As the sport of CrossFit™ continues to grow the field of athletes have become ever more talented. Each year the margin of error becomes smaller and smaller, and even the slightest refinement of technique means more than ever before. At it’s infancy, Crossfit™ was very much a ‘top heavy’ sport. The best men and women were better than everyone else and relied on their physical abilities to win events. Now, as the field has grown and the talent pool has deepened, even the best in the sport have had to refine their technique and find new advantages to stay in front of the growing demands of the sport. Every second matters, and as the sport grows even more, the smallest of details will become more important to each athlete's success.
One of the goals at Training Think Tank has been to ensure we are always at the forefront of new ideas, protocols, and research in the strength & conditioning field so our athletes are properly prepared for whatever may come their way. One of the many ways we have been doing this is by adding in ‘speed and agility’ (in a broad sense) training into our athlete’s designs. For years, the popular method of running in the sport of CrossFit™ has almost always been longer, more aerobic efforts (Murph, triple 3s, 10k trail run) and most athletes have properly prepared themselves for that type of running environment. However, many of those same athletes have neglected run training on the other end of the spectrum (absolute speed, speed endurance, etc), which has created adequate distance runners for the sport, but a relatively low level ability to run fast. So, in an effort to help you run faster and educate you on why we think speed training can benefit CrossFit™ athletes, we decided to create a blog that discusses why we integrate speed training into training designs.
The Sprint Trend
- While, as mentioned above, the sport does demand the ability to run long distances well, there has also been a very clear trend to sprint type events over the course of the last 7-8 years. Below are a few examples:
- There has been at least one sprint/speed/agility event at each of the last 6 CrossFit Games (2016 = Sprint Shuttle 2015 = Sprint Course, 2014 =Sprint Sled + Sprint Carry, 2013 =Zig Zag Sprint, 2012 =300 yard shuttle, 2011 = Triplet Sprint, 2009 = Hill Sprint, 2008 = Hill Run).
- The regional set-up has now created sprint finishes in almost every workout. In 2016, each workout finished with a sprint finish. In 2017, we witnessed some amazing sprint finishes on several events. In particular, event 2 (ring dip/db snatch) offered us multiple races to the finish line after the last ring dip.
- In Event 7 of the 2016 Regionals, the difference of 10 seconds was 7 places, or 29 points in the Atlantic Region. After all 7 events, the point spread between 5th and 6th place overall was only 9 points. Learning how to have faster transitions and a faster sprint finish can be the difference between making the games and staying home.
- In 2015, the entire Male CrossFit field was within 5 seconds of each other on both sprint course events. Less than 5 seconds was the difference between 100 points and 1 point, in two separate Games events. For some, their chances of a top overall spot was lost in these two events because of poor sprinting mechanics or an inability to run fast.
If this trend holds true, we can expect 1 or more sprint type events at this year's CrossFit Games AND continued sprint finishes at regionals. If so, developing proper sprinting, change of direction, and acceleration mechanics can play a major role in finishing position.
Benefits of Speed Training
We utilize speed work in our athlete’s designs not only for developing better sprinting mechanics, but also in order to improve other aspects of their whole training journey, many of which have major carryover into the sport of CrossFit™. Speed training can promote a wide array of positive adaptations better than almost any other type of training. While not an exhaustive list, here are a few reasons we use speed work in our designs:
Speed and Agility training is one of the most effective ways to address the neuromuscular system. For decades the consensus in the strength and conditioning world was that strength was determined mainly by the muscles’ cross-sectional area. As a result, weight training was used to increase the size of the muscle to get stronger. However, more recent strength training research (authors such as Zatsiorsky and Bompa) have shifted the focus to the neural component of strength expression - that is, your nervous system’s ability to express maximum recruitment as well as intra- and intermuscular coordination improvements through neuromuscular adaptations. The use of speed and agility training in an annual training cycle is an excellent way to improve the neuromuscular system, which will stimulate major strength and power gains. An athlete will see improvement in weightlifting, double unders, box jumps and other explosive movements.
Another benefit of speed and agility training is increased body control resulting from a concentrated form of kinesthetic awareness. By incorporating effective speed and agility work into an athlete's training design we can develop better movement control, athleticism and body awareness. It teaches the intricacies of controlling segments of the body in the neck, shoulders, back, hips, knees and ankle joints for the best postural alignment, which in turn gives athletes a new sense of control that may help with confidence and improve overall performance. By improving athleticism an athlete will be better prepared for novel events (think about the new movements that were introduced at this year’s Open and Regional events), they will be able to react at a faster pace during high speed events, and they will learn how to bypass local fatigue to accomplish specific tasks.
While it is impossible to eliminate all injury from sports, agility training improves athletic injury management. By possessing the ability to control the body during fast paced sports, like CrossFit, an injury can often be prevented or have its severity reduced. By imitating sport movements through training the athlete can mitigate the risk of injury and be better prepared to move quickly in the sport of play. When athletes utilize speed and agility drills, they develop neuromuscular awareness, which allows them to better understand the movements of their bodies. Speed and agility drills increase your balance, dynamic flexibility, functional core strength, control, and reduce your risk of physical injury by improving body mechanics.
Creates better ‘movers’
If done correctly, speed training can help athletes develop better movement patterns that correspond greatly to the movements performed most often in the CrossFit community. With the amount of squatting and overhead movements in the sport of CrossFit, athletes can benefit hugely from speed drills that focus on developing hip extension, hip flexion, hamstring strength and shoulder extension/flexion.
We often take a movement first approach to speed training, which means we focus on developing the proper ranges of motion (and strength in those ranges) to develop a mechanical advantage for our athletes. When assessing an athlete’s sprinting mechanics I spend time on three major areas - ankle, hip and shoulder.
While there are different theories on how a runner should foot strike, the same range of motion and movement qualities are needed. A sprinter must be able to properly plantarflex and dorsiflex the ankle from impact to midstance to foot off. The athlete also must be able to create adequate foot eversion and pronation in the gait pattern. We have found that many crossfitters either lack proper ankle range or lack the ability to adequately control the intrinsic foot musculature to put their foot into a proper striking position.
Hip Extension: The fastest sprinters display a greater amount of hip extension, especially compared with slower competitors. Athletes with tight hip flexors (which results in limited hip extension) will often under utilize their glutes to create propulsion. Instead, these athletes will over stride by landing with their leg in front of them and then use their hamstrings to pull through stance phase, which, at best, causes great levels of muscle fatigue and, at worst, often causes overuse injuries in the hamstrings such as strains or tears.
Hip Flexion: Faster runners also have better stride length mechanics. In order to keep a consistent and functional stride, athletes need to create a powerful knee drive just as much as they create powerful hip extension. In order to create proper stride length athletes need to have full control of hip flexion so that they can create the knee drive needed to develop a longer and more powerful stride.
The interaction between the upper and lower body plays a vital role in running, especially sprinting. The torso and arm action help provide balance for the dynamic movement of the lower half as well as help promote efficient movement towards the intended target. This balance is achieved by the arms and upper body effectively working in direct opposition to the legs. Bringing the left arm forward opposes the forward drive of the right leg, and vice versa. If an athlete is overly restricted in the rotational capacity of the torso or lacks range in shoulder flexion/extension/rotation they may lose the ability to properly balance the body for efficient running. This can lead to a cross gait pattern or wasted energy in a race.
Once an athlete begins to demonstrate movement patterns that adequately allow them to express proper sprinting mechanics, speed drills can be added into their design to enhance the athlete’s ability to run fast and be explosive.
Next week, on part 2 of this blog, I will lay out a few ways we integrate speed and agility training into our athletes training designs, along with sample templates and videos. Until then, run fast, my friends.