How do we define CrossFit? Constantly varied, functional movement done at high intensity. Of those 3 things, which is most unique, and consequently, where most of the benefit of CrossFit is derived over other programs? Intensity. Constantly varied is not hard to find in other programs, although different from CF, still there. Functional movements are also very common, although not always as much of a foundation as they should be. The intensity at which these 2 other things interact is where the big benefit comes in. We are no longer spending hours in the gym, it is a 5-25 minute workout day in and day out, with usually less than an hour including warm-up and stretching. The reason we can work out for such a short period of time is because of the intensity at which we do it.
The reason to keep this is mind is because in order to gain the greatest benefit, we need to perform as close to maximal intensity as possible. The part that "outsiders" don't get is the brevity of our workouts. They cannot comprehend how a 15 minute workout (on average) can be enough of a workout for the day. I am personally convinced that the first day that someone "drinks the CF kool-aid" is the first day they figure out what intensity in a CrossFit workout means, and the benefit they gain from it.
So if peak performance at maximal intensity for the duration of the workout is the goal, there are other aspects, both inside and outside the gym, that aid in achieving that. The two biggest things are diet and recovery/rest. Diet is paleo. That's a whole other topic, but pretty straight forward, just eat right. But in my opinion the more important one is recovery and rest. The reason I believe that recovery is most important is because it is the one that most directly affects your intensity. After every workout you have depleted some amount of energy that you need to recover before the next workout. On a scale of 1-100, you want to be as close to 100 as possible for EVERY workout. Longer workouts drain the number lower and shorter workouts drain it less. But it does not change the fact that every time you start a workout you want to be as close to 100% as possible.
Back to the original question, what is overtraining? In this scenario, overtraining is when you are no longer able to recover back to an acceptable range to perform the next workout at near maximal intensity.
In the real world, being at 100% is very difficult, but as close as possible is the objective. As an example, let's say you were at 95% and then had to do Murph, a near 50 minute workout. You were then left at about 70% post-workout. Especially in these cases, recovery is of the utmost importance. Even walking into the gym with 8-9 solid hours of sleep and proper nutrition the next day, you will likely still not be recovered back up into the 90something percent range as desired. But with proper programming, the workout would be short and sweet, 5-10 minute range, thus allowing for additional recovery from the exceptionally long workout the previous day. Ideally this would allow you to make it back within the acceptable intensity range for the following day. The being said, COULD you do another 50 minute workout? Absolutely. Would it be at anything near maximal intensity? No way. How about that following day, would that be anywhere near maximal intensity? No, and likely significantly worse. You are now officially overtraining. You are continuing to lower and lower and lower your level of intensity that you are taking into each of your next workouts. Not only does it feel pretty crappy to be at sub-maximal intensity, but it is literally defeating the purpose of CF training.
Another great example of diminishing returns during training is 2-a-days. Yes, after being involved in CF for a while, you can get away with it for a bit, but at what cost? The answer is overtraining. You will certainly finish the workouts, but the longer the overtraining pattern is repeated, the lower the intensity becomes during each subsequent workout. Again, defeating the purpose of the short, quick, high intensity CrossFit workout, as compared to the prolonged, slow sessions of traditional gym training.
On the topic of sport-specific or program-specific training, the reason that the 2-a-days of CrossFit Endurance (CFE) work is because everything is still kept relatively short (within CrossFit's general programming time frame), and the longer workouts and/or runs are properly spaced out to allow for full recovery. The presupposition of all programming within a CFE training program is that rest is most important. It is better to take a rest day than to complete a workout for the sake of completing it. If you don't hit your times on a run or in a workout, it is not recommended, but mandatory, to take a day to get back up to full capacity. It is the only way you can get by running only 13 miles while training for a 50 mile race, with intensity during the short runs! The alternative is Long Slow Distance running, which requires significantly more miles, leads to greater injury, great time out of your life, and is not as effective. The exact same thing could be said about strength or any other specific CrossFit training program. Rest is the biggest contributing factor in maintaining the high intensity of the program. And without high intensity, you are not CrossFitting.
On a side but related note, the reason athletes take steroids is not because it helps their muscles grow bigger or something wacky like that, but because it aids their recovery to be back in the gym faster. But don't do drugs, cheater.
written by our own Jerry Goldshine