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.
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