Crossfit and barefoot running, part 2: the saga of the beer keg


Like I wrote in my last post, my fitness activity this year has mostly been Crossfit. And no question, Crossfit has been doing something. My pants are looser, and I have a much clearer idea of my strength and how to apply it, at least to rudimentary tasks. Recently at a party, I helped the hostess by picking up a nearly full beer keg (about 150 pounds) and moving it where she wanted — with no worries whatsoever that I was going to hurt myself.

photo by twothirstycats (creative commons)

[photo by twothirstycats (Flickr, Creative Commons)]

But at the same time I’ve been chucking beer kegs, I’ve been developing a nagging set of doubts about Crossfit, and thinking back wistfully on last year’s fitness quest (running 500 miles and 9 trail races barefoot), the way one might pine after a long-gone girlfriend. I miss that time alone on the trails, sometimes literally in the dark, feeling my way through the trees.

(Special note: when I say barefoot running, I mean actual barefoot running. Running in minimal shoes may be a fine thing, but it is not the same. Just take off your minimal shoes and you’ll see. 😉 )

Crossfit criticisms and apologetics

Stay with that beer keg because it will reappear later. But for now know that my mixed feelings didn’t fit neatly into the most common critiques of Crossfit. Those critiques, from within the fitness world (check out this lucid and intelligent post by Steve Maxwell) often boil down to these points: a) The high speed and intensity of Crossfit encourages sloppy moves and therefore, it would seem likely, injuries; b) The random nature of the workouts means that Crossfit doesn’t train you for any sport in particular; c) The culture is annoying and/or cultish.

The injury question is easiest to deal with: there is simply no evidence, for good or for bad. Last week I did a search of the academic literature for Crossfit-related injury rates and there is nothing out there. While there are certainly a lot of anecdotes, anecdotes are not good evidence because they provide no rates for comparison. Every activity has some injury rate — the question is how do rates compare?

The discussion of Crossfit injury rates reminds me of the discussion a few years ago over (true) barefoot running, when competitive runners and podiatrists claimed it would cause all sorts of injuries. From the outside it looked that way, especially to people who had no experience with the practice. Advocates for the practice disagreed, and pointed to first principles. But objectively there was absolutely no evidence of any difference in injury rates between runners who wore shoes and those who didn’t. So: the jury is out for now.

The critique about the random nature of Crossfit workouts is also easy to deal with: it’s completely valid, and yet for most Crossfit clients, irrelevant. Crossfit is by design a general training program; the idea that it would optimize someone to be a top competitor in a specific sport is absurd. Cross-training can probably help you build a foundation for competition, but if you want to be a top competitor at a sport, you’re going to have to train that sport. If the Crossfit gods have made statements to the contrary they are getting silly.

But — here is the key thing most critiques miss — most Crossfit clients do not want to be top competitors. Most of them just want to lose weight, look good, have a hard workout, etc. And as far as I can tell (again, no objective evidence on this), Crossfit is extremely good for people with this in mind.

The cultishness factor is a bit more complex. It has positive effects. When I talked to author TJ Murphy, he made the case that the social qualities of Crossfit were an important reason for its success, especially with the average client seeking general fitness, weight loss, etc. Anything that gets a generally immobile public moving and exercising is probably a good thing.

But cultishness has negative impacts too. There is a certain absurdity to Crossfit above the plebian level. It’s excellent — a triumph, really — for a sessile person to train hard enough to do their first pullup, or first ten, or their first handstand pushup. But what does it mean to do fifty or a hundred of those things? It seems to be fetish as well as fitness. At the upper levels Crossfit stops being a program for functional, general fitness (the way it was advertised in this foundational document) and just starts being an end in itself. That is the problem with cultishness — you lose perspective.

A lack of sensitity

To me the most intriguing flaw in Crossfit comes straight out of one of the most admirable things about it: its attempt to clearly define fitness.

In “What is Fitness?” and two videos, Crossfit founder Greg Glassman offers evolving definitions of fitness based first on a list of basic physical skills

Cardiovascular/respiratory endurance – The ability of body systems to gather, process, and deliver oxygen.
Stamina – The ability of body systems to process, deliver, store, and utilize energy.
Strength – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply force.
Flexibility – the ability to maximize the range of motion at a given joint.
Power – The ability of a muscular unit, or combination of muscular units, to apply maximum force in minimum time.
Speed – The ability to minimize the time cycle of a repeated movement.
Coordination – The ability to combine several distinct movement patterns into a singular distinct movement.
Agility – The ability to minimize transition time from one movement pattern to another.
Balance – The ability to control the placement of the bodies center of gravity in relation to its support base.
Accuracy – The ability to control movement in a given direction or at a given intensity.

…and then the physics 101 concept of work (as in Force x Distance) over time.

You’ve just got to applaud this, because it’s so clear and measurable. And you see a lot of this playing out in the famous “Nasty Girls” video.

The amount of work (in physics terms) they do here is impressive. They clearly have mastered a number of items on that list of ten skills — especially power, speed, and endurance of a certain kind. Not to mention teeth-gritting determination. Crossfit values pushing yourself hard. Any suffering you experience along the way is regarded as a good thing — it means you’re making an effort. The lesson Crossfit teaches is that your body is so much more capable of work than you think it is.

When I look at the Nasty Girls video, though, I’m not so sure the video shows that these athletes have mastered other parts of that list — say, agility and accuracy. To me, those words imply a kind of intelligent use of the body — an ability to do things with the least amount of effort, rather than the most. You can’t spend your entire life overwhelming obstacles the way you might grit your way through muscle-ups. Sometimes you’ve got to slide by obstacles instead. This is something a healthy person does, even if it doesn’t demonstrate “fitness.”

Check out the way this barefoot runner deals with this rocky trail:

Notice how the runner in the video speeds up on the sandy parts and slows down to pick his way through the rocky bits? It’s about perceiving circumstances and adapting to them. Barefoot trail runners hate suffering. Despite the “tough” image of the activity, it’s actually the apex of wimpiness. If you’re suffering when you’re running on a trail barefoot, you’re doing it wrong. It’s all about the experience of running, being quiet instead of grunting, learning how to treat your body gently and listen to everything it is telling you. (In fact one common anecdote barefoot runners like to share is the way they came upon a deer, or a grouse, or an owl, or something else a shoe-wearer would never see because they make so much damn noise.)

The lesson barefoot running teaches is that your body is so much more skillful than you give it credit for. It can do amazing things if you listen to what its telling you rather than overruling it.

Can opposites attract?

Here is what Crossfit is missing in my opinion — the goal of listening to the body, rather than telling it what to do.

Practically any physical art or sport (jiu jitsu, sword fighting, ballroom dancing, yoga, to name a few) is going to teach you more of that perceptive skill than Crossfit. No need to get into barefoot running if you don’t feel like it, though it might be the ne plus ultra of activities that show you how to do less work, not more.

Still, few of those activities would give you the great fitness foundation that Crossfit can.

So I think a great plan would be to mix those activities with Crossfit — and to do so even if that means it will hurt your performance at something like Nasty Girls.

The next time I confront a nearly full beer keg that needs to be moved, I hope I remember the barefoot runner way of doing it — 1) don’t pick it up, dude, roll it! 2) tap the sucker; 3) enjoy.

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