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Swimming and CrossFit: What You Need to Know Before Your Next WOD

Swimming and CrossFit

Can CrossFit make you a better swimmer? Honestly, the answer depends on whom you ask. If you are consulting a CrossFit pro, of course they say “yes.” What about swimming professionals? What do they have to say about the connection and potential benefits of swimming and CrossFit? The responses are mixed, but I have a few thoughts about CrossFit and the workout of the day. Should you combine swimming and CrossFit to improve performance? Let’s investigate the ins and outs of both arguments.

The History of CrossFit

What do you know about CrossFit? To better understand CrossFit, take a quick look at the history of the popular workout regimen that sprang out of an internet grassroots campaign. By 2014, the privately held company surpassed the $40-million mark.

The millions in profits comes from the affiliates – or boxes– throughout the world.  The boxes you see and the instructors who offer the workout can only do so because they have undergone special CrossFit training, and are approved affiliates for the trademarked name and fitness regimen. There are more than 13,000 CrossFit affiliates globally. The average cost to become an affiliate to use the brand name is about $3,000 per year, and $1,000 for a weekend seminar for training and licensing. As long as you can afford the fees, you can become a CrossFit affiliate.

What is the Appeal of CrossFit?

CrossFit is the ultimate experience for non-athletes. The brand prides itself on being anti-big-box and a workout experience for all. CrossFit appeals to working moms, busy professionals, retirees, and even kids. You don’t have to be elite, an athlete, or a bodybuilder to be successful in CrossFit.

I talked about the appeal of CrossFit back in 2013, and the points made still stand true today. Maybe the list is more true now than it was back then, as CrossFit has picked up more affiliates, increased its marketing, and made more money. I mentioned that the appeal of CrossFit is a combination of many factors:

  • Attracts non-swimmers and athletes
  • It has an extensive marketing strategy
  • It is cool to be strong

CrossFit does not require special gym equipment, videos, or memberships – in many cases – to show up for a CrossFit class. You also don’t need to know a great deal about working out, or have a lot of time in your day to experience the benefits. There are stories about everyone from retirees to single moms competing at the CrossFit Games, which is another piece of the pie that earns the brand a great deal of money each year. In 2016, the Games gave away more than $2.2 million in prize money.

What is the Difference Between CrossFit and Personal Training?

There is a big difference between CrossFit and personal training. Can all certified personal trainers be CrossFit instructors? Yes, if they pay for and attend the seminar. Can all CrossFit instructors be personal trainers? Yes and No. It’s not that easy to become a certified personal trainer. It requires more than weekend seminars. Becoming a good personal trainer require time and training. They take the time to complete internships and to complete mentorship programs.

To become a personal trainer, you need to choose a program of study and take exams. Personal trainers are required to complete continuing education credits and fulfill accreditation and certification requirements to maintain their designations. This is just one piece swimmers should focus on when determining whether or not to combine swimming and CrossFit.

For swimmers, the difference between the two can mean the difference between injury-free performance and exhausted swimmers.

CrossFit and Health Concerns for Swimmers

In the same 2013, I mention that there are many healthcare concerns surrounding CrossFit, especially with regards to swimmer health. I am not the only one with these concerns. CrossFit health concerns are constant among most healthcare professionals.

Claims in the industry and among investigate reports expose the dangers of CrossFit for the rapidly growing fitness fad. Health concerns of CrossFit include the following:

  • Workouts are too many too quickly
  • Workouts are not monitored by trained health and fitness professionals
  • Form takes the backseat to brawn
  • Exercises are often too risky, especially if done improperly
  • CrossFit leads to extreme exhaustion
  • Promotes a “No Pain, No Gain” mentality
  • Many work through injuries, often priding themselves on overcoming the obstacle instead of staying at home to rest.
  • Techniques are compromised to improve performance and numbers
  • Overuse injuries are rampant

Swimming and CrossFit Health Concerns for Athletes

There are many points about CrossFit that should concerns swimmers, as well as any other athletes. Here are the top five concerns I have with combining swimming and CrossFit.

1. There is only one approach

First and foremost CrossFit is becoming a grab-all term, so it can be personalized, but the WOD is not. The CrossFit WOD is not a targeted plan. It’s one-size-fits-all workout regimen. This is a great concern for coaches and trainers who have swimmers who do both swimming and CrossFit. A dryland mistake is having no plan that specifically targets swimming mechanics and performance.

Swimmers require professional attention when it comes to dryland training programs. Swimmers don’t hire Joe Schmoe off the street for pool training. The same care and attention MUST be paid to the dryland training program. Swimmers young and old need strength and conditioning coaches to train outside of the pool, safely and effectively.

2. Overuse leads to injury

As stated earlier, CrossFit contributes to overuse injuries. For example, the common amount of shoulder presses in a typical CrossFit program is dangerous for athletes who combine swimming and CrossFit.

Overuse injuries are common for swimmers and non-swimmers alike in the sport. What all swimmers know to be true, about overuse is that it leads to a common condition known as Swimmer’s Shoulder. The number of shoulder presses done in a typical CrossFit sessions can further increase shoulder stress and shoulder injury, which is already an epidemic.

Potential risk factors of shoulder injuries in swimmers are:

  • Intense training load, volume and intensity
  • Poor shoulder flexibility
  • Overuse of swimming training and equipment
  • Extensive cross-training and stretching
  • Type of stroke you perform and in which you specialize in the pool
  • Previous injuries and frequent pain
  • Genetics and gender
  • Age of the athlete
  • Competition level
  • Muscle length
  • Core strength and stability
  • Poor form

3. Poor form will lead to injuries…it just may take a while

Not only does a poor training regimen and overuse lead to injuries in athletes who do both swimming and CrossFit, but poor form plays a role, too. Form must be monitored and corrected immediately, which can be difficult in a CrossFit class where the affiliate’s attention has to be split among all the participants. Swimmers require targeted and individual attention to be effective and to avoid injury.

Admittedly, evaluation of form is definitely better than it would be at a big-box gym, but you have to remember that the CrossFit trainers are not all at the same level, and in some cases, they have not undergone extensive personal training education.

Bad form is a problem that will persist in the industry, whether or not you find it in a CrossFit gym, but for swimmers, they can’t afford the risk.

Remember, ~50% of injuries in college swimmers occur in dryland (Wolf 2009). Many famous, Olympic swimmers have derailed their swimming with poor strength training at college or poor prep work and improper technique over the years. Learn the form correct when you’re young, because poor form will catch up eventually.

4. Swimmers will experience increased soreness and exhaustion

No dryland program should wear out a swimmer outside of the pool to the point where they are exhausted in the pool. When you start, or even if you are experienced, you will hurt after your CrossFit session. It is intense. There is no denying that, but it should not hurt. A CrossFit coach made this comment about CrossFit, “…CrossFit’s ability to hurt is also its most commendable quality.”

That statement makes me cringe. I tell my athletes not to push through the pain, especially if they don’t feel relief or if it is exacerbated with movement. Pain equals injury, plain and simple. Pain is common in the CrossFit WOD, competitions, and in the workout overall, but there is a BIG difference between pain and discomfort. Swimmers must keep that in mind. They are expected to work out in the pool, and they should outside the pool too. The intensity and frequency of the workouts, WOD, and competitive style is too much for swimmers. They are already athletes; they don’t need to compete and exhaust themselves in the gym, too. When a swimmer is exhausted and sore from the workout, they perform poorly in the pool.

5. Overhead exercises and stretching are common

CrossFit has its fair share of overhead exercises. Swimmers don’t need these. Many exercises actually do more harm than good for swimmers. These are the types of exercises and stretches swimmers must avoid, which are found in many gyms, not just CrossFit gyms:

  • Deep shoulder stretches – They stretch the shoulder beyond its normal range of motion.
  • Bench dips – Dips put unnecessary strain on the shoulders, elbows, and wrists.
  • Bent-over row – This put the swimmer at risk for both shoulder and back injuries because it promotes excessive rotation, instability, and poor body mechanics.
  • V-Ups – Swimmers need a strong core, but V-ups can have the opposite effect when form begins to falter and the exercise becomes exhaustive.
  • Pull-ups – When pull-ups are done improperly, the arms hang on the bar. This is a shoulder killer. Swimmers, and all other athletes, must do a pull-up progression program.

Conclusion: Advice from Dr. John

There are going to be comments that refute what I have said about CrossFit. Remember: this is a post about swimming and CrossFit. Yes, many swim coaches and trainers fall into these traps as well. Also, many  CrossFit coaches are experienced trainers that don’t fall for these traps. However, these are common problems I still see and hear. Just think how many CrossFit coaches are trained and experienced swim coaches or swimmers, or have experience with elite and competitive swimmers? That is what I want to focus on. Consider what is at risk before you jump into an intense workout fad that has nothing to do with making you a better, stronger, and healthier swimmer