Box Jumps for Runners

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Hi T.J. I just tweeted you. I picked up ur book b/c I am relatively new to Crossfit. I was the runner fro 28 years (no marathons, abt 25 miles/wk but it was a passion. Then the knees got in the way, the lower back. I read ur book b/c I wanted to see how someone who was even worse of than me in the knee dept. dealt with crossfit & the box jumps, etc and never got to find out. Mind if I ask you what is going on there? I loved the book and learned so much. Wish I’d read it before I started, would’ve saved me a few very down nights b/c I felt so unbelievably uncool and scared I would injure myself. Thanks.


One of the things I’ve noticed at the CrossFit gyms I’ve visited in the past year is that runners like you and I are not alone—there seems to be a growing number of us becoming interested in CrossFit because of chronic injuries. Matter of fact, just yesterday I did a workout at San Francisco CrossFit and a friend of mine from the Golden Gate Triathlon Club, Lara Zaman, was training with their Endurance group, led by coach (and mountain biker) Nate Helming. Lara had read the book too and basically said, “I went through almost the exact same thing you did.”

Box jumps: I remember the first time I was being taught a box jump at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. I think the first box put in front of me was a 20-inch box. I shook my head at the coach and said, “I’m sorry, but that just isn’t going to happen.” He eventually placed a 12-inch box in front of me and after working up courage (it took me a while) I was able to jump onto it. I really couldn’t imagine going up even another two or three inches and couldn’t imagine ever improving at it.

I don’t know why this is but distance runners in general–unless they’ve been training for it–have simply sacrificed the essential athletic ability for a vertical leap. In my 20s when I was my best as a marathoner, I remember realizing how little of my fitness transferred to a basketball court when I tried to join some friends for a pick-up game. Although I had played in grade school, I remember how I felt like the last thing I wanted to do was make any sort of cut on the basketball court. And I couldn’t jump at all. What I could do was run straight for a very long time.

About two months ago, at the age of 48, and out of the smoking ruins of the complete breakdown I described in the book, I went to a CrossFit class at United Barbell in downtown San Francisco and the first piece of the workout was a max height box jump. I jumped onto a 30-inch box that day. (others in the class were well over 40 inches. I recall a couple of the athletes over 50 inches). In workouts over the past year, I use a 20 or 24 inch box for the multiple reps required.

I’ve been astonished that this was possible, of course. But there was a similar path in a lot of the essential movements at a CrossFit gym—the overhead squat, rope climbs, pull-ups and the Olympic lifts. For me it was all about starting with the bare minimum and just going back to the gym four or five days a week. The progress came a lot faster than I ever would have imagined it. Box jumps included. It seems like the athletic capacity was dormant and simply needed to be woken up a bit.

The progress is not unlike the progress that is made in pure distance running: You put in a steady amount of work, increasing the amount of speed bit by bit, and the body responds by adapting and getting better.

But as far as bad knees and box jumps, if I’m understanding your question, what’s the right approach for a runner? The best advice I have to offer is to talk frankly with the coach about what you can do, what your injuries are, and find out where you should start. A good coach will scale the workout to a point where it’s going to not only be safe but extra safe, and then as the coach watches you train over the next month or so, they’ll gradually increase the level of the workouts.

My experience was that as I developed and applied correct movement patterns and supplanted the motor patterns that were constantly shredding the soft tissues of my knees, the pain and trouble went away. But as any fitness writer would say, if you have pain, it’s best to check with a doctor first.

I would also direct you to the Mobility program by Kelly Starrett, DPT. In the search box put terms like “knee problems” and “running” to get some great video blogs on how to understand and address some of the things you might be dealing with.

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.