If you’ve been a runner for any length of time, you know about cross-training. But did you know that CrossFit benefits runners in the same way? I’ve read articles and books that alternate between praising CrossFit for its ability to work different muscle groups and vilifying CrossFit for being too intense. Last year, I interviewed someone who knows about both: my coach Holly Lynn, owner of Clear Lake CrossFit. Holly is a CrossFit Level 2 Trainer and an RRCA-certified running coach. She spent over 8 years training runners for marathons with the Team in Training program, and she’s the first person I turned to with my marathon training plan. This post is based on my interview with Holly last March.
CrossFit Offers Excellent Cross-Training Opportunities
CrossFit benefits runners by providing good cross-training opportunities, according to Holly. Running isolates very specific muscles, and pretty much every training plan will tell you to include some sort of cross-training, like swimming, cycling, yoga, or strength training. CrossFit provides that outlet and works multiple muscle groups.
Runners often miss out on upper body and core training, particularly marathon runners. CrossFit benefits runners by helping to bridge that gap, along with building lower body muscles like quadriceps, glutes, and hamstrings, Holly noted. CrossFit helps strengthen those muscles to prevent injury because strong muscles are capable of doing more work. Muscle gain can also be a good thing, especially in the second half of a marathon when you’re relying on those gains that you’ve acquired through strength training.
CrossFit Balances Training Plans
For runners that can’t log multiple 18-20 mile runs, CrossFit offers alternative cardio base conditioning. Instead of putting pressure on your joints with the same repetitive movements, CrossFit workouts fill in those gaps, which is another way CrossFit benefits runners. Theoretically, you could go to a CrossFit class, work on your cardio in an endurance WOD, then run six to ten miles afterward. It would take about the same amount of time as an 18-mile run, but without the wear and tear, according to Holly.
When Holly coached runners as part of Team in Training, she’d have them run two 18-mile runs during the training season, and sometimes she’d add in a 20-mile run. When you add in CrossFit, you can cut down to one 18-mile run and one 20-mile run as part of your training, she said.
A CrossFit WOD can also substitute for speed work during marathon training. Think about it: during a metcon, you’re hitting your anaerobic threshold. You’re doing a cardio sprint, but without beating up your joints. At the same time, you’re also working different muscle groups. So instead of hitting the track for an interval workout, you can sub in a CrossFit workout. One thing she cautioned is that it’s important to take recovery days, especially if you’re training for a full marathon. You may come in on a Friday and not squat heavy because you have a long run the next day – but you might also want to take the day before a long run off to let your muscles rest.
The Best CrossFit Moves for Runners
Core conditioning is a requirement for runners. Every training plan and coach will tell you to hit a core class during your training. One of the misunderstandings about CrossFit is that it doesn’t work your core, but it does. A lot of the movements in the box, like overhead squats, snatches, and toes to bar, require a strong core. In fact, most of the lifts in CrossFit require keeping your midsection engaged, especially when you’re heaving a barbell over your head. (Just watch what happens when someone isn’t engaging their core during an overhead squat. Spoiler alert: they fall forward.)
Box jumps, step-ups, and other weight-bearing exercises help strengthen runners’ legs and use other muscle groups. Deadlifts and squats strengthen hamstrings and quadriceps. These are all elements of strength training workouts for runners, but in CrossFit, you’re encouraged to go heavier, building more strength in the process.
Positives Can Be Negatives
Of course, everything comes with a caveat, and CrossFit is no different. In CrossFit, you’ll gain lean muscle mass, a good thing for endurance. But if you gain too much, Holly noted, your race times might be slower. On the flip side, if you’re logging too many miles, it will eat away at your muscle mass if you’re not also keeping track of your nutrition.
How much CrossFit a runner should do is based on the individual, she said. It’s a gray area and can’t be answered without knowing someone’s history and ability. There are a lot of factors that determine how much training a person should do.
There is also one caveat about injury; Holly has seen how easy it is for someone to injure themselves while actively training for a marathon and CrossFitting. If you do too much of anything, there’s the chance of overtraining, where injuries happen. It’s a delicate balance. Any sport can create overtraining injuries, even running alone. Holly encourages those logging a lot of miles to scale back on CrossFit, and vice versa. How much to scale back once again depends on the individual.
Overall, CrossFit benefits runners with exceptional cross-training opportunities. If you’re not CrossFitting as part of your training, it’s worth it to learn more about how it can help.
A version of this post originally appeared as a guest post on the WOD Nation blog.