Why Crossfit works…but really doesn’t. The randomness of adaptation, and why beginners just need change. – Science of Running

Interview with Tony Holler – Science of Running


Adaptation, regardless of whether it’s to a workout or to a drug, follows a familiar pattern.  We react high to an initial new stimulus before tapering off and slowly adapting less and less to the same stimulus.  The same workout loses its effects, just as certain drugs might lose their effectiveness over time.  Obviously, the way to insure adaptation is to change something.  It can be anything from the intensity, volume, type of workout, or any of dozens of choices.

How long it takes for a dose to lose its effectiveness depends on a multitude of factors, beyond the scope of this blog. But what I want to focus on is that initially, we get a huge bang for our buck for a new stimulus.  What does this mean?

Beginners have a clean slate.

The High School Training Effect:

When we look at the training of HS runners, we often get a wide range of training regimens. While the internet has started to shift the knowledge in coaching towards a happy medium, it’s still not incredibly unusual to hear of some pretty good HS miler running 20mpw and intervals 4-5 days per week or on the opposite end of the spectrum, one running 90+mpw. You have kids doing PAAVO doing things like 4mile hard “tempo” runs where they go near all out the first mile and hang on to die a slow death. On other occasions, we have kids running 2-3 meets a week with 400m repeats every single week sprinkled in between. The point is that HS training programs can be all over the place.

And yet, defying coaching logic, we sometimes see very good performances coming out of some of the more “crazy” training programs.  Other HS coaches will set back and wonder how the heck this kid ran 4:10 doing work that defies any semblance of accepted training logic. We often shrug it off to talent/genetics and some sort of dumb luck. But why do kids improve off inferior or so called “bad” training?

The first thought is that the training isn’t actually bad. It must work, the athlete improved! We could debate this on some of the more subtle “bad” training practices, but for now let’s concentrate on the ones that just about every coach would agree is subpar. After all, we can find examples of kids doing all their running on tracks, no distance work, and the same workouts sessions repeated over and over, and yet still running relatively fast.

The second reason that “bad” training might work is simple. High School athletes have a clean slate. They may have activity under their belt growing up, but the reality is most runners don’t start actually training or competing until their freshman year of HS. Because of this clean slate, everything is a new stimulus.

When everything is new, our wonderful body does an amazing job at adapting the best it can to the stimuli provided. Couple that with the fact that boys at this age have an anabolic profile pro’s could only dream of, thanks to puberty, that allows them to recover from almost anything. And we have a situation where they can adapt to just about anything that is thrown at them.

Using basic knowledge of how the body adapts, it should make sense now that crazy things work in HS. They work because our bodies are remarkable at adapting to a new environment.

The clean slate makes life easier. But at the same time, it means HS sets them up for future success. Because the slate is clean, their first few years of training helps mold what their body can adapt to and what it thinks is normal. I strongly believe that it’s the reason why certain athletes tend to succeed more as they develop. We’ve all heard the Kenyan active lifestyle theory, but the same goes in the US. As a college coach you often hear of other coaches avoiding PAAVO kids, or high mileage or low mileage or heavy intensity kids. It doesn’t really matter what it is, there are beliefs, although to this point unfounded, that certain training can set you up.

So just because you adapted and excelled with that training in high school, doesn’t mean you will continue to in college. After all, in HS you had a clean slate.

Crossfit’s key:

Where does that leave my beloved Crossfit? Randomness works…until it doesn’t…

Why doesn’t random variation continue to work?

If we just realize how adaptation occurs in a simple system it is easy to understand why. In a clean slate, anything we give works and improves performance. Similarly, if we give a completely different stimulus, we often see a brief improvement. We often see this when someone changes coaches and sees an initial spike in performance. For instance, there are a few instances where someone did relatively high mileage for a while, stalled out, then switched coaches to a higher intensity lower mileage program and saw some nice gains the first season, before falling back to normal.

So in crossfits key demographic, we see a lot of initial change. Why? Because it’s random highly intense exercise. For the unfit or formerly fit, this works great initially. People see results because it’s a very high stress workout. It’s why you see results when you do insanity or any of those workout videos.  It isn’t that the exercises are super awesome targeted muscle sculpting patented exercises. Instead, it’s that the people who generally do them weren’t doing anything before. So, back to crossfit. The downside to this program though is that after initially seeing some success with the untrained or athletes formerly trained in a different way, gains level off (if you don’t burn out or get injured of course…) There’s a reason why even the top “crossfitters” at their crossfit games, don’t even do
true WOD crossfit.

What’s worse is that there’s nowhere to go. When your bread and butter is randomized intensity, performed at near max or to exhaustion, you can’t just simply push beyond exhaustion to the next level. Once fitness gains flat line, no amount of pushing will create a new stimulus. You’re maxing out the intensity, and because you don’t believe in progressive, controlled, low-moderate and high intensity mixes, you’ve got to nowhere to go. There’s no way to progressively overload and create new stimuli and adaptation.

I know I’m piling on now and there are good instructors and the like who individualize and include all sorts of different intensities and volumes, but the point is once you start doing that your outside the crossfit box.

The bottom line is that when you limit your toolbox by saying certain exercises or intensities (i.e. long running) are bad, you back yourself in a corner.  You can only adapt in a few directions (more intensity, more randomness), and don’t really know in what way you are adapting. Eventually there’s nowhere to go. And that’s the worse place to be as an athlete or coach.

What we are left with then is random high intensity exercise and magic workouts. Initial gains might be great because it’s new, it’s different, and for many who do it they have a clean slate in this type of intense training. But just like the runner from the 1940’s who did random 100-400m sprints everyday, we eventually run out of room to adapt in that direction. We get stale, we stop improving, or our body breaks down.

The Jogger Syndrome:

But what about those “joggers” who don’t look fit who you may see out at the park.  You know the ones who may have gained a few pounds, yet still can crank out their 5 miledaily run. I often get pointed towards these people as evidence that running somehow makes you fat…

The reality is that jogging syndrome describes the opposite side of the coin.  It’s the person who gets caught running their same volume at the same moderate intensity everysingle day. When we do this never-ending cycle of same run or same workout each and every day, we get really efficient at doing that same run or workout. It’s no longer pushing us outside of homeostasis. We’ve nailed it and it’s a walk in the park.

Of course not every run needs to challenge us, as we need to recover and then cement adaptations, but if we never challenge our norm, we will not adapt. So we get really efficient at running our 5mi run at 8min pace every day for example. Our body hones in on the most efficient way to run at that pace and distance, and that’s about it. Our “fitness” won’t progress, and those extra 400 calories burned a day might not be enough to stave off gaining a layer of fat. So to me this presentation of the jogger as unfit, is simply not true.  He’s prepared for what he continuously does, jog 5 miles, but not much else. But if that’s all he cares about, then that’s fine I guess, but he probably should include some variation.

Faults in science:

Lastly, we’re left with asking what does science have to do with all of this? We’ve looked at the extremes of random variation and no-variation at all, but how does variation play a role in what scientific research determines as the best practice.

When I look at the research over the last few years, there has been a steadily increasing buzz about so called high intensity interval training. It’s nothing new, mind you. It’s just really intense interval work.

The buzz has been about how it supposedly improves everything and is a cure all for training. It can be best thought of in those infomercial like comparisons saying you can burn the same amount of calories by doing Johnny’s Ab killer workout in 10minutes as you would if you ran (jogged/walked) 60minutes!

Of course, the research isn’t saying that, but it’s being portrayed, even in some journals, as a way to get people pressed for time to get all the benefits of exercise in one 10min interval session. (Despite the fact that 4x400m in say 55sec with 3min rest may take 12min total…but god it hurts! If I wasn’t training for something, no way would I do that on my own…)

While HIIT is great and important, which should be obvious to any track, swimming, or cycling coach, it shouldn’t be seen as this be all end all?

Why not? It’s a piece of the puzzle. The problem is we’ve got this polarized argument of long slow VS. super intense. When in reality, that is an argument no one is having, or should be having. But how come HIIT works so well in studies? It’s simple. HIIT should work. If we didn’t, I’d be worried. Why does it show such great results in the research then?

If we look at how research is conducted, it makes perfect sense. When we look at the subject type it becomes clear.  For HIIT studies, we can basically separate research subjects into a few groups:

  1. Untrained

These are your normal everyday people, or more likely college students, who don’t really exercise. So when we give them some really intense work, just like in the crossfit phenomenon, they improve. Most of the time by a whole lot. Makes sense.

  1. Moderately Trained

These are your in betweeners. In running studies, it’s usually people who run 3-5 days a week, may do your local 5k/10k races or even be training for a half marathon. What is typical in this group is that they fit in with the “joggers” category. Meaning there training is mostly or all base or easy work. So it should be logical that if we take people jogging around and add some nice intensity for 6 weeks, we see some dramatic changes.

  1. Well Trained.

The well trained is a highly variable classification, which could mean world class to the equivalent of your average High School Cross Country team. Again, what we generally have here is an issue with periodization. Studies generally go one of two ways. They either have them refrain from intense training leading up to the study, so that it creates a mini base phase. Or they take people doing traditional interval work and add a 4-6 week HIIT. Which again, is about as close to a Lydiard peaking phase as you can get. Especially if you go back to the original Lydiard peaking schedules of 4-5 interval workouts a week during the couple week phase.

So what we are left with is that research kind of fails us when evaluating training to a certain extent. It’s one of the problems with evaluating training research. So much of training depends on periodization and training history. We don’t know if we are getting a short-term boost at the expense of a soon to be rapid drop off (i.e. what Lydiard always predicted with too much ‘anaerobic’ (essentially HIIT) training). It’s a tricky business and
why we won’t ever find some magic workout (sorry Tabata..it ain’t you.) This doesn’t mean we throw out all of the research done on training practices, but instead recognize where it’s coming from.

Too often we get caught up in isolation, and forget the complexity and interaction that surrounds the isolation.

What this means?

We don’t need to do random exercises to create “muscle confusion” or have a completely random training program. Besides that being what is hawked on late night infomercials that somehow still make a lot of a money, it just doesn’t have long-term merit. What we need instead is to realize the basic principles of adaptation. We need variation for a reason, not for its own sake.

When we do things randomly, we can expect random results.

So remember three things from this particular topic and you’ll do well.

  1. Clean Slate Phenomenon- If you work with young athletes you mold them. How you do impacts their future success.
  2. Variation not randomness- Variation is good, but the direction you take that variation matters!
  3.  Jogging syndrome- same thing over and over doesn’t give us results.

For more on my take on Crossfit, check out this blog post


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