Taking the Long Road: Why CrossFitters and Endurance Athletes Alike Benefit from the Same 12-Week OLY Program

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by NATE HELMING & DIANE FU

Taking the Long Road: Why CrossFitters and Endurance Athletes Alike Benefit from the Same 12-Week OLY Program
Photo by Vance Jacobs Photography

When we get lazy we stop learning. And when we stop learning our improvement stagnates.
As Cross Fitters we are taught that intensity is the key to our athletic success. This success is proven with better results. Better results are expressed by a faster Fran time and in a bigger 1-rep max. Emotional satisfaction goes hand in hand with the shrinking waistline from the Paleo challenge.

Yes, intensity and results drive us in the CrossFit domain, and in the beginning, these results come quickly. We get hooked to this feeling of steady improvement, and pretty soon we do just about anything to keep these short-term gains going. Like many things in life though, we can have too much of something good. Putting short-term gains on a pedestal puts the cart before the horse. So amid the cries of “don’t drop the bar!” how do we know when to drop away, slow down, and take the long view?

Can Your Skill Carry Your Strength?

Can Your Skill Carry Your Strength?
As Carl Paoli teaches, we want to spend equal time on our skill development as on our strength development. So when we are at our limits in competition, “that skill can carry our strength.” But what does that mean, exactly? Imagine how you look and feel at the end of Fran: Are you still able to connect powerful thrusters and buttery smooth butterfly pull-ups, for example? Or can you barely kip and does your thruster fall apart?

If our skill level is equal to our strength, we see little deviation from first to last rep. Our heart rate may go through the roof. (We may even want to vomit!) But we still look good from beginning to end. If our skill lags behind, our reps get ugly. In this respect, it’s quite easy to see which athletes do their homework and which athletes need to go back to the books.

As young CrossFitters, our skill base expands just by showing up to the box. But after a while we get comfortable doing things in certain ways… and when we get comfortable we get lazy. When we get lazy we stop learning. And when we stop learning our improvement stagnates. Any athlete who feels frustrated with their recent progress and feels just plain stuck should take note!

If you are that athlete on a plateau, or that athlete with serious collarbone bruises after a day of power cleans, you need to go back to the drawing board. Spend time developing that skill base so it’s equal — if not superior — to your strength. Developing this skill base takes nothing more than time and consistency and a few thousand well-executed repetitions. Access to good coaching know-how does not hurt one bit either.

One of the fun aspects of working at San Francisco CrossFit: we see many strong and competitive CrossFitters show up for a few days or an entire week to work with our staff. It is always fun to show up to the box to see these CF celebs eager to learn some new things to elevate their game.

A balancing act: CrossFit and endurance training go hand in hand… But we have to remember that the more intense we are on one side, the less intense we should be on the other.
As a group, these athletes are insanely strong and dripping with athletic talent. But it’s also clear that — like most of us — they have a few rough edges. They either missed some skill development usually taught in earlier stages, or they are still new to the sport of fitness and are in the process of developing it. When it comes to developing their Olympic lifts in particular though, they come to see Diane Fu.

Matt Chan is one great example of an incredibly talented athlete who continually cycles in intense periods of skill work to improve his CrossFit game in the long run. One of his focused visits last year with Diane inspired me to reexamine my own CrossFit training.

Balancing on “That Edge of Over-Training”

Balancing on "That Edge of Over-Training"
Up until that point, I had trained as an elite-amateur triathlete trying to bridge to that next level of competition. I probably would never have made a living as a professional triathlete, but I did have a dream of getting there and I showed signs of promise. My CrossFit strength and conditioning became a crucial part of that plan after a season-stopping injury. I discovered CrossFit back in 2008 when a nagging hamstring injury wouldn’t quit. MRI’s, ultrasound, hamstring curls, and any other modality that physical therapy threw at me wouldn’t crack it.

Only when I was forced on the sidelines of the Kona Ironman World Championships and had run out of my twelve insurance-covered PT visits did I realize I needed something different. I was at the bottom of this barrel of self-pity and frustration when I met my new coach, Alex Margolin. The first thing he taught me: how to squat and dead lift. After months of working with health professionals, I was doubtful. But almost instantly, my hamstring responded to these basic functional movements. Granted I sucked at first; I was uncoordinated and weak and it took a while, but I had new signs of hope.

What could an aspiring endurance athlete like me do at the box when everyone else was out to kill it?
Fast forward to the next twos seasons and I was on a rampage, performing on a higher level that even I didn’t think I could hit. Like most athletes working to race at their full potential, I walked a fine line between knock out race performances and fatigue, sickness, and failure from training too much. I wanted to push hard, and I wanted to please my family, my coach, and myself. But I lived on that edge of over-training constantly.

My training load and race schedule became so demanding that I began to fear the very CrossFit workouts that dug me out of the hole of frustrating injury and onto a new athletic trajectory. I still wanted to work out at the box. I had found some good friends and training partners, and I enjoyed the newness and variety that CrossFit brought to my otherwise straightforward and relentless swim-bike-run training schedule.

But in season, I couldn’t jump into Filthy 50 with the same rigor and zeal as everyone else. I did not have the energy, and it was not smart, especially when I just finished a punishing 3 x 1 mile on the track and a hard swim/bike the day before. But like most competitive people, I had a hard time turning off my competitive brain. I needed a new solution. What could an aspiring endurance athlete like me do at the box when everyone else was out to kill it?

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