The workout of the day is Helen, and you come out at a blistering pace. The movements are just running, kettlebell swings, and pull-ups - shouldn’t be too hard...
You overestimate your 400 meter run pace… and by the third round, you’re completely dragging.
CrossFit Pacing: Why it’s important
Which brings me to the topic of this post: pacing for CrossFit.
While it’s important to push yourself and go hard… pacing is equally important to successfully finish workouts, and maximize your training. On that same note, I just as often see athletes who are underpacing, and not working at a challenging enough pace.
The key is finding the perfect middle ground.
In this article, we are going to break down the stages that athletes typically go through as they’re learning to pace their CrossFit workouts - and give tangible recommendations for what to focus on at each stage.
Before we get too far, let’s take a look at an example of a high level athlete with excellent execution of a pacing strategy.
MaryKay finished 20.1 in 9:19, which was good enough for 54th in the world. Here’s a video of her 2nd round and her 8th round, which were just a few seconds apart.
Here are MaryKay’s splits for 20.1:
- Round 1: 52s
- Round 2: 56s
- Round 3: 61s
- Round 4: 59s
- Round 5: 60s
- Round 6: 57s
- Round 7: 59s
- Round 8: 58s
- Round 9: 52s
- Round 10: 45s
This is an example of an elite athlete showcasing excellent pacing; but she didn’t start there. Like most athletes, MaryKay went through a progression of learning how to pace.
There are four typical stages that CrossFit athletes pass through as they learn to pace themselves:
- The Wild Man/Woman
- The Accountant
- The Shrinking Violet
- The Master.
Let’s check them out.
CrossFit Pacing Stage 1: The Wild Man/Woman
“Go hard, see what happens, hang on for dear life.”
When many athletes first start CrossFit, they’re excited by the intensity of it.
They’re pushing themselves harder than they’ve ever pushed themselves in the gym.
They typically don’t have much of a plan for their workouts, and, when they do plan, it’s typically to just attempt to copy the pace of someone who has been training for years.
In fact, when I started doing CrossFit back in 2008, this was pretty much the recommended method for attacking any workout:
Here’s how this works for most people:
Step 1: Get all jacked up and excited as the timer counts down.
Step 2: Come out hot. This is feeling really good! This is going great! Let’s push the pace!
Step 3: Ok we’re about two minutes in and this is getting hard…
Step 4: Uh oh. Dry mouth. Grip is completely blown up. I think my quads are going to cramp. Only fifteen more minutes to go in this twenty minute AMRAP. Better get some chalk…
At this stage, the athlete is hanging on for dear life and everything is impossible. They may have started rowing at 1300 cals/hr and it now feels like a max effort to maintain 900 cals/hr.
What’s going on here?
CrossFit Pacing & Capacity
Many of these folks are beginners, so they have simply not developed the capacity necessary to get through workouts without blowing up.
They also don’t have the reference experiences necessary to understand how fast they should go on cyclical pieces like rowing or assault bike, how they should split up their reps on large sets, or how to slow down their cycle time on movements like burpees to control their pace.
So, what needs to happen? While many people will improve simply by "doing more CrossFit,” it’s always wise to have a plan.
Here’s a few things that people at this stage can do:
Option 1: Write down your split times the next time you do an AMRAP or a "for time" workout.
In many CrossFit workouts, we are going to see attrition throughout - meaning that rounds get slower as we go - but the best pacers are able to minimize the drop-off and keep their splits pretty tight through their workouts.
The first step is to simply develop pacing awareness.
All this requires is quickly noting the time on the clock every time you complete a round. You can stop and write it down on a whiteboard or just make a mental note.
As your pacing improves, you will notice that there’s less variation between rounds.
Option 2: Shoot for negative splits next time you do a low skill AMRAP or for time workout.
“Negative splits” means that our pace gets faster every round.
In order to achieve negative splits, we will have to go out much slower than we typically do so that we have some wiggle room to increase our pace every round.
This is best to do on low skill workouts made up of things like rowing, burpees, wall balls or light dumbbell snatches. If we have things like chest-to-bar pull-ups or handstand push-ups that are limited too much by skill or muscle endurance, it’s difficult to purposefully slow down and control our pace.
Here’s an example of a workout that might work well for shooting for negative splits:
- 15 row calories
- 12 DB snatches, alternating (50/35)
- 9 burpee box jumps (24”/20”)
We can control our pace on the row just by watching the monitor and shooting to speed up every round.
We can slow down the DB snatches by pausing briefly in the overhead position or by breaking up the reps.
We can slow down the burpee box jumps by stepping up and stepping down from the burpee, and by taking a moment to collect ourselves on the top of the box.
We can also control our transitions by counting our breaths between movements. In the first round, we can go with something like five breaths between movements. Then as we progress, we can cut that down until we are pushing to have as little transition time as possible on the final round.
The first few times people try this, they often go way too fast on the first round - which doesn’t give them enough space to increase their pace on subsequent rounds. If this happens, no worries. Just slow down even more the next time you do it.
Option 3: Add some paced interval workouts to your training
If you’re just doing the class workouts at your CrossFit gym, the above strategies can be helpful since you don’t have to actually change anything in your training.
However, if you’re doing your own thing, interval workouts are one of the best ways to learn to pace.
With intervals, we are resting between rounds, so we have more opportunities to adjust our pace based upon feedback from our bodies.
If we use the example above of a relatively low skill triplet, we can easily turn that into an interval-based workout by doing something like this:
4 rounds @ increasing pace per set:
- 1 min AMRAP row calories
- 1 min AMRAP DB snatches, alternating (50/35)
- 1 min AMRAP burpee box jumps (24”/20”)
Rest 2 min
Start at moderate pace and increase effort per set. Last set at hard effort.
In fact, I talk through designing some of these types of workouts in a recent Legion Strength & Conditioning podcasts here.
CrossFit Pacing Stage 2: The Accountant
Overplan, get rigid and stiff, fall apart when you’re unable to stick to the numbers on your spreadsheet.
Once athletes learn to pace and understand that having a plan is a huge advantage in a workout, the pendulum typically swings too far in the other direction and they often become rigid overplanners.
“Ok, if I want to get 10 rounds on 18.1, then I need to complete one round every two minutes. So, I’ll just watch the clock and start a new round every two minutes.”
Athletes will start building both mental and literal spreadsheets of their split times. They think that simply by doing the math ahead of time that they’ll be able to will their physiology to comply with their plan.
Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Fatigue is a multi-faceted and complex phenomena, and it doesn’t respond well to linear thinking and simple calculations.
Instead, athletes at this stage need to learn to turn their plans into “heuristics” rather than “rules.”
What does this mean? Rather than having specific plans that need to be adhered to, ideally, we are able to adjust our plan on the fly based upon how things are going.
Let’s use fractioning reps on something like chest-to-bar pull-ups or toes-to-bar as an example. Rather than having an exact plan for how to split reps, try these heuristics:
- Descending sets are typically better than straight sets - 6/5/4 for 15 rather than 5/5/5”
- Don’t do more than half of your max set - if you can do 10 unbroken bar muscle-ups, don’t do more than a set of 5 in a workout”
- Always leave two reps in the tank. Hitting just one rep that’s “too hard” can push you over the edge and cause you to fall apart.
- When calculating your likely split times build in a bit of attrition. If you know that you can typically do 6/5/4 chest-to-bar pull-ups in about 25s when you’re fresh, plan for that to slow down to 30s, then 35s, then 40s per round as you fatigue.
Pacing For CrossFit Stage 3: The Shrinking Violet
Underpace and leave too much in the tank...
Once athletes have gotten past the first few stages of learning to pace, they often start pacing themselves too much, since they’ve learned the consequences of going out too hot in workouts.
These athletes typically know their numbers solidly and can tell you exactly how many RPM they want to see on their assault bike monitor for just about any workout or time domain.
They know how they should split up their chest-to-bar in any context. They know how long to rest between heavy squat cleans.
The problem is that these athletes have learned to pace so well that they are leaving capacity on the table. They stay so far away from the “red line” that they don’t have a great idea of where it is anymore.
And, they have often dramatically improved their capacity in conditioning workouts, so they’re not even sure what a truly “difficult” pace is for them. In our coaching, we have a few ways that we can push these athletes to go a bit faster.
Option 1: Give them a specific pace to hit on cyclical modalities or how quickly to cycle certain movements.
We usually prefer that coaches allow athletes to figure out how to move through their sessions without giving them specific numbers that they need to hit on their row paces, etc.
However, for folks at this stage, giving them specific targets that are just a bit outside of their comfort zone can get them outside of the “cruising” pace that they’re used to settling into for just about everything.
If you know that an athlete will typically hold 63 rpm on the assault bike for conditioning workouts, it may be appropriate to have them do something like:
- 6 burpees, 6” target
- 8 KB swings (70/53)
- 10 assault bike calories
Start at 65+ rpm and see what happens.
If you are jumping into a class workout, you can do something similar. Just try holding a slightly faster pace than normal on a cyclical piece. Or, if you are doing burpees, attempt to get 10 burpees done in less than 35s and don’t let yourself step up and step down.
You may blow up, and that’s totally fine. Learning to re-calibrate exactly where that red line is for you is a huge component of improvement.
Option 2: Regularly include messy “CrossFit” sessions in the training
Many coaches and athletes who learn solid training principles start to pull away from doing too many “classic CrossFit” couplets and triplets in their training in order to focus on other things and avoid constant beatdowns for athletes..
While this is a natural progression, it’s possible to swing too far away from the messy chaos of typical “CrossFit” workouts. Even if we have great capacity in running, rowing, and strict gymnastics, that doesn’t mean we’re going to be any good at a nasty 21-15-9 couplet.
We’ve found that by regularly including some chaotic CrossFit workouts, we can put athletes in scenarios where they can’t have too much of a plan and - no matter how they pace it - they’re going to blow up and get uncomfortable at some point.
This doesn’t mean that every week of training needs to be an ass-kicking.
Instead, we can typically have at least one session per week that is intended to be messy enough with enough moving parts, enough interference between movements, and enough total repetitions that athletes are regularly touching on uncomfortable scenarios that force them to push a bit more than they would like to.
Here’s an example of this type of pacing session:
10 min AMRAP:
- 3-6-9-12…power cleans (115/75)
- 4-8-12-16…bar-facing burpees
Even if you pace this well, there’s going to come a point where this gets really uncomfortable. There’s no plan that will keep you from getting pretty uncomfortable with the right combination of burpees, moderate load weightlifting movements, and chest-to-bar pull-ups.
CrossFit Pacing Stage 4: The Master
Have a deep intuitive understanding of how to plan appropriately for different workouts and adjust plans on the fly based upon how things are going.
At this stage, athletes have mastered the basics of CrossFit pacing. They know intuitively exactly what rowing pace is realistic for them to maintain in all kinds of different time domains, different movement combinations, heavy workouts, light workouts, etc.
They also know how they should split up high-volume sets of gymnastics movements, and they have a solid intuitive understanding of when they’re about to blow up and when they need to adjust rep schemes on the fly. They have a solid internal clock for how quickly they can hit heavy cleans or snatches, and they can knock out heavy squat cleans like a metronome.
At this stage, athletes do not need to work so much on the exact dynamics of pacing.
Instead, they need to be exposed to a variety of scenarios so that they can continue to develop and refine their internal understanding of how they feel with different combinations of movements.
They also can get much more granular with the types of things that they need to work on. They may not need to work on “bar muscle-ups” per say, but they may need to focus on bar muscle-ups when paired with other grip-intensive movements like light power snatches.
They may not need to work on their squat cleans, but they may need to improve their ability to clean heavy weight after doing a high turnover, metabolically intensive conditioning piece.
At this stage, athletes are able to learn and internalize lessons from every workout, since they have such a fine-grained view of how they’re feeling and how they expected to feel.
This creates a virtuous cycle where they’re able to do more training (since they pace appropriately just about every time) which facilitates more learning (since they are getting more exposure) and also facilitates building more capacity (since they are doing more volume at sustainable effort).
Athletes here can often get better just by doing a lot of different stuff - which is why a lot of the programs for elite athletes look like total chaos 🙂
Pacing & CrossFit: Final Takeaways
Not every athlete is going to move through these stages in a linear fashion.
Athletes have different “tendencies.” Some are always going to err on the side of overplanning, and these folks will benefit from learning to cut loose more and go off of feel.
Others are always going to go out hot and see if they can hang on, and these folks will benefit from developing a bit more restraint and spending more time planning their sessions.
Ideally, you’re able to understand where you sit on this progression and take some of the suggestions that we have an apply them to your next training session - even if it’s just whatever is programmed during the next class that you show up to.
Then, based upon that, you’ll be able to build up your reference experiences and develop an increasingly intuitive sense of how to pace for your CrossFit workouts.
Ever start a workout thinking “Doesn’t look too bad, I’m gonna crush this!” only to wind up gassing out after the first couple minutes of a 15 minute WOD? It doesn’t feel good on your body or your ego. But it’s a problem you can fix.
Like most of you reading, I’m not that into “cardio” in the traditional sense of going for a run or hopping on a treadmill. Like most Crossfitters, I prefer lifting heavy and doing short, intense metcons. That preference sets us up as athletes to ignore more traditional cardiovascular training - putting ourselves at a disadvantage during longer WODs.
If I had to pinpoint the time when I was in the best cardio shape of my life, it was definitely while doing lots of endurance and interval training for a half marathon row at my Crossfit gym.
So, how can you build your CrossFit conditioning and improve your endurance for metcons?
The simple answer is to practice more, as I had to while training for the half marathon row.
If you wanted to get better at double unders, you’d need to spend dedicated time working on double unders. Likewise, if you want to get better at the Assault bike, you’re going to have to spend some extra time on the Devil’s tricycle.
The cool thing about building Crossfit endurance is that it doesn’t matter which modality you choose (running, rowing, biking, dubs, or what have you) so much as how you approach your conditioning workouts, which I’ll get to in a second.
First, let’s talk about how to get better at the two main pieces of Crossfit cardio equipment - the rower and the air bike - so you can smash your cardio workouts.
How to get better at the Assault Bike or the Rower
To improve your performance on the Assault bike and Concept-2 rower, you first need to understand how these machines work. Specifically, there are a couple numbers to focus on.
For the rower, it’s your split and strokes per minute, indicated by “s/m” in the top right corner of the erg’s display. Your split measures how long it will take you to row 500m at your current pace. Strokes per minute obviously tells you how many times you complete a “rep” on the rower in one minute. Both measurements are in “real time,” meaning they will change with subtle changes in your pace and stroke rate.
For the Assault bike, it’s your RPM or watts - they are equivalent measurements, like pounds and kilos. RPM stands for rotations per minute and is similar to strokes/minute on the rower. Watts measures the power you’re putting into the machine. Since there are no gears, RPM will always be equal to power.
Whichever piece of equipment you’re training with, you’re going to want to have a fast split or high RPM/watts during sprints, and a consistent split, stroke rate, RPM, or /watts for mid- and long-distance workouts.
The other piece to improving your bike/row game is efficiency. Just because you’re “doing cardio” doesn’t mean technique goes out the window. As with snatching or any other movement, there’s a right way to row and bike.
Each stroke on the erg is made of a pull and a catch. You begin the pull by driving your feet into the foot rests, pushing with your legs. You’ll finish the pull with your arms before starting the catch, or recovery. Here, you will perform the movements in the exact opposite order: push the arms away, hinge at the hip and then bend the knees.
(Rower Pro Tip: do not try to to a big breath in when in the catch)
Key coaching points for the rower:
- keep a tall, upright posture;
- eyes forward (looking down makes it harder to breathe);
- eyes open so you can see the monitor;
- actively push with your feet and pull with your arms on the rower;
Key coaching points for the bike:
- keep a tall, upright posture;
- eyes forward (looking down makes it harder to breathe);
- eyes open so you can see the monitor;
- push with both your feet and arms, they’ll naturally come back as the other side works;
- synchronize your breathing with your work on both machines.
These tips will improve your efficiency on the rower and air bike so you get the most out of your training, increase your endurance, and avoid gassing out halfway through long WODs.
Want more detailed rowing coaching? Check out this WODprep article: Rowing For CrossFit: Form, Technique & Common Mistakes
How to use the rower/bike to improve your endurance
You probably know that metabolic conditioning means training your metabolic pathways - your body’s energy systems - to run more efficiently.
What you may not know is that our bodies produce energy using several different means. The three major metabolic pathways that provide energy for our muscles are: the phosphagen pathway, the glycolytic pathway, and the oxidative pathway.
Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz on these systems. Technically, these systems work together to produce energy, but different time domains draw from the systems in different combinations. Since each metabolic pathway contributes different amounts of energy source for varying amounts of time, you have to train each pathway to improve your overall conditioning.
Keep in mind that though we’re talking about the energy systems individually, they are always mixed when we’re moving. Each system contributes different amounts of energy, depending on the duration of work you’re doing.
In order to train each of the three pathways, you’ll need to do a mix of short sprints, mid-range intervals, and long aerobic workouts. Just like when you lift weights to get stronger, you need to create “progressive overload” with these different cardio workouts by doing more work or using longer intervals or shorter rest as you improve.
You can do any of those types of workouts with any equipment, from running and rowing and biking to traditional metcons mixing up different CrossFit movements. Again, it’s not about the tool you use, but how you set up the workouts.
The rest of this article explains how to hit each energy pathway so you improve your CrossFit conditioning and endurance.
Metabolic pathway #1: Phosphagen
Your goal is to produce as much power and do as much work possible in a short amount of time. Think 100m repeats running or rowing.
This kind of activity relies on your phosphagen pathway, which produces quick bursts of energy but can’t sustain that power for very long.
When sprinting, you should rest for more time than you work. A work-rest ratio of 1:10-20 is appropriate, depending on the duration of the sprint. The higher intensity the sprint, the more recovery time your phosphagen pathway requires. As the length of the bout increases, the “percent of maximum power” must be lower thus allowing a “quicker” recovery relative to the time of work.
Below we have a Table from Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. This is a rough guide of work to rest ratios we should generally follow.
For example, if each sprint of a 8x10 Calories on the Assault Bike takes you 10 seconds, then you should rest for 120-200 seconds between efforts. It doesn’t need to be that exact, but you get the idea. You can progressively decrease rest times as you become more fit, but only if you’re able to maintain consistent times on the repeated efforts.
Metabolic pathway #2: Mid-distance (Fast/Slow Glycolysis)
Workouts or efforts lasting 30s-5 minutes are powered by the glycolytic pathway, which produces less power than with sprinting but lasts longer. You know the feeling of starting out hot on the rower, then feeling the “burn” after 45 seconds or so? That’s where your body has run out of sprint energy and transitions primarily to using energy from the glycolytic pathway.
Your pace won’t be as fast during these workouts, but you’ll be able to sustain your effort longer. Rest doesn’t need to be quite as long - a 1:3 or 1:5 ratio of work to rest is plenty if you’re pacing yourself appropriately. For instance, say you’re doing a 2-minute row for calories. You could rest 6 minutes between efforts and be sufficiently recovered to hold your split in the next round. As your conditioning improves, you can rest even less. ****Now remember these are max effort attempts for that time domain which will show very “maximum Power % as the time increases). Most of the time, in CrossFit, we take an 80% approach to a 2-4 minute workout so that we can rest 1:1 and be back on it. For a lot of rounds.
Metabolic pathway #3: Long aerobic
It’s likely your CrossFit box doesn’t program too much long aerobic work because, well, it takes a long time that could be used for lifting or building skills. But you’re missing out on a lot of endurance benefits that way.
If you're serious about improving your engine, prioritise your long aerobic workouts for a set period of time rather than simply tacking them on to an already full program.
“Long aerobic” workouts can be defined as anything longer than 20 minutes and are generally done at a consistent pace, though you can do intervals as well. An example of aerobic intervals would be 30 rounds alternating between 1:00 at 40 RPM, 1:00 at 55 RPM on the Airdyne (or whatever pace would be “easy” and “medium” for you).
Point is, you should be able to maintain the same pace for the duration of the workout.
Bottom line: Don’t skip long aerobic work.
Long cardio workouts may not be as sexy as PR’ing your deadlift, but it will improve your CrossFit endurance and your performance in WODs across all time domains.
Still confused about how to program cardio for yourself? Take the guesswork out of your conditioning and get in peak shape with WODPrep’s Endless Engine course.
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