A Runner’s Introduction to CrossFit

Lavender

Courtney has written 14 posts on Salty Running.

I'm a single mother runner and subject-matter expert in multi-tasking from the Columbus, Ohio suburbs. Real food keeps me healthy, running keeps me sane, and CrossFit keeps me strong. Honestly, bacon is my favorite condiment, and I'm pretty weak from the waist up. I'm weird, but I'm cool with that.

Français : Force athlétique

How comfortable would you feel working out with this? (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As an athlete I’m a runner, first and foremost. I have a half-marathon, marathon and 76-mile relay already booked on my 2014 calendar. However, something has been nagging at me for a while as I pound out the miles on the gym treadmill. How fit am I? I can check off double-digit long runs, but I balk when I’m asked to help my boyfriend move a couch. Something isn’t right here.

In addition to going to the local gym and immediately jumping on the treadmill, I started looking at the “other” stuff us runners see in those places…you know, the machines and free-weights. But because I thrive on pre-written training plans that I like to follow to the letter, my walk through the weight room was just a detour back to the cardio equipment. I needed a better plan, so I did some research and found CrossFit.

What is CrossFit?

CrossFit is a trademarked name of a company whose founder invented the exercise program, which is aimed at total body fitness. CrossFit workouts target not just strength, but aerobic endurance and flexibility too.  It’s not just weight lifting or doing crazy pull-ups. The workouts consist of constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity. CrossFit gyms incorporate heavy lifting, gymnastics, and sprinting to engage fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscles – the muscles that propel a runner through a 100 meter dash or 100 miles. The goal is to get an individual fit on a broad spectrum, fit for any situation, thus the name “CrossFit.”

Runners, Don’t be Scared of CrossFit!

If you go to You Tube and search “CrossFit” you are going to get blown away by the results. You will see incredible athletes seemingly defy gravity with the amount and speed of their pull-ups, handstand walks and dead lifts. This may intimidate us runners. I know it kept me away for over 2 years. I can’t do a pull-up to save my life and I have a phobia of being upside-down. Did I mention I’m weak from the waist up? Don’t you have to bench-press your own weight before you can step into a gym like that? The response to all your reservations, my endurance friends, is NO. You will be pleasantly surprised that the CrossFit sport and community is incredibly easy to get into as long as you have the motivation, and it’s incredibly welcoming, just like us!

I’m weak (I’ll keep repeating this), so I was intimidated about throwing Olympic-lifting bars over my head on the first day. Any good CrossFit gym will encourage or require On-Ramp sessions where you are introduced to the major movements and workouts in a smaller class size. During this time, you will have time to learn proper form without all the heavy weight. I learned how to modify a push-up and a pull-up with exercise bands. Squee!! I can do this! (Check out my pics from my “at-home” gym)

Assisted pull-up with a medium-weight band.

Assisted pull-up with a medium-weight band.

Assisted pushup. I can do more reps with better form this way.

Assisted pushup. I can do more reps with better form this way.

Much like my Saturday morning group runs with MIT (Marathoners in Training), all CrossFit workouts are done as a group. A class will consist of all different fitness levels and age ranges. (No, it’s not packed with meat-heads downing protein shakes). During the 1-hour class, everyone is motivated to do their personal best, and minus the signs spouting that Chuck Norris Never Ran a Marathon, these workouts feel just like race day with the supportive crowd.

The Benefits of CrossFit

CrossFit demands and fosters mental strength: Just like a 3-hour long run prepares you for the mental and physical test of the marathon, a 10-25 minute WOD (Workout of the Day) makes you dig deep. My 5th set of box jumps felt like mile 13 of a marathon: “Are we done yet?!” Who thought jumping on a wooden box could be so hard?

CrossFit gyms encourage active recovery: You think runners are the only consumer of foam rollers? Think twice. Olympic lifters and crossfitters love them. I almost shrieked in excitement when I saw a whole pile of foam rollers, mobility balls and PVC pipes at my CrossFit box. Compression, foam rolling, and mobility exercises are essential for getting the most out of your lifts and for recovery. Our warm-ups consist of at least 8 minutes of rolling and stretching. Yays!

CrossFit helps you gain power: You want to get through a race and not feel beat up in the end? Do you want to gain strength, not sacrifice speed, perhaps even get faster, and recover quicker? Try CrossFit. I’m now testing muscles that I didn’t know I had. There are lumps on my arms that are starting to resemble biceps! My abs were screaming the first week and I hadn’t done a single crunch. Sneaky weighted squats…

The jury is still out whether CrossFit is beneficial for elite runners, but for the middle-of-the pack runners like me who has no intention of winning any major race, I’m looking forward to better over-all health and fitness. Cross-fit is the perfect change-of-pace (pun intended) for a person who likes structure, variety, and a good challenge.

One Big Caveat: Moderation during Race Training

Because CrossFit is high intensity, you need to be careful when adding it into a training schedule. Too much could leave you too tired for your weekly runs and your speed workouts could suffer. The key is finding the right balance. I’m currently experimenting, and have removed one day of intervals with a CrossFit workout instead of doing both on the same day and surround both my CrossFit workouts and my tempo/threshold run with recovery workouts. I’m only doing two CrossFit classes each week, one when I’m feeling fresh, and the second right after my long run, to force the other half of my body to work when the lower half is tired.

I hope you stay tuned. I’m using myself as your Salty test-dummy. My weekly training logs will include my running and CrossFit workouts.

We runners are not so different from those in the CrossFit community. Our training mantra is the same: Progress must be measurable, observable and repeatable. We also come together from various backgrounds and abilities and cheer each other on in our pursuits. So, if you are looking to add strength into your training plan, are taking a break to rehab an injury, or are looking for something to spice up your relationship with running, I encourage you to give CrossFit a try. You might just find a few runners there too (gasp!).

Are you a cross fitter/runner? What results have you had? What are your tips? I would love to hear from you and encourage you in your cross-training journeys!

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6 Responses to “A Runner’s Introduction to CrossFit”

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  1. I am a runner, and I usually cross-train by cycling and doing high intensity workout such as Insanity. I’ve never done Crossfit before, but I want to try it!

    • Lavender says:

      Jojo, I’ve also tried Insanity and it tipped the scale of my training plan. I had to stop because I was too exhausted. Because CrossFit isn’t high intensity “cardio”, I feel like I’m getting more benefits. I hope you try it!!

  2. Allspice Allspice says:

    Great post Lavender! We finally got a Crossfit gym here, but unfortunately I can’t begin to afford membership. A few years ago I found a Crossfit site online, and would do the posted WOD a few times a week at home. I don’t have all the necessary equipment, but I have enough to give it a pretty good go. Your post inspired me to get back to that more frequently. Strength training is so important for runners, and it sounds like Crossfit would be a fun and challenging way to incorporate it in our training.

    • Lavender says:

      That’s great! The great thing is that most CrossFit workouts don’t require much equipment. Find something heavy…I’ll hold my son while I squat! You mentioned the important part: any routine you do should have an element of fun. If it’s fun, you will keep doing it.

  3. Robyn says:

    I work with a trainer whose methods are influenced by CrossFit. Kettlebells and Olympic weightlifting have done great things for my core strength, something I definitely notice a few hours into a long run! I also get injured less often, I think because my hamstrings, glutes, and stabilizing muscles are in better shape now.

    Oh, and as a bonus, I look buff now! Abs and shoulders and things like that. Very exciting.

    I just wrote a blog entry about weightlifting and running here: http://thesethingshappentootherpeople.blogspot.com/2014/02/things-i-learned-while-weight-training.html

    • Lavender says:

      You have a great post, Robyn! I heard this same thing from another runner I met at my new gym last night. (told ya they exist). This is all very exciting :)

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