Just this past weekend I read an article in Bicycling magazine, which spoke to what I've seen as a trending topic across social media the last few months:
Cyclist (and triathletes) are seeing improvement in their sports "Thanks to Crossfit".
But is this REALLY what's happening? Is CrossFit itself helping these athletes, or is something else going on?
Those of you who know me, or who have met me in the last few years know that I have changed my stance on CrossFit from one of "not a huge supporter, but see it's place", to that of "With a knowledgeable coach and good program, go for it."
Part of this change in my position has to do with the fact that I was coaching CrossFit for 4 of the last 5 years, including starting up and doing all of the programming for my own class which was geared toward the runners, cyclists, and triathletes at the box. But another part was recognizing that CrossFit has done a huge thing in the western hemisphere, and something that would not have occurred if not for CrossFit: Open the eyes to the “average Joe” that proper STRENGTH TRAINING and OLYMPIC LIFTING is absolutely 100% INTEGRAL to becoming a better, stronger, fitter, less injury-prone athlete.
But today I want to help you, the reader, understand if it's CrossFit itself that is helping endurance athletes, or is there something else going on here?
Endurance athletes, Cyclists in particular, have resisted the use of a properly designed strength training program to help aid their sport results for the last 4+ decades...this, in my professional opinion, has held the sport back a significant amount, as we have not produced a developmental system good enough to keep a large enough number of the highly talented amateur/development athletes healthy enough for long enough to get them to the top levels and to see our sport progress.
While technology of sports science and engineering of bicycles + equipment have seen significant growth in the last 20 years, the Long Term Development of the Athletes themselves has grown, but at a far slower rate.
So what's holding us back from having more highly talented cyclists make it to the higher levels?
Well, it is my opinion that it is two-fold:
1. We are not focusing enough on developing the Psychological abilities of our athletes.
2. We are literally the last sport to fully embrace strength training to help our athletes maximize their potential.
While the first point is HUGE in and of itself, it is a far different challenge than Strength Training, so we will save that for another post.
When it comes to strength training, endurance athletes have so much to gain, yet the resistance against strength training has been so ingrained in the culture, it's pretty damn near dogmatic at this point. But there is a glimmer of hope. And that glimmer actually IS CrossFit- but only to a point.
Challenges since the 1970's
While Russia and the eastern hemisphere took massive leaps forward in human performance and physiology since the 1970's (yes, we now confirmed that has included systemic use/abuse of performance enhancing drugs), the USA has focused nearly obsessively on Cardiac health/approach, thanks in large part to Dr. Cooper.
But it is because of this unhealthy tunnel vision we've had on Cardio, that the US has fallen so far behind what it actually takes to build an athlete from a 360-degree perspective, outside of the sports of American Football and gymnastics. By the way, the biggest losers in this cardio obsession are not the endurance athletes, but rather the females in western society who are so petrified of turning into a hulking bodybuilder, that they avoid weight training like the plague.... but that's a whole other issue.
Our muscles are NOT individually working pieces of equipment
Another challenge we are working to overcome is the thought & teaching of muscles working as individual parts, rather than working together as a symphony orchestra. It is these two major contributors (focus on cardio + looking at muscles as individuals) that have contributed significantly to leaving us so far behind in developing truly maximal potential in more athletes, especially in the endurance world.
Our body is a complete system, when one muscle is working, numerous others are firing to keep us balanced and able to perform the task at hand. For example, as you raise your hand overhead, your shoulder blade must glide up on the rib cage, while a number of muscles work to keep it in proper alignment, including the rhomboids, mid and lower trapezius, and the serratus anterior just to name a few of the big ones.
But if you take a general anatomy course, you’re taught that the deltoid does this job, without really so much of a mention as the other major contributors to the movement. This in and of itself has presented endurance athletes, and cyclists in particular, with a misunderstanding of how the body works, and how to properly train the body. Cyclists in particular have focused on cycling-related movements if they ever did enter the weight room, performing hamstring curls, leg presses, and lunges, perhaps throw in a plan of two, and call it a day….Which while better than nothing, is still far from getting us what we TRULY need.
While I mention the US in this post, really we also have to look at Europe, and how traditional much of the training for cyclists there has been as well. That too is a major contributor to our sport not embracing the use of strength training to help the athlete develop more power, and reduce overuse injury occurrences.
Now that you understand the more global challenges that strength training has had to overcome, let’s get back to our main question- what exactly is it that CrosssFit is doing, which has so many endurance athletes swearing by it?
CrossFit, thanks in large part to it’s popularity and particularly its drastically different approach to training, has opened Endurance athlete’s minds to realize a few truths about strength training and to understand how exactly strength training works.
Truths about strength training CrossFit has helped Endurance athlete understand:
1. Strength Training is NOT body building exercises
2. When done properly Strength training has enormous benefits for cyclists & endurance athletes
3. Proper Strength training is built around the 5 FUNDAMENTAL human multi-joint movements:
4. Proper Strength training looks to mitigate your weaknesses, and address them systematically through a mid- to long-term approach
5. Strength Training can be fun
6. Adding a pound of muscle mass that helps you perform better is only going to make you, well, faster!
7. Range of motion, or as CrossFitters refer to it, Mobility, along with STRENGTH through that range of motion, is a super important part of being a healthy person, and athlete
How does strength training work?
We’ve covered some big chunks of ground so far, and understand from a more global perspective what it is that CrossFit has done to help cycling, but what specifically about Strength Training makes it work?
When we strength train, we are, in fact, training the NERVOUS SYSTEM of the body. And when it comes to adaptations, there are in fact 5 stages to Neurological adaptations to strength training:
1. Anatomical Adaptation- where challenges to muscular strength & movement patterns allows for tendons, ligaments, and joints to get stronger, as well as challenges the muscles we use in our sport (primary) and those we don't (secondary sport muscles), of if you prefer, agonist and antagonist muscles. This allows us to move towards muscle balance at the joints, a hugely significant part of attaining high levels of sports performance via idea resting length of muscles.
2. Hypertrophy- while so many endurance athletes are petrified of hypertrophy, if done right, stage 2 will allow the athlete to increase muscle cross-sectional area- although not necessarily become big and bulky- and especially important, increase the muscles storage abilities for enzymes and high-energy substrates which aid in performance. Yes, you NEED hypertrophy of your muscles in order to become a better endurance athlete!
3. Maximum strength- Considered the bread and butter by many strength coaches, as the development of this ability is quite possibly THE important consideration when it comes to most sports performance abilities. Before you slam your laptop shut or close the window on your smarthphone and take a sip of your double macchiato thinking that I'm simply "another strength coach who thinks strength solves everything" and "He doesn't understand about the importance of power to weight ratio", hear me out: There are a number of other sports in which the athletes MUST gain maximal power to weight ration in order to be successful- these sports include Boxing, Gymnastics, Powerlifting (You read that right) and volleyball.
In fact, it is from these sports training approaches that I've developed my coaching and training philosophy for the endurance athletes I coach, as our program focuses on increasing MAX strength through a focus on the central nervous system.
In the maximal strength phase we can accomplish strength increases due to refined abilities for intramuscular coordination, which leads us to longer rest periods between sets, which means some may say we are actually going against CrossFits approach (high intensity, super short rest periods), as many folks think about the Metcons as “being CrossFit”. However, Maximum Strength IS an integral part of the CrossFit programming, making up the most amount of time from class to class. It's just that many folks don't think about the strength portion when they think of CrossFit.
However, it remains that from the maximal strength stage that we MUST have these strength gains turn over to the bike via stage 4.
4. Converting max strength to Sport Specific Strength- This is, as we would say on MTV cribs, "Where all the magic happens". IF we've done our jobs correctly to this point, this is where we see the athlete improve their performance on the bike. This is where a properly drawn strength training program for endurance athletes can make a significant impact, yet this is where many of the (few) cycling coaches who do use strength training will stop the strength training program....And where, oddly enough, some of the longer CrossFit Metcons actually hit the mark: They combine metabolic and muscular endurance training due to the length of time and loading for their Metcons (i.e. 10+ min Metcons with submaximal weights- which if your Coach/Box scale the workout correctly and do not having nearly everyone trying to "RX" the workout, you will be using the proper weights to hit this).
While the Metcons are the closest thing we have to getting cyclists and endurance athletes the kind of training they need to TRULY convert Strength gains over to their sport, they aren't quite specific enough...but hey, considering the mode, it's pretty damn close!
5. Maintenance- Here, we as a sport, are so far behind in this phase, as we all tend to jump on the bike and just race/ride all season, with little to no strength training. While at the professional level this may be due to the sheer volume or racing and training stress- and thus a drop off in strength maintenance is a necessity due to the already insanely human ability boundary pushing level of the efforts (Yes, the world tour riders are UNHEALTHILY lean at the end of the grand tours, and we have seen some talk about exactly that in their books/ memoirs!), at the amateur level SOME maintenance should be done throughout the season, ESPECIALLY at the Junior and developmental levels.
But it doesn't take much to maintain! As little as ONE session a week in the competitive phase of the season may be effective in maintaining the gains made.
Again, we MUST weigh the athletes’ level of development, and amount of in-sport time needed for them to compete at their best vs. the strength program. This may result in simply one 30 minute strength training session a week going through the FUNDAMENTAL 5, plus a rotary stability movement, and that's it!
*Note that maintenance does not mean head back to CrossFit mid-season for a mid-week workout, as we SHOULD be focusing out interval work on the bike, and in fact doing the high-impact workouts mid-season may actually detract from your riding. Instead, head to “Open Gym” at the box for a warm-up, some soft tissue work, and 1-2 sets of 15-20 reps of each of the FUNDAMENTAL 5 movements, and call it a day.
So Why/How do endurance athletes see gains from CrossFit?
The answer is fairly straight forward, as I’m sure you’ve come to realize as you’ve read the 5 stages of Neurological adaptation to strength training: CrossFit is hitting stages 1 to 3 for MOST cyclists/runners/triathletes. (Bear in mind that these stages take TIME, and no, 3 months is not enough to go through all 4 stages). If we break it down, this means that most cyclists and endurance athletes who head to CrossFit for their Transition to Base Strength Training work, are seeing Stages 1 and 2 occur, and while you may see your maximal strength go up, it is most likely occurring to the adaptations occurring in the first 2 stages.
Simply put, a CrossFit box with a properly built training program is opening the “average cyclists/triathletes/runners” eyes to the fact that they NEED a properly built Strength training program in order to stay healthy, get faster, and to maximize their abilities!
While we have to thank CrossFit for FINALLY opening the eyes of the general population in these sports, we must also recognize where CrossFit FALLS SHORT in helping us meet our respectful sports demands: It produces athletes of the body type which is most similar to Olympic Lifter, more so than Cyclists/Runner/ Triathlete. And that is TOTALLY OK…..As long as you recognize that there are more specialized adaptations that must be made to your training program in order for you to see the BEST results for your chosen sport.
This is where a Strength & Conditioning Coach or Exercise Physiologist with the correct education, knowledge, and training will make a huge difference for you. And while CrossFit has made a nice effort to cater to endurance athletes through their “Endurance” programming, it’s still missing the mark.
So should you do CrossFit as an endurance athlete?
As with many things in life, it depends. But one thing is for sure, thanks in large part to CrossFit and it’s appeal to the masses, we are finally seeing the tides turn as to how endurance athletes view Strength Training. This is a much needed, albeit incredibly late, change of attitude, and one that will significantly boost our sport to whole new levels over the coming years.
Through proper use of strength training, many cyclists and endurance athletes will see a decrease in days lost due to overuse injuries on the bike; they’ll begin to look and feel great on the bike as their musculoskeletal systems are better able to handle the rigors of being in a closed-off position for long periods of time; and they will begin to realize that simply being the “lightest you can be” is NOT the answer for everyone to climb, time trial, or be the fastest crit racer.
It's about being STRONG, POWERFUL, BALANCED, and having the in-sport SKILLS which will allow you to reach your best performances, and sometimes that means you weigh a little more but can produce a good bit more power....it's all RELATIVE (watts per kg) after all...