The Controversy of CrossFit

The controversy around CrossFit never seems to die down – every injury, every poor sponsorship choice, it all brings a new wave of critical comments and hating on the community. But how much of it is justified?

I was sent a press release today about some recent research that links two consecutive days of CrossFit training with decreased anti-inflammatory cytokines. Within the press release there were negative connotations towards CrossFit in general, that the research made no reference to – already it’s been spun for media release.

So I thought I’d share this article I wrote for PT Magazine two years ago on the Controversy of CrossFit…

This post first appeared in PT Magazine in 2014.

The Controversy of CrossFit

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To some it’s a cult; an ever growing community of individuals for whom CrossFit becomes their lives. To others it’s a swear word, said with a sharpened tongue and a hatred for all it portrays. But, love it or hate it, CrossFit is here to stay. With around 400 affiliates in the UK, and over 9000 worldwide, it’s certainly picking up pace.

CrossFit, as defined in the CrossFit Journal, is “constantly varied, high-intensity, functional movement.” The goal of these functional movements being the ability to move large loads over long distances very quickly, and the result is high power. And with power comes intensity… (not-so) coincidentally the variable most directly associated with positive adaptation to exercise.

So far so good, right?

But, take a look at any fitness social media feed and you are bound to see anti CrossFit comments. Whether it’s a video link of “how dumbass CrossFitters do pullups”, or a picture of a particularly bad snatch technique, the hate is streamed in full glorious colour.

So just what is it about CrossFit that invokes such a strong reaction?

Seizures on a Pull-up Bar

Just one of the more affectionate descriptions of CrossFit that can be found on the internet. Probably the most commonly debated element of CrossFit, the kipping pull-up is actually a relatively small element of the sport.

“The kipping pull-up is for efficiency” says Annabel Ottey, joint owner of CrossFit Raeda in Harlow, Essex along with husband Lee. “Part of the ethos of CrossFit is the ability to move loads over long distances quickly. If I’m going to move my chin a metre, from below the bar to above the bar, 20 times in a WOD (workout of the day), I need to do that as efficiently as possible.”

“In the high jump, the athletes don’t just run up to the bar and do a double footed jump over the bar. You can jump higher if you do the Fosbury Flop. You use mechanical advantage to maximise output. It’s (kipping) a difficult skill to learn. Some people call it cheating, we call it efficiency.”

But this doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone should just dive right in to kipping pull-ups.

The kipping pull-up is for efficiency. In the high jump, you don't just do a double footed jump - you do the Fosbury Flop. Click To Tweet

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Kipping Pull-ups

“Kipping pull-ups are fine if you are strong enough to do them well.” says Joseph O’Connor, principal physiotherapist at Forge Physio in Hertford. “A lot of people start to work on kipping pull-ups before they have the strength to do them ‘strict’.”

“As the muscles around the shoulder girdle fatigue, the lowering part of the movement becomes very passive and the load is taken by the connective tissue around the shoulder, rather than the muscles.”

O’Connor’s experience of working with CrossFit, Strength and Conditioning and MMA coaches is a collaborative one, “Most coaches understand the risks and encourage their athletes to continue to develop strength with good shoulder control through strict pull-ups before working on kipping”.

Some of the videos that do the rounds on social media could be to blame for the stick that CrossFit gets for this particular hot topic.

“I’ve seen one (video) where somebody literally swings their legs up almost parallel and then hooks their chin over. CrossFit would call this non-standard technique an “unusual movement”, and it’s not allowed” explains Ottey. “You would be “no-repped” for this movement in a WOD, meaning the rep wouldn’t count. Sometimes you see things online that are labelled as CrossFit, but they actually aren’t.”

Confusing Nausea with Elite

Another charming quote from the CrossFit haters of the world-wide-web. A lot of people think that CrossFit is always high intensity and really it’s not. The way it’s supposed to be programmed includes rest days, unload days and recovery periods. However, there are some of the CrossFit “Girls” (prescribed WODs that are given female names) where safety could be questioned.

Technique shouldn't be sacrificed for a quicker time or higher score in a WOD. Quality of movement is key. Click To Tweet

“Coming from a weightlifting background I would question why you would do 30 snatches [as in the WOD “Isabel”]. But as a CrossFitter, it’s the ultimate test” explains Ottey. “In that kind of WOD it’s not about lifting heavier, it’s a question of could you maintain form? But you have to be very technically proficient before you start loading. Everything can be scaled.”

And O’Connor agrees, “Technique shouldn’t be sacrificed for a quicker time or higher score in a WOD. Taking a bit more time on these movements and maintaining quality of movement is key. Scaling is also very important when using the Olympic lifts in a WOD. If you take “Isabel” for instance: 30 Snatches for time at 60kg [for men], and your Snatch 1RM is 65kg – you should think about using a lighter weight.”

“Personally I wouldn’t program Isabel unless it was a very advanced person and I was 100% happy with their technique.” Ottey continues. “Sometimes intensity sacrifices technique and that’s dangerous. But that’s down to the coaching, and there are bad Personal Trainers too. You can have all the qualifications and insurance, and work in respectable gyms, but programming comes with experience.”

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One Weekend and You’re a CrossFit Coach

Which brings us on nicely to another point of contention. To become a CrossFit Affiliate you have to attend a two day workshop, and in theory that’s all you need.

“As far as CrossFit HQ knows, I did my course and very soon after a got my affiliate licence I opened a box” says Ottey. “My application did have my background on (UKS&C, BAWLA, Greenwood WL etc.), but I don’t know how fussy they are about what is in your background, and as far as I am aware the criteria is that you have done the course.”

Unfortunately the general public don't have the knowledge to know if their coaches are good or not. Click To Tweet

“In defence of the course there is a lot of pre-reading, and a multiple exam at the end. The pre-reading covers biomechanics, anatomy, rhabdo (rhabdomyolysis – the breakdown of muscle tissue that leads to the release of harmful substances into the blood) coaching mechanisms, dos and don’ts, and the CrossFit philosophy. But no, two days is not enough.”

The nature of the certification means that members have to be able to identify for themselves whether they are at a good CrossFit facility or not. “Unfortunately a lot of the general public just don’t have the knowledge to know if their coaches are good coaches and their programming is good programming” explains Ottey.

O’Connor supports this, “It’s important that athletes strive to gain access to good coaching and programming to ensure they receive the appropriate guidance in relation to their standard.”

Try It Before You Judge It

Ultimately there is a lot of unjustified hate out there for something that actually can make you extremely fit in the broadest sense of the term. And CrossFit doesn’t just bring fitness; it brings with it a sense of community, camaraderie and friendly competition.

As long as you’re sensible and take responsibility for your own body and how it feels, there is absolutely no reason why you can’t enjoy pushing yourself to achieve new greats in this really infectious and addictive sport. And as with any trainer or coach you might look to work with, check their background and experience to guarantee you’re getting the best.

Barbelles Group ShotBlack and white photos taken by Lucy Rakauskas at the ladies only Barbelles Training Day.

7 Surprising Things CrossFit Will Teach You About Yourself

CrossFit has long been dismissed in the general fitness industry as a hype, a fad, or a cult. But with more and more boxes (CrossFit speak for gyms) popping up around the country, and indeed the world, there’s got to be something that keeps people rocking up to lift heavy stuff and bust a sweat.

Once you start CrossFit, it’s a pretty steep learning curve, and not just in the movements and acronyms you have to learn… you learn a lot about yourself too.

What you’ll learn about yourself from CrossFit

1. You were taking it easy before.

This may offend some people… hell, this whole post probably will because it’s got the word “CrossFit” in it, but you can’t please everyone! But the truth is, you probably never pushed yourself as hard as you thought you did before going to CrossFit.

Almost every CrossFitter has had at least one moment of cockiness where they’ve looked at the board and thought “oh yeah, I’ve got this” and then totally blown out partway through the WOD. It’s normal. That’s why most boxes have the “leave your ego at the door” rule emblazoned on their walls!

CrossFit will push you in ways you never thought possible, to work harder, move faster, lift heavier and generally be more. Even after 2.5 years I still find myself crawling around on the floor at the end of some WODs having had my ass handed to me – CrossFit has an innate ability to make you feel really unfit, even when you’re the fittest you’ve ever been.

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2. You’re stronger than you think you are.

On the other hand, CrossFit is also able to bring out the best (or beast!) in you. Especially for newbies, improvement in strength and fitness is on a steep increase the moment you start to get to grips with the correct movement standards. Come your first 1RM testing week and you’ll almost certainly surprise yourself with the amount of weight you’re able to shift. And every PB will feel like the biggest achievement.

You might look at others at the box and think you’ll never lift as heavy as them, but then you’ll realise that they probably felt like that too, at some point. Trust in the programming, believe in yourself and you’ll find your strength. And then when you do, you’ll curse yourself because your working percentages will increase!

Read: What is CrossFit?

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3. You can’t count under pressure.

We’ve all been there; you know the WOD inside out, you’ve planned in your head how you’re going to break the reps up and how to tackle those burpees, then the clock counts “3, 2, 1… GO!!” and you dive in. All of a sudden, the blood is pumping harder than you ever thought possible, you’re sweating from pores you never even knew existed and you think “Wait, am I on rep 7 or 8? What round is this?!” If only we had someone to count our reps for us all the time!

Sometimes at the end of a WOD you can barely remember your own name or where you are, let alone what your score or finishing time was. I like to see the positive in this, and actually think that CrossFit helps us build on carrying out calculations and focus on counting while under quite extreme pressure. If you can do this, you can probably focus through lots of different distractions!

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4. You’re actually quite competitive.

So here’s the scenario… you’re standing there waiting for the clock to count down, relaxed, focused and ready for the WOD. The timer signals GO and you get to work, but then you notice your workout buddy is just ahead of you – “oh hell no!”. You suddenly pick up the pace, determined not to finish too far behind. You may not have thought you were competitive, but a bit of box rivalry is the perfect motivator to push yourself that little bit harder.

When you see your box mates hitting new highs, pushing boundaries and achieving new skills, you can’t help but want to be swept along with it. Seeing people doing great things instills optimism, and with optimism comes determination and drive to achieve more too. A little bit of competition is good! And even if you are the rare breed who doesn’t feel a competitive urge at the box, at the very least you should want to be competitive with yourself.

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5. You have strengths and weaknesses.

CrossFit is very good at highlighting people’s strengths and weaknesses. It’s often tempting to only train the things we’re good at – usually because when we’re good at things, we tend to enjoy them more. The problem with this approach is, we get better at what we’re good at, and don’t improve (or even regress) things we’re bad at.

Because of the variety of movements in CrossFit, there really is no hiding – if you’re not so good at something, it will eventually show. This is also the beauty of CrossFit, because everyone has an opportunity to shine. Where you might lag behind in some workouts, you can make up ground in others. Just look at Sam Briggs’s comeback in the 2016 Regionals – she was all the way down in 30-somethingth place and clawed her way back with two event wins and a third place finish to secure her spot at the CrossFit Games.

Embrace the bad, and enjoy the good. All of it makes you a well-rounded athlete.

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6. You often want to do too much.

Something all CrossFitters will have experienced at some point in their lives is what I like to call “WOD envy” or “FOMO” (fear of missing out). You know, that day when you can’t or don’t go to the box and there’s a WOD you just know you would have loved? This, combined with the community feel and certain addiction that come with CrossFit, can lead to you wanting to take too little rest so as not to miss out. But, this can lead to niggles and, eventually, injuries as your body fails to get enough recovery. Rest is so important to every athlete, but it will mean different things to different people. Some can recover faster than others, which is dependent on lots of things, such as genetics, nutrition and how well you rest.

Ultimately, your ratio of training to rest will come with experience, trial and error. If you get warning signs of overtraining, such as persistent muscle soreness, increased susceptibility to illness, insomnia, irritability, decreased appetite, or niggles, you should think about looking at how often you’re training. Try swapping out a CrossFit session for yoga or swimming. And make sure you see a physiotherapist or sports therapist for those niggles before they develop into injuries.

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7. You’re actually quite defensive.

When you first start CrossFit, the likelihood is you’ll have naysayers asking “aren’t you worried you’ll get too bulky?” or saying “you’ll only end up injured!”. CrossFit is not entirely innocent from criticism – there are still movements that I believe to be problematic, or even dangerous, and the programming can be questionable at times. But, overall it’s made a lot of people a lot fitter, increased interest and participation in sports such as Olympic weightlifting, encouraged mainstream gyms to buy in more functional equipment in order to compete, given injured athletes and services personnel something to train and compete in, and given us tops-off-Tuesdays and booty shorts… yay for CrossFit! 

Whenever there is something new and, seemingly cult-like, there’ll always be criticism. The controversy around CrossFit is mostly unfounded and, unfortunately, a few poor coaches and actions set the negativity rolling for the rest of the community. You’ll probably have found yourself on many an occasion stepping up to defend your sport, and sometimes you’ll take things personally – but remember that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time.

And sure enough, CrossFit is gaining respect, well, until it announced giving Glock pistols to the winners of the CrossFit Games, that is. But let’s not touch on that one…

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What has CrossFit taught you?

CrossFit is arguably partially responsible for the change in how modern women want to look – strong, athletic-looking bodies are more desirable, and potentially more achievable, because of CrossFit. More people are getting into sports they never would have realised they were good at without CrossFit. It’s changed a lot of people’s definitions of what fitness is, and especially empowered a lot of women to do things they once thought were reserved for men.

Have you found out things about yourself since starting CrossFit? What has CrossFit changed about you? Comment below or get in touch on Instagram, Twitter or Facebook – I’d love to hear from you!

Initial Thoughts on the Nano 6.0 ¦ Plus How To Get to Regionals

With Regionals finished and the countdown to Carson well underway, Reebok launched its much anticipated Nano 6.0 today. I got the chance to put the new shoe to the test in a Nano 6.0 Throwdown, alongside other lucky CrossFitters from the London area, members of Team Reebok UK, and world-renowned CrossFit athlete, Tommy Hackenbruck. I also managed to grab Tommy for 5 minutes to talk Open Strategy, for those of you hoping to get to Regionals next year!

So grab a cup of bulletproof coffee and get comfy…

Initial Thoughts on the Nano 6.0

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Bringing out a new shoe each year, Reebok have made continuous improvements evolving the Nano from one that’s good for lifting and light cardio, to one that’s a genuine aid to your CrossFit workouts. I’ve had every model of Nano except the very first one, and in my opinion there have only really been two releases that have broken the mould and made huge improvements in its performance while still keeping it comfortable to wear: the step from Nano 2.0 to Nano 3.0, and now this one, the step from Nano 5.0 to Nano 6.0.

Here are a few of the main differences (how I see them… not in tech-shoe speak!)

  • Softer fit – if you read my post on what trainers to wear for CrossFit, you’ll know that I found the Nano 5.0 quite stiff. While this did ease with wear, it still wasn’t as soft as previous models. But the Nano 6.0 addresses this with a much softer feel. The only downside is they seem to have stepped away from attaching the tongue to the sides of the shoe, which I liked about the Nano 5.0 because it stopped it creeping round. But all in all, these bad boys feel super comfortable straight out of the box.
  • Arch support – all of the Nanos have felt quite flat-footed, but the Nano 6.0 has a more moulded fit, including a much better arch support. This adds to the comfort of the shoe, and makes it better for those who are prone to knee valgus (where the knees roll inwards) when jumping, lunging or squatting.
  • Increased heel drop – the Nano 5.0 had a 3mm heel drop (the difference between the thickness of the heel and the forefoot), but Reebok have increased this by 1mm to 4mm for the Nano 6.0. 1mm may not sound like much, but when you’re lifting, every millimetre can help with your form.
  • Sandpaper-texture – the inner quarter of the shoe is covered with a sandpaper-textured Kevlar webbing, promising ultimate grip for rope climbs, along with the RopePro+ technology in the sole. I haven’t tried these for rope climbs yet, but I’m excited to see the difference in grip and durability.
  • Look and style – the Nano 6.0 is much more understated than the Nano 5.0, which I liked, but felt looked a little busy at times. There’s a little more branding, with the Reebok Delta logo on the outer side of the shoe, but I like the logo because of its association with a life of fitness. Each side represents the changes – physical, mental and social – that occur when people take on an active lifestyle. This is similar to the thought process behind my own logo!

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The Nano 6.0 costs £90 and is currently available in 6 colourways (3 men’s, 3 women’s) from Reebok or Whatever It Takes. The launch of this shoe also comes with Reebok’s latest campaign, the #powertobemore, where they believe in the power of fitness to help you be a better you. You can even create your own graffiti photo using the Power Generator – just go to http://fitness.reebok.co.uk/power-to-be-more.

And if your goal to “be more” is to get to Regionals, then I’ve got just the thing for you…

How to Get to Regionals

A man who knows all about what it takes to get to Regionals is Tommy Hackenbruck. Hackenbruck is a six-time consecutive CrossFit Games competitor. From 2009 through 2011 he competed as an individual before switching over to the team side to captain Hack’s Pack UTE. In 2012 and 2013 Hack’s Pack established their dominance by winning back to back Affiliate Cup championships. In 2014, Hack’s Pack disassembled and Hackenbruck returned to individual competition where he won the South West Regional. Hackenbruck took sixth place overall this year at the Games but his best finish remains second place in 2009. Prior to CrossFit, Hackenbruck played linebacker at the University of Utah.

This year, he missed out on Regionals by 5 places in the Open, with 16.4 knocking him out of the top 20. He had good reason to be distracted, having his third child with wife, Ally, that week! I caught up with Tommy at the launch of the Reebok CrossFit Nano 6.0 last night, and he gave me his top tips for reaching Regionals:

  • Know your competition – look at the top men or women in your region; what can they lift? What are their benchmark WOD times? Really delve into the numbers and become a stats geek! These are your minimum target times and numbers to hit – remember that these athletes in a year’s time will be stronger and faster themselves!
  • Know your strengths – but more importantly, know your weaknesses. What areas do you excel at, and what areas need more work? It’s no use having a massive snatch (no pun intended) but being terrible at gymnastics; to reach Regionals you need to be a good all-rounder.
  • Make it your job – you need to make training your primary focus if you’re going to hit Regionals. The men and women who progress are the elite, and elite athletes aren’t usually hobby CrossFitters. You can do it alongside a day job, but it helps if you can really commit to the training, and get enough rest at the same time.

If you want a way to help you map your goals and identify your strengths and weaknesses, keep an eye out for one of my next posts where I’ll be sharing a method of performance profiling!

What do you think of the new Nano 6.0? Are you going to invest in a pair? Are you hoping to get to Regionals one day? Comment below, or on my Facebook, Twitter or Instagram. I’d love to hear from you!

Photos taken with my Olympus PEN E-PL7* and M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm 1:1.8 Lens*.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary pair of Nano 6.0 trainers from Reebok. As always, my opinion is my own and not affected by items or services gifted to me. To find out more about my policy on this and other matters, see my Disclosure page. * Affiliate link. Affiliate links do not affect the price that you pay, but any commission earned helps me to pay the costs of running this site. To find out more about my policy on this and other matters, see my Disclosure page.

Can CrossFit Make You a Better Runner?

If you follow me on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter you’ll know that I’ve fallen a little bit out of love with running over the last year or so, or since my stress fracture. I can’t justify or explain why, but I guess it has something to do with the fear of being rubbish, or it being really hard or painful!

Realistically though, this fear is mostly unfounded; I do CrossFit four or five times per week, where we do a little bit of running or rowing and plenty of high intensity workouts, so technically I should have enough general fitness to carry me through a short- to mid-distance run. But in practice, how does this style of training carry over to running, something people usually train very specifically for?

CrossFit for Cardio Endurance

There’s no denying that CrossFit has made me the strongest I’ve been in my life – I can do bodyweight pullups, throw 70+ kilos above my head, and pull nearly double my bodyweight off the floor in a deadlift. I’m sure, in some ways, I’m fitter too; I’ve clocked a 1:51 500m row and quite often push myself to the limits on high intensity WODs, but how does that compare to more endurance based exercise, such as running?

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As is CrossFit’s aim, you should be capable of doing almost anything you want or need to do, simply with doing regular CrossFit classes. Taking the running example, strength work makes your muscles able to deal with the demands of uphill inclines, and to generally carry you the distance. Metabolic conditioning (met con) keeps your cardiovascular system ticking over and coping with a certain amount of lactic acid build up. And the mental toughness required to push yourself harder makes the world of difference when it comes to those moments of every race/run when you just want to give up!

By building on general strength and mobility, CrossFit is able to help make you a more efficient runner – taking longer strides, generating more power out of every step and helping to prevent damaging movement patterns like heel striking, overpronation and valgus knee collapse. I found evidence of this myself after going for a gait assessment with Asics a few weeks ago – I am now a neutral runner after years of overpronation!

The Proof is in the Pudding

Over the last year I’ve had two fairly standout moments that have made me think about CrossFit’s effect on my running performance. The first was at the Hatfield Broad Oak 10k race at the end of May bank holiday in 2015. I had signed up to run with a couple of my husband’s friends and, despite best intentions, only trained two to three times, max 3 miles, in the lead-up to the race. But even with this lack of specific training, I clocked a time only 2 minutes slower than my 10k personal best time set in 2012 (when I was marathon training).

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The second standout moment was only a week ago when I managed to force myself out for a run for the first time in months. I started off feeling nervous in anticipation of a struggle round the 5k route I’d set myself, but soon realised that, actually, my pace wasn’t too bad and I was feeling pretty decent. I pushed myself for the last mile, and finished 2.5 minutes slower than my 5k PB… with NO specific training.

CrossFit x Run Training in Practice

In an effort to kick-start my running motivation I thought I’d book myself a race to give myself a reason to run. Rather than pushing myself for a half marathon distance, which would require a fair amount of training and dedication, I thought I’d go for something more realistic for my sporadic running attempts… the Vitality British 10k in London. An achievable distance, 10k pushes me to train a little, even if only to finish without hurling.

I love running in London, and I even got a training run in while attending an event with Stance Socks last week. Stance combine art with performance in their running socks (which you can buy from Whatever it Takes, Pro:Direct Running or [Kit]box), and we wore some for a tour with Alternative London of some of East London’s best street art, including Banksy, Roa and Ben Wilson, as part of Stance Socks’s European Street Art Tour. One of the finds that amazed me the most was Ben Wilson’s chewing gum art – he paints tiny little scenes on chewing gum that people have dropped on the streets, turning something ugly and thoughtless into pieces of art protected with varnish! Next on the street art tour is a run in Copenhagen on 25th May – you can keep up with the tour using the hashtag #stancerun.

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I wonder if I’ll see any of Ben’s work on the British 10k course? Even without street art, the course looks particularly scenic, passing landmarks including the London Eye, Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. Starting on Hyde Park Corner, the route takes in Piccadilly, Regent Street, Pall Mall, St James Palace, Trafalgar Square and Embankment too. Having never gotten into the London Marathon (despite many, many attempts!), it’s my only chance to really take in the sights on a run. 

In terms of training, I aim to complete just one to two runs per week… my only specific running training. My priority will be a distance run, which will amount to between 4-6 miles, and if I can fit it in, then I’ll also do a tempo run of around 3 miles. Normally, if I was to train specifically for a race, I would aim to complete a third run each week, which would be speedwork or hill based, but with CrossFit taking me to a high intensity regularly, I feel as though I could sacrifice this quite safely. Any more than three runs per week seems to be a waste to me anyway (unless you’re looking to build really high weekly mileage into your legs, e.g. for ultra training), and I’d much rather get my CrossFit sessions in for strength training, and a yoga class in for mobility.

So my training programme should, hopefully, look something like this:

Monday – CrossFit 6am

Tuesday – CrossFit 6am

Wednesday – CrossFit 6am, Run 6pm (or Midweek League race)

Thursday – Yoga 6pm, or Weightlifting Club 7:30pm

Friday – CrossFit 6am

Saturday – Weightlifting Club 10:30am, or Run 9:30am

Sunday – Rest day

8 Week Countdown

So now I’ve signed up for the British 10k I’m committed to racing it… I don’t want to put my foot in it by stating a goal time, but let’s just say I’m hoping to prove I can run just as fast off the back of CrossFit as I can with months and months of specific training in my legs. I have another 10k race, plus some running club midweek league races that I can do to get the timing practice in between now and race day, and 8 weeks to do it all in. Watch this space!

Are you a running CrossFitter? Have you noticed a difference in your running training since starting CrossFit? How do you think strength training helps your running? Comment below!

This post is sponsored by Vitality British 10k. Photos courtesy of Lucy Rakauskas, ContreJour Photography and Stance Socks.

Creatine Supplementation for CrossFit

I’m not typically one for supplements; I tend to go with the philosophy that you can get everything you need from what you eat and drink. Yes, I take whey protein, but only usually on my training days in a post-workout smoothie as a pre-breakfast breakfast, or as a method of cooking healthier alternatives to my favourite snacks, like protein pancakes, protein waffles, or other sweet treats.

But one supplement I have been taking this year that I feel has made a big difference to my training is creatine. Whenever I’ve been asked about supplements, I’ve always expressed the opinion that the only one that really has solid research behind it is creatine, and now I’ve experienced the benefits of it first-hand I really can put my money where my mouth is.

So what exactly is creatine?

Creatine occurs naturally in the body as phosphocreatine (or creatine phosphate), and it is one of the molecules that creates immediate, usable energy for the cells of your muscles, in the form of adenosine tri-phosphate (ATP). This energy source is the one that gives the “spark” to your ignition – fuelling the first few seconds of a sprint, the power behind a heavy lift, or the drive in your high jump. It’s fast acting and short in duration, before your body moves on to using the next energy system in the chain.

Put simply, supplementing with creatine means the body has more capacity for creating ATP, enabling you to recruit more muscle fibres and work harder. And if you can work harder, you will get stronger, faster.

Creatine supplementation can help you get stronger, faster. Find out more: Click To Tweet

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Benefits of creatine supplementation

There are many, many suggested benefits of supplementing with creatine, but the few that are reliably backed by research (and, in my opinion the most important ones) are:

Increased muscle strength/power

One study found a 20% increase in muscle strength following creatine supplementation and a resistance training programme, compared to 12% with a resistance training programme accompanied by a placebo.

Another study found that the force output by a muscle following creatine supplementation was 33.4% higher (peak torque), with the time to reach peak torque 54.7% lower, when compared to a placebo. This resulted in a 8.9% increase in the speed of the electric signal causing the muscle to contract after supplementation. As you may already know, force x velocity (speed) = power.

Increased anaerobic performance

Several studies have found improvements in VO2 max tests (the maximum amount of oxygen your body can uptake), and anaerobic performance in sprinting, swimming, and Wingate (cycling) tests. Though some of these studies only found significant differences in men, and not women (while others demonstrated results in both genders).

Increased muscle mass

Many studies have found increases in lean body mass associated with creatine supplementation. At first, this is often attributable to water retention in the muscle (water also counts as lean body mass), but after continued use and training, muscle mass is also significantly increased).

Caution when using creatine

There have been concerns about kidney function with creatine use, but recent research has found that continued use of creatine as a supplement is perfectly safe for generally healthy individuals. Those who already have kidney troubles should check with their doctor before using creatine.

Another common concern with creatine is water retention. Creatine encourages your muscles to take up more water, which can give a pumped up effect (which some users like for the aesthetics of bigger-looking muscles!) and can come with increases in weight of over 2kg. As long as you drink plenty of water to help keep you hydrated, this is totally harmless. I find myself mega thirsty when I’m taking creatine, so drinking enough won’t be difficult!

Creatine SupplementWill creatine work for me?

Not every supplement has the same effect on everyone. I’ve personally found creatine to have a huge effect on my training and performance; I had the best 1RM testing week since first starting CrossFit after taking creatine for about 6 weeks, I also had immediate strength gains when testing my Olympic weightlifting moves after just 1 week of supplementation. But not everyone will reap the same benefits.

What appears to be the biggest influencer on creatine supplementation effect, is the amount that is actually taken up by the muscles – and this seems to vary from person to person, with some being identified as “responders” while others are not. All I can suggest is try it and see!

*Updated 24th May 2016*

In fact, in my recent fitness DNA test, I read that “around 1 in 3 people do not respond to the positive effects of creatine. Although it is not completely understood why, it may be that non-responders have high natural levels of creatine and that supplementation does not have a significant effect. Unfortunately, it is currently not possible to tell from your genes whether you are a ‘responder’ or ‘non-responder’. The only way to find out is to try it yourself.”

*End of update*

How should I take creatine?

What's the best way to take creatine supplements? This post tells you all: Click To Tweet

The most commonly researched form of creatine supplement is creatine monohydrate, it’s also the best value for money as it’s fairly cheap but can give you fantastic results. I use MyProtein creatine monohydrate* unflavoured powder and just add it to my post-workout smoothie or, if I haven’t trained that day, to some orange juice.

There are two options for dosage method, cyclical or constant.

Cyclical

  • 1 week load period 20-25g of creatine per day, spread out in even doses throughout the day
  • X number of weeks at 2.5-5g per day, or 0.03-0.05g per kg of body weight
  • 1-2 weeks break before starting the process again

The load period is associated with a huge stocking up of creatine in the muscles, which brings with it increased water retention and a bigger “pump”. There are arguments that significantly bigger boosts in strength and power can be identified in this period.

Constant

  • 2.5-10g creatine per day (or 0.03 to 0.1g per kg of body weight)… indefinitely

This usually means less water retention, and a more consistent uptake of creatine into the working muscles.

Which method you choose, is entirely up to you. How much you take within these ranges is dependent on your body weight and activity level/intensity. I take around 5g per day (2 small scoops) every day, and I noticed a difference within the first week of taking it, even without a loading period.

The good news is, as well, that the effects don’t seem to drop off after you stop taking creatine, i.e. there is no reduction in strength after discontinuing supplementation.

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Relevance for CrossFit

Because of the nature of CrossFit training, with heavy lifting, anaerobic/high intensity workouts, relatively frequent submaximal efforts, creatine has huge potential to improve performance. The strength and power benefits, anaerobic capacity improvements, and accelerated growth of lean muscle mass are all of great use to any CrossFitter. There are also arguments that creatine can help with recovery after exercise, which is also useful for those who train to the typical CrossFit programme of 3 days on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off.

Have you ever taken creatine as a supplement? What do you think of it? Is there anything else you want to know about it? Comment below!

Photos taken using my Olympus PEN E-PL7* and M.ZUIKO DIGITAL 45mm 1:1.8 Lens*

* Affiliate link. Affiliate links do not affect the price that you pay, but any commission earned helps me to pay the costs of running this site. To find out more about my policy on this and other matters, see my Disclosure page.

Fitness Myths – Busted!

Everyone seems to be an “expert” these days – people who have worked in the industry for all of about 5 minutes claim to be “fat loss experts” or “high performance training pro” (bro). In reality, none of us are experts. And those who are truly top of their field acknowledge this. Research is always changing and updating. People find new ways of training, eating and sleeping that bring about huge differences for some, but not necessarily for others.

Fitness Myths – Busted!

What doesn’t help, though, is all the conflicting, confusing, and sometimes just downright incorrect information floating about – it doesn’t help anybody! So, after reading Zanna’s brilliant nutrition myths post, I thought I’d do one busting common fitness myths.

You have to work flat out all the time

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This is synonymous with the “go hard or go home” mentality and it drives me mad. Working at maximum effort all the time, every time, is only sustainable for so long and will, yes WILL, lead to burnout, or worse… injury. Working at different intensities and durations, on the other hand, will allow you to work on different areas of fitness (cardiovascular, anaerobic, endurance, power, etc.), helping you to get fitter and stronger.

Ideally, every training programme would follow cycles – each with an intended purpose, which dictate the volume and intensity of the session. Each cycle should have rest, or de-load sessions, scheduled within the cycle, and between cycles too. If you programme your own training, look up “periodisation” to learn more about cyclical training, or speak to a Personal Trainer who should be able to help advise you.

X exercise is better than Y exercise

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I hear this all the time. When it comes to general fitness, lifestyle, or even (to a certain extent) aesthetics, there is no such thing as one form of exercise being “better” than another. Everyone is different, physiologically, anatomically, and psychologically – and, yes, all three of these matter! There could be a number of different exercises, sports, training methods that suit you and get you to your goals. The most important things are:

  1. Do you enjoy it?
  2. Is it making you fitter/improving your health/getting you active?
  3. Can you keep it up?

If the answer to all three is “yes” then you’re onto a winner. Don’t let anyone tell you that ballet is better than Zumba, or that a split body training programme is better than CrossFit. YOU decide what works for YOU!

Muscle and fat weigh the same

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Let me just get this straight… muscle DOES, well and truly, weigh more than fat. People who say “but 1kg of muscle and 1kg of fat weigh the same, it just takes up less room” are being too smart (read = idiotic) for their own good. I think you’ll agree that saying 1lb of anything and 1lb of anything else both weigh the same! Of course they do… they’re both 1lb! The point is, that for its size, muscle weighs more than fat.

When people start weight training and their weight is going up, it’s most likely because they’ve gained muscle… the overall effect on size, though, is typically a reduction. Because muscle weighs more than fat. Trainers come up with the 1lb = 1lb argument all the time to try and sound clever and it just confuses people. KISS.

You must train in the fat-burning zone to burn fat

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Ever since those HR training zones first came out people have believed that they must be working within that magical fat-burning zone to lose weight (fat mass). There are plenty of arguments as to why this is inaccurate and misleading, including things like the post-training metabolism boost you get from higher intensity exercise, but I’m just going to give you the simple calorie burn per exercise, which should help to show you why this is a myth.

70kg woman, exercising for 30 minutes:

  • Fat-burning zone (low intensity) ~60% max HR = 170 calories, 85% from fat (145 calories)
  • Anaerobic zone (high intensity) ~80% max HR = 290 calories, 50% from fat (145 calories)

At both intensities, our woman is burning the same amount of “fat calories”, but those other calories from the anaerobic zone come from sugars stored within your muscles. Which means that sugar from food you eat after training is likely to go straight back into replacing those sugar stores… and not be turned into fat! You’re creating more of a calorie deficit, meaning you burn more fat overall.

Sure, there is a place for low intensity exercise – it’s great for general fitness – and if you prefer it, then great! But if you want to lose fat, consider adding high intensity exercise, or training that averages out at high intensity (e.g. interval training), to your programme.

If you don’t see results you haven’t trained hard enough

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This is another of those myths that I hear a lot, especially when it comes to testing week at CrossFit. Our training cycles are usually around 12 weeks, followed by a week of testing our maximum lifts. We’re always told not to expect personal bests – there are too many variables to maximal lifting, and to any performance or result for that matter. You can train “perfectly” for the entire 12 weeks, but a lack of sleep, varying hydration levels, not enough food, etc. could throw your performance off on the day. The same applies to racing, diets, even exams!

The other thing people are often tempted to do is give up on a specific programme or protocol if they don’t see results right away. The grass is always greener on the other side and a friend who’s getting results on x, y or z programme might tempt you to try that instead – but the reason your friend is getting results is probably more to do with consistency than it is with the programme itself. Stick with what you’re doing and really try at something before you expect results.

You must have at least two rest days per week

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I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating – everyone is different! I had a genetics test recently and one of the markers it tested was recovery from exercise and, much to my surprise, my recovery rate is pretty high. This means I can take less rest, both within exercise sessions, and between them. I’ve found my ideal rate of training is 3 days on, 1 off, 2 on, 1 off, so I tend to do CrossFit on Monday, Tuesday Wednesday, Friday and Saturday, and I can (but don’t often) quite easily handle two workouts in a day. Others may find this level of training too high, or too little!

Elite athletes often take little to no full rest, instead taking active recovery with activities like rowing, swimming, cycling, etc. often for durations that the rest of us would treat as a full-on workout! The point is, there is no set rule of how much rest or recovery you need – you simply need to find what works for you. If you start to pick up colds easily, have trouble sleeping, are struggling to finish workouts, etc. these are signs that you’re overtraining.

Final Thoughts

Sometimes you’ve got to filter through the crap to get to the information that’s really going to help you in your training. This can be really hard, especially with so many conflicting points of view out there. The key points to remember are that what works for you is all that matters, and that consistency is key. But on the flip side, nothing is permanent – you can always change what you do if you truly feel as though something isn’t working for you anymore!

So those are the most common fitness myths I could think of to tackle in this post. Are there any others that you can think of, or that you want busting?! Comment below – I’d love to hear your thoughts!

Photos by Will Patrick.