10 Tips for Runners Making the Jump to CrossFit

There are runners who will never go near a CrossFit gym. However, I’m convinced there are a number of runners in the world who, like me, have either become so bogged down with injuries or so annoyed with long periods of no improvement that the idea of shaking things up becomes very appealing. I doubt there are few runners out there more stubborn than I was about making a change. After my foray into the CrossFit world that allowed me to become healthy and fit again, to rid myself of what seemed to be a permanent limp and to be able to run—I looked back and realized that I’d spent the better part of the last 14 years mired in some overuse injury from running. And part of the price I paid for being on the sidelines so much was weight gain, poor overall health and the low-grade depression that results from not getting a daily hit of endorphin.

A CrossFit Endurance workshop at the Reebok CrossFit Games.

So for those runners out there that for those types of reasons (or other reasons) who are seriously considering trying out CrossFit, I jotted down a few of the bits of advice developed from my giving it a go.

  1. Know your advantages and disadvantages. I’m just speaking from my own experience here—and there are a lot of variables surrounding this tip (age, injuries, flexibility, how many miles you have on the odometer as a runner, overall athletic background)—but I know that for me I had to confront a number of ego-destructing weaknesses in joining CrossFit. The deal is that the average distance runner going into a CrossFit box has both advantages and disadvantages compared to others starting the program. On the plus side are the following: the discipline to show up consistently, the ability to handle if not appreciate severe workout discomfort (if the runner’s experience has included interval workouts, tempo runs, races, etc), being goal driven and a developed aerobic system.  Disadvantages include (at least) the following: tight hamstrings, tight back, various hot spots of chronic muscle tears, a variety of muscular imbalances, a shocking lack of explosive power (on some level the capacity for a distance runner to perform a box jump has long ago been traded in for the narrow-band muscular efficiency to go on for miles and miles and miles), and—as it was for me—musculoskeletal imbalances that had me walking a bit crooked throughout my normal day. Other common disadvantages: the lack of core strength, upper body strength, shoulder flexibility. The good news here is that CrossFit will directly address these weaknesses, starting with your first workout. And speaking again from my experience, I was surprised at how fast I responded to the training, even while being well into my 40s. The point? Don’t let your ego get in the way of easing gently into the program. There’s a transition for sure.
  2. Prepare for the Pose Method running technique. CrossFit workouts do include running. Usually this means 400 or 800 meter runs, but sometimes longer runs appear as the workout of the day on the CrossFit.com main site. I’ve seen 5ks, 10ks and even a triathlon appear (in fact, a triathlon was part of last month’s Reebok CrossFit Games). CrossFit—and this certainly varies gym to gym—typically lines itself up with the Pose Running Method and the CrossFit Endurance models of training. Go to a CrossFit Endurance seminar and you’ll spend significant time learning drills essential to the Pose Method of running. One thing I suggest to runners jumping into CrossFit and/or CrossFit Endurance—prepare your calf muscles beforehand for the stress that the Pose Method shifts to the them. I know in my first go around with the Pose Drills, after about three weeks of them when it was all starting to catch on, I strained my Achilles tendon. As I understand it, dinging the Achilles tendon is not uncommon for those new to the Pose drills. So if you have some Achilles tendon problems in your history as a runner (and that means just about all runners) maybe chat with the coaches at your box about how to strengthen your feet and your lower legs. And sure to check out www.mobilitywod.com for advice on this very subject. Here’s a sample video blog the Achilles.
  3. If you’re joining a CrossFit gym, open up a dialogue with the coaches. One of the central criticisms of CrossFit is the expense. Compared to the larger commercial gyms that charge as little as $25 per month (or maybe less), a CrossFit gym generally costs over $100 per month and sometimes well over $100 per month or more than $200 per month (location seems to have a lot to do with this). The rationale is that you’re paying for the coaching. So: My advice is to shop around for the best CrossFit gym (which generally means the coaches are really good) and get your money’s worth by listening to what they say–most importantly in regards to good technique with the myriad movements and exercises thrown at you.  Pick their brains. They love to work with the super motivated. The better your technique the more you’ll get out it in terms of true core strength and conditioning. Talk to the coaches about your goals, health, fitness, running and otherwise and let them guide you into getting the most out of your membership. You’ll get your money’s worth and then some.

    CrossFit Cedar Rapids in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, after a long Saturday morning workout that most definitely worked your stamina and cardiovascular endurance.
  4. Learn to take care of your hands. Before CrossFit, I do indeed recall doing some pull-ups here and there over the years. I remember the President’s Physical Fitness Challenge (circa 4th through 6th grade) and doing pull-ups then (was it six or so I seem to recall to get the badge?). Certain CrossFit moves, like pull-ups and kettle bell swings, really beat the hell out of your hands and if you fail to perform maintenance on them the pain can drive you nuts. Washing your hands with soap and warm water after high-friction workouts can help. So does hand lotion and filing down calluses. Good topic to bring up with your coach if you experience what I did: By the end of my first two weeks in CrossFit my hands were ridden with painful, torn calluses. If I had done a better job of taking care of them I could have minimized the damage.
  5. Invest in recovery/restoration equipment. I now stand convinced a runner should be doing have this stuff anyway, CrossFit or no CrossFit. Lacrosse balls, foam rollers, compression tights, the Massage Stick, etc. Kelly Starrett (the MobilityWOD) told me when I first visited San Francisco CrossFit for a physical therapy appointment that the trick was to build “mobility” work into my day. Take a couple of minutes every couple of hours to stretch or to take a lacrosse ball and grind it into my calf or my feet. This is truly critical if you sit at a desk all day. (Ultrarunner Dean Karnazes told me that one of his secrets of durability is that he has a “standing desk”—he works on the computer from a standing position rather than in a chair. He is consciously avoiding “death by chair” as Starrett puts it.)
  6. Run less. One of the foundations that Brian MacKenzie’s CrossFit Endurance is built on is that you can cut down on overall mileage (and ultimately will have to because of the levels of high stress) because of the stamina/endurance transfer that comes through the met-con aspect of four CrossFit workouts per week. In the running workouts MacKenzie would have you do you focus on high-quality interval and tempo work with an equal amount of focus in form and technique. Additional cardiovascular benefits come from the metabolic conditioning segments of CrossFit workouts. Rather than just plodding out a high-mileage week, MacKenzie has you rely on the cardio-blasting effects of (for example) a workout combining rowing, burpees, deadlifts and such. This may be the most controversial aspect of MacKenzie’s approach. In my personal experiments with this idea of transfer I found it to work. I plan on spending the next year seeing how much this will allow me to accomplish. The key advice I have for a runner wanting to migrate into a CrossFit-based program is to try it out and see for yourself with a 10-week test of sorts. You can’t lose if you do it in the off-season. I found that even with extremely limited running over a long period of time the stamina work from CrossFit allowed me to hold a surprisingly fast tempo pace. I thought for sure (because I had done so little running) I was going to blow up early but didn’t. I held a faster pace than I even remotely imagined I was going to be able to do.
  7. Warm-up before and stretch thoroughly after a CrossFit workout. I am jealous of those who drop into the CrossFit box a minute before the workout starts and leave the instant it’s over, with no extra warmup and no stretching afterward. And then they show up the next day as fresh as a daisy. I realized in my first few months at CrossFit Elysium that the only way I was going to be recovered enough to do four or five CrossFit workouts per week was to come early to class and stay for 15 minutes after. The long warmup allowed me to loosen up and prepare for the hard work of the class and the stretching accelerated my recovery. When I don’t do those things it’s hard for me to go to CrossFit more than two days in a row. I can be wrecked. Again, an individual matter but it’s my gut feeling that runners will need this sort of extra credit to get the best value of CrossFit training.
  8. Hydrate with purpose. CrossFit coaches will usually bug you about drinking lots of water throughout the day. This is a recovery and high-performance thing. Check out this video for the CrossFit Endurance thoughts connecting hydration and performance.
  9. Go to a CrossFit Endurance seminar. I think every runner I know (whether they wish to incorporate CrossFit into their training or not) would benefit from a CFE seminar. It’s two days to learn about ideas, techniques and programming that are at the forefront of several of the debates that the “Born to Run” craze seemed to ignite. We know that more elite distance runners are using relatively radical new forms of ancillary strength and conditioning programs. We know that footwear and running technique are center to a stormy debate of their own. The debate between low-carb/Paleo-style diets versus traditional high-carb fueling are yet another heated converstation, put on the front-burner by Tim Olson’s record-setting win (14 hours, 46 minutes and 44 seconds) at the Western States 100 this past June. These are just some of the subjects that are explored (with broad Q and A sessions) at a CFE seminar. I went to it because the traditional methods that I had long adhered to were just leaving me trapped in the injury rut. I could no longer defend their efficacy. You’ll walk out with a plan to combine CrossFit and running (or triathlon) and with a set of new ideas to explore. If you’re stuck on the injury mill as I was, or wanting to smash through a plateau, it’s a great place to get a fresh start.

    CrossFit will expose runners to new movements that they probably never thought they could do—movements that can develop core strength, balance and restore musculoskeletal integrity. Like handstands and handstand pushups.
  10. Have fun with it. As much as I had to almost be dragged into CrossFit through sheer agonizing frustration I immediately wondered what I had been so fussy about. The workouts are challenging, always changing and definitely effective. It’s fun. And I’m convinced that runners, even if it’s just about shifting gears in the off-season to overhaul the body and mind by doing something different, will be able to get a lot out of it.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.