CrossFit is about ‘constantly varied, functional movements.’ Every day you step into the box, you know you’re going to see a new WOD. That’s a huge part of the appeal of CrossFit, and how we develop as well-rounded athletes—always ready for the unknown and unknowable. But there seems to be one exercise in CrossFit—the CrossFit Games, to be precise—whose appearance is becoming more and more predictable. Swimming. For three consecutive years, the CrossFit Games have had a workout that contained swimming in one format or another. Last year athletes were required to swim one length in a 25 meter pool, jump out to perform three bar muscle-ups, then swim back to the other end before returning for another round of muscle-ups—for ten rounds. In 2011 and 2012 athletes had to swim in the ocean as part of a multi-event workout. As you can see, there seems to be a running theme here, and I’d hazard a guess that we will see athletes in the water again come July.
So what makes swimming so special? Why are more and more Games hopefuls (as well as regular boxes) incorporating swimming into their programming?
Swimming, if you didn’t already know, is a particularly vigorous workout. The world’s best swimmers move through the water with grace and economy, while the inexperienced are awkward, clumsy and inefficient. If you can recall how Rich Froning and Lucas Parker (though the beard may have been slowing him down) looked during the pool event last year, you could immediately tell that swimming wasn’t exactly these guys’ forte. You may be an incredibly fit individual, strong, with a good engine, highly mobile and skillful with CrossFit movements—but as soon as you immerse yourself in H20, things begin to change. As Terry Laughlin notes in the CrossFit Journal, a world-class runner is about 90% mechanically efficient—meaning that 90 of every 100 calories expended produce forward motion. The remaining 10 are lost to muscle heat, ground friction, wind resistance and so on. Water, on the other hand, is 900 times thicker than air, and is highly unstable as a medium for applying power. Therefore, Laughlin estimates, a world-class swimmer is only 9% mechanically efficient. To put that in context, Laughlin says that the typical novice swimmer would achieve around 3% efficiency. Therefore, swimming, much like the muscle-up (and numerous other exercises) is all about utilizing one’s stroke in the most efficient manner. If an athlete is able to increase their mechanical efficiency by just 1%–from 3% to 4% for example—this translates into a 33% improvement in swimming capacity.
The inclusion of swimming at the Games thus becomes more obvious. The fact that the most elite swimmers only achieve 9% mechanical efficiency immediately demonstrates that athletes won’t be able to rely solely on strength, endurance and flexibility when they jump in the water. The elements of technique and form are of far greater importance—which is likely why Castro and the Games staff value swimming so highly. Games athletes need to be strong in multiple arenas, after all, and no one said anything about those arenas being limited to land-based activities. Furthermore, swimming is a useful way of ‘thinning the herd’ and allowing other, less well-known athletes to pick up some valuable points (as was the case for Jordan Troyan in 2013). In fact, in 2011 and 2012 we have seen several competitors get disqualified during the swim events as they were either unable to swim, or got injured doing so. In 2013, athletes had obviously stepped up their game, and we saw no DQ’s. This is telling as CrossFitter’s have come to realize that swimming needs to be an integral part of their training, and can be useful for boosting their fitness too. A quick scan on the Internet revealed a number of boxes utilizing swimming WODs on certain day’s—CrossFit Northeast Georgia has an entire page dedicated to the different workouts that involve swimming. They include:
Swim Murph (scale pull ups, push ups, air squats as needed)
800m swim, 100 pull-ups, 200 push ups, 300 air squats, 800m swim
500m swim, 50 wall ball, 400m swim, 40 wall ball, 300m swim, 30 wall ball, 200m swim, 20 wall ball, 100m swim, 10 wall ball
400m or 300m or 200m swim * based on level
100 pull ups 100 push ups 100 air squats 100 sit ups
200m or 150m or 100m swim * based on level
Swimming is quickly becoming a staple of the CrossFit Games, and that’s transitioning over to the programming of more and more boxes that have access to a pool (of course, that’s a big limiting factor for other gyms—but it doesn’t mean you can’t swim on your own time!). Swimming has the potential to build muscle tone, strength, flexibility, improve heart health, asthma symptoms, cholesterol levels and is a far less impactful exercise on your body. So while swimming needs to be a key component of every CrossFit Games-hopeful, you should consider adding it in to your active recovery as well—you might just see your ability in CrossFit (along with your general health) start to rise.