straight when you’re at the bottom of the pedal stroke. Your position should allow you to ride with elbows bent, so the arms serve as a shock absorber and keep road jolts from travelling up to your shoulders, neck and back. Another factor is the tilt of the saddle, which, if wrong, can put too much weight onto your hands.
A common cycling injury is iliotibial band syndrome, which may be produced by cleated shoes that lock your feet into the pedal at the same angle for miles. You can avoid this by dispensing with cleats, or by adjusting them. Most cleats allow a few degrees of play to each side, says Kevin Dessart, director of coaching education for USA Cycling. Grinding out workouts in too high a gear can cause stress, usually in the knees. Instead, spin at a higher cadence in a lower gear. If you’re new to cycling, find the gear that gives you a cadence of at least 85RPM, says Dessart. (That means 85 full circles, or 170 pedal strokes.) This will reduce knee stress while you strengthen your legs.
Finally, be aware that cycling’s limited range of motion can produce tight hip flexors. ‘I encourage all cyclists, especially runners using cycling as cross-training, to stretch their hip flexors as soon as they get off the bike,’ says David McHenry, lead therapist and strength coach for Nike’s Oregon Project.
The biggest concern is your back. To protect it, pull with the muscle groups in descending order of power – first the legs, then the back, then the arms, says former elite rower Kelly Barten. Return to your starting position in reverse order – first extend the arms, then lean forward, then finally pull forward with your legs. ‘Legs, back, arms… arms, back, legs,’ says Barten. Also crucial, he says, is to keep your back straight: pivot it from the hips, rather than arching it from the waist.
Not all elliptical machines are alike; some can produce unnatural-feeling motions or force your feet into awkward positions. Also, the machine’s controls need to be set at the levels that work for you. ‘Be attentive to your body,’ says McHenry. ‘If you start to feel soreness or tightness, you might need to adjust the resistance or cadence. If you still get symptoms, you might need to find another mode of cross-training.’
Exercise bike and spin classes
Just as road bikes need to be adjusted, so do exercise bikes. If you’re having trouble, try switching to a recumbent bike, where you can fine-tune your reach to the pedal by stuffing a towel behind your back. ‘I think [recumbents] are better,’ says Matthew Matava, professor of orthopaedic surgery at Washington University School of Medicine, US. The same warnings apply to spin classes. ‘The quickest way to hurt yourself is to be fitted improperly on your bike and then try to hammer the workout for 60 minutes,’ says McHenry. Find out how to get set up properly here.
In strength training, says Matava, the main concern is to ensure you work both sides of opposing muscle groups to avoid developing imbalance. ‘Supplement pull with push,’ he says, such as doing both leg curls and leg presses. Also, he says, don’t work the same muscle group two days in a row. Be careful with plyometrics – these exercises involve high-impact landings followed by explosive rebounds, so they’re more stressful on the muscles, says Matava. McHenry adds that plyometrics must be built on top of a good base of strength and power, not just cardiovascular fitness.