“Nicole.” “Nancy.” “Helen.” “Kelly.”
To front-load an already-daunting routine with a metabolically and psychologically draining 400- or 800-meter run would seem to indicate that the cruel sadism of these ladies knows no bounds. But the fact remains that running is one of the purest athletic pursuits there is, and being able to do it well not only can improve your conditioning but also can drastically impact your overall work capacity. And in the skill-driven world of CrossFit, consistently strong runs can produce personal bests on an almost weekly basis.
“Running is just as important a skill as the others within a Workout of the Day,” says Kaitlin Lyons, MS, a coach at CrossFit Endurance, which focuses on improving performance for endurance athletes through proven CrossFit principles. “During the run, time can be made up on others doing the workout. Having a solid run during WODs can be the difference between achieving a PR or just missing one.”
Those new to CrossFit may think that it’s all about snatches, kettlebells and kips. But those who have been around the block a few times — literally — know better. Many of the existing workouts in the CrossFit curriculum feature runs of various lengths, in addition to the normal barrage of lifts, jumps and pulls.
“More than half of the Hero workouts and half of the new Girls have a running component,” Lyons says. “Depending on the affiliates’ programming or the focus of their current cycle, 30 to 40 percent of workouts may have a running component. Some may have a higher frequency than others.”
In other words, you may end up spending more time running than any other single skill during your time at a CrossFit gym. All too often, however, the run becomes the most overlooked component of a WOD. So why has running been abandoned by so many coaches and athletes?
“I have no idea,” Lyons says. “Viewing the run as an afterthought is a missed opportunity to perform at your best. Improving run splits within a WOD can make all the difference. For some CrossFitters, running is an expensive, time-consuming element in the WOD, and they need to fight back to dig out of the time deficiency created from less-than-optimal running.”
For example, with “Helen,” you begin with a 400-meter run. Placed at the start of a workout, the tendency may be to view this as a warm-up for the work ahead. And with 21 kettlebell swings and 12 pull-ups waiting for you when you get back to the gym floor, it’s natural to want to conserve energy. But that can cost precious seconds in a workout done for time — one that sees top finishers towel off and go home in 10 minutes or less.
“Some discount the run element of the workout or dread it,” Lyons says. “When athletes can move away from just surviving the run, they will be surprised with their performance on the elements that follow. Pulling the run together can be a game changer.” And it doesn’t matter whether you’re sprinting your way through 200 meters or grinding your way through 1,500, Lyons says. “Your mechanics remain the same. Only your cadence changes.”
Becoming a better runner doesn’t happen overnight, but there are a few ways that you can improve your form and quietly shave seconds off your next performance. It all starts with a handful of principles that are emphasized by Lyons and her fellow coaches at CrossFit Endurance.
Also known as the “pose,” this is the point during a stride when your foot passes under your center of mass and you make the shape of the No. “4” with your legs. You should be balanced on the ball of the foot. The heel can be touching the ground, but the weight should be supported on the ball of the foot. This sets up the rest of the stride.
“The fall happens when you let go, use gravity to your advantage and just fall,” Lyons says.
“This is when the supporting foot is pulled — instead of pushed — from the ground and movement continues,” Lyons says. “The rear leg is still bent but coming off the ground. Neither foot is in contact with the ground at this point. If you’re not in contact with the ground, you cannot get hurt.”
Striking the pavement with your heels is the same as pulling the emergency brake — over and over — on the freeway. Doing so is a high-impact habit that transfers a great deal of stress throughout the body. Instead, focus on a midfoot strike, as you would if you were running barefoot. According to a study published in The Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness, barefoot runners experience significantly less impact than runners in shoes because running barefoot more or less forces a midfoot strike. The minimalist approach also builds foot strength, minimizes peak forces and increases proprioception (or general awareness of your body), according to research published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews. And it helps you take advantage of the natural “springs” built into your body by your ankles, Achilles tendons, arches, knees and hips. Want proof? Try running on your heels. Barefoot. On the pavement. Chances are, you’ll instinctively shift your weight to your midfoot to minimize the beating Mother Earth is giving your body.
No part of your body is unimportant in developing a smooth, efficient stride. Keeping abs tight (but not flexed) during a run helps to stabilize the torso, which in turns allows the legs to do their work. Also, “squeezing the glutes can help bring the hips through without overextending at the hip,” Lyons says. The arms are also crucial for creating proper synchronicity and balance. “Your elbows should be bent slightly more than 90 degrees and should pump back quickly to match the legs’ tempo. The arms should not swing across the body much. Arm position should not be achieved by keeping the shoulders tense.” In other words, loosen up, buddy.
Set the Pace
As a fan of fitness for sport, you are wholly about performance. You know that digging deep and getting more work done in less time is the only way to satisfy the appetite of your inner firebreather. Perfecting your running fundamentals, at the very least, will make you a more productive CrossFitter, but it also has a broad array of benefits that go beyond the clock and whiteboard.
“There is crossover with running as with other skills,” Lyons says. “Improving your running mechanics can help you to better use your hamstrings and your entire posterior chain. This, in turn, helps to prevent common injuries such as plantar fasciitis and knee pain.”
The next time you cross the threshold of your gym for a run, do it with purpose. Do it with pride. And do it with everyone else in your rear view.