“Will CrossFit Make You a Better Runner?” Let’s Discuss This.

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“Will CrossFit make you a better runner?” asks Jeff Gaudette in a recent article for Competitor.com. He starts out by writing, “In the specific sense, the short answer is no, but explosive, strength-based fitness programs can be beneficial.”

Gaudette has considerable experience to apply when talking about competitive distance running. According to his bio, he received All-American honors as a cross-country runner during his years at Brown and competed professionally for four years within the Hansons-Brooks Distance Project. He’s a USATF coach and has been running for 13 years.

Central to Gaudette’s argument that CrossFit will not improve your running is the principle of specificity. In the performance running world, the principle of specificity is generally regarded like a physicist does the permanence of the speed of light: it’s locked in now and forever. If you want to run fast then what you should do is run a lot, and within Gaudette’s article he makes the statement that runners looking to improve their running would be prudent to invest time that might be applied toward ancillary training (like weight training for example) and use it instead to run more and boost your overall mileage. Gaudette notes two exceptions: Beginner runners and injury-prone runners.

I have a lot to say about this article because I believe Gaudette’s stance is largely representative of how the distance running world is reacting or will react to CrossFit and if such a discussion stalls out because of Gaudette’s and conclusions from coaches/experts similar to Gaudette at least some runners will miss out something they may gain from what’s going on in CrossFit. Since I have to much to say about this I’ll spread it out over several posts.

First off, I’m going to say that I don’t think Gaudette is necessarily wrong. I would just say that I don’t feel he’s framed the question as thoroughly as he should if he wants to advise runners on CrossFit and I don’t think he’s looked into CrossFit enough to know what he’s analyzing. In other words, I don’t get the sense he’s ever been to a CrossFit workout. I would be surprised if he has. And I don’t think he knows the difference between CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance, which I think is also essential to the discussion, especially when you get into the performance topic. And he sort of skids into several issues that I personally believe should be fleshed out more before any runner who might be interested in CrossFit discards the notion.

Second, if you’d posed the same question to me two years ago, I can almost guarantee that my initial response would have similar to Gaudette’s. But before I get into my thoughts as they now stand, I should qualify my position with a few notes about my background.

Gaudette’s been running 13 years. I’ve been running since 1975 which is (good lord) 37 years. I am not as accomplished as Gaudette, however. So there was junior high and high school track and then just jogging in college and jumping in the occasional road 8k kind of thing. But inspired by my dad—a true running boom guy who went from being 30 pounds overweight in 1976 or so to being a super skinny marathoner who methodically began collecting so many road racing trophies and state-level Masters running records (in Iowa) and plaques that a 12-foot shelf in my parent’s rec room looks like it’s going to collapse from the weight of all that hardware—I decided in 1989 to do a marathon. I bought Galloway’s book of running and executed my first 30-week training plan ever. I crossed the line at Big Sur in 3:20 and got hooked. By 1991 I was a sub 2:40 marathoner (1991 Cal International Marathon). Breaking 2:40 was a huge goal for me and I trained hard to do it. But it was also a reality check for me. As much as I thought of myself as a hot shot for breaking 2:40, that only netted me 81st place among the men, with two women finishing in front of me as well. Cal International is a respected marathon and a fast course, but it’s not NYC or Boston in that you don’t get a lot of Kenyans jumping in. From looking at the results just now, I don’t see any. The race was won in 2:15 by a guy from Canada.

Point being, I’ve never been even close to being an elite runner the way that Gaudette has. And I’ve never coached. That said, I am a big fan of the great running coaches like Arthur Lydiard and Joe Vigil and have read anything I could get my hands on that related to their coaching philosophies. So I imagine I could sit down and chat about training ideas with Gaudette and have a good conversation. Having been a journalist in the endurance world since 1995, I imagine my most valuable credential that I bring to this discussion is that I’ve talked to a lot of people that are experts in these matters and have a fundamental understanding.

I also bring one other thing to the table. Because I am one of the “injury-prone” runners that Gaudette refers to, I was driven to CrossFit out of desperation. Because after a decade of trying to re-start my running career all I did was keep having to sputter around the corner and back into the physical-therapy-ultra-sound-ice-stretching-core-strength life. Injuries included piriformis sciatica , Achille’s tendonitis, patella tendonitis, iliotibial band syndrome, chronic hamstring tears, and so on and so forth and I’d really like to not recall any more. I think all but the most biomechanically-blessed have the same love/hate relationship to running that I have: You love it with all your heart but the relationship history is fraught with stories of having trained for so many weeks or months–feeling fit and fast and excited for the big race–only to end up on the sidelines when during some run or track workout a piece of gristle twinges and you limp to the sidelines, back to the physical therapist, back to the ice bag, back to the self-pitying hell of detoxing off the endorphins.

It was the fall of 2010 when two weeks after a half-marathon—a checkpoint en route to the Las Vegas Rock and Roll Marathon—when the wheels came off in a way that had me thinking it was time to check myself in to the hospital and start getting joints replaced. At the time I had also just finished an article about CrossFit Endurance for Triathlete Magazine and although previous to the reporting I would have characterized CrossFit in the same light I believe Gaudette now does, the discussions I had with CFE’s Brian MacKenzie got me to wondering if I might find some salvation. MacKenzie’s lectures on the topic were of the no-bullshit variety. He didn’t look like a typical runner. He had a sleeve tattoo and was built more like a halfback than a guy that had completed a 100-mile trail ultra. But the things MacKenzie was saying about the body breaking down from traditional running programs, about running mechanics, diet and periodization—all unorthodox for sure but considering how messed up I certainly had cause to at least listen to him. I reasoned that the only reason I was against trying CrossFit Endurance was some odd matter of ego and my affiliation with the spirit that John Parker Jr. accurately portrayed with the cult running novel, “Once a Runner.” I was a “Trial of Miles/Miles of Trials” kind of guy.

So I literally limped into the CrossFit world right around Christmas of 2010. And to cut to the chase here, it worked for me in terms of saving me from the operating table, re-establishing my overall health and fitness and re-establishing my identity as an athlete. In Gaudette’s article, he acknowledges that one reason why someone might go the route of CrossFit is for results such as these. Writes Gaudette:

For new or injury-prone runners who can’t yet handle an increase in running mileage, including another type of physical stimulus will improve your general level of fitness. By proxy, an increased level of general fitness, which may include weight loss, fat loss, and general health, will eventually help you to become a better runner.

But if you don’t have the injury thing going on, Gaudette advises you that CrossFit could be a waste of time:

In looking at the benefits of these alternative fitness routines for a runner, we can see pretty clearly that very few of the exercises target the specific running muscles and physiological demands required to run well at long distance events from the 5K to the marathon. Therefore, in a fitness sense, they are not specifically helping you become a better runner.” In other words: “If you can, spend more time running.

OK. So here’s something I’ll be Gaudette doesn’t know: Greg Glassman, the founder of CrossFit, would largely agree. But in agreeing he also expands the point of view on the question at hand in a way that, at least for me, was enlightening in a way that made me think differently about what I was trying to do as a runner. I’ll explore that point of view next.

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.