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Eat+Run-Can CrossFit Improve Running?


Originally published on US News Eat+Run

A few years ago, I was counting my running success in increments of tenths of a mile. I wasn’t a beginning runner. Worse, I was an injured runner. I had run several races, trail races, and a half-marathon trail race before I found myself hobbling to a doctor and meeting my physical therapist for the first time. Nine months later, I finally ran a total of 3 miles without pain. My doctor advised me to dial down my goals and find joy in simply running 30 minutes. I had serious bio-mechanical issues that seemed to halt any progress.

As of today, I have finished many half-marathons, trail half-marathons, climbed mountains, ran a marathon, and I’m currently training for another marathon and various obstacle races. What made this possible? CrossFit.

Before you click away, hear me out. I’m not going to try to sell everyone on CrossFit because it doesn’t work for everyone. I am going to share why it works for me. In the 3 years I have been combining running with CrossFit, I have not had one injury. My previous injury was a severe case of ITBS, Illio-tibial Band Syndrome that led to hip problems.  I went from crying tears of relief over 3 miles to more tears crossing a finish line at 26.2 miles. So what is so magical about CrossFit?

1. CrossFit is serious cross-training.

CrossFit is based around improving 10 basic physical skills: cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.  Participants work to improve these skills through weight-lifting, gymnastics, and metabolic conditioning.  Good trainers spend a great deal of time each week making sure the workouts for the next week are balanced in all of these things. Looking through that list of 10 skills, which ones do NOT improve running? 

2. CrossFit incorporates FUNCTIONAL flexibility.

The age-old question: Should I stretch before or after running? That has nothing to do with CrossFit’s flexibility training which is actually mobility training. The iron rod backbone of all CrossFit is FUNCTIONAL fitness and that includes skill work designed to improve range of motion for functional behaviors. In my own personal experience, this has been crucial to my running success.  Oh, and to answer the question, I do not advise static stretching before a run. Stretching ligaments, tendons, and muscles before loading them with repetitive impact movement is not a good idea. Dynamic stretching is a better option. Again, just my personal experience.

3. CrossFit demands mental stamina.

This is what allowed me to finish a marathon without hitting a huge wall. Yes, most CrossFit workouts are less than 30 minutes. Include 3-4 CrossFit workouts a week, and the mental discipline has nowhere to go but up. All runners know that mental stamina can be the difference between a DNF and a triumphant finish.

4. CrossFit is built-in HIIT (High-Intensity-Interval-Training)

CrossFit includes a LOT of met-con. Metabolic conditioning has a direct influence on running capacity. Think of it as built in intervals of speed work. Only with CrossFit, there are other skill movements to do between the running intervals, and those movements are building endurance and power. Sprints are common in CrossFit and sprinting is what builds the strength in hamstrings. Even slow distance runners (such as myself) need sprinting workouts.

5. CrossFit builds endurance.

To race long, most people believe you have to run long. In order to run long, you have to have serious endurance. This is why you can’t judge a runner by body type.  A person weighing 30 lbs. more than another might cross the finish line faster simply due to endurance. If that person is carrying more muscle, the combination of endurance and power can guarantee a great finish.

What specifically, has CrossFit done for me?  When my Illio-tibial band injury surfaced, it took 9 months to get it to track properly again. My doctor and PT told me I would always need to work on this leg and incorporate strength training. I fiddled around with some hand held weights at home but was still occasionally sidelined with IT band pain. I finally took advantage of CrossFit classes through my gym. After 6 weeks, I noticed that I had not felt IT band twinges in a few weeks. My running economy improved. My confidence improved. After 3 years, the only time I have felt any IT band pulling is when I skip a week or more of CrossFit. A couple of classes of heavy lifting and sprinting sends the IT band tracking properly again.

There are many stories out there like mine. Runners who battle constant injuries are finding success in CrossFit because of the emphasis on so many basic functional fitness skills. In these cases, CrossFit has greatly improved running fitness and running success.


Sunday 26th of January 2014

I'll chime in. I am a marathon runner and too suffer from ITBS in both legs. During a flare up, and unable to run a third of a mile without pain, I was doing generic work in a regular gym (pullys, machines, circuts, etc) trying to fix it with exercises the physical therapist gave me. None of which worked, I will add, despite it being 6 months of re-habbing. On the otherside of my gym, separated by a huge glass wall, was a crossfit/MMA/boxing gym. One of the crossfit coaches knew I was an injured marathon runner and desperately wanted me to come over to "the box" and work out with him. He would come out of "the box" when I was working out in the traditional gym and try to talk me into stopping the gym nonsense and come workout with him. He offered me a 90 day challenge, with one-on-one training. Who would pass that up?! I got in the crossfit gym and started. I absolutely LOVED it. After 7 months of being injured, and about 7 weeks in "the box," I was PAIN FREE!!! However, this is where my trouble began. I started running again, and because of the fatigue and perpetual lactic state from crossfit, I was running nearly 3 minutes per mile slower than before, despite all the promises that crossfit was going to make me as fast as a Kenyon. (I was smart enough to not drink the crossfit endurance kool-aid bull$#it and just focused on getting in good workouts). I whole heartedly believe that it was the exercises in crossfit that healed up my leg/ITBS, but there was no way I was going to continue because I wanted to run well, really well. Luckily my coach respected the fact that I wanted to marathon train again and that traditional crossfit/CFE just didnt fit with the training I was going to need to do. We did a few more one on one sessions and did a complete overhaul of how to incorporate some of the exercises into my weekly routine to keep my ITBS at bay yet not so intense as to interefere with my marathon training due to extreme fatigue. After getting out of "the box," yet keeping a few key elements of crossfit, and focusing on running, I took an hour off my marathon time and did qualify for Boston. My improved running performance had NOTHING to do with crossfit and EVERYTHING to do with training right for a marathon. However, I will never deny that the adapted/toned down crossfit workouts did keep my legs/ITB healthy enough to do so. So, although I believe crossfit will get you in shape, I do not buy into their marketing that it will make you great at any particular sport. It was no surprise that when running was part of the WOD, I won every single time. Why? Because Im a runner and I practice running therefore I am better at it than those who dont practice running. There are no amount of handstand push-ups, and wall balls that are going to prepare me to run a marathon. Just as training and running marathon will not prepare someone to show up and do double unders and muscle ups. The best way to become good at your sport is to practice your sport and stay injury free in order to do so. If crossfit does that for you, then I say, go for it.


Monday 23rd of September 2013

It's irresponsible, and clearly part of the crossfit brainwashing, that you fail to mention crossfit also gave you rhabdo, which forced you to be hospitalized you in order to avoid full renal failure. In fact, your cavalier attitude about "overdoing it" leading to a near fatal condition, while you promote this dangerous form of exercise as a healthy lifestyle, is something you should be ashamed of. Talking about "drinking water day two" as being how the body wins the battle with rhabdo is patently false. Any medical professional can tell you that rhabdo is about the destruction of the muscle to the point the fibers explode. Hydration is irrelevant once you reach a certain point, and I'm sure your doctor advised you not to do crossfit but you continued anyway. I hope those seeking healthy living, or aspiring marathoners, take the time to look somewhere other than your site for advice that isn't dangerous.


Monday 23rd of September 2013

Actually, my doctor encouraged me to continue after my CPK levels returned to normal and I ran the marathon 11 weeks later without any problems, while continuing to CrossFit. But thank you for your concern. Also, stay tuned to US News Eat+Run! My next article, already written, address my experience with rhabdo. I also keep in mind that rhabdo is often found in those participating in marathon and ultramarathon racing, but clearly I am not going to give up marathon running, either.