Crossfit for Endurance athletes: there are better choices

I’ve purposefully never weighed in on the general merits/gimmicks of Crossfit nor its specific application to endurance sports. However, I have received a number of questions regarding Crossfit, including asking what I thought about it, so it seemed like a good time to get into this discussion on what I call “exercise hocus pocus”

First and foremost, I want to make it clear that I applaud and encourage anyone who is motivated to work out hard and stick with it. If Crossfit helps you do that, then by all means, keep it up. Unfortunately, the benefits of Crossfit are typically grossly overstated by individuals trying to sell a product, which is becoming more common throughout the fitness and nutrition industry; I’ll wager many of the articles on some popular fitness sites are merely cleverly written ads. Putting all that aside, its clear that people who like Crossfit or similar clones like to sweat and most likely ascribe to the motto “No pain, no gain.” But would Crossfit circuit training benefit runners, cyclists and other endurance athletes? The short answer is “probably”. The longer answer, however, depends on what your overall objective is.

An article published online (by someone selling a Crossfit book) claimed that Crossfit:
 Teaches you how to lift correctly
 Hones or improves your diet through the help of dietary experts, Crossfit instructors
 Perfects your athletic foundation
 Helps you gain power
 Improves running technique
 Defeats obesity and perhaps lead to world peace (actually, I made that last one up)

In another article, training is described as a means to achieve peak performance for endurance sports and to give you an edge. The problem is that none of this is based in reality and all of it leads back to the same point:, someone is just trying to sell a product. While none of this is unique to Crossfit, it has become the poster child for the “best” way to get fit. Rather than go through all the points above, I’ll take just the first two. First, there are many ways to learn correct lifting technique, which is absolutely critical to avoid injury, but knowing good technique is meaningless if you’re fatigued and unable to maintain it; as leading strength coach Mike Boyle has often said, lift to technical failure – the point where you cannot maintain good technique, not absolute failure, meaning…. Many people believe that simply exercising hard will lead to results, but it is nearly impossible to use perfect technique throughout a Crossfit routine where you are pushing yourself to exhaustion through each rep. Another issue with the first claim is that it’s nearly impossible to adequately supervise good technique in a large class. Keep in mind that over 80% of all litigation in the strength and fitness field relates to inadequate supervision.

The second point above is an interesting one, as well, considering that a certified Crossfit coach need only be 17 years old, pass a test and pay $1000. I’m not sure how much training and nutrition expertise can be gained from a 2-day weekend training program. Considering that I have an exercise related degree, I by no means consider myself a nutrition expert and regularly consult others in the field who have far more experience and I’ve been doing this for x years.

So the final question goes back to why I wrote this post; can Crossfit help you, the endurance athlete?

Again, the short answer is probably, but it is similar to asking whether eating well will prevent a cold. Eating well will help, but washing your hands is probably more important, as is good sleep and regular exercise. The point is that endurance athletes NEED resistance training, and should do so year round. What endurance athletes do not need is added metabolic training. The issue with Crossfit is that it just adds more high intensity, energy sapping exercise to an already fatigued athlete (i.e., you). Moreover, specificity of training tells us that we need to train specifically for our sport, but more general workouts is great for balancing out our training program. This is why I tell athletes to forget worrying with burning legs and multiple reps and put some weight on the bar instead. During the season one or two 15-20 min sessions is enough more most athletes and is probably all a triathlete could fit in. As for the off-season, build a sound resistance training program built around strength, hypertrophy and power, and save the cardio training for your chosen sport.

One final point. I have noticed that some of the strength work recommended in Crossfit programs includes heavy weight lifting for small muscle groups/areas like the low back. Outside of the risk for injury, stability muscles like the spinal erectors, abdominal girdle muscles and rotator cuff muscles do not need to train for max strength. These muscles rarely produce force in excess of 30% of their max, and actually need much less to stabilize their joint. What most people often lack is the neurological input to get them to turn on before big movements start; consider what happens to the shoulder if you try to move a heavy weight before the joint is stable.

While most coaches agree that resistance training is an important component to an endurance program, many fall prey to the performance enhancement trap. Top strength coaches, like Darcy Norman and Mike Boyle, agree that the number one goal for any resistance training program should be injury reduction. My perspective is that if resistance training reduces injury rates, you’re able to train more consistently, indirectly enhancing performance. Add to this the fact that many running and cycling injuries are more likely linked to muscle imbalances than equipment or mechanics and resistance training becomes essential. While I cannot argue that some people can and do benefit from Crossfit, what endurance athletes need is basic strength movements, not more metabolic stress.

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