Crossfit and cyclocross
Crossfit. Has it ruined cyclocross? Will it ruin you? Or is it exactly what you and the sport needs? It’s hard to make a blanket statement. In case you’re wondering just what I’m talking about, this year cyclocross was featured in the Crossfit Games, which is their world championship, held in Madison Wisconsin. I do have some definite opinions on the matter, having strongly dabbled in Crossfit this year. To be precise I got home from Hartford Nationals at 2am on Sunday and started my intake class at 6pm Monday evening. That was hard. I’ve also seen a lot of my cycling friend gravitate towards it as they diversify their athletic pursuits. Let’s talk about Crossfit, cyclocross, and how it applies to you.
First, allow me my soapbox. When cross was announced for the Games, there was a lot of hate from my cross social media. It wasn’t a real cross course, or wasn’t real because it wasn’t on cross bikes. My Crossfit social media feed was almost uniformly positive about the matter. Crossfit, at its core, has an attitude of “improvise, adapt, overcome” and Crossfitters tend to deal with whatever is thrown at them. Bicycle racers tend to be pretty high strung about things and not nearly as resilient. So there’s benefit number one for Crossfit, you’ll learn to deal with things as they come with a positive mindset and not worry about things you cannot control.
To the argument that it wasn’t “real cross,” let me say that the first time you walk into a Crossfit box (box=Crossfit gym. Crossfit is rife with lingo.) you will see a workout written on the whiteboard. You will not have any idea what that workout means and even if you did you could not accomplish it at RX (e.g. — as prescribed). You’re going to have to scale down that workout. That is, figure out how you can get at the heart of the workout even if you can’t do every one of the exact movements listed. That’s a great thing about Crossfit; no one is getting dropped. Everyone is doing their best and working their hardest at a level appropriate for them. Furthermore, scaling leaves no excuse for your ego to get involved. Perform the movements with proper form, at the level that’s right for you, not the way you think is going to look best. Cycling very much lacks that scaling mindset; but cyclocross was scaled for the Games.
Physically, what’s in it for you? Cycling is excellent for getting very good at one thing that doesn’t have any other application. You spend your entire time rolled into a ball using a limited range of motion focusing on repetitive actions. That’s wonderful cardio (and a textbook way to develop overuse injuries) but it doesn’t translate well to the rest of your life because you have a great engine but no transmission. Crossfit pays lip service to cardio while it is really is a strength conditioning program. You’ll increase your functional range of motion dramatically and increase your strength in multiples planes. Over 40 you’re losing muscle mass every year unless you work to maintain it. That’s why older people have a hard time standing up, they’ve lost enough glute muscle that they can’t generated the needed force to push themselves up.
Personally, I have found it to be the best cure for my seasonal affective disorder, or even the blues that set in post cross season. One solid hour of work at the box is maybe the best endorphin fix I’ve experienced. I think that’s what appeals to so many cyclists. We do tend to have a great work ethic and a lot of determination. We’re also very goal oriented and competitive so having a clearly defined workout with an element of competition involved is any easy thing to fall into. I think a lot of us are self-medicating with cycling at some level, and going cold turkey in the winter months is hard.
If you google Crossfit you’ll come across a million hate-fueled articles. To be honest I think most of those criticisms have some truth to them. Summarized, having relative newcomers complete complex movements while fatigued with an element of competition is begging for injury. You, the cyclist that hasn’t put your hands over your shoulders since you last won a race, have zero business doing snatches with anything more than a PVC pipe for at least a month. Don’t let your ego or a Crossfit coach tell you otherwise. But “Crossfit” is about as vague a word as “cyclocross” as a standard, and boxes vary quite a bit in terms of quality of instruction and on their focus, from Jane and John Dough to athletes aspiring to the Games. Be careful that you, the cat 5 Crossfitter, isn’t trying to keep up with or be influenced by a box training people for a World Cup.
I do think Crossfit is a great way to gain some muscle mass, especially in muscles long neglected like your deltoids, or in areas that are often surprisingly weak in cyclists like the glutes, particularly the gluteus medius. Also, it teaches a lot of body awareness that you might not otherwise have as an athlete coming to a sport late in life. Anything you can do to move and use your body in space will improve your ability to corner and drive a bike, never mind the added benefit of a stronger core. All of these contribute to a healthier you as a person, even if it’s not directly contributing to you as a watt-making machine.
Ultimately I think cross is good for you and good for the sport. At last check Dave Castro’s initial Instagram post about cross at the Games had a quarter of a million views. It would take many top name accounts put together to get those sort of views in cyclocross. And those are largely new-to-the-sport eyeballs, something our community is in desperate need of. On the flip side, I think Crossfit is a great way for you to take all the things you’re good at and channel those into something you could probably use a lot of growth in. Take that work ethic and drive and put it towards getting outside of your comfort zone. Learn to fist bump your competition immediately afterward. Get used to always having to work to get better, and being comfortable acknowledging areas you’re weak in and seeing that as an opportunity for growth. And hopefully this fall we see some people with biceps as big as our arms showing up at the races and getting after it.
As personal post-script, at my first day at Anna Tunnicliffe’s Crossfit box she initiated a great conversation about cyclocross with me. She really enjoyed it and thought it was a welcome addition. She too said “it wasn’t real cross”. Ha!