Crossfit and triathlon training may seem like strange bedfellows at first glance. But with some triathletes halving their training volume and getting the best results of their career, it is worth looking at closely. We get a lot of questions at Triathlon-Hacks.com about whether crossfit and triathlon training can work together to improve strength and triathlon performance.
Common questions include:
Is it relevant and specific for our sport?
Will I get too bulky and slow down?
Is it too intense – should I be doing lower intensity strength work?
Should I only be doing aerobic work?
Crossfit has boomed in popularity over the last 5-10 years.
Crossfit “Boxes” are popping up everywhere with so many people raving about dramatic improvements in strength and fat loss that it has gained some criticism in some circles as a “cult”.
But let’s ignore the hype and examine whether it is a useful tool for us…
What are the facts about crossfit and triathlon training?
Many triathletes still skip strength training. They run, bike and swim and that’s it.
Any regular readers to this blog know that strength training is absolutely vital if you wish to progress as an athlete. This is true whether you are a sprint athlete or an Ironman. Crossfit teaches you relevant, functional strength work, mobility work and is time efficient with tons of variety. The workouts might include kettle bells swings, chin-ups, sprints, squats, deadlifts, overhead press, overhead squats and much more…ALL of this will help your triathlon performance.
Don’t think swimmers need to do strength training?
Here is a glimpse at Michael Phelps strength training session:
Strength work is not an “optional extra”. It is an essential part of triathlon training. If you are preparing for 70.3 half Ironman distance and longer, strength training is even more important.
Now this does not mean lifting weights 5 days a week. It could mean 2-3 days of a 30 minute session. That’s it.
It will help you maintain good form, help you power up hills without getting tired, prevent injury and become fatigue resistant just to name a few…
Reasons I Love Crossfit And Triathlon Training
Crossfit and triathlon training work well together as the class environment helps keep you focused, helps keep you motivated and if you have a great instructor, will keep providing you feedback.
Sometimes in the gym by yourself, you don’t know exactly what to do. You may give up too easily as no one is there to push you to get the best out of yourself.
I also know some male triathletes who think they are fairly strong. But when they get to class and see the incredible performances some of the girls can do, it gives them a much needed kick up the backside to get stronger.
2. Expose weakness
Many athletes tend to train what is already strong. But to be a better athlete, it is important to train what you prefer to avoid. Crossfit and triathlon training provides immense variety to your training and shows up weaknesses that you did not know exist.
Like an overhead squat for example.
Now, you might think, at no point in a triathlon do I need to hold something over my head and squat- and you would be right! But the overhead squat is such an awesome functional exercise that will improve your running, biking and swimming. It will show up poor shoulder mobility, weak posterior shoulder muscles, weak upper back muscles, poor hip mobility and weak core issues.
Many people cannot get close to doing this movement correctly -even with no weight above their head.
It is likely that you spend most of your week hunched over a desk, then hunched over a bicycle for hours. Plus spend many hours doing repetitive movements. If you cannot do this movement correctly, injury is only a matter of time. I know this sounds melodramatic, but it is not. The whole body is connected, so any lack of movement at the shoulders will create strain elsewhere in the body. This may be the lower back, it may be at the knee or the plantar fascia. Nothing occurs in isolation.
Overhead squat will improve your upper back strength, your shoulder strength and your mobility. Improving this range of motion and strength WILL improve your swimming, biking and running!
Try it yourself with a broomstick at home.
It is tough to do it correctly.
Watch this awesome video of a crossfit instructor teaching a new student how to do it:
Notice also how technical it is and how many times she gives her the same instructions like “knees out”.
The point being that even if we “know” how to do something, it does not mean we are always doing it.
Feedback is so important.
3. Improve mobility
Improving range of motion and tissue elasticity is one of the “not-so-well-known-benefits” of crossfit and triathlon training.
One reason I was impressed with crossfit is that there is a strong focus on mobility and range of motion. So much more than most running clubs who do a token 2-minutes stretching at the end of training.
In every crossfit session, there is a dedicated section to improving range of motion and mobility.
This is prioritised and highly valued.
If your muscles are tight and short, they are not able to contract as strongly.
Most triathletes have terribly tight hip flexors due to hours sitting at a desk, a car, then on a bike.
Watch this video by Dr Kelly Starrett from Mobility WOD explaining how to loosen tight hip flexors:..
Limited hip range-of-motion can not only inhibit a triathlete’s cycling power, but also disrupt running mechanics off the bike. If this mobility exercise is too uncomfortable, you’ve definitely got some work to do. Try more subtle techniques of laying over lacrosse ball, or a tennis ball.
3. Good Nutrition
When I discovered Crossfit, I remember being struck by how strict everyone was with their diet, particularly restricting sugar and processed foods. Most of the class were either Paleo or Ketogenic advocates and very diligent (unlike most gyms where people leave the class and go grab a muffin as they “deserve it”).
Many triathletes are fit but have a terrible diet full of sugary gels and drinks. For longevity as an athlete, it is important to understand which fuel source you burn more efficiently, glucose or fat? If your body doesn’t know how to break down fat, you will become a more glucose dominant athlete which means your body will break down lean tissue a lot quicker. The goal for endurance athletes to get our bodies in a place where we burn fat all day long. The ketogenic diet will help you do just that.
4. Time Efficient: Great bang for buck
Brian MacKenzie is a triathlete and ultra distance runner who created CrossFit Endurance, which specializes in crossfit for triathlon training.
His classes focus on movement with an emphasis in running, cycling, and swimming mechanics. MacKenzie and his program have been featured in Competitor, Runner’s World, Triathlete, Men’s Journal, ESPN Rise, The Economist, Outside, and Tim Ferriss’ bestseller The 4-Hour Body.
He is the author of the awesome book Unbreakable Runner
Just like all of us at Triathlon-Hacks.com, Brian is fanatical about good technique. As soon as your form fails, you rest or go home. The session is over.
MacKenzie himself switched from preparing for 100-mile races and training 80-100 miles a week to training just 6.5hours/week with his longest mileage week being 36 miles.
This is crazy and a radical departure from what was normal for that distance at the time.
He started training with Nicolas Romanov, who developed the POSE method of running. Romanov got him running intense 10km and 10 mile time trials training for 100mile endurance events. MacKenzie was sceptical at first but when only 3 weeks into his program, he PR’d a 10 mile time trial by 6 minutes, he knew he was onto something special. In preparation for his 100 mile race, he never once ran over half marathon distance and instead did high intensity speed and strength work. MacKenzie reported that he placed 34th out of 125 runners at the Angeles Crest 100 after training only 6.5 hours per week. “My biggest week of running was 36 miles,” he wrote.
If you get injured running or have never worked on your running technique, this online running course from Kinetic Revolution is a great place to start. Just “running more” will not necessarily improve your running. Instead, understand the mechanics and perform it better.
MacKenzie also focuses on maximizing recovery. Read the 7 best recovery techniques for triathletes. If you are not doing some of these each week, you will not be performing as well as you can. If you have not recovered well after a session, take more rest. Do not do a sub-standard session.
Also remember adherence to technique in training. It is much better to do a 3 km sprint as fast as you can, followed by 3 minutes rest, then repeat 3 times, than run 9km straight with poor form at the end.
MacKenize is also a fan of crossfit and triathlon training in learning the movements like overhead squat and overhead press to improve your triathlon performances.
The limiting factor with running and triathlon is never aerobic but results from muscle fatigue and breakdown. Strength training is what addresses this problem. Typically endurance athletes avoided the gym. However the evidence is pointing to more efficient results from doing strength training.
Here is one of his favourite sessions for triathletes:
8 rounds of 400m sprints with 90 seconds rest.
Mackenzie advises to maintain the same time for each repetition.
It is better to maintain each 400m sprint at 80 seconds….
Rather than do the first one at 67 seconds, next one at 75 seconds, next one at 82 seconds and keep getting slower each time.
You must maintain your form, or you must stop.
Any Other Athletes Using Crossfit and Triathlon Training?
Yes plenty! Guy Petruzelli, a 37-year-old professional triathlete who was injured in a car crash, was determined to get back to training fast. He took up crossfit to help his rehab and was stunned at the results. After a few weeks, he was running faster than before the accident, his lactate threshold on the bike was up 33 % and in his next Olympic-distance triathlon, he recorded the fastest split on the 10K run course, 31:48.
He never went back to “traditional” triathlon training.
Brittany Rutter, a 34-year-old age-grouper and USAT-certified coach had a similar surprise when she added crossfit and triathlon training. Her traditional triathlon training had plateaued, she was frustrated. She soon traded in 5 hr bike rides and 2 hour runs for intervals and gym work. She PR’d her run at Ironman Lake Placid.
Are There Any Disadvantages Of Crossfit And Triathlon Training?
1) Potential injury
My one caveat with crossfit is to be absolutely sure you have an instructor who is fanatical about good technique.
People do get injured with crossfit due to poor technique and going too heavy, too soon. There will be movements you have never done before. Start slowly with a strong focus on getting technique right first before loading up the weights. Get the instructor to keep checking your form.
To be clear-I am NOT saying crossfit is dangerous.
I am saying YOU need to make sure you have the discipline to do it properly and ask for feedback.
2) Risk of over training
Crossfit is demanding sport. If you do hard crossfit sessions on the back of long, hard triathlon sessions, you are likely to have poor form and poor energy. And vis versa. If you drain your energy reserves at crossfit, you are unlikely to have sufficient energy to do a fabulous 3 hour bike ride the next day.
To successfully blend crossfit and triathlon training, you cannot do a full traditional triathlon training program and a full traditional crossfit program. This will result in you doing neither well. Instead, start slowly. Then substitute some of your traditional triathlon sessions for a couple of cross fit sessions. You are not looking to do MORE volume, just higher intensity.
Here is a log of Brittany Rutter’s Crossfit Endurance training:
Her boot camp classes used pull-up bars, dumbbells, kettle bells, jump ropes and boxes for jumping using very traditional movements.
Monday: 5 x 1-mile runs, each rep all-out, with 8 minutes recovery; 3 hours later a strength and conditioning WOD (taught boot camp*)
Tuesday: Bike 32 repetitions with 20 seconds hard and 10 seconds easy, recording total of accumulated distance; Crossfit WOD of 5 x 3 max deadlifts
Wednesday: 400-meter swim time trial
Thursday: Bike intervals; taught boot camp workout for Crossfit WOD
Friday: Swim main set: 8 x 100 meters freestyle hard, 3-minute recoveries; Crossfit WOD 7×1 max weight deadlifts
Saturday: 13.1-mile time trial run; Crossfit Strength WOD that included box jumps, kettle bell swings and pull-ups, all for time, three circuits total and time noted.
Sunday: 20-mile time trial bike
This is very different from traditional triathlon training for Ironman.
Be conscious to allow enough time for recovery.
Record your morning heart rate or use heart rate variability to warn you of overtraining
Some triathletes successfully add crossfit to their modified triathlon training program.
Other choose to add crossfit and triathlon training to their off season program and not do it during the season.
Overall, what works for me is to do crossfit solidly for 6 months in the off season, then switch to more swim, bike, run in the season but still do enough crossfit type training to maintain my gains.
Either way, to just swim, bike, run is not enough. Be sure to add strength work. Crossfit is not the only way to get strong, but it will get you great results and can be a fun, social, motivating way to do your strength training if you are struggling to get it done by yourself.
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