You have probably heard of it before. Or, if you haven’t, you likely have a friend or neighbor who has. A core strength and conditioning program founded in the mid-1990s, CrossFit has become one of the most popular exercise routines in the United States.
Unlike some exercise programs, which peak in popularity for a short period of time and are then replaced by newer routines, CrossFit seems to become more and more popular with each passing year. First offered to the public at a small gym in Santa Cruz, Calif. nearly 20 years ago, thousands of affiliated gyms throughout the country now feature CrossFit.
But why has it become so popular? What does it offer to athletes that other programs don’t? And, perhaps most importantly, does it appeal to endurance athletes?
The basic premise of CrossFit’s rising popularity is simple: it’s audaciously unique, scalable, and suitable for athletes of all ages and skill levels.
“It utilizes safe and functional exercise performed at high intensity to prepare people for any physical challenge, whether they are running a marathon or chasing their two year old around the park,” Mark Peterson, an endurance coach at CrossFit Defined, says.
A multi-dimensional training program that works different muscle groups, CrossFit’s workouts are physically exerting, as participants sprint, lift weights, row, flip tires and carry heavy objects. Workouts are usually short, between 30 to 60 minutes, as exercises are constantly across the board, from bodyweight work such as pull-ups and pushups, to gymnastics like muscle ups and handstand pushups, to Olympic lifting techniques including snatching and clean and jerk.
Attend any CrossFit facility in the greater Chicago area and you’ll find all sorts of equipment: dumbbells, jump ropes, barbells, medicine balls, parallettes, even gymnastics rings.
“The philosophy behind CrossFit training is an all-inclusive lifestyle change,” Peterson says. “Anyone can be an athlete through CrossFit.”
By varying the type and duration of workouts, CrossFit trainers ensure their athletes are not only challenged to physically achieve their utmost potential, but also maintain the level of interest necessary to work out on a regular basis. Through a variation in time domains, rep schemes and exercise options, participants also attain a level of intensity not offered by other training programs.
“Our program is unique in its focus on maximizing physical ability, developing power, cross-training with multiple training modalities and training functional movements,” Peterson says.
“Essentially, CrossFit is the sport of fitness, as we want our athletes to be good at everything, rather than just specialize in one specific area,” Brendan Ziegler, manager and lead coach at Atlas Performance, says.
Individualized focus, strong community support
In recent years, CrossFit program offerings have expanded throughout Chicago and its surrounding suburbs. Chicagoland CrossFit members have particularly been drawn to the program’s unique approach to workouts: constant variation, high intensity and functional movements.
But, above all else, participants feel the program’s individualized focus, along with its strong community support, is distinctive.
“CrossFit is highly competitive. Not only will you compete with fellow participants, but you will also compete with yourself,” Kate Mikelsons, director of marketing and lead coach at CrossFit Chicago, says. “We have benchmark workouts too, certain workouts that are always the same, to measure improvements in individual athletes from time to time.”
Although CrossFit coaches focus on each individual participant’s progress, the program is taught in a group setting, allowing for collaboration and encouragement.
“Ultimately, the heart of CrossFit is the community of athletes, which is welcoming and supportive,” Peterson says. “Participants encourage one another to achieve results they never thought possible.”
“The community aspect of the program is what sets it apart. You make friends at CrossFit and it becomes more than just the place where you work out,” Ziegler says. “It becomes a part of your life in and out of the gym.”
A workout option for endurance athletes
Although it is a core strength and conditioning program, CrossFit does work all muscle groups, appealing to athletes of all sorts, including endurance athletes preparing for marathons or triathlons, whether they are resting during the off-season or training for races.
“All endurance athletes need to cross-train to rest their primarily used muscles, while still conditioning their bodies,” John Moloznik, general manager of Fleet Feet Sports, says. “CrossFit appeals to the endurance psyche, since the workouts are structured with continuous movement, from one exercise to another, without breaks, actually mimicking endurance-based activity, while also allowing athletes to work different muscle groups at the same time.”
Featuring runs of different lengths, including sprints, CrossFit workouts do not only increase participants’ strength, but their endurance as well. Workouts can be skewed to help athletes train for one modality over another, enabling runners to focus more on endurance while also receiving the health benefits of strength training.
“We approach endurance sports by treating the activity as a skill first, adding intensity to the workouts and appropriate and custom levels of volume to the athlete’s trainings,” Peterson says. “Our endurance program is built on a foundation of cross-training and core strength, not as an afterthought, but as the basis for training.”
By training with weights at high intensity intervals, endurance athletes can increase their strength and speed, while also improving their cardiovascular output.
“By adding strength training to their regimens, athletes can actually improve their endurance, as they prevent their muscles from fatiguing as quickly,” Ziegler says. “For this reason alone, many athletes use CrossFit for their primary or supplemental training, heading into longer races and marathons.”
CrossFit’s central focus on core strength and conditioning is also beneficial, helping runners achieve proper body balance.
“Endurance runners are often deficient in core strength,” Brendan Cournane, a Chicago area running coach, says. “CrossFit helps runners build a stronger core, so that they can maintain good body position and balance.”
Improved core strength increases runners’ longevity, while also decreasing their risk for injuries.
“The conditioning of CrossFit helps reduce injury, as it lessens the repetitive motion inherent in endurance sports that often lead to injuries,” Moloznik says.
To fully experience the benefits of CrossFit, Moloznik believes endurance athletes should participate in the program all season long.
“During the season, it help athletes cross-train, but, during the off season, it offers athletes a different type of workout, which excites them, by keeping things fresh and helping them maintain their conditioning levels,” he says.
Peterson agrees, believing it can be incorporated into any training cycle.
“Since CrossFit utilizes safe movements and training techniques that achieve a quality range of movement, any type of athlete will notice improved mobility, strength, and conditioning all year round,” he states. “But, if an endurance athlete is interested in incorporating CrossFit into their current program, they should allow sufficient time, before and after the workout, to recover.”
However, Cournane feels CrossFit is more beneficial during the off-season.
“I would build it in periodically during the season, but, since I’ve been told that CrossFit trainers prefer a certain number of routines in a certain period of time, the off-season may be better,” he says. “That way, runners can focus on rest, recovery, and gradual build-up for the next training cycle.”
A personal commitment to every athlete
Recently, news outlets like The Huffington Post and ABC News have discussed a potentially life-threatening, rare illness that some CrossFit participants have endured in the past, rhabdomyolysis, which occurs when skeletal muscle is damaged due to overexertion. Proteins like myoglobin are then broken down and released into the bloodstream, which can poison kidneys and, if untreated, ultimately result in kidney failure.
Despite this health risk, CrossFit coaches believe the program is safe as long as participants follow their guidance.
“Since CrossFit focuses so heavily on form, the likelihood of serious injury is much less than attempting to strength train on one’s own,” Moloznik says. “By having coaches work with them, participants can guard themselves against injury, as someone is there to watch their form and head off problems before they can develop.”
Through proper mechanics, including form, technique and body position, CrossFit participants can minimize their injuries and avoid health risks like rhabdomyolysis.
“It’s always important to learn proper form before increasing intensity to guarantee every athlete is as safe as possible,” Mikelsons says. “That being said, knowing your body, and when to back off, is the most important way to prevent injury.”
“We have a personal commitment to every athlete to ensure they are safe in every workout,” Peterson says. “With CrossFit as a basis for their training, our endurance athletes experience very few injuries as they prepare for their next endurance events.”