Cross-training is just a fancy term for mixing up and balancing your fitness activities. Think of it as fitness grazing. It should be fun and keep your body healthy and your mind alert. More and more people are discovering cross-training and consider it a part of their routine and not anything special. According to a 1992 national poll conducted for Outside magazine, the number of Americans who participated in more than one activity was expected to jump in 10 years by 73 percent, outpacing even the impressively increasing numbers of walkers. Taking a look around, I’ll bet that growth has been reached.
Even as a walking aficionado, you should sample other activities for several reasons. First, you will strengthen and tone muscles that walking doesn’t target. Walking requires the concentrated use of the muscles in the back of the leg, which can cause strength and flexibility imbalances. Cross-training can resolve possible imbalances.
Multiple activities also can generate added enthusiasm for exercise in general and walking specifically. Trying a smattering of activities will keep your mind and your body interested in exercise and will promote lifelong participation. Interest and ability in other activities can give you some- thing to fall back on in case of an injury, travel, or other life and schedule changes. If you need, or are forced, to take a few days or more off from walking, you’ll know how to substitute other activities so you can maintain your health, fitness, and vitality. Once you look around, you’ll realize there is an array of activities you can add to your program, either now and then, seasonally, or just as the whim strikes. The following are a few activities that might be more interesting to a walker and the reasons to choose one or another. Remember, the choices don’t stop here, so let this sample tickle your imagination.
To help you better sort out what you might want to choose, the activities are divided into two sections. The first includes a sampler of aerobic activities that are walking oriented in some way, but are still considered cross-training because they use different muscles, and the impact is varied. The second includes alternate nonwalking aerobic activities.
Variations of Walking
Walking itself can be transformed into a cross-training routine by adding equipment, diversifying your route, or changing your walking style. That’s because the variation, just like cross-training techniques mentioned earlier, uses different muscles to create a nearly different workout, allowing some muscles to rest while stressing other less frequently used muscles. You can also use walking variations in special circumstances, for example, if you travel to a snowy resort for a vacation or to a mountain town on holiday or business travel. Here are a few varieties that may pique your interest.
Much like cross-country skiing but without skis or snow, Nordic walking uses lighter poles with different hand grips and emulates a cross-country-skiing style of push-off with the poles. A participant uses rubber tips on pavement and metal tips on dirt. Only introduced in the United States in 2003, the activity stems from Scandinavia (hence, the name) and is similar to pole walking that has been done for years in the United States with a slightly different style. Nordic walking can, depending on the user and his or her skill and technique, use about 20 percent more calories than regular walking. Plus, poling along demands more from back, chest, and arm muscles, so it turns into an upper- body workout too. You can also hone your cross-country ski technique. This is one fitness activity that had its birthplace in Europe, where it has become an international phenomenon in just a couple of years with several million now participating in Nordic walking.
This odd-sounding activity is no more than walking backward. Retro walking demands more energy than forward walking, reduces impact to nearly zero, and changes the pattern of muscle use to increase the demand on the quadriceps in the front of the thigh. Try short stretches (with one eye over your shoulder) on flat trails or uncrowded tracks. But attempt only short distances at a time because you don’t want to back into anything. You’ll find your stride will be shorter. Other than that, the only things to watch out for are obstacles.
Maybe you like the feeling of bobbing along at a jog, but you don’t like the impact. Try interspersing your walks with short runs of 1 to 2 minutes or whatever’s comfortable. A more advanced walker can turn the runs into short sprints; an intermediate walker can make the run slow and easy and use it as a rest from fast walking. Beginners, however, should stick with walking. In addition, if you walk a lot of hills, you’ll find that walking steep downhills can be difficult and even jarring. Sometimes, an easy jog down an incline is easier on your body. So try mixing up the run and walk portions based on terrain fluctuations.
This is really nothing more than winter walking. And what a beautiful thing it is! No special technique is needed, although you might need time to get used to the snowshoes. Snowshoeing can use more calories and muscles and gets you outdoors or into the woods, perhaps to explore areas that are impassable in regular shoes. Even if you don’t live in a snowy area, you may travel some- place that is or live near mountain areas where snowshoeing is an alternative to a fitness walk. The technology in snowshoes has advanced, so the gear you may have in mind—big woven baskets—is archaic at best. Today’s snowshoes are smaller, lighter, designed to make gripping on uphills and downhills easier and safer, and are even gender specific. If you don’t want to buy a pair, you can rent them at outdoor and ski shops for day or weekend outings.
Outdoor Circuit Training
So you don’t have time to get to a health club? Transform the outdoors into your own gym by looking at variations in the environment as places to challenge your muscles. Do step-ups on curbs or low benches. Walls or fences are great for push-ups. Try triceps dips on planters or benches (put yourself in a face-up “crab walk” position with the palms of your hands on the planter or bench, then bend and straighten your elbows). Jump up and touch signs or low branches as you move along. Hop over low obstacles, even repetitively. In between all those, keep on walking. It’s like your very own outdoor gym circuit.
You can even carry rubber tubes or bands to add resistance exercises to your personalized routine. Walking with hand weights isn’t worth the potential for injury, however. The same goes for ankle weights, which also throw off your body mechanics and can strain your joints.
Walking may be your first choice for cardiovascular fitness, and that’s great because it’s adaptable. But other activities can round out your exercise menu. As usual, aim for a minimum of 20 minutes of any activity. Don’t limit yourself to the activities I’ve highlighted here, although these offer certain advantages as a supplement to walking, which I note. Otherwise, the sky’s the limit!
A bicycle can offer freedom to see areas your feet can’t take you to. The movement can also be a relief from walking’s repetitive heel-toe routine. A great leg strengthener, the cycling action creates no impact on the joints and uses more of your quadriceps than walking does. And you can still get outside to watch the world go by. Thirty minutes of cycling at a steady 15 miles per hour (mph) uses nearly the same amount of energy as walking for 30 minutes at 4.5 mph.
Since its dance-oriented beginnings, aerobics has evolved into a wide variety of group exercise classes. Something is available to match every taste, not to mention every coordination level. These include low-impact, step training, circuit and interval classes, dance, and weight training (sometimes using a variety of names such as body sculpting or toning). Classes held indoors are a handy alternative to walks in inclement weather, and one session can work out your whole body. Trendy music adds a fun element, too. Don’t overlook water aerobics or aqua step classes as possibilities. There are even indoor cycling classes. Of course, you can also pop in a tape or DVD and turn your living room into a private studio for a quick workout at your convenience.
Most hour sessions will include 30 to 35 minutes of aerobics plus 10 minutes of warm-up and stretching and 5 to 10 minutes of cool-down and stretching. As with cycling, 30 minutes of low-impact aerobics, not including the warm-up and cool-down, uses about the same number of calories as walking 30 minutes at 4.5 mph.
The incredible variety in indoor exercise equipment means you should be able to find an enjoyable form of cross-training. Depending on your needs as a walker, you can choose equipment at a club or for your home to emphasize walking muscles (treadmills, steppers, and elliptical trainers), to emphasize opposing muscles (bicycles and rowing machines), or to train the whole body (ladderlike climbers, cross-country ski machines, and dual-action bicycles).
Indoor workouts let you distract yourself with television, movies, or reading—or simply offer a change of pace. They also allow you to stay home without missing your workout if you have a child to watch or a telephone call to wait for. They can also provide a safe way to work out before dawn or after dark.
On most indoor equipment, you may feel as if you’re working harder than you would during a walk. Let your body tell you how long the workout should be. Twenty to thirty minutes on most equipment will give you a good workout, but you can lengthen the workout as needed or desired. If you’re at a club, make your workout more interesting by working out on three different pieces of equipment for 10 minutes each.
Swimming uses more muscles in the upper body, in contrast to walking’s nearly exclusive use of lower-body muscles. It also promotes flexibility where walking and other upright activities tend to tighten muscles. Walkers don’t need much of a break from impact, but swimming’s fluid cushion eliminates pounding or strain from gravity. Immersion in water can soothe the body as well as the mind, adding a peaceful alternative to street walks.
Swim laps steadily for 30 minutes for a workout equivalent to walking 30 minutes at 4 mph.
Walking doesn’t necessarily mean on city streets and around your neighborhood or local park like a robot. Walking can also mean heading for the great outdoors and hitting your stride on dirt trails. You may not go as fast or as evenly paced as on pavement, but walking on uneven surfaces, such as dirt or gravel, adds an additional conditioning element for your lower legs and feet. It creates the need for your foot and lower legs to keep you upright and sparks proprioception, which means your muscles and nervous system are training to keep you balanced. Plus, you’ll be forced to move your body in different ways as you go up and down hills or over and around rocks or trees, all providing more balanced muscular training.
An additional benefit of hiking is, of course, getting out into nature, which is something you can enjoy either by yourself, with a walking partner, or with your family. Because walking uphill is more difficult and energy intensive, depending on the softness of the terrain, it can use 50 percent more calories. So if you take a hike, you may need to go more slowly, cover less distance, or take extra breaks. Outdoors, breaks give you a chance to smell the flowers and trees and observe wildlife, which are great additions to your program.
Water Running or Walking
Running and walking aren’t just for land. You can do either in the water to relieve impact. When you walk or run in water, the higher the water comes on your body, the more difficult your workout will be because you have to push through more resistance. Another work- out to consider is deep-water running, where your feet don’t touch the bottom of the pool. Instead you are suspended and experience no impact while emulating a runing movement. This is a great workout if you have a lower-body injury or just to feel the massage of the water. For intense deep-water running, a specially made flotation belt helps you stay afloat, allowing you to focus on your technique. Water running and walking workouts can be great cooling retreats in the summer, as well as warming retreats in a heated pool in the winter.
If you take your heart rate during a water workout, note that the number you see will be lower by 10 to 15 percent than your reading on land. Researchers aren’t sure why, but they think it has to do with the water’s resistance on your body helping pump the blood.
Yoga, Pilates, or Tai Chi
Other superior cross-training activities fall under the umbrella of mind–body fitness. You likely know them as practices called yoga, Pilates, or tai chi. All have become more popular since the late 1990s. Many clubs offer these stretching, meditative, focused, strengthening activities, sometimes in various combinations. Because of the peaceful, inner focus and the lengthening of the muscles involved, a mind–body fitness activity is a super addition to any fit- ness program, but especially to one that contracts muscles, such as walking. Yoga can, for example, increase flexibility, but it can also build considerable strength, and some types are quite aerobic. Pilates is mostly a strengthener, particularly of your abdominal and core muscles, which can be a great asset to walking. Tai chi is a softer and lighter activity but, with practice, can also raise your heart rate as well as build strength. Before you add these activities, you need some kind of instruction, be it at a studio or from a home video. These Eastern-influenced classes can be a wonderful multilevel cross-training component of your walking routine.
Just because you live someplace where it snows or you travel someplace snowy doesn’t mean you have to sigh and give up your walking program. If you’d like something a little more technical than snowshoeing, try cross-country skiing. The easy striding (classic) form is much like fast walking in the way you use your arms, legs, and hips. The more advanced skating form is more difficult but could become a good cross-training tool because it demands significant balance and stability, not to mention extensive use of the hip and gluteal muscles.
Running or Jogging
Perhaps you can’t or don’t want to run, which may be why you are getting into fitness walking. If so, skip this section. But I prefer not to be a “walking snob,” just as I take offense at “running snobs.” One activity doesn’t have to preclude the other, and in fact, they complement each other. For example, taking an easy run or jog a couple of times a week, jogging for your cool-down, or run-walking (alternating running and walking) can be a nice way to let your walking muscles relax. Running and walking use different muscles, so adding in a bit of running is cross-training. Do not be afraid to try it if it’s comfortable.
This list barely scratches the surface. In my list, I’ve focused on the most basic and most common. Others include golf, tennis, orienteering, paddling, skateboarding, and even ballroom dancing! Now’s the time to charge right into the recommended workouts, all of which can be easily tailored or mixed and matched to suit your needs and level.