Crossfit and barefoot running, part 1: interview with TJ Murphy


(Excuse the long intro — those dying for the interview please skip to the bottom of the post!)

I haven’t been doing much running lately, because in January I joined a gym. I thought I’d focus on Jiu-Jitsu, but I’ve ended up going mostly to Crossfit classes.

It’s a big change because Crossfit is so goal-oriented. Little could be less goal-oriented than the barefoot trail running I did last year. While yes, I did have goals for mileage and races completed, performance in minutes/mile was not really part of it. Barefoot running isn’t about acing races, it’s about the experience of running — feeling every grain of earth, hearing every bird, letting your body adapt itself to the environment.

This video captures the spirit of it. (And just in case you were wondering, it’s exactly what I would look like if I lost a few pounds, gained a few inches height, and went in for a full-body waxing. 🙂 )

Meanwhile Crossfit is all about overwhelming numerical barriers. These girls are racing each other to finish this killer workout (check in on the struggles at about 7 minutes in):

There’s no question that the high-intensity workouts in Crossfit have been doing something for me — my pants are looser for sure.

It’s also one of the biggest trends in fitness. It’s gone from a few gyms a decade ago to about 4000 now, according to TJ Murphy, author of Inside the Box, a new book about the phenomenon, and a former editor of Competitor magazine.

But, at the same time, there’s definitely a fair amount of disparagement of Crossfit. Even among those that agree with its workout regimen (or lack thereof) there’s an annoyance at the addictive, cultish nature of the activity. Once people get into Crossfit, they start talking a new language. Met-cons, WODs, Paleo. Women start wearing socks which detract significantly from their newly developed hotness. (“Crossfit makes men small, and women hot” is the cliche, and it’s got some truth.)

Among those who look at it seriously, especially weightlifters, there’s a concern that chucking around heavy weights for big numbers of reps (as Crossfitters are sometimes directed to do) is anything from pointless to sloppy to downright stupid. That’s just one of the significant critiques of Crossfit out there, from a more “professional” “athletic” point of view. However, for today I’m going to skip the white paper analysis and concentrate on what a regular user or gym member would care about.

I asked author TJ Murphy for an interview to get a broader view of Crossfit than I had experienced in my own gym. His book, Inside the Box, struck me as a fine read and an accurate picture of Crossfit from the avid participants’ point of view.

Using TJ’s own story, it shows why Crossfit appeals to so many people at various levels of fitness. Like a lot of competitive runners (not talking about barefoot runners now), TJ was hobbled by years of hard use of his body. He needed to repair himself, and Crossfit worked for him, giving him kinds of physical capability he hadn’t had even as a triathlon competitor. Along the way he discovered a pretty interesting gym culture — no mirrors, clients with a wide range of fitness, and supportive small-group dynamic mixing camaraderie and competition.

But, I kept wondering — Crossfit is by definition a high-intensity activity. To be a healthy activity, and not just a fitness activity, Crossfit needs to be applicable long-term. Is such high intensity really sustainable? Will people be doing this for years on end? Does Crossfit need a soft side — a barefoot run as it were?

The interview is about 38 minutes.

Here are the topics and some convenient time marks.

  • 0:00 What is Crossfit? What are the distinctive things about it?
  • 3:23 The problematic notion of functional fitness
  • 6:46 Why has Crossfit gotten so popular?
  • 8:46 A key to health: positive reinforcement experiences
  • 11:16 Crossfit and injuries — do they go together?
  • 18:06 Irrational attachments to fitness methods
  • 18:30 TJ’s personal story — a broken athlete mended
  • 22:34 Competition and camaraderie
  • 26:14 On returning to running
  • 28:47 Crossfit lacking as endurance training?
  • 30:53 Is there a soft side to Crossfit? (Here we discuss the videos embedded above.)

After the interview I kept thinking about that last question — is there, or should there be, a soft side to Crossfit (and no, I didn’t exactly mean this)? I’ll take that up in my next post.

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