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9 Best Cross Training Activities for Triathletes

Triathlons demand a unique blend of endurance, strength, and mental determination. Mixing things up with cross training or trying something new during your periodised training schedule can pay dividends with improved mobility, flexibility, strength, and core activation. In the off-season cross training is key to keep your motivation levels high and preserve your hard-won fitness levels.


To excel in this demanding sport, athletes often incorporate a variety of training modalities. In this comprehensive guide, we’ll explore some of the best training options for triathletes, each offering distinct advantages and a few considerations.

Overall, here is the quick list of the top cross training activities for triathletes:

  1. Rowing
  2. Trail Running
  3. Mountain Biking
  4. Climbing and Bouldering
  5. Kayaking and SUP
  6. Crossfit
  7. Hiking
  8. Racquet Sports
  9. Yoga and Pilates

Benefits of Cross Training

Before we dive headlong into the best cross training activities for triathletes lets discuss the benefits during race training and in the off-season or during a training hiatus.

During Training Season

  • Reduced Risk of Overuse Injuries: By engaging in a variety of activities, triathletes can distribute the physical stress on their bodies more evenly, reducing the risk of overuse injuries associated with repetitive motions.
  • Improved Overall Fitness: Cross-training targets different muscle groups and movement patterns, leading to a more balanced and well-rounded level of fitness. This can enhance performance in all three disciplines of triathlon.
  • Enhanced Recovery: Engaging in lower-impact activities like swimming or yoga on recovery days helps to promote blood flow, ease muscle soreness, and expedite recovery.
  • Mental Refreshment: Switching between different activities can help prevent mental burnout or boredom that may occur from repetitive training in a single discipline.
  • Skill and Technique Improvement: Engaging in various activities can help improve skills like balance, coordination, and agility, which can be beneficial in all phases of a triathlon.

During the Off-Season or Training Hiatus

  • Active Recovery: Cross-training allows athletes to remain active without the same intensity as during their primary season. This promotes recovery while maintaining a level of fitness.
  • Maintaining Motivation: Trying new activities can keep training fresh and exciting, helping athletes stay motivated even when not specifically preparing for a race.
  • Addressing Weaknesses: The off-season is an ideal time to work on weaknesses in a controlled environment. For example, a triathlete weak in swimming can focus on improving their technique.
  • Injury Prevention and Rehabilitation: Engaging in different activities can help prevent overuse injuries and allow time for existing injuries to heal. It also enables athletes to maintain fitness levels while rehabilitating.
  • Building a Foundation for the Next Season: Cross-training in the off-season can lay the groundwork for improved performance in the next competitive season. It helps maintain a baseline level of fitness and allows athletes to start their specific triathlon training with a solid foundation.

1. Rowing

Rowing complements triathlon training, strengthening core muscles and providing cardiovascular conditioning. Rowing also has a lot of read across to swimming with the rowing phases being like those of swimming.

Swimming Phases: Catch, Pull/Push, Finish, Recovery

Rowing Phases: Catch, Drive, Finish, Recovery

The similarities don’t end there with similar muscle groups being worked in rowing and swimming. Here’s a list in order or importance of each muscle used and as you can see there is a different order but very similar muscles.

Swimming Muscles: Latissimus Dorsi (Back), Pectoralis Major (Chest), Deltoids (Shoulders), Triceps and Biceps (Arms), Abdominals (Core), Quadriceps and Hamstrings (Legs), Glutes (Buttocks)

Hip Flexors (Hips), Calf Muscles (Calves) and Ankle Muscles (Feet).

Rowing Muscles: Quadriceps (Front Thighs), Hamstrings (Back Thighs), Glutes (Buttocks)

Calves (Calf Muscles), Latissimus Dorsi (Back), Trapezius (Upper Back and Neck), Deltoids (Shoulders)

Triceps (Arms), Biceps (Arms) and Abdominals (Core).

Getting into the rowing may not be achievable for many of us so the best option in to use an indoor rowing machine and luckily most gyms have them or your can invest in a machine for your home gym.

Indoor rowing is great for Injury prevention as its low-impact nature is ideal for recovery days or for athletes prone to joint issues.


  • Full-body Workout: Rowing engages major muscle groups, building both strength and endurance.
  • Low Impact: Minimizes stress on joints, making it suitable for injury-prone athletes.
  • Cardiovascular Conditioning: Enhances lung capacity and cardiovascular health.
  • Mental Toughness: Requires focus and determination, a crucial trait for triathletes.
  • Swimming Muscle Development: Rowing works similar muscles to swimming so can help develop more power in your swimming stroke.
  • Coordination: Both freestyle swimming and rowing required a lot of coordination and proprioception (your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location) so rowing can help with your swimming rhythm.


  • Skill Development: Proper technique is essential to maximize benefits and prevent injuries.
  • Equipment and Space: Requires access to a rowing machine or watercraft and ample space.

2. Trail Running

I love trail running as you can forget about speed and pace – as they say when you hit vert and dirt pace goes out the window! So, this is a great way to retain your run fitness and re-visit the pure pleasure of running and get a bit muddy.

Trail running can also improve your running strength and agility. Trail running builds muscles that are essential for navigating different terrains in a triathlon. Trail running can also help with your mental toughness by overcoming challenges on the trail translates well to the mental demands of triathlons.


  • Terrain Variation: Challenges balance and stability, strengthening stabilizer muscles.
  • Mental Resilience: Negotiating uneven terrain builds mental fortitude and adaptability.
  • Natural Scenery: Provides a refreshing change of scenery compared to standard road running.
  • Improved Agility: Enhances agility and coordination, valuable for transitions in triathlons.


  • Injury Risk: Uneven surfaces can increase the likelihood of sprains or strains.
  • Equipment Maintenance: Shoes and gear may wear out faster due to rough terrain.

3. Mountain & Gravel Biking

Mountain biking has long been a favourite for triathletes in the off-season for cross training, but gravel biking could be just as beneficial.

Both mountain and gravel biking can improve your leg strength through the varied terrain helping to develop powerful legs, essential for the cycling leg of a triathlon. They also develop your skills and cycling confidence on technical descents and can improve your overall bike-handling skills.

Gravel bikes have a similar form factor to road bikes with drop handlebars and gear set up but are more robust and have off-road tyres and wheels. Gravel bikes are designed to go off road and have fun.


  • Lower Impact: Reduced stress on joints compared to road biking.
  • Strength Building: Uphill climbs and technical descents engage various muscle groups.
  • Technical Skills: Improves balance, coordination, and bike-handling skills.
  • Scenic Workouts: Provides an opportunity to train in nature with breathtaking views.


  • Equipment Costs: Quality Mountain bikes and maintenance can be expensive.
  • Risk of Injury: Technical descents and obstacles can lead to falls or collisions.

4. Climbing and bouldering

Climbing and bouldering engage a wide array of muscles throughout the body, making them an excellent complement to triathlon training. Like multisport activities, they activate various muscle groups, ranging from the cardiovascular system to the biceps and quadriceps. The pushing, pulling, and lifting motions involved in climbing closely resemble aspects of resistance exercises, making it an effective strength-building activity.

Moreover, climbing presents an ever-changing series of movements, with each climbing surface or route offering a unique challenge. Research indicates that this dynamic muscle engagement is more demanding and less prone to causing fatigue compared to simpler, repetitive movements. This variability also reduces the likelihood of injury.

In terms of cardiovascular benefits, a 2004 study on the physiology of rock climbing discovered that climbers utilize a significant portion of their aerobic capacity. However, the intensity of the workout depends on the level of exertion.

Furthermore, climbing nurtures cognitive functions. The balance and neuromuscular coordination demanded by this activity can enhance mental acuity. A recent study conducted at the University of North Florida showed that activities involving balance, muscle coordination, and spatial orientation have a positive impact on working memory and other cognitive abilities.

For triathlete climbing can improve your upper body strength as climbing focuses on developing upper body strength and grip, which can enhance performance in swimming and overall strength in triathlons. Climbing can also improve your mental toughness – overcoming challenging climbs cultivates a resilient mindset, valuable in the grueling phases of a triathlon.


  • Strength and Flexibility: Climbing engages muscles throughout the body, promoting strength and flexibility.
  • Problem-Solving Skills: Requires strategic thinking and planning, enhancing mental acuity.
  • Adaptability: Encourages quick thinking and adaptability to changing environments. These skills can be used during a race.


  • Risk of Injury: Climbing involves inherent risks, especially at higher levels.
  • Access and Equipment: Requires access to climbing walls or natural formations, as well as specialized gear.

5. Kayaking or SUP

Kayaking demands precise control through rotational movements, targeting muscle groups that are sometimes overlooked in triathlon training, especially those around the core. This heightened engagement provides enhanced stability, a valuable asset for improving performance in swimming, cycling, and running disciplines.

Kayaking and SUP can enhance the upper body strength needed for effective swimming. Improved balance and core stability contribute to better performance in all three triathlon disciplines.


  • Upper Body Workout: Kayaking and SUP primarily engage the upper body, building strength and endurance.
  • Balance and Core Strength: Paddleboarding, in particular, challenges balance and core stability.
  • Scenic Workouts: Enjoy training on water while taking in scenic views.
  • Low Impact: Minimal stress on joints, suitable for recovery days.


  • Equipment and Water Access: Requires access to a kayak or paddleboard and water bodies.
  • Skill Development: Learning proper technique is essential for efficient paddling.

6. CrossFit

CrossFit focuses on high-intensity functional strength exercises within a constantly changing programme. When executed correctly under the guidance of qualified and seasoned coaches, it can seamlessly integrate with your triathlon training.

When strategically incorporated into your routine, CrossFit-style workouts can optimize the limited time available for enhancing strength, conditioning, and flexibility in your training regimen.

If you want to give CrossFit a try and you have never done it before, seek out a qualified trainer who can show up the correct and safe way to do the various exercises.

CrossFit can enhance overall strength, endurance, and cardiovascular fitness, crucial for triathletes. Pushing through challenging CrossFit workouts builds mental resilience for triathlon races.


  • Functional Fitness: CrossFit workouts focus on functional movements that improve overall athleticism.
  • Variety: Offers diverse workouts that target different muscle groups.
  • Community: Often performed in group settings, fostering camaraderie and motivation.
  • Intensity: High-intensity intervals can mimic the demands of a triathlon.


  • Risk of Overtraining: Intense CrossFit sessions can increase the risk of overtraining or injury if not properly managed.
  • Cost: Membership fees and specialized equipment can be expensive.

7. Hiking

Walking provides an aerobic boost to your endurance reserves without imposing high impact stress. Being a weight-bearing exercise, it contributes to maintaining bone density and fortifying your musculoskeletal system. Incorporating hills and rugged terrain further enhances your leg and core strength, fostering improved balance and stability. It’s also an excellent chance to concentrate on maintaining proper posture and alignment, essential pillars of athletic performance.

Uphill hiking builds lower body strength and endurance, benefiting the cycling and running phases of a triathlon. Pushing through challenging hikes can improve mental toughness for race day.


  • Scenic Workouts: Enjoy the great outdoors and natural beauty while training.
  • Low Cost: Minimal equipment required – just a good pair of hiking shoes.
  • Cardiovascular Fitness: Uphill hikes provide excellent cardiovascular conditioning.
  • Variability: Different terrain and elevations offer varied training experiences.


  • Risk of Injury: Uneven terrain can lead to sprains, strains, or falls.
  • Time-Consuming: Longer hikes may require significant time commitments.

8. Racquet Sports

Here in Spain, Padel is the racquet sport of choice and is a combination of tennis and squash. For the purest there is tennis and for people who want to try something completely new then consider Pickleball. Pickleball is played by two or four players hit a perforated, hollow plastic ball with paddles over a 34-inch-high net until one side is unable to return the ball or commits an infraction.

Racquet sports can enhance your agility, beneficial in transitions during triathlons. Racquet sports can enhance your concentration and decision-making, crucial in maintaining performance during races.

Raquet sports can improve your mobility and can facilitate improved bike positioning, and heightened flexibility and stability contribute to a more robust and steady running stance. Surprisingly, even transitions like T1 and T2 benefit from enhanced flexibility, aiding tasks such as wetsuit removal and the switch from bike to run. These time savings can be pivotal in shorter-distance races.


  • Agility and Reflexes: Racquet sports require quick reactions and agility.
  • Social Interaction: Often played with others, promoting social engagement.
  • Cardiovascular Fitness: Provides a cardio workout while having fun.
  • Mobility: This can help with a better cycling position and in transitions.


  • Skill Development: Learning proper techniques can be time-consuming.
  • Injury Risk: Sudden movements may lead to injuries, particularly in non-conditioned players.

9. Yoga and Pilates

I could not write a piece about cross training without mentioning Yoga and Pilates. Yoga and Pilates are holistic training modalities that offer triathletes unique benefits when incorporated into their cross-training routines. These practices enhance physical and mental aspects crucial for triathlon performance, but they also come with their own set of pros and cons.

Pros of Yoga for Triathlon Cross Training

  • Improved Flexibility: Yoga’s focus on stretching and holding poses enhances overall flexibility, especially in areas prone to tightness for triathletes like the hips and hamstrings.
  • Enhanced Core Strength: Many yoga poses require core engagement, which strengthens the abdominal and lower back muscles, contributing to better stability and posture.
  • Better Balance and Coordination: Yoga helps develop balance and proprioception, which are essential for maintaining stability on the bike and during transitions.
  • Mental Focus and Relaxation: The meditative aspects of yoga improve mental clarity, focus, and relaxation, which can help with race-day nerves and concentration.
  • Injury Prevention: Yoga promotes better alignment and body awareness, reducing the risk of injury during training and racing.

Cons of Yoga for Triathlon Cross Training

  • Limited Cardiovascular Conditioning: Yoga is not a high-intensity cardiovascular workout, so it may not provide the same cardiovascular benefits as some other forms of cross training.
  • Time-Consuming: Full yoga sessions can be time-consuming, which may conflict with triathletes’ busy training schedules.

Pros of Pilates for Triathlon Cross Training

  • Core Strength: Pilates is renowned for core strengthening, which is crucial for maintaining a strong and stable posture during all three triathlon disciplines.
  • Improved Muscle Endurance: Pilates emphasizes slow, controlled movements, enhancing muscle endurance, and reducing the risk of fatigue during races.
  • Enhanced Body Awareness: Pilates promotes better body awareness and alignment, contributing to efficient biomechanics in swimming, cycling, and running.
  • Low Impact: Pilates is gentle on the joints, making it suitable for triathletes seeking recovery or injury prevention.

Cons of Pilates for Triathlon Cross Training

  • Limited Cardiovascular Benefits: Like yoga, Pilates is not a high-intensity cardiovascular workout, so it may need to be supplemented with other forms of cardio.
  • Potential Skill Acquisition: Some Pilates exercises require instruction and practice to perform correctly, which may require extra time and guidance.

Yoga and Pilates can be valuable additions to a triathlete’s cross-training programme, enhancing flexibility, core strength, balance, and mental focus. However, they may need to be supplemented with additional cardiovascular workouts to meet the full spectrum of triathlon training demands. You should carefully consider your goals and schedules when incorporating these practices into your training plans.


Triathletes can benefit greatly from diversifying their training regime. Each of these sports offers unique advantages, helping your build strength, endurance, and mental resilience. By incorporating a combination of these activities into your training routine, you can become a more well-rounded competitor and improve your performance in this demanding sport. Remember, the key is to balance these activities to prevent overtraining and ensure optimal results. So, get out there, try new things, and take your triathlon training to the next level!

FAQ – Cross Training for Triathletes

What is cross training for triathletes?

Cross training for triathletes involves incorporating a variety of sports and activities alongside triathlon-specific training. This diverse approach helps enhance overall fitness, prevent overuse injuries, and improve performance in triathlon disciplines.

Which sports are beneficial for cross training in triathlon?

Several sports complement triathlon training, including rowing, trail running, mountain biking, climbing and bouldering, kayaking or SUP, CrossFit, hiking, racquet sports, and more.

What are the benefits of rowing for triathletes?

Rowing offers a full-body workout with low joint impact, making it ideal for recovery. It enhances cardiovascular conditioning, builds strength, and promotes mental toughness.

How does trail running benefit triathletes?

Trail running improves balance, stability, and agility. It engages different muscle groups and enhances mental resilience, making it a valuable addition to triathlon training.

What advantages does mountain biking bring to triathletes?

Mountain biking provides a lower-impact alternative to road biking, building leg strength and technical skills. It’s an excellent way to engage multiple muscle groups while enjoying scenic workouts.

How does climbing and bouldering contribute to triathlon training?

Climbing develops upper body strength, grip, and mental resilience. It’s a unique way to engage muscles not typically used in triathlon, promoting a well-rounded fitness.

What benefits do kayaking or stand-up paddleboarding offer triathletes?

These activities target upper body strength and core stability. They provide a low-impact cardiovascular workout and complement the swimming leg of a triathlon.

Why is CrossFit valuable for triathlon training?

CrossFit focuses on functional movements, enhancing overall strength, endurance, and mental toughness. It complements triathlon training by offering diverse and intense workouts.

How does hiking benefit triathletes?

Hiking builds leg strength and endurance, making it valuable for the cycling and running phases of a triathlon. It also provides a scenic, low-impact workout.

What advantages do racquet sports offer triathletes?

Racquet sports improve agility, reflexes, and cardiovascular fitness. Engaging in activities like tennis or badminton can enhance overall coordination, beneficial for transitions in triathlons.

What is the role of Pilates in triathlon cross training?

Pilates is a valuable component of triathlon cross training. It strengthens the core, improves muscle endurance, enhances body awareness, and promotes better posture—all of which contribute to better performance and injury prevention in triathlon.

Can I incorporate yoga into my triathlon training, even if I’m not naturally flexible?

Absolutely! Yoga is accessible to individuals of all flexibility levels. Regular practice will gradually improve your flexibility and mobility, making it an excellent addition to your triathlon training routine.

How can yoga and Pilates help with mental focus and relaxation in triathlon?

Both yoga and Pilates emphasize mindfulness, controlled breathing, and relaxation techniques. These practices can reduce pre-race nerves, improve concentration, and foster a sense of calm, which are essential for peak triathlon performance.

Do I need special equipment for Pilates and yoga?

While some Pilates exercises may involve equipment like reformers, many Pilates routines can be done using just a mat. Yoga typically requires only a yoga mat. Both practices are accessible without extensive equipment.

Can Pilates and yoga be used for recovery after strenuous triathlon training sessions?

Yes, both Pilates and yoga are excellent for recovery. They promote gentle stretching, muscle relaxation, and enhanced blood circulation, aiding in recovery and reducing muscle soreness.

Is there a specific type of yoga that is best for triathletes?

Hatha and Vinyasa yoga styles are often recommended for triathletes due to their focus on flexibility, strength, and breath control. However, the choice ultimately depends on personal preferences and goals.

How often should I include yoga and Pilates in my triathlon training schedule?

The frequency of yoga and Pilates sessions can vary based on your training volume and goals. Typically, incorporating one or two sessions per week can provide substantial benefits without overwhelming your schedule.

Can yoga and Pilates replace other forms of cross training in triathlon?

While yoga and Pilates offer unique advantages, they may not provide the same cardiovascular benefits as activities like cycling or running. It’s advisable to use these practices as complements to your existing cross-training routine rather than replacements.

Are there specific poses or exercises in yoga and Pilates that target areas often stressed in triathlon training?

Yes, there are poses and exercises in both yoga and Pilates that target key areas like the core, lower back, hips, and legs—areas frequently stressed in triathlon. Instructors can tailor routines to address your specific needs.

Can beginners start yoga and Pilates, or is prior experience required?

Both yoga and Pilates are suitable for beginners. Many classes offer variations and modifications for different levels of experience. Starting with beginner-friendly sessions is a great way to begin your journey into these practices.

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Karen Parnell
Karen Parnellhttps://chilitri.com/one-to-one-coaching
Karen Parnell is British Triathlon Federation (BTF) Level 3 High Performing Coach and Tutor and ASA Open Water Swimming Coach. She is also a qualified NASM Personal Trainer, Nivel 3 Técnicos Federados FATRI España and IRONMAN® Certified Coach as well as being a Stryd running with power coach. Karen is based near Malaga in Southern Spain where she runs ChiliTri coaching and camps. You can find training plans for swimming, cycling, running and triathlon on Training TiltTrainingPeaks and FinalSurge.


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