It’s Friday 9am, I have an hour and a half before I have to be at work, the sun is shining, I’m lacing up my shoes and I’m heading into The Cave. A part of me looks longingly at the East Peak of Mt Tam, prominently framed as you look out my crossfit box’s garage-style doors, wishing I was playing on the hill, effortlessly leaping among the rocks, descending the steeps with my friends like a pack of wolves on the hunt, arriving at our favorite coffee destination with dirt marks up our calves and sweaty salt caked on our brows. There’s something wonderful about running, and trail running in particular. And that’s why at least once a week, I don’t run, and crossfit instead.
When I started increasing my mileage, intensity and my time out on the trails, I found that my body could only take so much. It “broke” so many times, not literally (but sometimes). It failed me. I couldn’t run downhill with the fearlessness that I wanted–my IT band was too unstable and my quads were too weak. I couldn’t climb without my hamstrings getting tight. My core was failing me during the fatigue of long runs, and my stabilizing muscles, connective tendons and fascia were overtaxed and underused at the same time. When the going was good, it was good, but when the going was bad, it was bad, and painful, and expensive. More than recovery, but rehab became an everyday thing for me. The train, race, injury, recovery, rehab cycle became all too familiar and it drained me. It also prevented me from progressing as a runner. When you keep interrupting your training cycles to rest your body because of injury, you aren’t able to get that consistency that is so key to becoming a stronger, better runner.
I have always been a fan of cross training. I dabble in just about everything, including strength training. Bootcamp classes, light lifting and the typical core workouts have become part of my weekly routine. But it wasn’t until I really took a hard look at myself that I realized what was missing. I’ve always been a thinner, slight-framed, petite person. Even at my strongest and most athletic, I was never terribly “muscular”. I do however, gain strength easily and lose it easily. As I increased my mileage and running took priority, other cross training methods took a backseat and my body suffered. My homeostasis is “skinny”, I fight to keep muscle tone on like others fight to keep “fat” off. My body is always trying to return to its natural state. It loses weight easily and is always trying to get back to where it was for the first two decades of my life. I learned this and also know that a good amount of strength training is good for me. It keeps me strong and more durable, and able to run longer, harder and faster. And ultimately enjoy the experience of running and racing more. And while my normal J.V. strength training routine was all good and fine for your run of the mill marathon training, it wasn’t cutting it as I wanted to increase the intensity of my goal races. Cranking it up in one department, in this instance, required a cranking it up in other departments too.
First, I realized I needed more rest: more sleep and better recovery. Second, I realized I needed more food: more calories–more of the good stuff and less of the bad stuff, though my body could also tolerate more of the bad stuff too, which was a pleasant by-product. Third, and most importantly, it required an increase in strength training in order to stave off the risk of injury that came from taxing my body on the impact-heavy practice of hard running. While lifting 5 pound dumbbells and bodyweight exercises at bootcamp was great maintenance, and if done every single day, would maybe have done the trick, what a lot of runners lack is just brute strength. We also have major imbalances that impact our biomechanics. Most times, those can only be corrected by very targeted and focused workouts. Crossfit is the answer that most runners don’t want to hear. They cover their ears and say “lalalalalala”. They make fun of crossfitters. We are barbaric. We grunt and yell and high five each other with our cavemen hands, ripped from too many pull-ups. We eat paleo. We don’t believe in cardio. We are all SUPER JACKED and the women look like men. We don’t like to be outside. We slam things down that make loud noise just for effect. We are crude and can’t do anything but lift heavy things and put them down. We are obsessed with numbers and stats. We are one-sided athletes. We are not athletes. For as many inaccurate stereotypes that runners have of crossfitters, crossfitters probably have just as many about runners. Maybe I’ll never truly cross over into the crossfit world, I’ll always be the runner that goes to crossfit, but that’s ok. And the crossfit community welcomed me with open arms. The biggest stereotype that has no real basis is that crossfitters are close-minded. They are not. And now that they see a distance runner give up her free mornings to come to the gym, they see that some runners are just as open-minded.
I spend a lot of time talking about crossfit to customers at SFRC. I do so because it really has helped my running. It has also become an independent passion of mine. I love pushing myself to do something out of my comfort zone. Each time I walk into the Cave, I’m surrounded by fit, strong people. They can all lift more than me, do more reps than me, and they have great abs…just saying. It’s intimidating to walk in there. And it’s a hard thing for someone as competitive as me to put that on the shelf for an hour, totally tell my ego to shut up and only work up to my limits, and do only the things that will help me in the end be a better runner. Because in the end, that’s why I returned to crossfit after many years off and that’s why I continue to sacrifice precious hours that I could be spending running to work out instead. Having Tam stare at me from the open garage doors when I’m doing a time trial on the rower or suffering through a deadlift EMOM is a great reminder of why I’m here. I never lose sight of that. It helps me keep focused while I’m working out and it helps me keep overall perspective of my training.
Moves like deadlifts and squats are key for runner health and strength. These focus on strengthening muscle groups that usually go underused when we run. When this happens, stronger muscles get used more and get overtaxed. This creates dangerous imbalances that lead to injury. Deadlifts and squats in particular help develop glute and hamstring strength, usually weak in runners, especially in female runners. Additionally, moves like kettlebell swings, cleans and box jumps mimick the explosive power needed in sprints or uphill running that comes from the legs, glutes and hips. This enhances training you do on the track for similar purposes. Moves like pushups, pull ups, rows, curls, etc… help develop muscles that you don’t get a chance to improve on running, mostly the upper body, shoulders and back. Core workouts focus on stabilization and posture during your runs and single leg workouts are of utmost importance, given that running is largely a single-legged activity if you really think about it. I could go on and on, but there are major benefits to most things you will do at crossfit. Also, lifting heavy (as opposed to light lifting) allows you to build on actual muscle strength and not just fitness/endurance (which is usually something runners already have). Lifting heavy, especially on squats and deadlifts create muscle, create strength and create power. This power, especially for trail runners, is key to increasing your power to weight ratio, important for running uphill. It also increases strength and stability for running downhill with more confidence, explosiveness and durability. And after a while of developing these muscles, it will also help your top end speed on flats or track intervals.
To all things, there is a downside, of course. First is the risk of injury. Much like everything in training and most things in life, there is risk in challenging yourself in a new way. You could injure yourself at the gym. We have all heard those urban legends, the runner that went into crossfit and threw their back out, they bashed their legs open on a missed box jump, they got too competitive and tried to lift too heavy and something fell on their head. These aren’t just urban legends, I know for a fact they happen. They can also happen on the trail, or in yoga, or on your bike. I hate to break it to you, but shit happens, and sometimes it happens in a crossfit gym. But not always and hopefully not if you’re careful, listen to instruction, only lift to your ability and have a good coach.
Second aside from acute injury is the risk of constant fatigue and overtraining when you add in hard crossfit sessions in addition to your normal training routine. I felt this at first. I thought, I would do crossfit on my rest days. I would do them before my longer trail runs. I would combine them with a kayak session. And all it did was make me constantly tired and sore. My body wasn’t recovering as well as it should have. Each of us has a limit of what we can do. I have to give up some mileage to effectively benefit from crosssfit and other cross-training that I do. I am ok with that. I am at peace with that. I also realize that I can’t run a 100-mile race if I don’t put in the right amount of time on feet, vert and miles on key weeks. It’s a balance. Just like I am totally ok with skipping my runs on Fridays to hit the box, I am also ok with skipping crossfit for a week, sometimes a month, if it’s a crucial running block or a recovery period after a race. Know your body and know your limits.
Third, you have to be ok with totally sucking. As runners, we aren’t focusing on lifting heavy things and putting them down. We aren’t even great at the weighted core stuff, or the body weight stuff. We don’t practice it and therefore, aren’t that good at it. You’ll think you’re strong and then you’ll attend a crossfit class and realize you are just another skinny runner person. But then you do it more, and you work your way up and you get better. Just like the first 5k or half marathon you ever ran, it won’t be your PR and the goal is to get better, your first month and often year at crossfit will be frustrated by your physical limitations. But then you have breakthroughs. Remember the first time you did a cartwheel as a kid? Ran a 6 minute mile on your high school track? Yup. You’ll remember the first time something clicked and you nailed your snatch balance technique. You’ll remember the first time you lifted more than your bodyweight in a deadlift. You’ll remember the first time your chin cleared the bar on a pull-up, the first time you hit back to back double unders and you’ll remember that sense of accomplishment whether it’s an accomplishment out on the trails or in the gym. It’s progress and it’s you getting better.
I’m not saying crossfit is for everyone, or every runner. We all have to decide what’s going to benefit us in the end. But I’m really starting to feel like home in the crossfit gym and I never regret a workout. Because even the workouts where I didn’t hit a PR or nail a technical move or skill or find that my hands and forearms are shaking when I try to gather my things after class, are workouts that are helping me be a better runner. I always walk out of the gym a stronger person than walked in, and if that’s the only thing I get for the sacrifice of not running that morning, I’m totally ok with that.