Three reasons why endurance athletes should avoid CrossFit

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I’ve been a bit discouraged lately about my state of fitness after tearing my ACL in 2013. After several months off, I worked hard and regained enough fitness to climb, do long bike rides, and cross country ski at a reasonable level.

I am definitely not as fast as I was before my injury, though. And my endurance is lower. I’ve tried to maintain a good attitude about this, but it’s still disappointing.

I refuse to believe the naysayers, who want to chalk up my fitness to old age. After all, studies have shown that athletic performance for endurance athletes doesn’t decline until people are in their 60s or 70s if the person continues to train. I figured something must be missing from my exercise program – which mostly consisted of hitting the trails for some fast hikes up the local foothills.

I started looking around at what my peers were doing and discovered that many of them were CrossFit devotees. At first glance, it seems like a fitness dream come true. My brother is enthusiastic about working out and has gotten into a good routine, even though he has multiple competing demands on his time. Several of my girlfriends have gotten really strong. (One of them can do full pushups with added weight over her shoulders.) And did I mention my PT’s six-pack abs? I’d like all of that!

Given the number of CrossFit Groupons available, I started looking into it. According to Crossfit.com:

“The aim of CrossFit is to forge a broad, general and inclusive fitness. We have sought to build a program that will best prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown, but for the unknowable. After looking at all sport and physical tasks collectively, we asked what physical skills and adaptations would most universally lend themselves to performance advantage. Capacity culled from the intersection of all sports demands would quite logically lend itself well to all sport. In sum, our specialty is not specializing.”

Training for all movements, functional and specified, so your body is in all-around good shape. It’s constantly varied, high intensity functional movement. I dig it.  CrossFit didn’t invent cross-training, but their claim to fame is taking cross-training a step further by including “any physical contingency,” “the unknown,” and “the unknowable.” I like your style, CrossFit, I do.

It may surprise you to learn, though, that I am completely rejecting it as a method of training for climbing, distance biking and skiing. You should too, if your fitness goals involve excelling at endurance sports. Here’s why:

1. CrossFit is not effective at training endurance or strength

Before I rain on the CrossFit parade too much, I should say that it isn’t all bad. CrossFit features hard workouts that will in fact help someone get in shape, to a degree. It teaches a variety of real exercises that are challenging and much better than sitting on the couch eating potato chips. Can’t complain about that!

The problem is, there’s no evidence that the high intensity work promoted in CrossFit will yield performance gains for endurance athletes. Sure, CrossFit claims that the system is “empirically driven and clinically tested” which insinuates that the methods are scientifically supported. According to WebMD, however, “a review of the current scientific literature . . . shows no published studies about CrossFit in top-rated peer-reviewed strength and conditioning or exercise physiology research journals.”

In fact, looking at the research on high-intensity, circuit workouts, we see that CrossFit is not ideal for building aerobic endurance. These workouts are often called “Tabita sprints” or “HIIT” (standing for High Intensity Interval Training). When these programs are researched, researchers note that VO2max increases by a large amount and that certain aerobic enzymes also increase.

The trouble is, VO2max does not equal aerobic performance. Just because VO2max is increased or decreased, does not mean that performance will change to the same degree or even at all. This is borne out by research done by Vollard, et al in 2009:

“Moreover, we demonstrate that VO2max and aerobic performance associate with distinct and separate physiological and biochemical endpoints, suggesting that proposed models for the determinants of endurance performance may need to be revisited.”

This is a key concept to understand, because the studies cited by CrossFit track effects on VO2max but not performance.

Crossfit isn’t ideal for building strength either. In a CrossFit you do a bunch of exercises until your muscles burn and you feel exhausted. Anybody can go into the gym and kill themselves for 30 minutes, pat themselves on the back, and feel like they just worked as hard as they could.

An effective strength training program focuses on a systematic approach to weightlifting and incorporates progressive overload. The trouble is, CrossFit is the exact opposite of this. It is a random approach to exercise that doesn’t utilize progressive overload or account for the law of diminishing returns. This type of training ultimately sets people up to plateau below their full potential.

All of this is easy to ignore when you hear anecdotes about how CrossFit “worked for me” and “worked for so-and-so.” Humans are inexplicably driven by anecdotal evidence instead of empirical evidence. We should remember though not to confuse “what can work” with “what works best.”

For the unfit or formerly fit, CrossFit works great initially. People see results because it’s a very high stress workout. It’s also why you see results when you do insanity or any of those workout videos.  It isn’t that the exercises are super awesome targeted muscle sculpting patented exercises. Instead, it’s that the people who generally do them weren’t doing anything before.

What happens after the initial gains? We get stale, we stop improving, or our body breaks down, which brings me to my next reason for deciding not to do CrossFit.

2. The risk of injury is too high

CrossFit incorporates a lot of Olympic lifts for extremely high reps and/or for time. We never see this in Olympic lifting gyms, because somewhere along the way they figured out it was a bad idea.

When power athletes are training in the gym, they do not load up the bar with a light weight and do snatches or cleans for 50 reps. These movements are the most advanced training one can do. The Olympic lifts tax your central nervous system a tremendous amount. Worldwide, the protocols of an Olympic lifting program agree on a main principle: higher weight, less reps.

CrossFit, unfortunately, does the exact opposite. Any time you are performing lifts against the clock, you are asking for your form to break down. When people are tired, they have trouble simply walking. Forcing someone who is fatigued to engage in power exercises like Olympic lifts or box jumps seems like a bad idea. Common sense says that putting a weighted bar in their hand and asking them to rip it from the floor to overhead as quickly as possible is a recipe for injury.

Sure, I hear people say that “the workouts are scaleable,” meaning I can and should do an easier version of the prescribed workout. The scalability argument is irrelevant, though. If poor workouts are scalable, they’re still poor workouts (just a little less poor, perhaps).

3. Other training methods are empirically better

There is a reason that ultramarathoners, Tour de France competitors, and other elite endurance athletes are not doing CrossFit. I’ve even heard that CrossFit Games competitors do not rely on CrossFit to help them win. If CrossFit was the best way to train for endurance sports, you better believe these athletes would be doing it. Instead, they train in other ways. Why? Because it works better.

Just what is this better way? Stay tuned. I’m reading, scheming, planning, and starting a new training program. I’ll let you know how it goes.

Photo by Runar Ellertsen, used with permission.

30

01 2015

Something for the weekend

14-year old dancer

When this post goes live, I’ll be on my way home from a week of cross country skiing in the Methow. This is one of my happy places … where I can recharge my batteries and return feeling fit and refreshed. Do you have a special place like this? I’d love to hear about it in the comments.

In the meantime, here is a roundup of interesting links from around the web:

Not enough time to read them all? Use this website to read 300+ words per minute. It really works!

From Desire to Reality: Why Setting Goals Is Critical for Success

The Art of Suffering

Archive footage of the first ascent of the Dawn Wall in 1970.

Happiness comes from giving, not buying and having

Museums … from the art’s perspective

Where to stream the Oscar-nominated documentaries

Invisibilia, the most awesomest new podcast

Climbers in western Washington test their fitness by timing their hike up Mt. Si with a loaded backpack. Here are 11 other interesting ways to test your fitness.

The contentment habit

And, lastly, the benefits of meditation, explained in one short video:

23

01 2015

Yellowstone Teton Moto Adventure – Part 1

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Back in August and early September, Nick, my dad, and I went on a 9-day motorcycle tour. We clocked roughly 2,100 miles in five states (Oregon, Idaho, Wyoming, Montana and Washington) and three national parks (Craters of the Moon NM, Teton NP, and Yellowstone NP). Big thanks to my dad for the route map.

We were originally going to trailer our bikes to Boise, ID and ride a slightly shorter loop from there. Two days before our departure, however, we experienced a bit of a setback. We loaded my dad’s broad-shouldered K1300S on the middle of our borrowed motorcycle trailer and quickly realized the trailer was way too narrow to accommodate two more bikes. The trailer was apparently a three-bike trailer – but only if you had skinny dirt bikes. Ugh!

We’d need to go to Plan B. (We didn’t really have a Plan B.)

After a visit to U-Haul 10 minutes before they closed and some quick math, we realized we’d come out ahead financially if we scrapped the trailer plan and simply rode to Boise over two days. We had some ideas about how we might rejigger the route home, but thought the final decision on that was better left until later in the trip when we had a better idea of how we were riding. (Too much planning might ruin the “adventure” part of our Mega Moto Adventure, after all.)

We went home to pack with plans to meet at Aura Bakery the next morning for a proper motorcycle tour send-off.

Day 1 – 277 miles from Kirkland, WA to Pendleton, OR

It’s been said before: all good motorcycle tours begin with croissants and a latte big enough to swim in. This one was no different. Properly fueled, we gritted our teeth for what we knew would be a long, taxing ride to Pendleton.

There is no really good way to get there in a day that avoids freeways, so we sucked it up and rode I-90 to Ellensburg. Traffic was light, the smell of fresh hops was in the air, and the miles flew by. From Ellensburg, we turned south and headed for Yakima and the Columbia River Gorge.

If you haven’t been there, the Gorge is an incredibly windy place, owing to its unique geography and location between a cool Pacific Ocean and hot inland dessert. Somewhere around Coffin Road (the irony is not lost on me), gusting cross winds began buffeting us. Our survival strategy was pretty simple: get low, hang on, and drive faster. (Question for any physics expert reading this: Does the gyroscopic effect of our wheels really keep us on track better? Or is this just a myth?)

We quickly wore ourselves out driving in survival mode, so we stopped at our first roadside attraction – the dinosaur park. What you see here is sadly all that this park has to offer, but it gave us a good laugh anyway.

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From here, it was a short ride to Pendleton, where we traded riding gear for civilian clothes and slaked our thirst at the Prodigal Son Brewery. They offer a Beer Charity board, which seems like an awesome idea that should be implemented at more neighborhood pubs, don’t you think?

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Day 2 – 224 miles from Pendleton, OR to Boise, ID

It was no surprise when we woke up on day 2 to find that Nick’s bike need brake fluid. His bike drinks fluids in mysterious ways, and he usually has a stash of stuff for this occasion. Curiously, his stash did not include Dot 4 brake fluid.

We wandered the streets of Pendleton, looking for an auto parts store. Pendleton, as we discovered, has many more churches than auto parts stores. I don’t think the coffee had quite kicked in yet, though, because all of the church signs seemed to read funny. We found a church for “method-aliens,” “episcopists,” and a “church of the red femur.” Strange.

The ride south from Pendleton goes over two small mountain passes with 55 MPH sweepers that are easily ridden at 70+ MPH – not that I ever endorse speeding egregiously, mind you. We stopped for lunch at a roadside taco truck – my dad’s first. Just thinking about it makes my mouth water for a bottle of cold tamarind soda. Mmmm.

After lunch, we took a detour to the Warhawk Air Museum in Nampa, ID. We arrived only 20 min or so before closing, which was fine by me. I think Nick could have spent all day here. They had a fly-in event that weekend. We missed the flying, but that meant all of the planes were on the ground for us to see.

South of Nampa, the legal speed limit increased to 80 MPH. (That’s not a typo.) And we cruised into Boise where we showered, watched an arrest take place outside our hotel room door (“too much stupid in one place,” according to the officer), took in the city sights, had drinks with long-time friends Todd and Shannon, and dodged a sudden evening storm on the way back to our motel room.

Stay tuned for the next installment…

13

01 2015

Painting with chili

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One of the counters in our kitchen happens to be copper-topped. When our pot of red lentil chili overflowed the crockpot earlier this week, it painted a beautiful pink and green splotch. If the counter could talk, it would start it’s first story with “once upon a time, Nick and Carry had a tasty dinner.”

11

01 2015

A pile of tile maintenance

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Each piece of blue tape is a small hole in the grout in our shower, waiting to be filled. Seeing these makes me very happy that my husband is OCD about tile maintenance. Once the grout cures, we’ll coat everything with sealer and it should be good to go!

10

01 2015