Does CrossFit Really Prepare You for Anything?

I put that theory to the test by competing and participating in five extreme sports in the same month.

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT November 22, 2016

While many enjoy demonizing the protocol, CrossFit at its core is an all-inclusive, general fitness program. The aim of the practice, as stated on its home website, is to “prepare trainees for any physical contingency — not only for the unknown but for the unknowable, too.”  

I have been specializing in not specializing (i.e., CrossFitting) for three years, and truthfully, as a lifelong sporting nonspecialist, it is the perfect fit for me — sort of like sports attention deficit disorder in which you can squat heavy loads one day and do rounds of double-unders and rope climbs the next. But while completely engaging, ever-changing and super hard, can anything really prepare you for the “unknown” or the “unknowable?”

I decided to test my level of “general fitness” with a series of extreme and unknowable/unknown activities on three consecutive weekends that would push my limits mentally and physically: 

  1. A Spartan Super – 8-plus miles with 30 obstacles in an individual competitive setting on a ski hill (spartan.com)
  2. A Tough Mudder – 10 to 12 miles and 20-plus obstacles in a team setting on a farm(toughmudder.com)
  3. The Red Bull 400 ­– a 400-meter sprint up a 37-degree incline at altitude (redbull.com)
  4. The Trek Dirt Series – two days of cross-country and downhill mountain biking (dirtseries.com)
  5. Alpine Trail Running – a 12K run with three sponsored, elite athletes in the Canadian mountains

Crazy? Maybe, but this battery of sundry sports was a good litmus test for the promised preparation for the unknown. Here are the deets on what CrossFit did indeed prepare me to do — and what it didn’t.

WHAT CROSSFIT DID DO

Gave Me Killer Leg Power

I’ve never been accused of being dainty in my lower half, and though I curse my leg development when it comes to jeans shopping, I applauded it for powering me through two long obstacle course races, two intense days of mountain biking, a half day of running and a sickening sprinting race. All those one-rep-max squats, AMRAP deadlifts, 36-inch box jumps and unbroken wall balls paid off, and I never had a moment’s doubt about overcoming an obstacle in my path.

And though I knew it would come in handy during the cross-country mountain biking — which is more cardiovascular and features more climbs than descents — my lower-body strength also translated to the downhill version of the sport, giving me a boost of stability and strength as I powered through a turn, landed off a drop or jumped the bike over a (small) rock.

Improved My Anaerobic Threshold Training

The Red Bull 400 is a race wherein you sprint up 400 meters of an actual Olympic ski jump, this one at Whistler/Blackcomb in British Columbia, Canada. It sounds easy in concept, but it was probably one of the hardest things I have ever done. Pushing the limits of my aerobic threshold for seven minutes (at altitude) is a lung-burning, leg-numbing experience I am not in a hurry to repeat, but here’s the thing: I could indeed repeat it.

CrossFit nailed it here in terms of physical preparation: All those redlining, 10-minute AMRAP workouts during which I nearly revisited my breakfast prepared me better than I ever expected for this race, which I literally didn’t train for at all. And rather than finishing dead last, I ended up 44th out of 150 women thanks in complete part to CrossFit.

Developed My Explosive Power

In obstacle course races such as the Tough Mudder and Spartan, you’re faced with all sorts of challenges that require you to jump up, over, through and around: Walls, cargo nets, leaps, hurdles, jumps and ropes are all fair game here, and they are often done in extreme conditions such as mud, ice and even electricity. Here, CrossFit delivered, as well: WODs with explosive training such as box jumps, box jump overs, wall balls and burpees more than prepared me to tackle these kinds of obstacles. And especially in the case of the Spartan races, during which if you fail to complete an obstacle (damn that spear throw!) you have to belly-bump the dirt for 30 leg-numbing burpees, I thanked my CrossFit-induced burpee prowess on race day.

Bolstered My Upper-Body Strength

Like most women, upper-body strength was not always my forte, but since beginning CrossFit, I have mastered pull-ups, push-ups, two-pull rope climbs and even bar muscle-ups (well, kinda). My upper-body strength is at an all-time high and was key in both the Spartan and the Tough Mudder events, allowing me to scale nets, haul huge buckets of rocks, tote unwieldy sandbags and scale a treacherous rock wall. It also came in handy for mountain biking, helping me steady the handlebars over rough terrain, boulders and loose shale.

Bulletproofed My Core

Most people train their midsections (specifically their abs) for washboard aesthetics, but CrossFit trains the core as a whole for power, stability and strength, including moves like toes-to-bar in daily WODS as well as all the powerlifting movements, which require core strength to transfer the power from your lower body to your upper when lifting heavy. My core was rock solid for all the events that required balance and control, especially the downhill mountain biking, where I had to be balanced and centered over the bike, and the trail running, which required agility and nimbleness when hopping to and fro, and over rocks and dips. It was also killer for Spartan and Tough Mudder obstacles such as stone carries, balance beams, crawls and swimming.

Got Me Some Peeps

Being a team player is highly emphasized in CrossFit circles, and I definitely felt this aspect was beneficial in the Tough Mudder, which focuses on teamwork and a military-inspired all-for-one attitude. Being reminded every day I go to the box to support my fellow CrossFitter made me a better teammate for this event, and I found equal enjoyment in overcoming obstacles myself as I did in helping others overcome them.

WHAT CROSSFIT DIDN’T DO

Prepare Me for Altitude

To be fair, unless you live in the mountains or own one of those bizarre (and, let’s be honest, scary) gas-mask contraptions, not much can prepare you for the bitch slap your lungs get when faced with oxygen-poor air. Since I live exactly at sea level, the nearly 2,200-foot elevation of the mountains in Whistler, while not extreme, was definitely a challenge, and post-Red Bull 400, I sounded like a 40-year smoker because my lungs were so fried.

Perfect My Cardiorespiratory Endurance

Aside from hero workouts like “Murph,” not much in CrossFit exceeds 20 minutes, so for the endurance trail running and all-day mountain-biking treks, I didn’t have much in the way of preparation from CrossFit itself. In a past life, I was an endurance athlete, so I didn’t suffer too badly, but I will definitely need to go outside my box (literally) for some supplementary training if I want to pursue one of those sports in more depth.

Improve My Mobility

Though we actually do some mobility and foam-rolling work at my particular box as part of movement prep pre-WOD, I think it’s safe to say that most CrossFitters could use a healthy dose of mobility training. I am fortunate that I am pretty flexible naturally, but truth be told, I was walking funny for several days after the Spartan and Tough Mudder events and was achy in muscles I had forgotten existed deep in my shoulders and hips. Foam rolling, a massage (or three!) and some e-stim will be on my recovery protocol next go-round. 

Alleviate My Innate (and Healthy!) Fear of Death 

Nothing can really prepare you to face a 30-degree downhill of shifting scree and sharp boulders and mammoth trees on two little wheels with a plastic shell on your head, and though CrossFit does in part help you push your limits and force you outside your comfort zone, it can’t call cease fire on that gut-twisting adrenaline punch that happens when those bike wheels start to roll. I am not sure how to improve on or alter this intrinsic reaction (nor am I sure I should), but if the CrossFit gurus think on it long enough, I am sure they will devise a protocol to train for it.

So does CrossFit prepare you for anything? Maybe not, but it does a damn good job on developing that “general fitness” that everyone needs to be a badass. So with that, I will happily continue with my obsession and will push my limits inside the box and out of it, and I will keep you apprised of my next series of nut-ball adventures. Better yet, suggest a few for me and let’s go together!


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About the Author

Lara McGlashan MFA CPT

Oxygen Fitness Editor Lara McGlashan has more than 15 years of experience as a writer and editor, who specializes in health, fitness, and nutrition. 

Lara is an ACE-certified personal trainer and fitness consultant. Her sports background includes skiing, snowboarding, flying trapeze, yoga, competitive beach volleyball, dance, mountain biking, hiking and running, to name a few endeavors. She is currently exploring the world of CrossFit in her home base of Connecticut, where she lives with her 2-year-old son, Alex.

You can follow her on Facebook at LaraFitnessEditor.