Cross-Training For The Triathlon Off-Season

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In some ways, we triathletes are like a hamster on a wheel. We finish a season of training and racing, then realize that we don’t really know how to do much more than stare at the bottom of a pool, spend hours in a bike saddle, or pound the pavement in our running shoes. We become accustomed and addicted to the wheels of swimming, cycling and running, and whenever physical activity beckons we begin turning those wheels.

And so, from October through March, many triathletes in cold climates spend the majority of their training time staring at the underwater lane lines, hunched over the aerobars of an indoor training bike, and wearing away the surface of a treadmill belt. At the same time, triathletes in warm climates just keep on swimming, cycling and running outdoors. The result is often a feeling of being stuck in an exercise rut, and being mentally and physically burnt out when the next race season finally arrives.

In reality, there is a wide world of sports just outside your front door – and many of these sports are not only entertaining and a fresh mental break from triathlon training, but also a perfect way to address cardiovascular fitness deficiencies, train weak muscles, stimulate and grow the mind and expand social circles. This article will give you a variety of off-season sports to choose as an ideal cross-training strategy, and give you tips for becoming involved in these sports – for both cold weather and warm weather triathletes.

Cross country skiing or skate skiing:

Your first clue that these snow sports have an incredible cardiovascular effect should be the fact that cross country skiers have a higher oxygen utilization capacity than any other athlete on the face of the planet. If you’ve seen the winter Olympics, then you may have witnessed the incredible pumping action required by both arms and legs during either sport. While cross-country skiing will strengthen hip flexors and hip extensors, the skate skiing motion shifts more force to the adductors and outer hip rotators, while requiring a high degree of single leg balance. Interestingly, all of these muscles and movements are chronically weak in many distance runners, and also necessary for enhancing cycling power. Both activities require a push-off arm motion that involves many of the same muscles as the pull phase of the swim stroke.

Triathletes who want to reduce risk of running injuries, improve tolerance to lactic acid, and enhance cycling power will benefit from these cross country or skate skiing. If you begin these sports, expect to experience not just flats and hills (there are no chair lifts in this sport), but also faster downhill stretches. While ski equipment is certainly expensive, many bargains can be found at used sporting goods stores and ski swaps – you can easily start skiing with a $200 investment.

Summary: Train weak running and shoulder muscles, and improve muscular endurance.

Downhill skiing or snowboarding:

I’ve put these two sports in a different category because from a physiological standpoint, they are completely different beasts. While cross country and skate skiing fall into the category of muscular endurance, downhill skiing and snowboarding fall into the category of power endurance. Power endurance fitness requires the ability to move slowly for long periods of time, interspersed by brief efforts of high intensity exercise. While this may seem counter-productive to triathlon, research has shown that high intensity interval training with hard work periods followed by long rest periods can produce a highly beneficial aerobic training effect. In addition, explosive or dangerous efforts can stimulate a hormonal response that enhances testosterone product and lean muscle tissue formation.

In these higher speed snow sports, the rotational hip power and the required ability of the core to respond to quick changes in direction results in torso stability and strength, which is perfect for both swimmers and runners.

If you begin either of these sports, plan on working hard for 5-10 minutes, and then getting a long rest on the chairlift after each hard effort. If you do not plan on cross-training with this sport enough to justify a spendy season ticket, simply purchase a 5-10 visit punch-card at the beginning of the winter.

Summary: Improve power, hip rotation, and lower body lean muscle.

Indoor or outdoor soccer:

Like downhill skiing and snowboarding, soccer requires quick, explosive efforts, but each effort is followed by active recovery, rather than complete rest. As a result, muscular endurance and the ability to buffer lactic acid can be vastly improved by playing soccer. Although a similar muscular endurance effect can be achieved with cross country or skate skiing, soccer has the advantage of being biomechanically identical to a specific triathlon skill – running. Therefore, the muscular endurance can be enhanced with better leg turnover and stride length.

In addition, triathletes are notoriously weak in side-to-side motion, resulting in a higher risk of injury to overtrained front-to-back motion muscles. The frequent changes of direction and lateral movement in soccer can address this weakness.

Compared to triathlon, you’ll find some sports to be relatively dirt cheap, and soccer is a perfect example, simply requiring a stable pair of shoes (cleats are optional), and possibly a ball. If you are in a cold climate, look for an indoor soccer league in your area. If you are in a warm climate, and have difficulty finding a soccer game to join, try an ultimate Frisbee league instead.

Summary: Improve muscular endurance, stride turnover and length, and lateral movement ability.


Similar to soccer, basketball improves muscular endurance with explosive efforts followed by active recovery, and can also improve stride turnover and length. However, the arm jostling and pushing, shooting and passing in basketball are good upper body training, while the frequent jumping and landing are perfect lower body plyometrics, which have been shown to improve running economy in distance runners.

Like soccer, basketball requires minimal equipment: shoes and a ball. You’ll be able to find pick-up games on the schedule of your local health club or gym. If you find yourself on a busy court, the weakness of basketball for exercise-obsessed triathletes is the requirement to stand around between games as you wait your turn to play. But by jumping rope, shooting or jogging and dribbling between games, you can turn an hour of basketball into pure fitness.

Summary: Improve muscular endurance, stride turnover and length, lateral movement ability and plyometric training.


As an ex-collegiate tennis player, I can honestly say that the only sport during which I have ever thrown-up due to extreme fatigue was tennis. With frequent start-stop and lateral motions, torso, and upper body and lower body power requirements, and long time spent “on your feet”, a rigorous game of tennis can be highly effective cardiovascular and muscular training.

Tennis offers many of the same training effects soccer and basketball, but also requires a high degree of torso and shoulder rotation, stability and power, resulting in good cross-over for the core stability required for distance running and swimming.

A tennis skirt or white polo is entirely optional, and for tennis, you simply need access to a public court, a tennis racquet and a can of balls.

Summary: Improve muscular endurance, stride turnover and length, lateral movement ability, upper body strength and core stability.


Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Surely the sport of golf is far too sedentary relative to triathlon for any possible cross-training effect. But not only does the golf swing provide similar torso and core rotational power stimulation as tennis, but also similar enhanced shoulder and upper body power. In addition, the long walking required during 18 holes of non-cart golf is perfect for an injured triathlete who has been forced into low-impact aerobic cardio due to knee or foot injuries, and for that injured athlete, golf can be a welcome break from simply hiking, going on a long walk, or staring at a TV on a treadmill. Don’t worry, there is no need to join an expensive country club – most metropolitan areas have a range of public courses that offer hitting lessons, affordable golf, and even club rentals.

Summary: maintenance of aerobic fitness during injury, upper body strength and core stability.

Final Tips: For many of the cold climate athletes who I coach that have an early season half-marathon, marathon or triathlon, we will use a half-day of winter sports such as skiing as a pre-fatigue activity for an early evening aerobic run. Soccer, basketball and tennis can also be turned into a long endurance run or brick training event by “sandwiching” a game between an aerobic run or bike ride to the sporting venue.

Below, you’ll find a sample week for using sports in an off-season cross-training program, without completely neglecting triathlon skills (this is actually how my Ironman triathlon training program frequently looks during the winter):

Table 1: Sample Off-Season Cross-Training Program

Mon Tues Wed Thur Fri Sat Sun
40-60 minute noon basketball followed by 20 minute tempo treadmill run Swim skills & drills Tennis match (ride bike to match and back) Swim skills & drills 40-60 minute noon basketball followed by 20 minute tempo treadmill run Soccer game (warm weather athletes)

Day of skiing (cold weather athlete)


I realize there are some sports that were not addressed in detail in this article, such as volleyball, water polo, Frisbee golf, badminton, cricket, rugby, and other sports that I’ve probably never heard of. But you now possess the knowledge to creatively analyze how a sport will help your triathlon skills, and the confidence to hop off your wheel and try some new activities without the fear of losing your triathlon fitness.

Finally, be sure to check out my triathlon off-season “must haves” over at, and have a great winter!

Ben Greenfield is recognized as one of the top fitness, triathlon, nutrition and metabolism experts in the nation. In 2008, he was voted as the Personal Trainer of the Year by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), an internationally recognized and respected certifying agency for fitness professionals. Ben hosts the highly popular fitness, nutrition and wellness website at, which features a free blog, wellness podcast, and fitness product reviews from Ben. Pacific Elite Fitness ( is an online portal where Ben coaches a wide range of triathletes and assists people from all over the world with personal training for nutrition, fat loss, muscle toning, and general fitness. Ben also oversees the physiology and biomechanics laboratory at Champions Sports Medicine ( which offers metabolic-based weight loss, bicycle fitting, running gait analysis, swim stroke analysis, VO2 max testing, blood lactate testing, resting metabolic rate analysis, and other cutting-edge procedures for weight loss and human performance. Ben holds bacheler's and master's degrees in exercise physiology and biomechanics, and is a certified personal trainer, strength and conditioning coach, sports nutritionist, and bike fitter.


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