By Erik Taylor
CrossFit is a heavily debated topic among the endurance community and fitness enthusiasts. There’s no denying its popularity, but can it make you a faster, stronger, better runner?
What is CrossFit?
First, let’s start with what it is, and how it might be different from other forms of cross-training. Many cross-training programs use stability balls, crunches and isolated movements like leg extensions and bicep curls, and the intensity of these workouts is done at an aerobic pace.
CrossFit uses Olympic lifts, power lifting, gymnastics and other training tools. The method includes throwing random exercises together performed at a high intensity called the “WOD,” or workout of the day. Workouts generally last from 5 to 25 minutes, and the main energy system used is anaerobic (without oxygen). CrossFit exercises use multiple joints, such as knees, hips and shoulders, to perform compound movements that are executed at a much higher rate than typical cross-training programs.
Can CrossFit Make You a Better Runner?
When I competed in track and cross country in high school and college, I always believed that strength training only made my performance better. CrossFit can make you a faster, better runner. Being a balanced athlete is the name of the game. Running fast is great, but having functional strength is equally as important in the long run. Strength training can improve your power, speed, balance, coordination, bone and tendon. Don’t limit your training to one aspect—be a complete runner.
To reach your running goals, you need specificity within your running workouts. Nothing can replace the actual skill in which you’re trying to succeed other than that skill. Bottom line: You have to run, and run hard, to improve.
Run-Specific CrossFit WODs
If you’re getting ready for a 5K or 10K, here is an example of a WOD I designed that is more ballistic in nature, and will help you with your speed.
- 20 box jumps, 10 chin-ups, 10 dumbbell thrusters, and 1 minute of kettlebell swings.
- Rest for 1 to 2 minutes between rounds and repeat for 3 to 5 rounds.
If your goal is the half or full marathon, try the “Barbara.” This is a WOD designed by CrossFit:
- 20 pull-ups, 30 push-ups, 40 sit-ups and 50 air squats.
- Rest for three minutes and repeat for 5 rounds.
When doing any of these WODs, you can scale down the exercises—for example do inverted rows instead of pull-ups or chin-ups, push-ups can be done on your knees, and you can always reduce the amount of weight you are lifting.
How to Balance CrossFit With Running
The tricky part is programming CrossFit workouts into your running schedule. Your goal should be to supplement your running with CrossFit workouts, not the other way around. Keep in mind that CrossFit’s motto is “not specializing;” the workouts are about being good at everything and not great at one thing.
This is why programming your CrossFit workouts remains incredibly important. You need to perform WODs that are metabolically relevant to running. Doing 5 sets of 1 rep of back squats with hopes of setting a personal record isn’t the right type of workout. But a WOD that involves rounds of 4 to 5 different exercises at a moderate weight will more closely resemble the energy system used in a 10K or half marathon. Throw out your junk mileage days and replace them with CrossFit workouts.
By incorporating CrossFit strategically into your weekly workout plan, you can reduce the volume of mileage and replace it with a strength-training day, done in a circuit style fashion, at an anaerobic pace. These workouts can be fun and beneficial, and will build the mental toughness and conditioning that will make you a better runner. One to two CrossFit workouts a week are all that you need, depending on your level of fitness and race goals.
CrossFit workouts will improve fitness for runners of all distances. If you are new to running or cross-training, or even if you are a veteran, start with one CrossFit workout a week for 4 to 6 weeks. As your fitness level progresses and your body adapts to the new stress, you can add an additional workout each week.
If your race goals are to have fun and finish the event, complete two CrossFit WODS a week. If you are an experienced runner or a novice and you are looking to set a personal record in an upcoming race, start with one CrossFit WOD per week; build up to two workouts a week.
If you’re training for a marathon, one CrossFit workout a week is all that is needed because the demands of marathon training require more rest. Four to six weeks before the race approaches, cut back to one WOD per week. This will allow your body to recover fully.
How to Manage High Volume and Intensity
There are two ways to improve your endurance: with low-intensity long runs and high-intensity intervals and cross-training. You do not want to limit yourself to only one way. CrossFit is high-intensity training that uses sprints, weights and gymnastics. Many running coaches and purists believe in high volume mileage training followed by intensity. Your training program needs both volume and intensity in running and cross-training.
The running off-season presents an opportunity to accomplish these needs. When you’re not training for a specific race and focusing on building base mileage, the amount of total weekly mileage should be higher and the volume of cross-training workouts should total two per week.
Keep in mind that there are dangers that could result from high volume and high intensity in both running and cross-training. Overuse injuries to bones, tendons and joints, and general fatigue symptoms are common problems that come with hard training. Learn to read your body—our bodies give us warning signs, so listen to them. Lower your mileage, cut out, or cut back on the CrossFit WODs as necessary. It is always better to miss a week of training rather than a month or more because of an injury.
Many runners and coaches will not agree with me, but don’t be afraid to give CrossFit a try. Done correctly and planned properly, your running performance will improve.
Erik Taylor is the premiere NASM-certified trainer for runners, cyclist, triathletes and fitness enthusiasts in the South Bay area of Los Angeles. A Crossfit Level 1 instructor, corrective exercise specialist and performance enhancement specialist, Erik specializes in functional training. A former competitive cross country and track athlete, Erik understands the commitment involved in being an endurance athlete. Find him at eriktaylorsfitness.com, on Facebook, and follow him on Twitter @Eriktaylorsfit.