CrossFit is very popular, but it gets a bad rap for causing injuries and inspiring cult-like behavior. I have been very curious about the phenomenon and I had a blast researching and writing this article, which was originally published in the August issue of Colorado Runner Magazine. By the time I sent it to my editor, I was jonesing to try a CrossFit workout myself. It’s still on my to-list. I will let you know how it goes when I get around to it!
What is CrossFit?
If you’re a runner, you’ve probably questioned the CrossFit craze at one time or another. The members are cult-like in their devotion. They have their own lingo- A gym is a “box,” where they do their WOD (workout of the day). They even eat a special diet (Paleo, anyone?). You may have rolled your eyes at them and thought, “What, like you invented fitness?” Or maybe that was just me.
Until I learned more about CrossFit, and how well it can complement running.
CrossFit boasts that it optimizes fitness by using constantly varied, functional movements, performed at a high intensity, in a group setting. Athletes gather several times a week in a small group with a coach, who provides a specific workout, and is available to ensure each athlete performs the exercises with proper form. Many say the workout is a hybrid of a group fitness class and a personal training session.
A typical CrossFit session revolves around repetitions of extremely high effort followed by a rest period. Exercises may include barbell lifting, kettlebell exercises, sprints, burpees, rowing on the ergometer, or pushups, to name just a few. The CrossFit Endurance program is a sub-set of CrossFit that caters to endurance athletes and includes traditional CrossFit workouts, as well as quality runs, like a 10k tempo run, short intervals on the track, or hill repeats.
I spoke to Kirk Warner, a former elite triathlete, who coaches the Endurance program at Boulder’s CrossFit Roots. Having experienced the positive effects of CrossFit on his performance as an endurance athlete, Warner is passionate about sharing his knowledge and enthusiasm for the sport. According to Warner, although “high intensity is something [the CrossFit Endurance program] really… cares about,” the program also provides opportunities for athletes to practice consistent pacing. “A lot of times we get someone who is really good at pushing them self in CrossFit, and then we get them in the running realm and… [they struggle with] pacing.” To help athletes develop pacing skills, specific effort levels, ranging from endurance pace to anaerobic, are prescribed for each workout.
According to Warner, CrossFit exposes physical weaknesses in unique way, due to the variety of demands the exercises place on the athlete. “CrossFit lets me… get an insight into the athlete that I couldn’t have seen if I just…watched them run. I might see some things that are wrong… but I can’t see strength inadequacies or imbalances that I get to see when they come into the gym.”
Brian Briggs, a physical therapist at Revo Physical Therapy and Sports Performance, also emphasizes the importance of targeting an athlete’s weaknesses. According to Briggs, if the issue is not cardiovascular, but biomechanical- he gives the example of limited hip control, “then we’re going to spend a lot more time in the gym, doing your stability work.” For many, the CrossFit gym is just as good as, if not better than any other gym. Briggs says he has seen many runners benefit from incorporating CrossFit into their training, particularly during the off-season, when the focus tends to be on strength and conditioning. While he was careful to highlight the importance of taking each athlete’s individual nuances into account when developing a training plan, he noted several CrossFit exercises that benefit all runners
Squats, (especially single-legged), dead lifts, and power lifts with a barbell (such as a power clean) are key CrossFit exercises for runners. According to Briggs, research shows “if you start squatting, over an eight to twelve week period, your time to exhaustion decreases [and] your overall endurance improves. You become a more efficient athlete.” CrossFit enthusiasts agree all three of these of these exercises are invaluable for runners. According to Warner, “A dead lift teaches the demands to keep posture under load.” As a runner fatigues, posture typically deteriorates, and the dead lift helps to prevent that. Olympic lifts, or power lifts, involve taking a weighted barbell from the floor to overhead, and require the engagement of virtually every muscle in the body. Says Warner; Olympic lifts demand, “coordination and explosiveness [at] the hip,” which translates very well to running power and speed.
Endurance superstar Bob Africa came to CrossFit with a background as a competitive endurance athlete. With over 20 years of experience as an adventure racer, trail runner, and mountain biker, he was used to long, grueling workouts. In the fall of 2013, in the wake of knee surgery and a divorce, he committed to the Endurance program at Boulder’s CrossFit Roots five times a week. Before starting CrossFit, he recalls running easily for six hours straight, yet struggling to find “that extra gear.” These days, Africa’s typical training week consists of five hours of CrossFit during the week, and longer workouts of two to three hours on the weekend. This represents a drastic decrease in volume as compared to his previous regimen, which included frequent five to six hour runs and rides. Africa is pleased to report that at 42, he is stronger and faster than ever. “My quality and intensity have gone through the roof and my quantity has actually dropped down dramatically.”
Since making CrossFit the cornerstone of his training, Africa ran the Pearl Street Mile in 5:19, faster than he’d run in over a decade. Most impressive, though, was his Leadman win in 2014. The race is a series of five events that take place over the summer, with the capstone being a 100 mile mountain bike, followed by a 10k run the next morning, and a 100 mile trail run just four days later. The entire series takes place at elevation of over ten thousand feet. Africa says he owes much of his recent success to the high intensity CrossFit workouts. “I’ve never worked so hard, ever.” Though he had done some strength training on his own prior to jumping into CrossFit, he says he rarely pushed himself to his limits like he does in CrossFit. There’s no secret formula. Africa simply says, “Misery loves company.”
If you CrossFit…
When shopping for a gym, ask about policies on class sizes and learn about the coaching staff. According to Warner, CrossFit Roots caps their classes at 12 athletes per coach. If a class gets any bigger, a coach may be overwhelmed, and “We need [coaches] to be effective because that’s our job. And if you just turn a blind eye and say ‘Well, just get through it,’ that’s when the problems start coming up.” By problems, he is referring to the injuries for which CrossFit is notorious.
Warner argues it is not the CrossFit exercises themselves that put athletes at risk for injuries. Rather, “It’s the shortcomings of coaching that produce injuries…. The reason [these movements] work, is they produce a high power output and if you’re putting joints and muscles… through these high demands and you’re not doing it correctly, obviously you’re going to see injury… So, at our gym, we put a ton of importance on keeping our athletes healthy because if we don’t get them to come back, they’re no longer our athletes.”
Warner advises athletes to look for experienced coaches. Briggs points out that some coaches attend only a weekend course to obtain their CrossFit credentials, however, “that’s really not enough.” Effective coaching also requires “a skilled eye…someone [who understands] the sport really well.” Briggs recommends athletes look for coaches with more than one fitness certification. Though it can be hard to differentiate between various personal training certifications, “a great one to look for is… a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. That one is heavily based on Olympic lifting…Any coach who has that has gone above and beyond.”
At the end of the day, nothing can take the place of stepping inside a gym and doing a workout to see if the gym is a fit for you. Heather Lofquist obtained her CrossFit coaching certification four years after she discovered the sport, which she came to from a running background. Lofquist is acknowledges that many CrossFit gyms are “anti-running” but is quick to point out, “each gym has it’s own culture/personality, so if someone were to try CrossFit at one gym have a negative experience in regard to running, it doesn’t mean every gym/coach is going to have that attitude.” Africa says that while it’s worthwhile to research a gym and talk to its members, nothing can replace your “gut feeling” when you work out there. “You can… get a vibe when you walk in… Does it feel like they’re hustling you through, or do you feel like they’re investing in you and what you’re about?”
Most CrossFit gyms offer a free trial workout. Participants who are new to CrossFit are required to take a foundational course, which typically consists of six small group workouts, in order to learn the fundamentals. Once that is complete, most gyms offer a short trial period during which classes are free.
If you decide to hop on board the CrossFit train, its important to keep in mind that in order to use the sport to your full advantage as a runner, you still need to, well… run. Lofquist explains that CrossFit alone – whether the traditional program or the Endurance program, is “not enough” to take most runners’ performance to the next level. According to Lofquist, “[CrossFit’s] success stories’ are not stories of people who just CrossFit… [These people] have a history of endurance running prior to CrossFit and they never perform as well when they use the CrossFit model alone.”
This is certainly true for Africa. Although he credits CrossFit for much of his recent success, he does so with “a huge caveat… [my] pretty good base.” Africa is just as experienced, as he is humble. No stranger to physical pain and mental toughness, he says, “I spent 15 years of adventure racing, mountaineering, [spending] lots of long days and nights on my feet, and suffering… [I’ve run] lots of [50 and 100 mile ultras]” While he goes to CrossFit five days a week during the off season, starting about a month out from his racing season, he cuts back on CrossFit and instead focuses his energy on running and biking.
Is CrossFit for you? If you’re looking for a change in your routine, you enjoy the camaraderie of suffering with your friends, and you would like to improve your functional strength, it may be worth a shot. Then again, even the CrossFit coach admits, “If [you want] to be Ryan Hall” it’s best to skip the WOD and hit the pavement instead.