Five Ways CrossFit Can Make You a Better Runner

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I’ve been a runner and triathlete since 1983 (even before if you count junior high and high school track). Over the last year and a half I’ve been training at CrossFit gyms and looking into CrossFit Endurance. In talking with other runners and in recently reading Jeff Gaudette’s article, “Can CrossFit Make You A Better Runner?” I felt like sharing what I feel CrossFit may have to offer runners and triathletes.

1. Hip strength. Consider the 2009 article in Running Times Magazine, “Do Weak Hips Cause Pronation? New research suggests weak hips are behind injuries throughout the body.” What’s important about the new research referred to in this story is that it’s redirecting our attention from what has long been thought of as the culprit behind most running injuries—feet/shoes/lack of orthotics—to weak hips. One of the principles behind the exercises and combinations of exercises used in CrossFit is the development of core strength and accessing the most powerful muscles of the body in an efficient way, with the power originating in the hips or the shoulders and flowing outward to the extremities. In other words, if you’re a runner who is a heel striker and relying way too much on your hip flexors to power locomotion than the glutes and the hamstrings, you’re like going to have trouble. As RT pointed out in their 2009 story, research at the University of Wisconsin demonstrated that strengthening the hips had potent results: “In addition to showing a predictable increase in hip strength at the end of the program, the runners also exhibited significantly less pronation (measured by how far the heel collapsed inwards). Most impressive, the participants experienced 57 percent less pronation at the ankle joint.” The compound-movement exercises that are the bedrock of CrossFit (burpees, dead lifts, squats, overhead squats, etc) don’t mess around when it comes to improving all the muscles surrounding the trunk, including the hips.

2. Improving running technique.  Some runners, if not many runners, pay little attention to the mechanics of movement. Poor technique can lead to an overall drain on power and speed as well as injuries. With the rise of the Pose Method, Chi Running and all other form/stride/mechanics programs—brought to light by the success of Chris MacDougall’s best-selling “Born to Run”—the mechanics of how we run has become a front-burner discussion topic. In addition to being nagged by CrossFit coaches on a daily basis on how to perform movements in the gym properly, the techniques and drills articulated by Dr. Nicolas Romanov (creator of the Pose Method) are routinely taught at many CrossFit gyms and at CrossFit Endurance and CrossFit Running seminars.

3. An emphasis on nutrition. As some runners (if not many) fail to work on form and technique, the same could be said for good nutrition habits. I’ve certainly been guilty of this in the past, adopting the attitude, “As long as I run a lot I can eat what I want and as much as I want.” As logic would suggest, this can be a perilous approach to food intake. A few months ago I interviewed University of Texas physiologist, John Ivy, PH D–co-author of the book, “Nutrient Timing: The Future of Sports Nutrition,” and he mentioned a study that showed that if Masters-age distance runners with poor diets were stopped from getting in their daily run that in a matter of days they began showing signs for having diabetes. Ivy told me iit shocked him how quickly the disease began to be expressed in the test subjects—and that it seemed as though running seemed to keep Type 2 diabetes at bay but  the implication was that their health was not as good as one would assume a runner’s to be. Prevention of the inflammation that leads to hyperinsulinemia (precursor to type 2 diabetes) is one of the main thrusts of CrossFit attention on nutrition. And as I found, CrossFit gyms are just as much about coaching their athletes in what to eat as well as how to train—the value being both in overall health but also in unleashing athletic performance.

4. CrossFit can be customized to improve your running. For good reason, there’s a perception that the purpose of CrossFit is to build powerful athletes that look more like decathletes than 10,000-meter runners. Watch five minutes of the CrossFit Games and you’ll see why this perception exists. Hence, runners may think walking into a CrossFit gym will harm their running through the building of sheer bulk. As I discussed once with Paul Estrada, the head-coach and co-owner of CrossFit Elysium in San Diego once, the fact is that at a good CrossFit gym you can talk about what your goals are with the coaching staff and they’ll help you get there within the program. Some CrossFit gyms even have CrossFit Endurance classes and programs. The point here is that by communicating with the coaching staff you can style both the training and nutrition in the direction of your athletic goals.

5. Enhance recovery. Go to a CrossFit affiliate and it’s not unlikely you’ll hear a reference to the Mobility WOD–Kelly Starrett’s video blog–a sort of ongoing lecture and lab series on how to enable performance, fix issues and recover from hard training. Like nutrition, some (if not many) civilian runners don’t pay consistent attention to this type of ancillary work that may go a lot farther in terms of promoting top performance than simply running more miles.

T.J. Murphy is a veteran journalist, CrossFitter, and author of the upcoming book Inside the Box: How CrossFit® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body.