In Defense of Specialization: How CrossFit Gets it Wrong (again)

I. Am. Fired. Up. CrossFit has – yet again – got my blood boiling with their utter nonsense.

CrossFit Meme

As you probably know, I don’t think CrossFit is smart training (for anybody, not just runners). It’s simply hard exercise for the sake of hard exercise.

Check out my previous rants:

The other day one of my coaching clients sent me an email titled GRRRRR…. And predictably, it was about a CrossFit article that she stumbled on. She wrote:

Hey Jason- I just read something in a CrossFit article that has irritated me intensely, so thought I would share the irritation! Out of interest, how would you respond to a comment like this?

I do get asked quite a lot about whether endurance exercise is ‘bad’ for the body (from Crossfitters), and I’d like to have a fair, balanced answer!

The funny thing is my client actually owns a CrossFit box!

Below is a screenshot of the section in question:

CrossFit Craziness

What makes this so irritating is that this is from the official CrossFit Training Guide. These views are endorsed and promoted by the CrossFit organization – thereby proving the organization itself has no basis in science or sound training theory.

There are so many misconceptions and distortions of reality present in just this small excerpt that I thought it would be helpful to dissect each one.

Running is a fantastic sport so let’s be aware of all the BS that exists out there – and fight against it!

“Runners are not the fittest athletes on Earth”

Well, this one is true! Runners aren’t the fittest athletes on the planet because there’s no such thing.

What is the definition of “fit?” The answer is that there are MANY definitions.

The gold medalist in any Olympic event is the fittest athlete on Earth in that specific sport. Specialization is mandatory to reach the highest level of any sport.

You can’t even ask who’s the fastest runner because it depends on the event. As you can imagine, the fastest sprinter is a very different athlete than the fastest marathoner.

And this trend continues:

  • Is the NBA’s MVP “more fit” than the World Cup’s MVP?
  • Is the winner of the Boston Marathon “more fit” than the Olympic 5k gold medalist?
  • Is your conference’s wrestling champion “more fit” than the conference champion in tennis?

Who the hell knows!? There’s simply no way to test these things.

Comparing one type of athlete to another is comparing apples to oranges.

The author may be asking a different question, like “Who is the most well-rounded athlete on Earth?” If that’s the case, then perhaps a decathlete?

But ultimately, this line of thinking gets bogged down in mediocrity:

If you want to be good at many things, then that’s possible. But it comes at the expense of being excellent at one thing.

“Endurance athletes train beyond cardiovascular health”

This is another true statement! But CrossFit athletes train beyond cardiovascular health too with AMRAP and intense WOD’s that go well beyond general health.

And this statement confuses two very different goals: health and performance.

If your goal is to maximize health, then 3-4 runs per week of 30-40 minutes are all that’s needed for optimal cardiovascular health.

To optimize health, you don’t need:

  • CrossFit workouts (Uncle Rhabdo is terrible for your health)
  • Long runs
  • Tempo runs
  • Racing (the effort of racing is too high – just like CrossFit AMRAP workouts)

For most runners, health is simply a byproduct of their training. It’s secondary to running faster.

Because if your goal is to run a certain time in a race, improve on any race performance, or attain a new distance record then you’re not running for health.

In fact, you’re not really exercising at all – you’re training (for more on this critical distinction, read Bill’s case study).

When Eliud Kipchoge set the course record at the London Marathon recently (running 2:03:05) he’s certainly not training to be that fast for health. His goal is to win races.

And do you really think he’s “lost ground in speed” (his 25th mile was 4:38!)?

Besides, let’s not get lost in the “running is bad for you” argument. I’ve addressed that here. And the research is inconclusive about the negative effects of endurance training on general health and mortality anyway.

Endurance athletes have no other skills

This particular claim really grinds my gears:

[The endurance athlete] has lost ground in strength, speed, and power, typically does nothing for coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy, and possesses little more than average flexibility. This is hardly the stuff of elite athleticism.

The CrossFit athlete, remember, has trained and practiced for optimal physical competence in all 10 physical skills (cardiovascular/ respiratory endurance, stamina, flexibility, strength, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy).

Once again, CrossFit is making the claim that to be the “fittest” athlete, you should be mediocre at everything rather than excelling at one discipline.

While it’s absolutely true that distance runners – especially those training for long races of half marathon or beyond – are sacrificing absolute speed and strength for endurance, does that mean they are less competent athletes?

In my view, a great athlete is GREAT at something. A CrossFit athlete isn’t great because they’re just “good” at a lot of things.

Even though they might train for “optimal cardiovascular endurance,” I don’t see many CF athletes winning races. That’s because they don’t have GREAT cardiovascular endurance – it’s just mediocre.

Moreover, CrossFit claims that runners “typically do nothing” for a host of other skills. But that’s rubbish – runners practice many skills:

  • Speed: ever heard of strides and hill sprints?
  • Agility: form drills and plyometrics all of a sudden don’t count?
  • Coordination: drills, hill sprints, plyometrics, and dynamic flexibility exercises all build coordination
  • Flexibility: average flexibility is good! If you’re too flexible or too inflexible, you’re at a higher risk of injury (see here). Plus, runners need a certain amount of “stiffness” for efficiency (our legs are like springs, after all, and flexible springs don’t work)

And I really love the line that “this is hardly the stuff of elite athleticism.” Funny how Olympic athletes are almost always specialists and they are, by very definition, elite!

Here’s a good analogy: if you’re the world’s best theoretical physicist, specializing in categorical quantum mechanics then you are a specialist. Are you less “intelligent” than a generalist who’s moderately knowledgeable about many academic disciplines?

Nobody would ever make that argument. And I don’t think it should be made for athletics, either.

The Bottom Line (and disclaimer)

CrossFit Injuries

First, let me post another quote from this same training guide:

None of this suggests that being a marathoner, triathlete or other endurance athlete is a bad thing; just do not believe that training as a long distance athlete gives you the fitness that is prerequisite to many sports.

CrossFit considers the sumo wrestler, triathlete, marathoner, and power lifter to be “fringe athletes” in that their fitness demands are so specialized as to be inconsistent with the adaptations that give maximum competency at all physical challenges.

It seems that CrossFit agrees with me! There’s nothing wrong with being a specialized athlete.

But there remains a discrepancy that makes CrossFit hypocritical: while they admit specializing isn’t “bad” they also claim that specialized athletes do not have “elite athleticism.” I’ve already covered why that’s untrue so I won’t repeat myself.

Just remember that being average at everything doesn’t make you an elite athlete. Competing at an elite level – in whatever sport you love – is what makes you an elite athlete.

If you want to reach your potential in any sport, specialization is mandatory.

Now, my disclaimer: if you love CrossFit, then enjoy it! There’s nothing inherently wrong with CrossFit if you just want to get in general shape or lose weight.

… but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to get stronger, you’re wrong (instead, train like a powerlifter).

… but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to run fast, you’re wrong (instead, train like a runner).

… but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to improve agility and coordination, you’re wrong (instead, train like a football, soccer or perhaps a basketball player).

Ultimately, train for the thing you want to do. This is not a novel concept but it consistently gets lost on CrossFitters who just want to be the best at exercising.

My client said it best:

I get annoyed at the criticism of specializing, as if it makes you a weaker athlete because you can’t do everything.

As a musician I was able to play as a concert pianist because I specialized in playing the piano endlessly from the years of 4-22. I didn’t want to play a bit of violin, cello, or flute and end up average at everything and good at nothing.

There’s a certain irony in the fact that I own a CrossFit gym! However if I can bring a bit of balance to that mindset then I’ll try.

By using vague terms, ignoring the role specialization plays in the training that allows for elite status, and confusing “generally competent” with “elite,” CrossFit has once again steered us wrong.

Further reading:

Follow-up

My client also sent me this fun anecdote of what it’s like to get a CrossFit certification. Prepare to witness the pseudo-science of CrossFit:

I have no problem with people who love Crossfit. My husband does, and I’m happy for him that his dream of owning a box has happened, and I’m happy to support him in it and work with him there.

So why can Crossfit HQ not just let that be enough – an option for people who want to work out in a group setting? Why all the propaganda and cult-speak, implying that all other sports or exercise regimes are inferior, and Crossfit is the ONE AND ONLY? I loathe that kind of thing. Why the need to brainwash and badmouth all other disciplines? It infuriates me beyond belief.

Last weekend I had to attend a Crossfit seminar in order to get my Level 1 coaching certificate. If I had been given a dollar every time runners or running was mocked during the course of the weekend, I would be enjoying a lavish spending spree at the mall as we speak.

One of the lectures on the first day was called “What is Fitness” and this is almost word for word an example that was used. I KID YOU NOT.

“When we are trying to define fitness, a model that Crossfit uses is called the ‘Hopper’. We imagine a container with a large crank handle, filled with every conceivable physical task. We turn the handle, see what comes out, gather up a selection, and whoever performs the best across these tasks is the fittest. Let’s use an example:

Let’s take three athletes:

  • Dennis Kimetto, the current world marathon record holder. (Cue snorts of derision from the audience at the mention of ‘marathon’)
  • Zydrunas Savickas, Famous Strongman
  • Emily Abbott, top Canadian female Crossfitter.

Let’s give them three tasks and see which one is the fittest! Lowest score wins!

1) Task #1 – max lift deadlift. Winner – Zydrunas Savickas (1 point), 2nd place – Emily Abbott (2 points), 3rd place – Dennis Kimetto (3 points) (’cause, you know, he’s a weak runner)

2) Task #2 – run a half marathon – Winner – Dennis Kimetto (1 point), 2nd place – Emily Abbott (2 points), 3rd place – Zydrunas Savickas (3 points)

3) Task #3 – move 10lb sand bags from one side of a field to another for 5 hours – Winner – Emily Abbott, 2nd place (1 point) – Zydrunas Savickas (2 points – he has the strength but not the endurance), 3rd place – Dennis Kimetto (3 points – he has the endurance but no strength).

Let’s tally up the points and see who is the fittest out of the three athletes!

Emily Abbott – 5 points
Zydrunas Savickas – 6 points
Dennis Kimetto – 7 points

Therefore, we have proved that out of the three athletes that Emily Abbott is the most fit, and Dennis Kimetto the least fit!”

Needless to say, my brain almost went to mush at the stupidity of this argument. This was honestly used as a teaching example for future Crossfit coaches at a training seminar. And everyone just sat and nodded and took it all in. And will likely leave feeling somewhat superior to a lowly athlete like Dennis Kimetto.

Nobody in that room (60-ish people) had the first clue about the incredible dedication, discipline, levels of intense physical & mental training, physical gifting & talent that goes into running a marathon at that pace. Of or any kind of specialisation.

The idea that the average crossfitter is ‘better’ than these world class elite athletes would be laughable, but for the fact that people seemed to be drinking it all in!

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Comments

  1. Here is something I struggle with, I identify myself as a Runner and a CrossFitter, and I like it that way. It may sound mundane but why not let people do what they love? There are so many individuals in this world that do not do anything and are not active at all. Hasn’t anyone realized that it may be caused by the potential criticism that they could come under fire for? But if they can do something they love, and do it in a proper form who cares if it’s both running and CrossFit?

    Let’s face it when it comes to injury, you can get injured from anything. A heavy clean and jerk…if your form sucks…training for any race…if your form sucks…heck you can get an injury from stepping or jumping on something wrong.

    Just seems so judgmental for any and all sides to be critical of what you do for exercise, It’s as if no one can do anything right.

    • Let me be clear: I AM saying do what you love! But from a training theory perspective, CrossFit is not the ideal way of running faster, getting stronger, etc.

      And in regards to injuries, you’re right – you can get hurt doing anything. But when the programming is poor, the workout is inherently unsafe. That’s a big distinction.

      • Really great point – Kristen you an certainly still do Crossfit and Run. Just make sure that your gym incorporates things like warmups, cooldowns, prehab, rehab, individualized workout plans, modifications, etc. If they don’t offer it, ask for it – a successful Crossfit gym should welcome new ideas and methodologies, Crossfit was originally founded on these principles.

        If your gym won’t budge, make sure you do all these things on your own and use the Crossfit classes as added work capacity sessions – just find out what the workout is in advance so you an tailor it into your schedule (ie try to keep hard days with hard workouts and easy days all easy).

  2. I’ve done Crossfit for nearly four years and frankly, I love it. If it weren’t for Crossfit, I never would have started running in the first place. I have only experienced one major injury doing Crossfit, and that was because I rushed a lift and flat did it wrong. What I love about Crossfit is the variety and the society, and I do believe Crossfit has made me a stronger person and runner. I love running because that’s my solitude and it gets me outside, and I just love it. I’m not trying to be an ultra athlete of either genre, I just want to run and Crossfit. I am blessed to have a coach who understands running and helps me gear my workouts to incorporate my running goals. I can’t speak to the HQ philosophy – only to my personal experience.

  3. Terry D Cole says:

    In my humble opinion one major component to this discussion is the “mental” aspect. What is it that makes us “want or desire” to be fit??????? Usually those of us who compete regardless of level of competition will place emphasis on those activities that will support our ability to become better.

    In me personal experiences having competed at various activities for several decades. (DIV 1 football, national level Judo, regional level body building and power lifting, as well as competing in half marathon races at the ripe age of 53, I can confidently say that I trained in specifics that allowed me to be the best I could be in those sports. Now with running I do those things that make me the best runner I can be. (I am still learning) So in a nut shell to make the blanket statement that a specific sport or activity is the all encompassing way to “perfect” or total fitness is really going to far and is not supported by any science or demographic analysis.

    Too many people have started and quit crossfit much like other sports for me to jump on that band wagon and profess it to be “the one”. Having spent 20 years in Army SOF, The some of the above mentioned activities helped me in keeping up with the physical demands of my job. This was long before cross fit became vogue. Cross fit will give way to another system in time and there will have something else.

    In closing……Do what not only helps you physically but what also allows you to feel good mentally. If its crossfit, good for you. I myself have chose running and it works for me on both sides of the issue. (Mental/Physical)

  4. Jason…great post. I find myself engaged in this conversation quite often too and I’ve come to break it down to 2 things:

    1) Know your goals. If you want to be a better “X”, then train for “X”, whatever “X” may be.
    2) The most critical component of point #1 is consistency. In that vein, do something you enjoy and something that won’t get you hurt.

    It’s really that simple. Your “training” should prepare you for that which you hope/expect to compete; or just something you simply enjoy doing.

    One final note on Crossfit…if you are going to do it PLEASE be sure you are doing it properly. Olympic moves are not simply about moving max weight from point A to point B. There is significant technique involved. Please be sure you are practicing that under the guidance of an EXPERIENCED, qualified instructor (again…point 2 above…don’t get yourself hurt). When doing AMRAP workouts, be sure to stop before form breaks down.

  5. I do crossfit and I also get irritated with the crossfit crowd who thinks that the they are the best among the rest.

  6. Alasdair says:

    I wonder if Crossfit have ever heard of David Goggins (ultra distance runner and Navy Seal badass) or anyone that has passed selection for a Tier 1 SOF unit (either US, UK, Australian, South African etc etc etc) those are all pretty much endurance focused events and yet those that pass tend to be pretty much physical specimens across all 10 of their physical domains. Yet according to the CF logic they aren’t capable? hmmm

    • You can add Iron Cowboy James Lawrence to that list (completed 50 Tri-Athlons in 50 consecutive days, in 50 different states) – an amazing feat that I still can’t wrap my head around!!! Pretty sure your BEST CF Athlete would never even come close to that!!

  7. Brendan Dillon says:

    I love a good CrossFit rant.
    Ultimately, I think the most important thing to remember about CrossFit is that it is all about making money. A lot of money.

  8. As a (mostly) former runner and current crossfitter, I agree with much of your argument. If you want to excel at any one aspect of fitness, focus on that thing. But I do wonder if, just once, someone on the internet could present a case without feeling the need to take potshots a la the injury meme above. Why undermine your case with unsubstantiated and simplistic attacks?

    I spent five years focused on distance running. In that time, I had two major hamstring injuries (requiring cortisone shots, extensive PT, and various other treatments that took me out of running for months at a time), ITBS, TFL damage that required PT and PRP injections, repeated calf muscle strains and tears and two lower leg stress fractures. Was that running’s fault? No, not at all, but it was my reality for various reasons.

    In 3 years of focusing on CF, I’ve had 1 broken toe (from a failed lift that somehow managed to land on my foot), a torn plantaris tendon (whatever the activity, my calves hate me) from jumping rope of all things, and, well, that’s it. Does that mean CF is inherently “safer” than running? No, of course not. There are a ton of variables at work here, and I have never said to someone getting into running, “just call me when you want the name of my sports med doc since you’ll inevitably get injured.”

    Stick to reasoned assertions, even first-hand accounts, but please, leave the BS meme crap out of it. It only undermines your argument.

    • CF is inherently unsafe because of its programming. See the additional reading examples. T-Nation said it best: “Random exposure to varying levels of volume, intensity, rest, technical complexity, and power output cannot be sustainable, safe, specific, and productive.”

      And the memes? Just for humor 🙂

  9. Last November, I ran a marathon. During the race, around mile 13, a runner came up beside me and we started talking about the race and our training. He trained for this marathon at a CrossFit box. His longest run was 14 miles a week before the race. He also did a lot of sprint workouts during his training – his coach told him that the muscle fatigue you feel during sprints is basically the same as during a marathon. WHAT?! Then, he proceeded to correct me on my form… Don’t worry, I beat him by several miles 🙂
    My husband does CrossFit, and I respect it for getting him back into great general shape. He healthy and strong and confident. I even work out with him sometimes, changing a workout to fit my goals as a runner. But, CrossFit did not train me to run a marathon. Running and lots of running specific cross training did. I agree with John.

  10. Hmmm. Many of the firefighters I work with are ultrarunners. We have one firefighter running Western States 100 mile endurance run this year and the will be the third firefighter in 5 years to do so. They are all excellent at their jobs.

  11. Brendan D says:

    Hey Jason – It always seemed self evident to me that in order to be able to run fast (at whichever distance) neccessitated lots of running. I guess I would also make the second assumption that other serious runners would think the same way. By that, I mean if your goal is to run fast marathons, then you’re going to have to run lots of mileage. You’re most likely not going to be very musclebound if you’re logging 20 milers (at least I’m not), but that’s a choice you can make. Now as a coach, are you seeing the crossfit style training influencing would be long distance runners? Especially those that may not have had the experience of a college or high school training program? Just my thoughts.

    -B

    • Brendan! Yes, you’re completely right. You have to run a lot if you want to run fast. You can’t plant carrots and expect to harvest kale, if you get the analogy.

      The problems I see with runners doing CrossFit is that:

      1. Runners want to get strong so they do CF WODs – which isn’t as effective as heavy lifting in the gym.
      2. Runners do AMRAP workouts and get destroyed, negatively affecting upcoming runs/workouts.

      The bigger problem is that CFers think CF is the best way to get fast, achieve maximum strength (any powerlifter will laugh at this), and be an “elite athlete.” As Greg Glassman, the founder of CF has said:

      “We’re asked for workouts for baseball, karate, swimming, dance, boxing, but they all get the same thing: CrossFit.” Guess specificity isn’t important!

  12. Taken to excess anything is bad for you endurance, strength, flexibility, power etc. To be perfectly plain people have been doing a variety of physical activities long before cross fit. Kushti/Phelwani is a good example. They climb ropes, use weights, run distances, use awkward objects, heavy club swinging, and even heavy maces for exercise. The point there though is all the exercises are designed for a particular function that aids in increasing overall physical attributes, but with plenty of skill work still being done by wrestling. I remember in college one of my teachers tried making us do a cross fit workout. I just kept good and steady focusing on form and he was trying to encourage me to go faster and faster and faster….and I just looked at him and said no I’m going to focus on form and quality so I’m less likely to get injured. Oddly enough he seemed more impressed than anything else…..case in point we had several students who pushed themselves to hard and to fast and either aggravated past injuries or maybe got new ones. Variety in training is all good and fine and helps to serve a purpose, but you have to actually know what that purpose is. For runners I can’t really see the dire need to do cross fit style workouts, unless they want to. I generally just focus on hypertrophy and strength depending on what area I’m in, but I do run races occasionally as well. For myself there isn’t really anything I could get out of cross fit that I couldn’t do with an area with some good quality hills and proper training/nutrition/rest etc. Runners are runners….not just cross fitters. Cross training is good and has its place, but its almost like we have gone from one extreme of only doing the sport to suddenly trying to do everything under the sun, but without practicing the actual skill of running, or other sports, in question. All in all I tend to find its the medium ground area I need. You can’t go hard and heavy or fast and powerful all the time….unless your some type of genetic beast which I’m not. You use periodization for a reason depending on what type you are wanting to use or if you even want to I suppose. All in all do what you enjoy I guess, but make sure what your doing is serving an actual purpose. If you say its just for enjoyment more power to you, but if there is a specific need or ability focus on that specific need or ability. More endurance? Build up the endurance. Etc.

  13. I definitely see your point. Keep in mind you are posting on a running site. I used to love crossfit, don’t agree with it at all.

    I do agree with a lot of their points regarding specificity. I don’t think it’s good for the non competitive athelete. Bear in mind what you do with your athletes is different and not what I am talking about. As I’m sure you know, if all you do is run, you will get injured (hence the prehab, warmup, strength days, workout cycles etc)

    In their defence, I originally started doing crossfit because I cannot afford to be specific with my defense sector job. You have to be strong, fast, and have a ton of endurance. Unfortunately that means I will only be middle tier (still heads and tails above your standard gym goer) at most things. Crossfit used to be all about this life, now they are about that cheddar.

    For example, I can’t run overseas so I have to rely on crossfit endurance and Powerlifting to stay in shape. Not ideal but that’s life.

  14. You can’t play soccer unless you run. You can’t back country ski unless you run. I have never seen any cross fitters able to last a good game of pick up soccer, or any cross fitters trying to summit on skis. Running allows you to stay in the game, and if you are like me, turning 55 in a week, and who took up ski racing, back country and has been a big all mountain skier for the past 10 years, will understand how confounding it is to people my age who don’t do this stuff. Running is the foundation for everything, and every single person should be able to run a 10K in under an hour up to age 50. Cross Fitters that I know treat it like a sport, but for longevity and natural body movement, an MMA class or martial arts beats it hands down.

    Running gets the fat off the midsection, and when you feel it giggle as you run, and the effort it takes to move with the extra, it doesn’t take long before you realize you have to do something about it. Cross fitters don’t feel this chub move and shake, so it doesn’t have the same impact.

    Anyhow, when crossfitters quit, they usually end up in a walking program, and find the weightloss falls off, so I view it as a fad.

    I can not live without my spring/summer/fall 1/2 marathon training, with lots of 10K races thrown in there. It is keeping me fit and healthy, and next year I intend to ski the Haute Route, so my running program will be critical to my success.

    • That is a tremendously narrow, personal view of CrossFit.

      You make large blanket statements about crossfitters not being able to handle pick-up soccer, or summit on skis…this translates into saying crossfitters can’t handle anything that requires endurance, speed, skill, strength, etc. Categorically false in the broad spectrum. If that is your personal experience with people you know, so be it. However, it is a very unfair assessment of all crossfitters.

      You say crossfitters don’t feel any “chub move and shake,” which again is a blanket statement against the concept that crossfitters don’t have midsection fat and that bodyweight doesn’t affect crossfit movements. If you understood CrossFit, you’d realize that excess bodyweight is a huge factor in many daily movements in the gym, and it does indeed have a significant impact on performance and body awareness.

      Finally…”when crossfitters quit, they usually end up in a walking program, and find the [weight] falls off, so I view it as a fad.” I have no idea what your point of reference is for this. Perhaps in your age group this is common, where you live, but to say that most crossfitters quit, start walking and suddenly lose weight, is silly at best in the grand scheme of CrossFit and people who participate.

      I get that you are a runner and an endurance athlete. Good for you. Your writing here, however, is not as universally applicable as you worded it.

  15. Arturo Murillo says:

    Jason,

    I was a full time runner for 10Years and now I do Crossfit and only do a long run on the weekend.
    When I was a runner a lot of coaches/websites recommend doing strength work.
    When I finally made it to the Gym I was so bored that it never was sustainable, I just wanted to run.
    After an Ultra I got chronic Achilles tendonitis and started CrossFit (no injuries so far).
    Normally and a lot of Crossfit Boxes, have in an hour a warm up 15minutes a strength session 15 min (Deadlifts, Backsquats, Frontsquats, Cleans, etc.) and the WOD.
    I agree the WOD does not help directly with running, but the strength part does. (You are missing that part). You can contact your local Crossfit box and go only the days when they do leg, glute, lower back strength work, and continue your regular running and I am sure it will help and if like me have fun doing it.

    Love Trailrunning & Crossfit, Arturo.

    • I’m not missing the point. CF does increase strength – so do myriad other forms of strength work. But runner-specific and heavy lifts (done properly – not the CF way) are most beneficial to runners. They key words here are “ideal way” and “most beneficial” NOT “also a good way” and “beneficial.”

      For more on this, see my second post about CFE linked to at the beginning of the article. And also why “it worked for me” is not reason/evidence to do something.

      • Arturo Murillo says:

        BTW,
        Just in general if you take your post and change the word Crossfit for Yoga, all your theory applies the same.
        And if you take my comment and change the word Crossfit for Yoga it also applies the same.

        For me is more fun to go 2 to 3 times a week to a yoga class then do all the stretch, foam roll and ROM work required for running. (Same for the strength part of a Crossfit session, that it is done correctly)

        In the long run, It is all about healt and fun.

        Trailrunning&Crossfit&Yoga, Arturo.

        • Arturo Murillo says:

          Last;
          In regular folks.
          In Crossfit WODs you see a lot of bad form, (not in the strength part of the Crossfit session).
          When you see the last 10Km of a Marathon, you see the same rate of bad form.

  16. Crossfitters who run use it as a Crosstraining part of their running regimen is my guess; I considered it at one point, but decided to customize my running program with expert wisdom provided by coaches who specialize in running…I figured out that when people use CF to crosstrain, what likely happens is they sustain a bad injury and will adhere to the high level of CF propaganda that will have them blame said injury on running….ummmm…nope…other way around CFers…lol

    • This is actually how I stopped crossfit endurance full time. Too much intensity and way too often. Now I powerlift and run Ultras – both only moderately. Currently in the best shape of my life and injury free for 4 years and counting.

  17. I do CrossFit and I firmly agree with you. I like it for physical fitness but I go and exercise, regardless of what others are doing, how fast they are going or how much they are lifting, then I leave and go home! 🙂 I am running more than I used to but I’m no longer distance runner for sure. I just like the ease of being able to do random stuff each day and get my heart rate up and meet nice people. I also do not think I’m a better athlete than anyone, including runners. You’re right, runners are great at running (and maybe other sports too) and CrossFit peeps are good at exercising 🙂

  18. Jason,

    I think your article clearly takes a stance on specialization vs crossfit. I wanted to reply to some of things you stated.

    You write, “What is the definition of “fit?” The answer is that there are MANY definitions.” Assuming you read the Crossfit Training Guide (you did, right?), you know that Crossfit defines fitness as “work capacity across wide time and modal domains”. Which means how much power you can generate over differing amounts of time and methods ie running, weightlifting, etc. So right there is the difference between specialization and broad training. You’re advocating getting really good at one thing, crossfit would advocate a broader training approach.

    You write, “The author may be asking a different question, like ‘Who is the most well-rounded athlete on Earth?” If that’s the case, then perhaps a decathlete?’ I think you’re getting close here. The decathlete is well rounded in 10 events. But think about hundreds or thousands of different events. Who would be the best at that competition. Possibly an elite crossfiter.

    “If you want to be good at many things, then that’s possible. But it comes at the expense of being excellent at one thing.” I totally agree with this statement. But for 99% of the world’s population, they aren’t even going to approach excellence at one type of fitness. Why would it be more beneficial for them to run long distance than to be a well rounded athlete?

    I’ll just take one more. You write:
    … but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to get stronger, you’re wrong (instead, train like a powerlifter).
    … but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to run fast, you’re wrong (instead, train like a runner).
    … but if you think CrossFit is the optimal way to improve agility and coordination, you’re wrong (instead, train like a football, soccer or perhaps a basketball player).

    But what if I want to do all of those? Not just four like you say running addresses, but all of them. What if I want to be, stronger, more agile and coordinated, more flexible, more stamina, more peed , more cardio-respiratory more endurance, more power, and better balance? Well, then I’d probably do Crossfit.

    • Yes, CF is a better choice for those who want to be good at many things. I did not say otherwise. I’ll get quite meta and quote myself:

      If you want to be good at many things, then that’s possible. But it comes at the expense of being excellent at one thing.

      • Keep in mind that every elite level crossfiter has stopped doing crossfits a long time a go. Most are using old fashioned periodization programs with different wave focuses that shift throughout the year (and their juicing level). Crossfit will make you decent at many of those things, however, you will plateau very soon, likely within one year.

        At that point it all depends on what your focus should be. This is the problem most boxes that close fail to address – what happens 6 months in after the crossfit class no longer progresses you as an individual. The good ones individualize programs and allow athletes to workout outside of group hours. The bad ones hold on for dear life to the corporate mantra.

        • Excellent point. Even elite CrossFitters don’t become elite by doing CrossFit, which is extremely telling that CF doesn’t allow for “elite fitness.” They periodize, specialize in 1-2 areas at different points in the year, and follow basic training theory principles. None of which is actually used in traditional CF programs.

      • And how many people who do nothing but run are “excellent” at it? Less than 1/10th of 1% could be considered national class, far less than that world class. You’re simply trading being good at several things for being good at only one.

  19. All I can say is that CrossFit and the style of workout of going balls to the walls with something seems just so American and how we do stuff…we want to believe the more crazy intense the exercise the better and you can get in killer shape in 15mins of exercise. It’s like every workout has to be some high intensity session and I just can’t imagine having all workouts be “all out.” I love running because it can be serene and peaceful, bringing balance to busy days. It’s not always about getting a crazy rush out of going balls to the walls. Can that even be good for your adrenal system?

    • It is definitely not and that is a problem of doing constant work capacity movements. Even if you can physical recover (not likely unless you are juicing, gifted, young, or all three), the strain on your neuro system gets to be much. Same thing even happens in the strength world once you start lifting very heavy – an elite non juicing liter may not be able to deadlift more than once a week because of the neuro strain leading to generalized fatigue.

      To be fair, most crossfit gyms come nowhere near this level and are geared towards beginners. Although technique is definitely flawed, that risk is somewhat minimized by the low loads. Still not ideal and way more injury prone than I would program for any athlete, but to sell memberships its hard to say.

  20. So yout yelling me that for the last 40 years pro athletes have not been training a combination of physical strength, endurance, explosive power, and mobility?

    People tend to hate on the word crossfit, ignoring the fact that these basic training phylosophis have been the foundation of all all pro athletes for long time.

    • Pro runners train a combination of strength, endurance, explosive power, and mobility – but they SPECIALIZE in running.

      The basic training philosophy of “specialize in the thing you want to be good at” is ignored with CF. And just because they touch on most elements of fitness, does not mean that their philosophy/approach is foundational. In fact, it is quite the opposite since CF ignores accepted training/exercise science principles.

  21. After 25_years in the Army my body is broken down. Two ankle surgeries, one knee surgery, no cartilage left in the left ankle, and right SI joint. Osteo-arthritis in right knee, right ankle, and right shoulder. I have crossfitting for the past three years and if keeps me strong, lean and functionable. I sustained many injuries in the Army maintaining ultimate fitness to be able to sustain the physical and mental demands that was required to do the mission plus thirty years of martial arts. I am 54 Crossfit four days a week, and Karate one day a week. Crossfit has been extremely helpful in keeping me off the couch. It is like anything else. You can obsese or you can do it I’m moderation. My motto is twice as old twice as long. The only person I compete with is me. Crossfit is not for every one. My wife who used to be a long distance runner, marathons, half marathons, tri sprints, has transitioned to Crossfit and powerlifting, her knees could no longer take the runs. She is 48 and is in the best shape of her life. Crossfit and proper nutrition has helped here trim down to 130lbs of muscle, dead lifts 275, squats 210, front squats 185, snatch 125, and benches 155. She is a mother of two and a total badass. All of her injuries were from running. None from Crossfit. Extremely flexible and looks awesome in a bikini. Don’t judge Crossfit until you have walked in a pair of Crossfit shoes

  22. Hey Jason,
    Thanks for this post. I agree that it gets a little murky when people start comparing sports and saying one is better than another for this and for that.
    And as far as injuries, you need not look further than golf to see a startling number of back problems that prevent people from participating in that sport.
    What I am sensing is this idea of elitism. You clearly state elite level of a sport in your post. And I get that. But some people confuse elite levels with elitism. Meaning that certain athletes in certain niches in their sport are better than other athletes.
    I’m not just talking about crossfit and I am not just talking about running. I see it in a lot of other sports. I think we can all do a better job of including more people in our favorite niche sport. For example, I have seen road cyclists talk smack about triathletes. Why?
    At the end of the day, we are all just trying to be healthier and feel good about ourselves in our own bodies. And if you can do that by running 20 minutes three days a week, training balls out crossfit for an hour four days a week, or train to run a 2:30 marathon, its all about what makes you happy.
    Break down those barriers and get more people excited and tell them why you are so passionate about your sport.
    Thanks for trying to include us all Jason.

  23. if all you want to be is a runner, run. As someone who has to be ready to do whatever the job requires without advanced notice (SRT member- aka SWAT) training in multiple facets of fitness is the ONLY way to prepare for the challenges of the job. You can talk about marathoners being able to beat me in a marathon, or powerlifters being able to lift more on a 1 rep max than me, but I will destroy the average marathoner in any test of strength, sprint speed, vertical jump, etc., and I will also out run, jump, climb, etc. any powerlifter. For people who actually have to rely on overall fitness to save lives, Crossfit and other programs like it (Gym Jones, Ranger Athlete Warrior, etc.) are used by more units than any other training program. Stop bashing something just because it doesn’t agree with your idea that the only measure of fitness is cardio. If you had to sprint 100 yards, scale a 10′ wall, and drag a 200 lb. man 50′ to cover with one hand while providing cover fire, you’ll wish you had done more than LSD training.

    • When is the last time you had to sprint 100m, scale a 10ft wall, and drag a 200 lb man 50 ft to cover while providing cover fire? Sounds badass. I’m in a sof unit and never had the experience. I lift 4 days a week, run or swim 3 days a week, plus whatever training I do. it’s got me through anything I’ve encountered. Once you add 60+ pounds of gear doesn’t matter what workout you do when you start sprinting and climbing lol

  24. Andrew R says:

    I know I’m just one data point, but I’ve noticed that my balance has SIGNIFICANTLY improved since I began running a few years ago (and of course, that’s along with the other benefits of running already mentioned).

  25. Brendan Barry says:

    I actually work with that crossfitter in the first meme. I don’t have the heart to tell her she’s the international poster child for how not to get fit. Strength training is so important! I think Jason needs to make a full video like iron strength! I’m a runyourbq member…great site!

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  1. […] In defense of specialization – are you training for performance (i.e. improving race times), or for general fitness? […]

  2. […] This is why I focus so much on injury prevention, smart nutrition, and getting support when you need it. It’s why I challenge you to train strategically – rather than exercise mindlessly. […]