You can speculate all you want about what makes an elite Crossfit athlete elite, but it’s all theoretical until you actually check under the hood. After-all, it’s easy to pontificate about what you believe to be happening in a workout when you’re sitting in your office chair writing workouts, but it’s a whole different story when you see the data unfold in front of your eyes. Having tested dozens of Crossfit athletes ranging from recreational competitors, sanctional athletes, and games athletes it is abundantly clear that the physiology of a top Crossfit Games competitor differs significantly from those on the cusp of greatness.
Leading into the 2016 Crossfit Games an organization called Training Think Tank hosted an athlete camp where we brought in a number of top Crossfit Games competitors and had them throwdown on a series of workouts across a three day weekend. One of the workouts included a high volume of kettlebell snatches and box jump overs and while watching this event Training Think Tank’s head coach Max El-Hag made a comment that Travis Mayer (a top games competitor) was able to take that metcon and turn it into a cyclical event. Max didn’t mean anything profound by this — he was just making a simple statement that if you watched Travis do the event he doesn’t stop moving for more than a second or two whereas a lot of the other competitors were breaking up their kettle snatches, taking longer transitions between movements, and generally looked like they were approaching the metcon in more of a circuit style with defined work and rest periods.
Regardless, this statement really struck a chord for me. Particularly so because it matched my observations when I started doing physiological testing on Crossfit competitors. When I conduct these assessments my aim to is understand how the athlete’s body deals with the numerous demands imposed by whole body exercise. This includes regulating arterial blood pressure, supplying adequate oxygen to the brain, heart, and working muscles, as well as dealing with changes in intra-abdominal pressure. If you’re interested in getting a better sense at what this type of analysis looks like you can click here.
In my experience i’ve found that the best Crossfit athletes in the world can turn the majority of metcons into cyclical work whereas the rest of the pack cannot. What I mean by cyclical work is that the is steady blood flow to the working muscles, a near linear rate of oxygen desaturation from the start to finish, and more broadly that the physiological response to the metcon matches what you’d expect to see on a 2k row for example. To demonstrate this we’ll observe a NIRS trend from two Crossfit athletes going head to head in a metcon: