Sensible Crossfit for Endurance Athletes.
Alan Couzens, MS (Sports Science)
Dec 10th, 2014
This past weekend, Endurance Corner hosted our annual coaches clinic. I love these opportunities to get coaches together to learn. While I attend these clinics as a presenter, I always feel I learn far more than I teach. For whatever reason, there is always a great variety in coaches that attend, both in the ‘way’ that they coach and the populations being coached. It becomes clear to me, after spending some time with these people just how specialized my niche is. It’s a good wake up call that there is a whole world of different athletic and coaching perspectives out there and that I will become a better coach by looking beyond my little, specialized, very homogenous world.
That long winded ramble, leads me to one of the conversations that took place this weekend on the merits of Crossfit Endurance. Crossfit Endurance is the endurance athlete ‘arm’ of CrossFit that deals with using crossfit training methodology to prepare endurance athletes.
I have a love-hate relationship with the Crossfit idea that comes down to one thing: Despite the fact that Crossfit prides itself on variety, it is very one sided when it comes to energy system development: Everything is done hard, i.e. with a large anaerobic component.
The 'love' part comes from the fact that I firmly believe that variety in movement patterns and force demands is something that is missing from Western sports on the whole. Early specialization is rife and it leads to unbalanced, fragile athletes. In this regard, we could learn a lot from just how literally the Eastern Bloc countries interpreted "General Preparation" for their athletes. I've written more on that here. Crossfit style training, fits the bill here in its emphasis on non-specialization.
However, Crossfit Endurance, like most popular fitness systems suffers from one weakness (that is also its commercial strength). Despite priding itself on being ‘hardcore’, when you strip away all the hype, fundamentally, it is another ‘seven minute abs’ shortcut philosophy: "We’ll make you a top triathlete in only x number of hours per week." This neglects the reality that is endurance sport.
Endurance – the ability to produce a relatively high level of output over a prolonged period of time.
You don’t ‘get good’ without practicing ‘over a prolonged period of time’. Athletes at the top of their field know this to be the case for swim, bike, run and yet are often susceptible to confusion on the strength side of things. I want to attempt to clear that up with this post.
So, let's delve into the pro’s & con's of a Crossfit-like strength regimen for the endurance athlete...
- Sufficient force demands to elicit some level of hypertrophy or, at the very least, maintain sufficient muscle mass for the endurance athlete. I talked about the importance of this for athletes participating in an inherently catabolic sport here
- Full range of motion movements: Most of our work as triathletes is done in sub-optimal positions where we are completing muscle contraction after muscle contraction with our muscles in a perpetually shortened state. This leads to an over-specialization that can result in serious postural dysfunction and can lead an athlete very susceptible to injury.
- Variety in planes of motion: Triathlon is a sagittal plane sport leading to over-development of those muscles that move us forward and underdevelopment of those crucial stabilizing muscles that move us (or prevent us from excessively moving) up, side to side and backwards. As these muscles whittle away triathletes become very good at developing funky compensations that still allow them to swim, bike, run for a period but ultimately, lead to a ‘leaning tower of Pisa’ foundation that is a sure fire route to decreased economy and injury.
- Crossfit workouts utilize ‘big muscle’ integrated movements that (providing they are performed at the right intensity) elicit sufficient O2/metabolic demand to improve aerobic function across the whole body.
- Some movements (especially those borrowed from Olympic lifting) put the athlete under significant injury risk when quickly decelerating a load.
- The overall intensity of typical cross-fit training is simply too high to allow sustainable progress over the long term.
The last of these points is not news to the mainstream endurance community. As soon as ‘year round training’ became 'the norm', swimmers and track coaches discovered that, even for athletes whose events were in the 1-4 minute range, the amount of specific work that they were able to accomplish late in the season was directly proportionate to the low intensity ‘base’ that they built and so coaches became very cautious with how much max intensity work they included in their athletes programs and where it was placed. Crossfit is the equivalent of an elite 800m runner ‘training’ by running 1 or 2 x 800’s ALL OUT on 3 days out of 4. No serious endurance athlete trains like this.
Recent studies (e.g. Seiler et al., 2006; Neal et al., 2013) have validated this and found that the optimal composition of endurance training, keeps coming back to the golden ratio of 80:20, i.e. 80% of your training should be done at a very low intensity, 20% of your training should be done at a high (race pace) intensity and little to no training should be done in those middle ‘grey zones’. The intelligent endurance athlete who is not looking for ‘shortcuts’ will apply this same sensible philosophy to his /her strength training.... just as elite lifters do....
Kettlebell Czar, Pavel Tsatsouline is famous for epitomizing this concept as ‘Easy Strength’, summarized as - "the athlete should complete as much work as possible while remaining as fresh as possible". By keeping individual sets ‘easy’,i.e. submaximal and including rest intervals throughout the workout, the athlete is able to rack up a lot of load! An example of this concept from his ‘Naked Warrior’ book…
“If you want to get good at pullups, why not try to do...a lot of pullups? Just a couple of months earlier, I had put my father-in-law, Roger Antonson, incidentally an ex-Marine, on a program that required him to do an easy 5 chins every time he went down to his basement. Each day, he would total between 25 and a 100 chinups, hardly breaking a sweat….”
In a very rare while, the athlete will test themselves with a maximal effort set but these are the (20%) exceptions, not the (Crossfit) rule!
This ‘style’ of strength training is not limited to kettlebells and bodyweight exercises. Bulgarian Olympic lifters are famous for racking up 1600+hrs of strength training per training year. They can only do this by keeping sets submaximal & breaking the work into short 'intervals'. If this style of strength training is good enough for athletes whose event lasts less than 1s then the sense that it makes for endurance athletes shouldn’t require further explanation!
So, let’s illustrate just what the details of a 'sensible' vs ‘dumb’ early season strength session for an endurance athlete would look like. Let’s use a very familiar metric to the endurance crew – power.
To help to put strength training intensity into perspective, I've built a strength 'power meter' below. If you enter in your height, weight and the exercise details of your workout, it will spit out the power stats from your workout.
Of course, I'm making some assumptions here about relative limb lengths based on height - if you're built like an Orangutan the calcs may be a bit off. I'm also making some assumptions on range of motion, i.e. I'm assuming that you're not a chronic 'half-repper'. But as someone who takes their training & their health seriously, I know you wouldn't do that, so on to the calc...
- For bike and row erg, enter watts in 'load' column and second duration of the interval in the 'reps' column. No tempo required.
- For run, enter speed in km/h in 'load' column and interval duration in the 'reps' column.
- For bodyweight exercise, don't add any load in the load column unless you're adding load in addition to bodyweight, e.g. hanging weight from a belt on a pull up
Now that we have a tool to delve a little deeper into the energetics of a strength workout, let's look at the difference between a 'dumb' and a 'sensible' strength session for an endurance athlete
Dumb (100% max) Crossfit 'WOD':
A typical Crossfit “Workout of the day” – Fran:
21-15-9 reps for -- 95lb (43kg) Thrusters + (kipping) Pull Ups
done as fast as possible, i.e. for time.
A ‘good’ time, according to www.myfrantime.com is in the range of 5:00, i.e. a tempo of ~1 rep every 3s. Even with a short warm up/cooldown, it’s easy to see why the appeal factor of something like this could seriously challenge 7 minute abs!
So, why does this fall in the dumb category? In the context of my calculator, let's look at it in terms we understand - power: 45 reps of Thrusters and Pull Ups in 5 minutes (~3s/rep), for a 75 kg athlete, works out to over 400W of output!
I do use a session very similar to this with my athletes, however it’s a test that I will include perhaps 2 to 3 times over the course of a year, not a workout that I include every day! How do the guys who score best on this test prepare for it? By repeating the above as often as possible? No. By developing their aerobic engine so that when they ‘go for it’ their body is producing less lactate for any given power output and so the maximal power that they can hold for any output is increased. The alternative – repeating the specifics of the test to drive up the maximal lactate that the athlete can handle works…..for about 8 weeks of ‘sharpening’ before the athlete plateaus &, if continued, runs into a nasty bout of overtraining. I know this from experience!
How would I train an athlete that wanted to nail a 5 minute test like ‘Fran’? Assuming that Fran is approximately a VO2max output (of 5min duration), 80% of the work would be at ~60% of this output. In our terms Easy-Steady, or Zone 1 – 2.
Sensible (60% max) training session:
For an athlete with a max of 400W output for 5min, the bulk of training should be at ~60% of that or, in this case, 240W. Playing around with our calculator, we might come up with something like this...
5min Treadmill Run build from 8-12km/h
30s kipping pull up @ target effort on the 'up' but with a controlled descent - 5s tempo = 265W
90s easy bike recovery @ 200W
30s thruster at > target effort - 450W
90s very easy recovery row @ 150W
60kg/12 Front Squat at controlled tempo (5s) = 170W
2min Endurance Bike @ 240W
6 Strict Pull Ups @ 5s/rep = 240W
2min Endurance Bike @ 270W
30kg/12 Strict Military Press = 100W
2min Endurance Bike @ 300W
5min Easy Bike Cooldown @ 200W
2x thru equals 60 minutes of continuous work of ~240W average, right in range of the rest of our endurance training and right around our target 60% max
With the calculator above, you can come up with an infinite number of fun, strength-focused, workouts that still adhere to the physiological objectives of endurance training! You can also find plenty of ideas on the Crossfit website www.crossfit.com As I said above, I am not bashing Crossfit as a whole, there is a lot of good in their concept of multi-lateral preparation. I am merely encouraging you, especially as an endurance athlete, to apply that same principle of variety to the intensity of the workouts:
The message for the serious endurance athlete is simple: Do your WOD's but don't do them all out. Keep control of the movements and keep control of your blood lactate, by sticking to your 'power zones' just as you would for your swim/bike/run training!
At this submaximal intensity, a serious Crossfit athlete would find themselves pleasantly surprised at their ability to string together 10 or more sessions per week & when they did throw in a true test workout, they would also be pleasantly surprised by their enhanced recovery abilities.
At this level of output, the serious endurance athlete will be performing enough work to maintain the muscle mass levels typical of high performers in the sport, he/she won't negatively affect swim/bike/run volume (in fact, the whole body aerobic fitness will lead to improved recovery abilities!) &, perhaps most importantly, injury risk won't go up by a factor of 51% (Feito, 2014) but will actually be reduced with the increased range of motion, muscle balance and durability you create!
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