Monday, May 30, 2011

CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance - My Opinion

It has become really popular to bash CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance. To some extent, heavy criticism is the price of success, especially in the fitness world where professional jealousy and  rivalries seems to be a way of life. Also, it's very healthy to question fitness treads, many of which are not effective, and to prevent those that are effective from becoming too dogmatic. However, much of the criticism of CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance is based either on inaccurate information or a general misunderstanding of what they are about.

CrossFit
Let's start with CrossFit. Most of the criticism of CrossFit that I've seen is based largely on a general misunderstanding of what CrossFit is about. CrossFit is about GENERAL fitness not specific fitness. The goal of CrossFit is to develop athletes who are very fit in all areas fitness without any specialization, or in other words, the goal is to develop an athlete who is "a jack of all trades and the master of none".

I constantly read annoying statements like, "If CrossFit is so great, why are there no CrossFit athletes competing at the top levels of (fill in athletic activity here)". I also consistently read silly statements like, "No professional athlete would ever train like that".  My response is, "Yes, and that's the point. CrossFit is designed to develop general fitness, and not to develop top level competitors for sport x, y or z". If I'm in a bad mood, I usually follow my response with, "Please get a clue."

How well does CrossFit develop general Fitness? Well, in my experience, CrossFit does a great job of developing general fitness.  I'm not saying that CrossFit is perfect, and that there is no room for improvement. In fact, I think that there is a lot of room for improvement. Particularly in how they work with and develop beginners. However, that may be a topic for another day.

CrossFit Endurance

Now let's discuss CrossFit Endurance. This is an even more misunderstood than CrossFit, and it is far more controversial. CrossFit Endurance attempts to develop endurance athletes by first developing general fitness, running technique, and good dietary habits. After developing a generally fit and healthy athlete, they mostly do high-intensity low-volume training for their runs. The total running mileage for CFE training is roughly 1/3 of the total mileage of more traditional training programs.

In my opinion, many, maybe even most, runners would probably improve their running performance if they take up CrossFit Endurance for one or more of the following reasons.
  1. Most runners have severe fitness deficits that cannot be directly address by running, but are none-the-less preventing them from reaching their full potential as runners. Most runners only run, and do very little else. Of those who do cross train, most of them are not serious about their cross training activities, nor are they cross training in a way that compliments their running.
  2. Most runners have really bad technique. The vast majority of runners land on their heels. While that is not the only problem with the technique of most runners, it does mean that most runner's need improvement in this area.
  3. Most runners have bad dietary habits. Most runner's think they need to eat a lot of grain based carbohydrates and even sugar. Unfortunately high grain and sugar diets cannot be reconciled with our evolutionary heritage, and the science that has been done well and objectively is clearly indicating that we are not meant to eat grains or sugar.
  4. Most runners only do slow running over medium to long distances and never develop a base level of speed.
Without a doubt, there are many open questions about CrossFit Endurance. Let's assume that a group of runners already have good technique, a good diet, and no severe fitness deficits. How then would the CFE's program of high intensity low mileage training stack up to traditional high mileage training consisting of only about 10 percent speed work? I don't have the answer; this has yet to be studied scientifically in the context of a full CFE program. However, here are the questions I have, and that I would like to see future research address.

  1. Can general fitness activities be used as a substitute for high mileage low intensity workouts?
  2. If CFE workouts can be substituted for traditional training, will it work for everyone? 
  3. If not, is there a physiological profile for those who will benefit more from CFE or traditional training methods?
  4. Are CFE training methods better for less advance runners, and less effective for more advanced runners?
 Here are my opinions on these questions.

  1. Can general fitness activities be substituted for low intensity mileage? Yes. If the runner has poor levels general fitness. However, once those deficits have been address, I think the answer is usually no, but sometimes yes.
  2. Can CFE workouts work for everyone? I don't think so. I think they will work better for a subset of well-trained runners, and for those who have problems with general fitness, diet and running technique. 
  3. Is there a physiological profile for people who benefit more one form of training or the other? I think that there probably is. Besides novice runners, who have many basic issues to address, I think there is a subset of runners who do not respond well to traditional training methods, and who probably would respond better to CFE methods.
  4. Are CFE training methods better for less advance runners, and less effective for more advanced runners? I think that this is generally true. Traditional methods either do not address or do not address well the development of general fitness, the development of  a base level of speed, the development of running technique, or of the adoption of good dietary habits. CFE does address all of these, and it addresses them well. However, once they have been addressed, I think that most runners will do better with more traditional training methods, as long as they maintain a base of general fitness, a good diet, and good technique.
CrossFit Endurance has a lot of detractors. CFE also has a lot of people who swear by it, and they seem to be anywhere from complete novices to successful endurance athletes who have trained for years using more traditional methods. Is it more effective than traditional training methods? It depends. I doubt that it will become the new standard for training elite endurance athletes, but I definitely do think it has important place for the training of non-elite athletes.

That's my opinion on CF and CFE, at least until there are some well designed scientific studies to indicate differently.

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