By Jeff Gaudette—Explosive, strength-based fitness programs such as CrossFit are popping up all over the place and gaining steam amongst endurance athletes, with many proponents of these regimens claiming that following their training method will make you a better runner. However, as many experienced athletes know, training theory isn’t black and white and there is never a simple or short solution that can be applied universally.
To that effect, it is possible that fitness regimens outside of running-specific workouts can help you improve—in certain situations, of course. In this article, we’ll explore both sides of the argument and explain why routines like CrossFit won’t help you improve your running in the specific sense, but could be a good supplement if you’re a beginner or an injury-prone athlete.
The Principle of Specificity / Lack of Specificity
The primary reason why CrossFit and many of the other wildly popular programs popping up all over the place these days won’t help you run faster comes down to the principle of specificity.
I took an in-depth look at specificity in a previous article, but to sum it up in a sentence: Due to the principle of specific adaption, the closer you can perform exercise that mimics the exact demands you’re training the body for, the better you’ll become at that specific exercise.
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.
Yes, these routines will improve your general level of fitness (more on this later), but they will not increase aerobic capacity, develop mitochondria, improve your lactate threshold, or teach your body to burn fat as a fuel source—all critical components to running well at distances from 5K to the marathon. To illustrate, research has consistently shown that for events longer than 3,000 meters, 85 percent of the energy contribution comes from the aerobic system.
If you can, spend more time running.
Unless you’re a new or injury-prone runner, the time you spend doing CrossFit or another similar workout routine would be better served by adding more weekly mileage, taking care of potential injuries by massage, stretching, icing, or heating, or at the very least performing preventative or running-specific strength work.
Again, this comes down to the fact that most of the exercises in the routines listed above won’t specifically help you become a better runner. Clean and jerks and climbing up a rope may help you look better at the beach, but they’re not important to running fast. Your time will better spent performing activities that will make you a better runner—injury prevention exercises, adapting to higher mileage or including running-specific strength work in your weekly routine.
Respect Your Capacity for Total Work
Along those lines, most fitness routines like CrossFit–intense and difficult in nature–will get you in great general shape. As such, they can be a real hindrance to the important work you should be doing as a runner—running.
While runners often think only in terms of mileage, the body does have a finite capacity for total work. Total work includes all the running, strength training, daily chores, and stress you put on the body. If you’re running a lot already, adding in other intense workouts is going to add to that total volume of work you can handle. Consequently, you may find yourself having a difficult time recovering on your easy days or notice that you’re not quite as amped or fresh for your important running workouts.
Improve Your General Fitness
Don’t misinterpret this article to read that I am one of those running coaches who thinks that any exercise outside of running is a sham. I believe runners can learn a lot from other sports and by examining different fitness trends. I have no doubt that a fitness regimen like CrossFit will help you get in good shape. In fact, here are a couple of ways in which these routines might benefit you as a runner:
Remember: Some training is better than no training.
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.
Likewise, for those runners who struggle to increase mileage, including strength-oriented fitness routines in your training schedule might make the muscular system adapt to the physical demands of running more. Mike Smith, the men's and women's cross country coach and assistant track coach at Kansas State University, suggests that, "Initial improvements in aerobic conditioning are often biochemical in nature and thus can happen somewhat rapidly whereas changes to the physical structure of muscle, ligaments, tendons and bones in a far more time consuming process."
If adding intense, strength-oriented non-running workouts motivates you to get off the couch one extra day per week, or serves as the foundation to a stronger body that can tolerate more running, it will help to you to become a better runner in the long term.
Become a Better Athlete
Along those same lines, becoming a better overall athlete may help you become a better runner down the road. Most runners who start in high school do so because they weren’t athletic or explosive enough to be good at other sports. Likewise, most adults start running because they desire to get fit after years of gaining weight or being sedentary.
If you fall into one of these two categories, or even if you used to be a good athlete but haven’t done any exercise except running the last few years, becoming stronger and more coordinated may help prevent injuries and improve your running economy. In this case, fitness routines such as CrossFit can definitely help you become a more well-rounded athlete.
Will It Benefit You?
You can use information about yourself and your specific weaknesses as an athlete to assess whether or not a fitness routine like CrossFit might benefit you.
If you’re a new runner who wants to do more exercise but your legs can’t handle more mileage (yet), workout routines like CrossFit can improve your general level of fitness, even if it doesn’t necessarily improve your running. Likewise, if you’re an injured runner, make sure you don’t substitute these workouts at the expense of preventative exercises or recovery modalities.
For more experienced runner, or if you’re already crunched for time, your limited training time is better spent adding more miles (assuming your body can handle the volume), performing running-specific strength exercises such as short hills sprints or form drills, or adding preventative maintenance routines and recovery modalities into your schedule. Remember, to run faster, including running-specific workouts to your training schedule will give you a much better return on your investment compared to other non-running specific programs.