With the CrossFit Games just around the corner, it is interesting to look at the evolution of the competition. In its infancy, CrossFit competitions were dominated by the top men and women who were just better than everyone else. They just relied on their physical abilities to win competitions. This is no longer the case. The field is so stacked that small refinements in technique can be the difference between first and last place. Although only a small majority of the population make it to the Games, we can all strive to refine our techniques in the pursuit of health and general preparedness.
Recently, I read a great article by the Training Think Tank about speed training for atheltes and thought I would share some of the insights. As CrossFitters we all love to move some weight around and get strong, but the majority of us hate to run. Not many enjoy putting in the work when it comes to our run pace, row pace, etc. In the majority of running WODs, it has been more long, more aerobic effort
So why are we looking at speed and agility?
For years, the most common method of running in CrossFit workouts has had more of an aerobic focus. Think of Murph, triple three, and trail runs. The whole idea behind CrossFit is to be prepared for anything, and currently, we are neglecting a large portion of our fitness. Speed, agility, and speed endurance. Basically, the stuff you need to run for that bus or away from a tiger.
To help you run faster and explain why speed training is important, here is a discussion of why some top coaches, like The Training Think Tank who coach Games athlete Noah Olsen, implement this form of conditioning into training.
As we said earlier the majority of CrossFit workouts and competition metcons have longer distances for running. However, we are slowly seeing a move to more sprint based events. In the last 6 CrossFit Games we have seen at least one sprint or agility event.
If we look at Regional events we see sprint finishes in almost every workout. Think back to 2016 where each event saw exciting sprints to the finish line. Athletes that had ignored sprint workout suffered, for example, 2016 Regionals event 7 the difference of 10 seconds was 7 places. After all 7 events, the point spread between 5th and 6th place overall was only 9 points. For athletes at that level, if you ignored the speed and agility portion of training then you didn’t punch your ticket to the Games.
Even local competitions are incorporating more sprint style WODs. Think back to Fraser Valley Throwdown in October 2017 where we saw sprint finishes and short time caps. The ability to move fast and transition efficiently separated the field massively.
What are the benefits of speed training?
We have spoken about Games athletes a lot o far, so why should YOU care about speed training? Adding sprint training to your weekly sessions is not only beneficial for developing good sprinting mechanics but actually has a knock on effect for all your training. This style of training provides numerous positive adaptions which will be discussed below:
Speed and Agility training is possibly one of the most, if not the most, effective way to address the neuromuscular system. For years, it was the general consensus that strength was determined by the muscles’ cross-sectional area, and this resulted in weight training being utilized to increase the overall size of a muscle to make it stronger. Interestingly, there is more modern strength training research that is shifting the focus to “the neural component of strength expression“. This means your “nervous system’s ability to express maximum recruit as well as intra– and intermuscular coordination improvements through neuromuscular adaptions”. Woah, that was a mouthful. Adding speed and agility training into your training cycle is an amazing way to improve the neuromuscular system which can actually lead to pretty substantial strength and power gains. This is particularly true of explosive movements like box jumps, cleans snatches, etc.
Athleticism is defined as the use of physical skills or capabilities, as strength, agility, or stamina. As we mentioned previously, there as not been that much focus on an important part of athleticism which is speed and agility. Another benefit of such training is to become more “athletic”. My idea of athleticism is body control so increasing the control you have over your body will carry over to gymnastics, weightlifting, and general movement. This style of training teaches the intricacies of controlling segments of the body in the shoulders, neck, back, hips, knees, and ankles for the most optimal postural alignment. Improving athleticism will help an athlete to react faster and fell more prepared for novel events.
Injury is something we cannot avoid in life. No matter what sport you do, the chances are you will be injured at some point. However, it is best to do everything you can do prevent constant and recurring injury. Agility training can improve injury management. This is linked with improved athleticism. If you have more body awareness and control during fast paced sports, then an injury can often be prevented or the severity reduced. When you use agility and speed drills in your training then you develop neuromuscular awareness, thus allowing you to better understand movement. These drills also increase your balance, dynamic flexibility, control, functional strength, core strength, and improved mechanics. All of this means you are better prepared and less likely to be injured in a fast paced situation as you better understand how to move.
We all want to be better movers. Speed training can help devleop better movement patterns that carry over to common CrossFit movements. Speed drills focus on developing hip flexion and extension, hamstring strength, and shoulder extension and flexion. Think about all the overhead movements and squatting we do as CrossFitters and weightlifters. These drills target the areas needed to move well.
When looking at speed and agility drills you want to pay attention to three major areas:
There are many theories on how a runner should foot strike, the same range of motion and movement qualities are needed. For sprinters, they must be able to properly “plantarflex and dorsiflex” the ankle from impact to midstance to foot off. Such athletes also have to “create adequate foot eversion and pronation in the gait pattern“. From coaching, I have noticed that CrossFitters sometimes have limited or even lack proper ankle mobility or they cannot control the muscles in the foot for a proper striking position.
As Shakira once said, “hips don’t lie” (cue music). When we look at the hip, we want to consider both hip flexion and extension. The best sprinters have incredible hip extension. If you have very tight hip flexors you will limit your hip extension. This can often mean your glutes are not properly used to drive forward. If your hips are tight then the chances are you will over-stride and your hamstrings will have to do most of the work. This is far more fatiguing and can lead to hamstring injury. We cannot talk about hip extension without considering hip flexion. To ensure you have a consistent and functional stride, you must create a powerful knee drive along with powerful hip extension. Control of hip flexion will help to create this knee drive and give you a longer stride.
Believe it or not running is not just a lower body movement! Your shoulder and torso play a massive role in running, especially sprinting. Your torso and arm movement provides balance for the dynamic movements of the lower body and will make your movement more efficient. How does that work? The balance is achieved by the upper body moving in opposition to the legs. Bringing the left arm forward opposes the forward drive of the right leg, and vice versa. If you have restricted or tight shoulders and find it difficult to rotate your body then this will negatively affect your running balance and you will waste energy.
So what are the take aways?
Running is great but you have to think about incorporating more than just long aerobic styles of running. There are numerous benefits to agility and sprinting drills as we have discussed. If you do not add some form of sprint/agility training into your annual cycle then you are leaving a huge gap in your overall fitness and health.
So what are you waiting for? Get sprinting!