CrossFit can make you a better athlete at your sport. To me that doesn’t sound so controversial, but I regularly face a lot of challenge from sport specific coaches and even athletes who disagree with me. To make it clear where I stand before I go any further with this: Clearly CrossFit aided me in becoming a better swimmer, not just physically but mentally. When thinking on all the athletes I have coached, which includes swimmers, football players, rowers, track and field athletes, cross country runners, lacrosse players, and triathletes to name a few, I would argue 99.9% of these athletes greatly benefitted in their specific sport from CrossFit-type of training.
So why are coaches from those sports so against it? Is CrossFit, as they often claim, so injury prone that it is way too risky? If we are looking at injuries then wouldn’t we say football and cheerleading rank way up there? With any sport there is susceptibility to injury and the best way to reduce it is through responsible and competent coaching. I can say that in all my time coaching I had one injured athlete. A 17-year-old swimmer who scraped her shin on a box during box jumps. My experience as a CrossFit coach and the fact I enforced mobility work with all my athletes meant the group of athletes I trained had fewer injuries than their peers.
I think the real reasons coaches harbor such animosity towards CrossFit may be two-fold. First, I feel the majority of them feel that way purely because of ignorance. They don’t know what CrossFit is, they don’t want to know, they heard it’s bad and so it must be. But also, I feel us as a community also share some “mea culpa” in the matter by perpetuating poor coaching, and perhaps taking the sport to new levels that honestly go a little beyond the functional use it was originally intended as.
So what better way to illustrate the point that CrossFit does make you a better athlete than to use an example of an already great athlete turned even greater? Meet Simon Schürch. I met Simon in Portugal at The Cross training facility, after crashing the Swiss national rowing team February camp. I remember meeting Simon during a nighttime BBQ, and as I grabbed a piece of chicken the first words he directed towards me were, “I want to challenge you in CrossFit.” I didn’t know who he was, beyond being a badass Swiss rower, so I didn’t know if I should be scared or flattered.
Even though I accepted Simon’s challenge, we never did follow through with it. But I did get the chance to spend almost a week learning about his journey, having the chance to coach a couple of his and his teammates’ workouts in the gym. Most importantly, I learned how CrossFit impacted his rowing.
Simon competed at the London Olympic Games in 2012 as a member of the Swiss lightweight coxless four, which earned fifth place. Needless to say, he is one of Switzerland’s top rowers. After the Olympic Games there wasn’t much going on in rowing, so Simon decided to take on something new while he took a little break. That’s when Simon discovered CrossFit at Crossfit Turicum in Zürich. All three head coaches at Crossfit Turicum have a professional sports backgrounds and are integrated in sports mechanics and sports medicine. One of them is a doctor in a Swiss Olympic medical center. Furthermore they train all sorts of professional athletes in the other section of the company called Turicum Athletics, so Simon found the perfect place to start his CrossFit journey.
One of Simon’s coaches at CrossFit Turicum, Tibor Kuelkey, explained:
Simon started with all typical endurance abilities. But rowers are different than other endurance athletes. They need a certain level of strength because they need to produce force in every stroke they make, besides having a heart like a machine. So Simon was pretty strong concerning bodyweight exercises but had some problems as soon as the weights got heaver. … The good thing was that he joined our gym with a solid base in Olympic lifts like cleans and power cleans. Rowers do these movements a lot because of the explosive nature that correlates directly with a rowing stroke. So in general Simon got much stronger with heavy WODs. He also made remarkable steps towards better mobility. He had some problems keeping his lumbar curve in a correct position during overhead squats and this also got much better.
Simon speaks very highly of the training he’s experienced so far at CrossFit Turicum. Since the Olympics he has done very limited rowing, but coming into the national team’s training camp, he recently tested his ergometer 2000m row and improved 2 seconds, from 6:14 to 6:12. He attributes this remarkable improvement primarily to the skills and strength he acquired since starting CrossFit.
Back in Zürich, and now that he is rowing, Simon does CrossFit Monday through Wednesday at CrossFit Turicum and then spends the rest of the week at the training center, where he incorporates the methodology of CrossFit training into his daily routine. At the national team training camp in Portugal, the Swiss National team head coach incorporates CrossFit Endurance work in the athletes’ daily conditioning routine.
Strength and endurance aren’t the only abilities CrossFit helps the rowers grow, though. Balance is an important skill for rowers as they setup on their very thin and light boats. The maneuver to enter the boat is reminiscent of a pistol squat, a skill that Simon has perfected to an almost unbelievable level as demonstrated in this video:
So here is an elite athlete in the sport of rowing who improved his sport specific performance through intelligent application of CrossFit methodologies and competent coaching. Simon is just one perfect example of many. I can think in my own sport of swimming of multiple athletes who have seen the same benefits.
Coach Kuelkey from CrossFit Turicum explained how he incorporates CrossFit with both recovery and sport specific training:
CrossFit is a very solid system to make athletes better. Actually it doesn’t matter if you have a pro athlete or Jon Smith doing the WOD. He will grow, he will get stronger, he will be leaner, and he will have tons of fun. This is a very important point. The psychological standpoint of CrossFit is often underestimated. Pro athletes have very strict training plans and it’s definitely a pusher for them to get some “fresh air” in their daily training routine. Due to the random nature of CrossFit, the surprise element of the daily sessions is always there and motivates and challenges the athletes every day.
But where the separation happens is that the pro athletes need additional sport specific work. For us it’s clear that a training plan of a pro will be extended by sport specific functional movements, mobility work, more movement preparation, and by his daily training routine. So it’s very important to have a decent recovery plan as well. We should not forget that CrossFit has always a very intense impact on the CNS and the muscular system of the body. Everybody should take care of these parameters as well.
What has been your experience with your sport specific performance since you began CrossFit? Post your thoughts to the comments below.