Can CrossFit Make You a Faster Triathlete?

Perhaps one of the most vexing challenges for the competitive age-group triathlete is the notion that maximum yardage is the royal road to optimal swim performance. For those with jobs and families, tallying epic amounts of time in the pool is virtually impossible. Of course, there's the training impact that biking and running has on the energy systems. But for the triathlete who is stuck on plateau in their swimming, what aside from technique work might help them make a performance breakthrough?

Although the polarizing mention of the word CrossFit often triggers a bias one way or another—and can end a conversation for some—recent open-minded experimentation being done in the collegiate swimming world may offer some interesting insight into the possibility of adopting a high-intensity functional-movement component to a triathlon program. This shift in thinking has been influenced in part by some radical re-thinking on training concepts and their success at the University of Southern California.

It was 2011, and Sage Hopkins, the Division 1 head coach of the San Jose State women's swim team, went to his supervisor to get permission to conduct an experiment with the strength and conditioning program for his team.

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It wasn't a timid experiment. Hopkins wanted to intermix CrossFit workouts into this team's dry-land training time.

Fortunately for the head coach, his supervisor was a fan of Mike Burgener, a USA Olympic lifting coach who was a subject matter expert for CrossFit HQ.

Hopkins was reluctantly given the green light, with a grave warning: "You can do it, but it's not going to work. You're going to get fired."

Hopkins' gumption was inspired in part by his own career as a swimmer in the 1990s, one in which he battled against a broken ear drum that required multiple surgeries. He remembered well the doctrine of high-volume programming: Even sprinters were spending 4 to 5 hours a day in the pool for a race lasting 20 seconds. Hopkins recalls a week of training over Christmas break when the goal was 100,000 yards in seven days.

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Indeed, the old-school thinking in swimming had long been channeled toward sky-high volume levels. The more yards, the better. A typical swimmer in a heavy-duty Division 1 program would likely face two workouts a day throughout the season, with the primary objective being to accumulate as many thousands and ultimately hundreds of thousands of yards until the championship phase of the season. Then the swimmer would commit to a drastic taper, cutting down mileage levels in practice and "sharpening" for the big meets. Fresh for the first time in a season, this athlete—provided he or she didn't get too hung up by any injuries brought on by chronic fatigue or illnesses contracted by a weakened immune system, race times would plummet and PR performances would follow.

Back to Hopkins and his gumption: He was also inspired by legendary USC head swimming coach, Dave Salo. Armed with a PhD in exercise physiology, Salo studied the trend toward super-high-volume base building and came to a conclusion: There's a better way to do this.

As Salo recently described in an interview, a sort of arms race took off when swimmers in the 1960s posted dramatic results coming out of high volume programs. Because of the non-impact nature of a swim stroke, limitations weren't immediately apparent. A four or five hour day of swimming was in certain ways comparable to a track guy running a marathon. With the coaches focused on the more the better, Salo said, "it would be running a marathon every day in training." Swim coaches involved in the arms race did this, "because we can in swimming. This led the charge that more is better."

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