Do We Need To Periodize Crossfit?

I completed WOD 11.2 on Saturday along with nine other athletes at Crossfit Firebase. (Disclaimer: This is a post about training, not the movement standards.) I had a number of thoughts while doing it and watching:

1. I was sucking wind just 3 minutes into the WOD and had to basically slow down and struggle through the rest of the workout. My aerobic capacity is nowhere near where I want it to be or where I know it can be. And 15′ is a long AMRAP.

2. I come from a rowing background, which is a power-endurance sport that most competitive rowers periodize. As a rowing coach, I use winter as a strengthening and “base building” period. Base building I define as a high volume of low intensity miles and an expansion of your aerobic base. A typical day’s workout might be rowing 60′ on the ergometer with heartrate in the 150s.

3. In the fall, I was rowing regularly for my club and supplementing my workouts with a 60′ bike ride two days per week. I was also hitting the Crossfit gym 3 days per week. By mid-December, I was in phenomenal shape both aerobically and strength-wise, the best of my life.

4. During the period I described above, I was able to crush Crossfit workouts from an aerobic standpoint…if it was mostly or all body weight movements, ie “metcons,” I did well. I could be as aggressive as I wanted without redlining my heartrate. I remember telling a couple of friends in November, everything is “easy right now.”

5. I consider most Crossfit WODs to be power-endurance workouts, so the impact it has on you aerobically is very similar to rowing.

In January, I started in on a different training plan, doing only Crossfit (3 times per week) and weightlifting with a personal trainer (2-3 times per week). No rowing, no biking, no running. I did this on purpose for two reasons: 1) I’m actively working on increasing my 1RM for several movements and 2) I wanted to gain muscle mass. I’m happy with the results so far but the drawback is my aerobic ability has fallen off.

Back to the Crossfit Open. If I had been training like I do for rowing, I think I could have added another .5 to 1.5 rounds to Open WOD 11.1 and 11.2. The increased aerobic ability would have allowed me to take less breaks, attack each round more aggressively, and not lose reps due to exhaustion. I did get no rep’ed a couple of times because I was seeing stars and f’ed up the movement.

Which leads me to this set of thoughts. Crossfit is now a “real” sport, with a competitive season and a world championship. The competitive season is the period from the first Open WOD through Regionals and through the Crossfit Games, if you’re at that level–March through end of July for the top guys and gals. For the vast majority of us, if you buy into the Open WODs, your competitive season will be the 7-8 weeks starting in March.

(That March through July competitive season is fairly similar to rowing. In the US, we have National Selection Regattas in April and May, tuneup regattas throughout the summer, and Worlds from August 28 – Sept 3.)

What all of this means is we should be training specifically for the Crossfit Open and be at our best during the period encompassing the Open through Regionals. Translation: periodization. If I was strategizing this properly, I would do extra aerobic, base-building work (ie “long, slow”) at the end of the fall and through the winter, so that I could hit Open season hard and maximize my chances of qualifying for Regionals. Graham Holmberg dropped a big hint that this is what he’s doing leading up to the Games.

Does your average, non-competitive box athlete need all of that? No. But if you’re committed to the Open and taking a shot at Regionals, or even targeting a big throwdown somewhere on the calendar, you need to add in the extra aerobic work to build your engine up and you need to strategize your training intelligently. I’ve seen some of the top Crossfit athletes hint at this in articles and videos, from Tommy Hackenbruck to Jason Khalipa to Spealler. I suspect that other elite Crossfit athletes are already periodizing and adding in other types of training, especially if any of them came from other sports.

Periodizing and long/slow training might not adhere perfectly to the Crossfit philosophy, but there’s no question that it can help you conquer your WODs and go to another level during the Open.

My Plan

So my plan is to add in 3-4 base building workouts per week on top of what I’m already doing, with a mix of biking, rowing, and running. These will be mostly low intensity, higher volume work, with my heartrate in the 150s and 160s so I can develop those lower cardiovascular ranges. Training time will be 60-90 minutes at mostly constant pressure, but I’ll do intervals as well. See below for a couple of example workouts. Capillarization is now a major focus. I’m probably screwed for the remaining Open WODs since I’m in the middle of it, but if I target an event in May or June I should see a noticeable improvement in my output.

So, if you’re a competitive crossfitter doing, say, 5 WODs per week, I recommend supplementing with 3 aerobic workouts, where two of these are long and slow and the third is a set of intervals. These can really be anything, but running and rowing are appropriate as those are movements we do in WODs.

I think you’ll see more and more competitive Crossfit athletes start to train this way, by adding in longer runs and rows to supplement the daily WODs.

Any thoughts and feedback is most welcome.

UPDATE: Interestingly, the Games staff discussed periodization and specifically Graham Holmberg’s strategy in this video for Update on the Open: Week 2.

Sample Workouts

All of the volumes and numbers can be fiddled with and customized for each athlete, but here are a couple of simple examples.

Row: 60-90′ stroke rate 18-22 (I do this one on the water)

Bike: 60-120′ (I prefer mountain biking for the variety)

Run 30-45′

Hill or stair intervals, 8-12 intervals, go hard uphill, easy jog on the way down.

  • Eisenhut

    I think your observations and ideas are spot on. I am planning to add in more running, rowing and biking to my training.

  • Sonny

    Ben, I can see that you’ve put a lot of thought into this. One thing that I’ve noticed seems to be lacking in the Crossfit domain is the concept of built-in recovery periods. All of the work you spoke of sounds like it’s sensible and as scientifically approached as one can be. I would consider recovery period as a planned and purposeful action designed to allow the biomolecular process to happen: tear down, recover, rebuild. What that amounts to depends on many factors, but to keep it short I think you need to compliment your activities and not cause conflict. An example would be hammering away at a certain body part or movement group two or three days in a row, or running all endurance workouts all week. Recovery can be accomplished by ignoring the part of the body that is in danger of being overworked/in need of rest.

    Of course, with recovery, and energy levels, food intake plays a big role.

  • Sonny, thanks for reading and commenting. I like where you’re going with that. Yes, one thing we don’t do well in a structured way is recovery, which is worth a whole post by itself. In rowing, which I stated above is similar to crossfit in that it is a power-endurance sport, we train 6 days/week, and often do 8-10 workouts over six days, so several days we have two workouts. How do you build in recovery? Essentially, recovery is a function of training intensity, so if you simply do workouts in the HR 145 or less range, you can have a successful “recovery” workout and still get the aerobic benefit. A great example is a long bike ride, which has low impact on the body. Like you said, you can also focus on the upper body one day and give the lower body a day off as another method. What’s another way? How about doing a regular Crossfit WOD, but NOT going full blast…instead, do the WOD at a meticulous pace and keep your heart rate below 145. Do Fran on purpose at a 10′ pace…that’s how you can increase your volume, gain benefit, and stay injury free. Gameplan it intelligently and choose the days and WODs that you go full bore.

  • I think the dude in the blue shorts has a big booty

  • Dude,
    I all seriousness, I’ve noticed that when I’m in the best shape, I’m doing crossfit a little less, and running more. I’m a big guy, so the power stuff isn’t an issue for me. Long term met-con is routinely difficult for me though. 30 minutes of running with a heart rate around 170 did wonders for me in WODs.

    Hitting the box a couple less times a week helped ensure I didn’t wreck my back / knees with the increased impact.

  • I have slapped that booty before. It is indeed big.

  • Sonny

    Cory brings up a key point, and I think it supports my perhaps not-so-eloquently-made point about rest and recovery being planned. Ben, I would say that active rest is perhaps what you’re getting at, insofar that the activity you’re doing is not causing you more problems. Nutrition is so key, as well. I’ll tell you though, I ran tonight and it was a little sucky. The run wasn’t terrible, but I felt it, and I really felt it when I hit the kettlebell. However, after my third round of seven, I warmed up, and it was all good. In assessing what we’ve been discussing here, I realized that I had taken four days off recently due to travel, and didn’t really regret it. My body needed the sleep, and down time. Five days a week is a lot of work. Train smart, not hard, has always been my motto, but it’s hard in a CrossFit environment to preach this approach with much success due to all the testosterone. If you talk to some of these top peformers like Spealler and others at HQ, they’ll tell you that their diet fluctuates, their training changes, their focus adjusts, etc.

    What I started doing was to approach my week from a planned, programmed perspective. I established an overall goal for myself, which is my annual training platform. From their, I establish quarterly training cycles, and break those down to determine what I want to gain, where I need to work, and how I need to implement the plan. Weekly, I establish a goal, and daily I have a purpose for the workout, establish a method that works for my available equipment, environment, etc., and determine the modality. If I stick to this focus, I have found that I am less lost when it comes to determining WHAT I’m going to do, or justifying WHY I am doing it. Otherwise, I’m just playing numerology.

  • Dave C

    Ben, while your plan to increase your endurance by adding low-to-moderate intensity exercise like running/rowing/etc is a good plan, it won’t help you at all with the rest of this year’s CF Open WODs. There is a saying in the triathlon community, “The Hay is In the Barn”. That means an extra long run during a race week isn’t going to help you, your foundation of endurance is already built. That being said, I’m starting to confuse myself and I’ll get to the point.

    Do we need to periodize crossfit? If you want to compete, and do your best, then you MUST ABSOLUTELY PERIODIZE. This is for any sport. The best way I learned about periodization was in 2007, when I started training and planning for half and full iron distance triathlons (yes I was big when I did them too-225# don’t hate). Joe Friel is a great source on periodizing different sports. Anyways, I took that periodization model another direction when I was planning my 2011 athletic calendar. I started jotting stuff down in October 2010, and I included the events I was doing (strongman, highland games, CF events, FF combat challenge, FF olympics, and a few sprint triathlons), charted them so I wasn’t doubling up training, and then set training goals. After all that, I decided that I needed to dump much of my endurance stuff, and focus on what I needed to.

  • Dave, thanks for commenting. You are correct, I’m screwed for the Open WODs because I won’t see much aerobic improvement if I start adding in endurance training this week, which is what I did. I should see a minimal impact by the GSX Competition at the end of the month, and by the summer I should be in good shape. Now all I have to do is target an event I want to peak at later in the year. I have Friel’s Cyclists Training Bible, good stuff, everything I’ve learned about endurance training has come from the cycling, running, and rowing realms. I too dumped the endurance stuff for the beginning of the year because I wanted to actively work on strength and strength only and increase my maxes.

    So are you gonna do the Europa Strongman comp??

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  • Aw,
    ┬áThese Kinda questions I’ve also got so many times not only me actually Everyone is getting always different kinda Questions when joined this (fitness) field. But ever couldn’t got any answer that makes us satisfied. Well this article makes me happy that I’ve got this which is along all the answers.

  • Alexander Kornishev

     My thoughts exactly! Thanks for sharing yours, really helped!

  • Alexander Kornishev

    My thoughts exactly! Thanks a lot for sharing, it really helped!

  • Moses

    I completely agree. If you want to hit a pr or just be at your best at any known date you should periodize. By setting a date for the games this becomes inevitable. It would probably be impossible to do but to strictly follow crossfits philosophy the date of the games would need to be “unknowable” too.

  • rnschmidt

    Ben, do you think that we could achieve the same improvements in our conditioning with anaerobic work as opposed to aerobic work? For example, instead of long, low volume work for 3-5 hours per week, would a few 4-5 minute intense double under wods per week achieve similar outcomes? See the metcon section in this crossfit journal article:

    Supposedly anaerobic work produces the same benefits as aerobic work, but without the loss of strength, power, speed, and muscle mass that accompanies aerobic volume work.

    Could it be possible that your aerobic ability fell off, not because you dropped the aerobic work specifically, but rather because you weren’t doing any extra metcon work at all?

  • Rob, anaerobic conditioning does not provide the same benefits as aerobic as I described. Low intensity aerobic work (low heart rate) creates new capillaries and increases lung capacity. Generally speaking, you have to have constant pressure on your aerobic system for at least 30′ straight, but 45′ or even 60’+ is better to get the most benefit. Anaerobic does have benefits to your aerobic system, such as increased heart function, temp regulation, etc, and you need all of it to really be at peak efficiency. You are correct, though, in that high volumes of aerobic work will decrease muscle mass. There’s a balancing act and you need to periodize your training to get everything lined up correctly.

  • Manatee

    Great article that encompasses strategies used by Olympic and Professional level coaches.