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QUESTION: Would you discuss a technique called "cross-training"? Several of my friends are using this technique and swear that it really works for them.

ANSWER: Cross-training is simply a training technique where a variety of activities are used to reach a specific training goal. Athletes do so much total work that repeating the same workout every day would lead to staleness and overtraining. Because of this problem, wise coaches vary the workout each day and schedule rest periods from time to time to ensure a consistent increase in results.I use cross-training (variety) in my own workout, although not to the same extent as that used by athletes. For example, I usually plan a "formal" workout on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and play some game or do something fun on Tuesday and Thursday. In the summer, I may jog four or five miles on Monday, hit golf balls or play on Tuesday, go for a bike ride on Wednesday, shoot baskets or hit golf balls on Thursday and jog on Friday. I often use Saturday morning for a long endurance ride on my bike. In the winter, I don't bike very often and use racquetball or some other indoor activity on the off days to add variety to my overall workout. In addition, I usually vary the distance and speed of my jogging workout from day to day; going faster and shorter on some days, running at a fairly high rate with walking or slow jogging intervals on other days and using a long, slow run (seven or eight miles in my case) several times a month. If I were into winter activities, I could add skiing (either downhill or cross-country) to this program.

According to an article in Hoggan Health Industries' Health & Fitness magazine, there is no magic formula for success with cross-training. It starts, like any other fitness program, with the four basic building blocks: intensity, duration, frequency and specificity.

Cross-training, however, can help you achieve a better training balance by using various activities to creatively combine the four building blocks. For instance, you would not want to follow a five-mile run on Monday with a high-impact aerobics class on Tuesday because your leg muscles may not be adequately rested. Instead, you may want to do some moderate upper-body resistance training or swim on Tuesday and save aerobics for Wednesday, when your legs are rested. Cross-training alternates the focus areas of workouts and their intensity so that you can "actively" rest muscles without interrupting your workout schedule.

According to this article, the Nike shoe company has developed a cross-training program that suggests dividing workouts into four categories: endurance (low-intensity, long duration), standard (your current workout), recovery (low-intensity, short duration) and sprint (high intensity, short duration). The Nike system recommends doing one of each type of workout every week, and endurance and sprint workouts should be followed by a day off, or a recovery workout at most.

As with any workout program, cross-training demands that you listen to your body. If you develop trouble sleeping or are constantly tired, you are probably pushing too hard; if you are not making gains within a reasonable time, you may not be pushing hard enough. In any case, varying the program will make it a lot more fun to do.