General Fitness Versus Specific? A Critical Question

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The foundational CrossFit program, which is what you commit yourself to when you join a CrossFit affiliate and start going regularly, is not the way to go after a sub 4-minute mile or a sub 2:10 marathon. The basic program is meant to generate a broad capacity for fitness over a wide variety of athletic challenges. Come up with, for example, 20 athletic contests from gymnastics to weightlifting to football to running to swimming to anything else you can think of and have an elite runner compete against a top CrossFitter (or even your above average CrossFitter. If not just an average CrossFitter) and while the runner will win the running contests for sure the CrossFit athlete will win everything else. And—the CrossFit athlete will at least finish the running races. Some might actually be pretty good. But the runner may not even be able to start a number of the other contests (my research for supporting this position pretty much begins and ends with me and observations of my running buddies. We could run in a straight line a long ways at pretty good speed but don’t ask us to jump or throw or run sideways or any of that).

So the deal is that the elite runner in his or her training (and he or she was happy to do this) sacrificed general fitness to be supremely good at one thing. As Glassman said in his lectures when he was still teaching coaching certifications, a powerlifter who can squat 800 pounds is not going to be able to run fast and reciprocally a sub-4 minute runner is not going to be able to squat 800 pounds. It doesn’t work this way. A CrossFitter is not going to be able to be world class at either the mile or the squat, but he or she is going to be able to do both better than most and a whole bunch of other things to. The mantra in CrossFit is to train for the “Unknown and the Unknowable”–meaning that the CrossFit conditioning program is most perfectly tuned for the soldier charging into battle or a firefighter to a burning skyscraper, he or she needing to bring to the fight a wide range of capacities in order to take on whatever new challenge or combination of challenges the situation might throw at them. This of course is the opposite of a marathoner toeing the line for a race on a specific day that the last six months have been building up to. This all sort of chimes into the Principle of Specificity, which is what Gaudette’s article is all about.

But a question that Gaudette doesn’t dig into. How many of us should be sacrificing so much general fitness to improve in one particular fitness specialty? What’s the benefit and what’s the cost?

In my case, I look back at all that work I did to get to a 2:38 marathon and my 83rd place finish. I was 158 pounds, six-foot-tall and in terms of endurance running in the best shape of my life. But I recall the next year after that race: it was a minefield of injuries. And I’d have to say that between 1992 and 2010, it was all a minefield of injuries. I implemented the things Gaudette talks about–icing, stretching, physical therapy, core strength, etc., to marginal effect. I did what a certain percentage of other injury-exhausted runners do–I started to do triathlons with the hope that the cross-training thing would alleviate the problem. The injured runner is willing to do just about anything to get back on the road.

And a note on the exception for “the injury-prone” that Gaudette makes. I’m certainly one of those. But honestly—how many runners are lucky enough to be excluded from that club? Just because it’s your day job doesn’t mean your exempt. In fact, churning through 100-140 miles per week every week is a high-wire act. American running fans have for years followed to Dathan Ritzenheim. Great guy, great American runner, and more often than not sidelined with an injury and doing most of his mileage on an anti-gravity treadmill. Or consider the recent problems suffered by American Chris Solinsky, the first non-African to break through the 27-minute barrier in the 10k–(earning him the American record in his debut at the distance) who watched the Olympic Trials from the stands this past June. His story caught the eye of the Wall Street Journal:

His hamstrings had been giving him problems for months, and then he tripped over his dog, Tucker, as he walked down some stairs. He felt a pop — straight off the pelvic bone. Surgeons needed four titanium screws to reattach the muscle. That same day, once the haze of medication wore off, Solinsky learned that his American record had been broken by Galen Rupp. “Just an awesome, awesome day,” Solinsky said.

Things get pretty bleak for the injured citizen runner as well. In the last 10 years I suffered periods of overall decline in health and happiness. I went through streaks of depression and weight gain. My back would go out from time to time and the problem would last for one or two weeks.  Even when my back problems were held at bay, I spent the first 15 minutes every morning limping around my house trying to do the basic things, all with pain and lack of mobility. I figured it was all a part of the deal with the years I ran 60 miles a week and more (up to 100). I had given up part of my long term health for short-term performance gain.

I’m not the only one. Go to the Boston Marathon and get a good look at the older runners, those who make it a mission to qualify every year, year after year. Walk behind them a while at the expo. Notice how crooked they look. Get a real grasp of their health. Look at their skin. Look at the amount of muscle mass. I recall talking with one 60-something runner a few years back and he told me how astounded he was at how much muscle loss he had experienced after he’d turned 50. The ethos of distance runner approves of the idea of being as thin as possible in order to be as fleet as possible, but this gentleman was telling me that he was no longer able to run because he was literally becoming just skin and bones.

As Christopher McDougal reported in “Born to Run,” about 3 out of every 4 runners are stricken with an injury every year. There’s little doubt in my mind that one of the reasons “Born to Run” became a bestseller has been this pent up anger with the high injury rate running incurs. So in regard to Gaudette’s exception of “injury-prone runners,” I’m not sure how much of an audience he has to speak to when he’s talking about improving your running.

So that’s the first thing I believe needs to be drawn into the discussion that Gaudette has included himself into. If his advice is only for runners who: 1) improvement in running performance is the number one goal of training and 2) are not injury prone then we have to consider how narrow the audience this might be. Within the article Gaudette states that CrossFit (which he pools in with “other wildly popular programs popping up all over the place these days”—a reference think he might want to strain through the principle of specificity to persuade me, the reader, that he actually knows what CrossFit is) includes exercises that “may help you look better at the beach, but they’re not important to running fast.”

Not important to running fast? I think there’s plenty of room for discussion on this one. Here, for example, are some common exercises employed in CrossFit workouts: squats, burpees, box jumps, lunges and power cleans. There are countless more, but if you join a CrossFit gym like I did, you will probably do each of those within the first few weeks within what’s called a “metabolic conditioning” workout, or met-con for short. Met-cons typically combine these types of functional movements (as opposed to isolation type movements like curls, knee extensions and other machine-style exercises that focus on one muscle or muscle group, like the bicep of the quads) into circuits, or rounds, and the CrossFitter usually performs the workout as fast as possible for time. The first great runner I recall doing a workout that reminds me of a CrossFit met-con is Sebastian Coe, the great British middle-distance runner of the late 1970s and 1980s who held world records at various times for distances like the 800-meters, 1000-meters, 1500 and the mile. The controversy around Coe was that he and his dad, Peter Coe (dad was the coach) claimed that Coe’s running mileage was more in the realm of 50 miles per week as opposed to the much larger volumes being accumulated by other elite runners of the time. It was speculated that Coe was able to circumvent the need for a high-mileage base by the indoor circuit workouts that his dad put him through during the winter. The workouts were high in intensity, tapped all the muscle groups, and one way or another they helped Coe become one of the greatest runners of all time.

I also recall a photograph of the great American cross-country runner, Pat Porter, performing squats with weights. Porter had the body of a spider so it was quite an image, but the Joe Vigil-coached Porter was definitely in the weight room now and again.

So it’s at least worth a wider discussion before claiming that Crossfit movements will not help you run faster. Perhaps the reason that coaches have had runners check in to the weight room has been more about injury prevention, but this doesn’t necessarily discount CrossFit. What most people do at a conventional gym is nothing at all like CrossFit (in trying to free myself from injury I my fair share of time at an LA Fitness so I know what generally happens there).

Personally speaking, I know CrossFit is good (and Gaudette seems to agree) for dealing with injuries: getting healthy and building a body that is more resistant to injury. My journey into CrossFit and to being healthy in a way I hadn’t since maybe high school (maybe ever) was shockingly quick. The health and mobility results came within weeks of the training. I was astonished, for example, to be hopping out of bed in the morning without so much of a hint of arthritis or a limp. And in short order I was improving across the board in terms of strength, agility, power, flexibility and such. But also in stamina and endurance. I went for a period of four months where the only training I did was pure CrossFit workouts, which occasionally included short runs within the met-cons. Overall weekly mileage somewhere around 3 miles per week. At the end of the four months I tested myself with a tempo run on a treadmill and had a hard time believing the results: At the same heart rate and overall distance I was running tempo runs before the 2010 fall half-marathon I completed–and this was after a year of standard long distance running with mileage often between 50 and 60 miles a week—I was running faster. And it felt easier. In other words, I was fitter, and the source of my endurance was the endurance/stamina effect I was getting from the met-cons.

But also from a personal standpoint, I’m curious to see what a thorough investment in CrossFit Endurance will bring. I started on the path of CFE when I first became interested in Crossfit, but I realized that I had so many imbalances and problems in my physical infrastructure–and that CrossFit at a CrossFit affiliate (CrossFit Elysium in San Diego)–was helping to heal them, I decided to hold off on the CFE program. Until now.

Living in San Francisco now and a member of San Francisco CrossFit, I am curious to answer the question “Can CrossFit Make You a Better Runner?” with my own test. A key difference here is defining CrossFit Endurance. Per the Crossfit doctrine, ultimately to get the most out of the program you should apply it toward athletic challenges, like a 10k or half-marathon or ultra. CrossFit Endurance is a technique-focused blend of run form training, CrossFit workouts and highly specific running workouts.

For me it’s about getting back to doing what I have long loved to do: run running races. I know for a fact that if I train through just running alone, and lots of it, I wouldn’t last long enough to make any serious improvements. Is CFE a different route that will net me not just the ability to participate but the fun of getting faster? That’s what I wish to find out.

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.