“Intensity is the independent variable most commonly associated with optimizing return.”
This view has long been held in the CrossFit community. But often – especially with competitors – intensity is applied with impunity, and no thought is given to gauging it to be appropriate within the context of an athlete’s long-term goals. By my estimation, though intensity is of great importance, CrossFit is actually a moderate-intensity sport, and training for the sport should reflect that. In Part 1 of this series, I will define and defend that stance.
What is Competitive CrossFit?
In order to effectively address the nature of the sport, we must first dissect what that nature is. This is extremely difficult with CrossFit, which incorporates elements and qualities from a multitude of disciplines.
I define competitive CrossFit as a multiday, multimodal endurance sport. This seems obvious on the surface, but unpacking these terms is critical to a complete understanding of what they entail.
Multimodal endurance means two things:
First, specific qualities like strength, power, and speed must endure. It’s well and good to squat 500 and clean and jerk 350, but the CrossFit athlete must be able to maintain those abilities under the fatigue from many and varied stressors.
Second, the athlete must be able to sustain submaximal power output for a relatively long duration in a multitude of disciplines. CrossFit athletes must be able to perform submaximal expressions of strength repeatedly and for extended duration, regardless of whether running, doing muscle-ups, or snatching.
Since Regionals and the CrossFit Games, as of now, occur across a total of three to four days, athletes must be both physically capable of recovering between events and days, and skilled enough to manage their output in order to do so.
Keep these concepts in mind, as they form the crux of the argument for moderate intensity in competitive CrossFit.
Understand The Average
Rich Froning is the undisputed King of CrossFit. Yet in 2013 and 2014, Froning seemed on the precipice of defeat. In 2013, he started off with a 30th place finish, his worst ever in the Games. The morning of the second day of competition in 2014 brought him 37th place, and 27th place in the afternoon. Over the remainder of the event, Froning steadily gained ground on his competition, culminating in decisive victories in all of the events on the final day.
Were the events on Sunday simply geared toward Rich? Or does something in his approach allow him to pull ahead in the final stretch of the long and grueling race?
Given that he dominated fairly different events in 2013 and 2014, it seems unlikely that the programming was simply biased toward him. The most likely solution is some combination of natural aptitude, game day strategy, and training. Here we will look particularly at the third.
Without delving into specifics of modality, method, or duration, an athlete’s training can be broken down into volume, frequency, and intensity.
Volume is how much total training the athlete is doing. In strength sports, this is derived as the athlete’s tonnage. 10 triples with 200lb is 6,000lb of tonnage. In CrossFit, there is not such an easy equation. However, with some experience, it’s relatively easy to deduce whether a program contains high, moderate, or low training volumes.
Frequency is the amount of training sessions the athletes perform across a week of training, (or whatever the microcycle is) regardless of each session’s volume.
Intensity is performance relative to top performance. In strength training, this is expressed as a percentage. 1RM = 100% intensity. 80% is 80% intensity. In endurance sports, it’s often known as race pace. Intensity is relative to the event – a maximal intensity deadlift single doesn’t look anything like a maximal intensity 5K run, but the intensity is high all the same.
Froning is renowned for training with very high volume and frequency. His intensity is less often talked about, but for many athletes, it may be the missing piece of the puzzle. It’s not hard to spot in the many videos of his training or in competition: Froning keeps his intensity reigned in, and this is of the utmost importance.
Training for advanced CrossFit athletes must almost always be high volume and high frequency. Between the multiday, multi-event nature of competition and the breadth of skills and capacities CrossFit athletes must develop, there is no way around doing a lot of work and doing it often. This will become more and more true as the sport and field grow.
But as volume and frequency climb, something’s gotta give, and where high volume and frequency are crucial, high intensity is not. In fact, while maximizing intensity may or may not be the best way to get results for general health and fitness, it may actually be detrimental to competitive CrossFit athletes. First, high intensity can prevent athletes from training with the volume and frequency necessary to develop the wide range of skills and capacities which they need. Second, high levels of performance can be attained with the judicious application of high intensity laid over a base of a lot of moderate intensity work. Third, managing output to avoid burnout in the later days of the contest is a dividing factor in athletes’ success. It is, in my opinion, the single major element that separates Froning from the pack. And an athlete will not develop that management without practicing it.
It should be made clear that moderate intensity does not mean low intensity. It means below threshold, leaving a bit in the tank after each piece.
TZ Strength RPE Guidelines
@ 6: Warm-up/cool down pace. Heart rate should climb, but you should be able to maintain this almost indefinitely.
@ 7: Heart rate is increased and muscular fatigue is noticeable after a moderate duration, but it should not be a limiting factor in performance.
@ 8: Muscular fatigue is substantial and heart rate significantly elevated. You should not be able to hold more than a brief conversation. You should feel uncomfortable but be able to control your output to stay in this zone. This is about the level of output most events, in competition and training, should be completed.
@ 9: Approaching redline. Going here is fine with known events. If you are unsure how you will respond to a particular event, going to this level presents an increased risk of crossing the threshold and being unable to recover for the duration of the event.
@ 10: Point of no return. Rarely, if ever, go here. In competition, it should be saved for the last event of the last day. Pushing to this level represents a very high stress to the body and can take substantial time (measured in days) to fully recover from.
When pieces are not assigned a particular RPE, I tell my athletes to be between @ 8 and @ 9. Pieces with which they are more experienced, such as benchmark workouts, certain combinations of movements, and events with relatively little variance – such as pure running or rowing pieces – are safer to push to @ 9. With new and unfamiliar events, it is hard to predict how the athlete will respond, and so in an effort to mitigate the risk of slipping past redline, I encourage athletes to stay closer to @ 8.
Not accounting for particular deficiencies which require a modified approach, my athletes do about 70% of their energy systems training between @ 8 and @ 9, and nearly the rest of it below that (low intensity steady state pieces @ 6-7.) We rarely, if ever, go to @ 10, and if so, it’s part of a lactate endurance training block which will last 4-6 weeks, before returning to our standard dispersion of training intensity.
In Part 2, Alex will discuss the physiological effects of low, moderate, and high intensities and their impact on training and competition.
Jacob Tsypkin is a CrossFit and weightlifting coach, and the co-owner of CrossFit Monterey and the Monterey Bay Barbell Club in Monterey, CA.