CrossFit Endurance: Pros and Cons

About eight months ago, I started a “self-experiment” with CrossFit Endurance. I was anxious to apply the strength gains promised by CrossFit to my sport of triathlon. I spent some time reading up on how the regimen worked, even consulting with some coaches as well as augmenting my own training with CrossFit WODs over the course of six months – most of the 2013 race season. In an average week, I would hit CrossFit three times, and swim, bike, and run twice each. I followed the scheme laid out in Power, Speed, Endurance by Brian Mackenzie as closely as able, while also working with a coach for workouts and programming help.

PSE cover CrossFit Endurance: Pros and Cons

Power, Speed, Endurance – the reference for CrossFit Endurance athletes.

After more than a year of formal CrossFit experience and several years doing it on my own, I was skeptical of whether or not the “general fitness” focus of CrossFit would really benefit me as a triathlete. (As Mark Rippetoe said in his recent blog, CrossFit’s more like “exercise” than “training” in that it doesn’t prepare you for any specific event or sport.) I had concerns over whether the unrelenting intensity of WODs would take away from my training on the bike, in the water, and on the road.

At the same time, I was bullish on the strength and speed work, and thought the focus on mobility exercises would benefit me. Like many endurance athletes, I spend less time on mobility (stretching, massage, range of motion work) than I should. CrossFit fits mobility into every workout since lack of mobility limits the ability to execute the skills required.

After more than six months working through the CrossFit Endurance regimen, I feel ready to lay out the pros and cons here so anyone considering it can make an informed decision whether or not it’s right for them. There are others besides those below, but these are the three biggest of each that I found:

Pros:

Improved strength. In the course of my training, I set PRs on my deadlift – cracking the 400lb barrier for the first time – back squat, front squat, and several other triathlon-applicable lifts. The focus on core strength three or four times per week helped, and it’s more clear to me now than ever before that core strength is key for everything from deadlifting to all three sports involved in triathlon. If your core can’t support the weight on your back, or in your hands, you’re not going to lift anything; your core provides the foundation off of which you push, pull, and lean when running and riding. I made significant gains across the board in both general and sport-specific strength.

Increased anaerobic capacity through metabolic conditioning WODs. Even early into my training, I noticed that my swim speed came back faster than my bike and my run. That’s unusual for me because I’m not a strong swimmer in general. Through the increased core and upper body strength from heavy lifting, and combined with the high-intensity metabolic conditioning, my body was prepared to swim well, and adapted accordingly when I started applying that fitness to my swimming.

Improved mobility. Not only does CrossFit more or less force you to mobilize before and after every WOD, the techniques I’ve learned in the 18 months actually working with great CrossFit coaches and mobility trainers have opened my eyes to relatively easy gains I can make. Combining the carved-out time for mobility with increased knowledge has improved my mobility and body awareness significantly. I’m much more conscious of what’s tight, and now I know how to fix it. Mackenzie’s book contains a fantastic section on mobility which teaches how to target your weaknesses (goats!) and specific exercises to correct them.

Cons:

“Acute overtraining”. Many intense WODs, even short ones (21-15-9 225# Deadlift/24″ Box Jump) can leave you wasted for the next day and detract from cycling and running, in particular. I tailored the WODs that I took on to those that would benefit my sport; I shied away from the long, soul-crushing WODs, particularly when I had hard runs or bike rides programmed later in the week. Even so, the intensity of many workouts often took a lot out of me, leaving me to tap deep reserves just to make it through interval work on the bike or run. My running never really came around until I cut CrossFit training out entirely near the end of my season.

Increased chance of injury. One of the common pitfalls cited by many critics of CrossFit, repeated heavy movements by less-skilled athletes can lead to injury. I think working with good coaches can help reduce this somewhat: they’ll watch you and keep your form tight; they also recognize when you need to scale back the workout and how you should do it. That said, if you are running, cycling, or swimming on excessively fatigued muscles, your form can fall apart and cause injury just as easily as a poorly executed overhead squat, and there’s probably no coach there to watch you run/bike/swim. I experienced this during a running interval workout when my core and hamstrings were already deeply fatigued. I overextended my stride seeking speed that wasn’t there that day, and strained a hamstring. (Note that this didn’t occur during a CrossFit workout, but was related to fatigue from CrossFit). As I’ve said before, injuries are at least as much the fault of the athlete as their program, but I would be lying if I said I didn’t think the repeated intensity and fatigue from my CrossFit workouts didn’t contribute to my running injury and subsequent setback.

Increased chance of chronic over-training. While CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance both encourage regular rest days, take a look at the sample program in the back of Power, Speed, Endurance, and you’ll see that the concept of periodized training (scheduling several days or weeks of reduced training intensity for rest, and cycling training intensity throughout the year) is not one that’s made it into their samples. This means that unless you’re experienced with endurance training and know your body very well, you’re probably not going to schedule enough rest. Eventually, that’s going to catch up with most athletes in the form of burnout or injury. As endurance athletes, we have a tendency to overtrain ingrained in us. CrossFit Endurance puts a lot of the burden of taking days off on the individual athlete, and most of us are going to choose to train and not take time off. Someone else is out there getting better, right? Well, not exactly. Rest is what makes us better, but most of us don’t learn that until we’ve been doing this for a few decades. So, this “con” is very much manageable if you’re disciplined at listening to your body or are working with a coach that understands the body’s need for periodization, but it’s a risk nonetheless.

So, those are the facts as I see them from my experience with CrossFit Endurance. Weigh them as you will and decide. What works for me may not work for you, and vice versa. In the near future, I’ll review Power, Speed, Endurance and give some thoughts on how athletes can incorporate CrossFit successfully into an endurance training regimen.

Do you have experience with a CrossFit Endurance training regimen? What were your pros and cons?

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