So, what is CrossFit, exactly? At its core, it's a branded core strength and conditioning program designed to optimize performance in ten different domains. It's historically been used by military organizations, police departments, and now thousands of sport-specific gyms worldwide. Athletes run, jump, row, climb, move heavy loads, and use both Olympic and powerlifting techniques, among other things. CrossFit programs are designed to enhance your ability to perform well regardless of the task you're given. Translation? You don't specialize like a marathoner might; the goal is to get pretty good at everything.
After thirteen years as a competitive swimmer, I was done specializing. I wanted to excel at a variety of outdoor sports like climbing, hiking, backpacking, cycling, and skiing. I started CrossFit in 2011 and haven't looked back. Initially, my goal was to be fit for any adventure, but I loved CrossFit so much that I'm a full-fledged competitive athlete now. It's an outlet for my competitiveness, I see improvements every day, and I'm part of an amazing, supportive community. I've also reaped the benefits of the increased strength, aerobic capacity, and other skills I've honed in the gym outdoors. And here's why.
You use your entire body, all the time, in a bunch of different ways.
Whether you're a hiker, backpacker, mountain biker, even a climber, you use multiple muscle groups when you're outdoors. You might do hikes of varying distances, climbs of different lengths, or be on your feet for an entire day. A program that emphasizes sport-specific training can help you achieve your goals in that sport, but if you're interested in getting in shape for anything, CrossFit is perfect. It's perfect because the CrossFit program was "developed to enhance an individual's competency at all physical tasks."
As a CrossFit athlete, I'm trained to, among other things, run, bike, row, lift heavy weights, and move my body in different ways and for different lengths of time. And sometimes, I don't know what I'm going to be asked to do until right before I do it. It's all part of general physical preparedness.
CrossFit programs generally consist of compound exercises, (movements that recruit more than one joint and muscle group like deadlifts, squats, and pull-ups), along with cardiovascularly intensive workouts of varying lengths to keep your body guessing. Isolation exercises like bicep curls have their place, but compound exercises strengthen major muscle groups faster. And getting stronger from head to toe will benefit you no matter what outdoor sport you're into.
Every day is different.
When I went to the gym on my own, I had trouble coming up with different exercise routines that would challenge me. I got bored and plateaued; I stopped seeing strength and endurance gains because I always did what I knew, and it was tough to stay motivated.
Joining a CrossFit gym (box) gives you access to a structured program and all the benefits of having a personal trainer, but without spending an arm and a leg for one-on-one attention. That structured program is likely to test you in ways you haven't been tested before, or ways you don't test yourself often enough. If you find you're always heading for the bench press or go straight to the treadmill, you're missing the chance to build work capacity in other areas that might benefit you.
At my CrossFit gym, classes are capped at 12 people to ensure we all get the coaching we need. We might spend an entire session working on Olympic weightlifting, or we might also end up with a cardiovascularly intensive workout that takes 45 minutes. It depends on the day, and the possibilities are endless. As a result, I'm stronger, faster, and more flexible than I've ever been, and best of all, working out doesn't feel like a chore. It's just plain fun.
You'll build mental toughness.
When I think of what true mental toughness looks like, I think of someone who's able to do things I couldn't fathom. One of the most impactful movies I saw at the Trail Running Film Festival featured Scott Jamie and his attempt to set a new FKT (fastest known time) on the 486-mile Colorado Trail. I have trouble grasping how someone could endure what he did; it takes a level of mental toughness most of us don't inherently have. But that doesn't mean we don't need it, and it certainly doesn't mean we can't develop and improve it.
The concept of your mind quitting before your body does might seem cliché, but if you regularly challenge yourself outdoors, you're likely familiar with it. Mental toughness is multifaceted, and given how CrossFit is designed to push us out of our comfort zones, it's the perfect training ground. Friend and fellow #TeamSierra member Heather Balogh found a change in her perspective of pain. "The workouts involve such an intense anaerobic pain that the sustained nagging pain of long runs, hikes, or camping trips seems much more tolerable in comparison."
Being able work through pain, being able to focus under pressure, increased self-awareness, breaking seemingly impossible tasks down into manageable chunks, and smiling no matter what I feel like are a few of the skills I've honed through CrossFit. And they're all skills I regularly use outdoors.
You build strength, stamina, speed and endurance.
Frequently find yourself walking uphill with a heavy pack, racing to get to a campsite before dark, scrambling up rocks, spending an entire day on skis, and/or trying not to die while mountain biking? Me too. Nearly half of the ten domains that are part any CrossFit strength and conditioning program directly and obviously apply to a ton of outdoor sports. And given how many I participate in, I use CrossFit to stay in shape for all of them. I'm able to hike faster, backpack longer, and power up hills on my bike more easily than I used to be able to.