Can CrossFit Make You A Better Runner?

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Updated: October 21, 2013

By Katrina Plyler for U.S. News

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 three 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.

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As of today, I have finished many half-marathons and trail half-marathons, climbed mountains and 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 three years I’ve been combining running with CrossFit, I have not had one injury. My previous injury was a severe case of ITBS, or illiotibial band syndrome, which led to hip problems. I went from crying tears of relief over three 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 and 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 make 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 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 weight-bearing impact movement is not a good idea. Dynamic stretching is a better option. Again, this is 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 to 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 economy. 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 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 who weighs 30 pounds 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 illiotibial band injury surfaced, it took 9 months to get it to track properly again. My doctor and physical therapist 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 six weeks, I noticed that I had not felt IT band twinges in a few weeks. My running economy improved. My confidence improved. After three 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.

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