Secret Cycling Weapon: CrossFit

Before even getting on the bike, I was sweating in the ‘box’. CrossFit could be my secret weapon

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Master and pupil… Known as ‘boxes’, CrossFit gyms are sprouting around South Africa at a rapid rate

Pedaling from the car to the start line is typically all the preparation I’ve done for a cycling race. The result, on all four occasional I can recall, has been what felt like a release of molten lava in my legs and what sports folks euphemistically call ‘niggles’: aching back, tight knees and stiff shoulders. The burn slows you down, but disappears within hours. It’s the aches and pains that cause trouble. These limp-inducing gremlins hang about for weeks, if not longer. But this time, I have a plan: CrossFit

You may only have heard of this as another quirky fitness fad. So had I, until a few months back. Admittedly, is came across as gimmicky, even cultish. Eventually the curiosity and increasing positive reviews had me attending my first session of what I can only describe as the most exhiliratingly testing spell of physical exertion I have had to fight through.

In short, CrossFit is a strength and conditioning programme officially launched in 2000, attracting converts frustrated or bored with commercial gyms and traditional endurance sports. At it’s heart is the notion of ‘core to extremity’: all exercises begin with the core and generate power that extends out to hands and feet. There are none of the machines one sees in a gym, only an array of basic tools, ranging from weights and ropes to timber boxes and wall-mounted bars.

My thinking is that the overall strength, fitness and flexibility CrossFit cultivates will give me not just a great foundation for mountain biking, but strengthen up areas like my lower back, which has always been a ‘niggle’ area for me.

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Handstand walks are one of the innovative tools used to strengthen the entire body

My coach at CrossFit ProForm in Bryanston, former international rower and podium finisher in the recent Fittest in Cape Town competition, Sean Tangney, gave me his thoughts on how this training can aid off-road cycling.

#CC: I got into CrossFit on the hunch that it would be a great foundation for a sport like cycling. Was that a wise decision?
ST: Look, cross-training has always benefited other sports. And that’s where the Europeans have had an upper hand on us for ages. When I rowed at world champs for South Africa, we believed it was all about time on the water. We just rowed and rowed and rowed. So, a slower speed but long distance, even though the races would be anything from 5 to 7.5 minutes, depending on the boat class.

We did get a hold of the European programmes, but couldn’t believe they were right. They were doing short, 45-minute sessions at speed, using intervals, and it actually made their aerobic and anaerobic abilities far superior to ours. They were also doing a lot of Olympic weightlifting, power cleans and functional movements: kettle bells, box jumps etc. That’s where we missed the boat. Now the guys are catching on.This is where CrossFit benefits other sports – it’s highly functional and even addresses lots of the imbalances that doing just one sport can cause.

#CC: One of the principles you coaches talk about is ‘core to extremity’. Can you outline what that is and how it benefits athletes?
ST: That’s a result of the theory that says a strong core means a strong body. When you isolate muscles in the gym, it’s for aesthetic purposes. You’re not building the body as a unit. Isolation has been proven not to benefit sports.

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Probably most important for me, CrossFit is a fun community

Think of the posterior chain: hamstrings, glutes and lower back. CrossFit uses this extensively. It’s central to so many of our major movements, like the squat, dead-lift, Olympic lifts and box jumps. In most sports training people avoid using this system in its entirety. Leg presses are a good example. Why would you do that when you can do a back squat, engaging your whole posterior chain and core?

In my rowing days we did plenty of leg presses and it did make out legs stronger, but it didn’t benefit our rowing at all. CrossFit’s movements start with the core in order to generate power in the arms and legs. We now know how effective this is at building strength and delaying fatigue.

For cycling, if your core isn’t strong you’ll fatigue rapidly, especially bent down in that position, which we actually use a lot in CrossFit. I’d still recommend that your chosen sport dominates your training. CrossFit would be useful about twice a week, and using moderate weights, not the heavy stuff competitive CrossFit athletes use.

#CC: I’ve always been a bit lazy about stretching. CrossFit puts lots of emphasis on mobility and flexibility, though. How does this help sports performance?
ST: Most of what we’ve applied to gym training has come from bodybuilding. That’s all aesthetic. Bodybuilders didn’t stretch because they were worried it would lengthen their muscles and reduce that appearance of volume. But a stretched muscle avoids injury, first. Your recovery time is also a lot quicker if you stretch. I can almost always tell when a newcomer to CrossFit was a runner or keen gym-goer, they go down into a squat and immediately they’re on their toes ‘cos they haven’t got that mobility yet.

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I can vouch that CrossFit has made me substantially fitter and stronger. I’m confident it also helped with my back. The handful of road and trail runs I’ve done in recent months have been the first in my life without lower back aches.

Now inside of three months until joBerg2C, it’s time to ease back to just a couple of sessions in the box per week and ramp up time in the saddle. Enter Cycle Lab and Andrew McLean… CLICK HERE

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