It’s easy to treat the gym like a buffet. Treadmills and ellipticals abound to get your heart racing, isometric machines and free weights beckon you to a prodigious pump, and well-lit hardwood studios invite you to revel in rejuvenating core and yoga sessions.
So why shouldn’t you binge on a random total-body workout if you’ve got the time? Because you aren’t doing each activity just for fun. You’re doing it to cross train. Each workout is a stimulus designed to elicit a specific physiological response, and eventually, an adaptation from the body. So as much fun as it might be to super-set back squats between treadmill sprints, the resulting effect could do more harm than good.
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When it comes to performing various types of workouts, there’s some rhyme and reason to what order you should cross train in. Thankfully, there exist two simple rules to shepherd you around any health club. We examined the latest physiological research and enlisted the help of Laura Covill, D.P.T., to make sense of them.
Rule 1: Cardio Before Strength
Serious runners and cyclists know that strength training is an integral part of a successful cross train program. But going too hard on both activities without ample recovery can turn your legs to cinder blocks, or get you injured. Thankfully, the latest research on concurrent training—integrating strength and cardiovascular training—offers some guidelines.
In November, an Australian research team lead by Kenji Doma reviewed 132 physiological studies on concurrent training to offer some advice on how to best combine strength and cardio workouts. Doma and company wrote that although the body can recover from any high-intensity running or cycling effort within 24 hours, it takes between 48 and 72 hours for a relatively inexperienced athlete to recover from a hard lift.
As the study explains, the difference has to do with mechanical loading. You can lift your own body weight rather easily, which is why the average runner can take thousands of steps without getting horribly sore. But adding weight and using your body as a lever to move it requires significantly more effort.
As Staffordshire University researcher Dean Burt discovered in a 2015 paper, running performance is hampered with sore legs. (Similar studies show the same effect on cycling performance.) Burt’s study had runners do a 3K time trial on fresh legs and then had them strength train to induce delayed-onset muscle soreness; upon running the time trial again with DOMS, participants ran 9 percent slower.
Running on sore legs can cause injury, too. Tight quads, hamstrings, and glutes become guarded when sore. They send the shock down the kinetic chain to affect connective tissues in the calves, ankles, and feet. This can make your legs more prone to injury.
That doesn’t mean you can never strength train before cardio.
Thankfully, there are a few caveats to the cardio before strength rule. As Doma writes, the lost performance only occurs at 80 percent of maximum effort and above. You can run at 70 percent effort after squatting without risking injury or ruining performance. Upper body-only strength sessions before running and cycling are perfectly okay, too. Just give yourself a couple days after a hard leg day before getting after it on the run or bike.
Rule 2: Yoga and Stretching Post-workout
Think of your muscles like a spring: The tighter the coils, the more force it generates. You wouldn’t want to uncoil a spring before you expect it to move something. It’s the exact same with skeletal muscle tissue.
“To really elongate a muscle before you’re expected to contract it is not the best thing,” Covill says. “It certainly should be warmed up, though. Right now, we’re looking at active warm-ups and active stretching, such as high kicks, swinging your arms around, and other fast movements to get the muscles a little warm.”
Covill notes that not all stretching and yoga routines are created equal. So, you can incorporate a brief session into a pre-run active warm-up. You’ll get the most out of it after the workout, though, once the muscles have been worked and are primed for a good stretch.
“After you’ve just done some repetitive activity, you’ve got a lot of blood flow to the muscles,” says Covill. This is why the muscles are ready to accept a quality stretch. Contracted muscles actually get shorter after a workout. So, that’s the optimal time to lengthen them with yoga or static stretching.
“If you’re dealing with some pain or discomfort, you can morph your yoga routine to that with a little more prolonged hold,” Covill says. “You can use yoga to warm up if you move quick, or use it to cool down if you’re moving slowly.”