May 09, 2017

The Dangers of Sport: My Personal Journey with Long Distance Running and CrossFit

I've been an athlete for as long as I can remember. As much as I identify as a scientist, I feel even more in my own skin an athlete. When I stopped running track in college, I went through an identity crisis. It was alarming and distressing.

I started running in Middle School. My first foray into running was on the cross-country team, though it didn't take long for me to realize my true skills were in the sprint races, and I had a particular gift for running hurdles. I fell in love with the raw speed and power of sprinting, and there was nothing I enjoyed more than running as fast as I could and just edging someone out for the victory. The high was addicting-my parents didn't need to worry about me using drugs in school. I had my drug, and that drug was sprinting.

There was a dark side to running, however. Shin splints were often talked about and were a common plague, and I suffered from them multiple times. I became an expert in avoiding them (eventually) as well as treating them to optimize time to recovery. Shin splints were tame in comparison to the injury that nearly robbed me of my track and field career almost as quickly as it began, however. During practice at the end of my freshman track season in High School, I got a cramp. This happened to me often, and I didn't think anything of it; instead, I ran through it as I usually did. This cramp was different though. I still had it when I woke up the next day. And the day after that, and the third day. Eventually the pain faded, but as soon as I tried running again, I made a distance of about half a mile before it felt like a giant ball was trying to rip its way out of my stomach. I saw several doctors, including a specialist and a physical therapist, and not one could determine what the problem was. Finally, to keep running, I got a cortisone shot in the muscles around the bottom of my rib cage on the right side. I ran two track seasons that way, undoubtedly doing more damage but unaware due to the complete lack of feeling in the muscle.

In college, it had gotten to the point where I felt I wasn't running for myself, or for the pure joy of running, anymore. I quit running competitively, and while I would run a few miles here and there (with at least 75% of these attempts ending with pain at the old injury site) or ride my bike, I essentially became a non-athletic person for the next nine years.

In graduate school, one of my close friends successfully trained for and ran a half marathon. As I waited at the finish line for her (and then her fiancé, who was running the full marathon) I became hooked on the buzz and energy. It was different from my track and field days, but there was something oddly alluring by the idea of pushing your mind and body to complete such a difficult task. I began training with my friend-who used a run-walk approach to training-and found that with this slow building up to distance and pace, I was running nearly completely pain free at the old injury site for the first time in nine years! Full of joy about this, I decided to enter my first half marathon that fall. Soon, I became addicted to half marathons as I had to hurdling. I had actually transitioned from a sprinter to a distance runner! It felt weird, but it seemed to be the thing to do at my age. There were thousands, tens of thousands, even, of people in many of the races I entered, and distance running felt like something attainable to anyone. It wasn't this elite, special club. There was inclusion and comradery, and there was something very attractive about that. My mother, however, voiced her concern about my newfound activity and as one year of distance running turned into two, I began to notice how many people running those races showed up with their bodies full of tape and joint braces. So many people, in fact, had their bodies decorated with tape that it almost seemed as if you were an outsider if you didn't have tape. You weren't a "real" runner, you hadn't been running long enough yet. Graduating to tape wearing meant you were really a runner. Aches and pains were normal with distance running. It was common knowledge. No one seemed worried about it, and no one seemed to let it stop them. I, too, was part of this club. I had to tape my knees or I would feel as though knives were prying my knee joints apart. I simply chalked my poor knees up to the beating they took while I was younger, hurdling and riding horses. As my mom continued to gently voice her concern, I began to pay more attention. I began to notice how weak the elite runners looked. I was shocked to see photo-tracked transformations of an ex-ultra trail runner after he quit running and began going to the gym like a "normal" guy. He didn't look anorexic anymore! His body had substance! He looked….healthy! I vowed never to let myself get to that point-I ran for the fun of it. If I started looking and feeling weak, I would have to stop.

Over the years, even before I started distance running, I had heard bits and pieces about this a fitness craze called CrossFit. I read articles about it, articles warning of its dangers, most insidious (and apparently, common) of which was Rhabdomyolysis. I had an impression of the sport-and the people engaging it-fully formed by the articles I had read, which were without exception negative and laced with urgent warnings not to participate in CrossFit lest you (inevitably) give yourself a debilitating, life threatening injury. So, when I moved to Colorado in 2014 and one of my co-workers, a normal looking woman who was most certainly not a ripped, egotistical body builder, talked about her CrossFit gym and how much fun she had going, I was surprised. I remember thinking, "She doesn't look like a CrossFitter." A stupid thought, considering I didn't know what a CrossFitter was supposed to look like-I just had preconceived notions built by things I had read. I didn't think much about it again, however, until two years later, when another co-worker invited me to his CrossFit gym for a beginner's class. That first workout included running (200 meters), air squats, and the infamous burpee. I loved it! It was certainly much less boring than distance running.

I wasn't completely hooked, though. I still felt my identity as a runner, and I continued training for half marathons. One day in July, I was running on the trails with my dog. I had made it through the steepest, rockiest, and most dangerous parts of the trail. I was on flat dirt, I was running easily, and the next thing I knew, I was flat on my face. As I landed, I slid forward, and I felt my right kneecap sliding over the ground. "Well, that hurt," I thought as I sat on the ground gathering my bearings. My terrified puppy came back to me, and I stood up-we still had two miles back to the car. As soon as I stood up, I realized my fall was worse than I'd thought. I had a hard time getting myself to walk. Once I did finally walk, the pain was so bad, I only made it about 200 hundred yards, and then sat on a rock holding back the tears. A good Samaritan saw me and drove me and dog back to my car. I went to the Urgent Care center, and an x-ray revealed nothing was broken. I took four weeks off of running, performing callisthenic knee strengthening exercises, swimming, and pool running. I slowly eased back into running-now I had graduated from a tape wearer to a knee brace wearer-and ran my next half marathon at the beginning of October.

I ran another half marathon at the end of October, and then another in mid-November, our last on the calendar until the following March. Just after Thanksgiving, I took the plunge and signed up for CrossFit. The first few sessions were attended tentatively, but I remember being impressed by the level of personal attention given to me by the coaches. They always stressed correct form and "scaled" workouts appropriate to my experience level. Egos were "checked at the door" and in the introductory booklet I received at the gym, the proud statement that a case of Rhabdo has never occurred at the gym was just about front and center. This was completely different from the experience I expected to have after reading so many negative articles.

I have improved quickly. I love the workouts, and I love feeling stronger. I didn't run much between November and March (a grand total of four times, in fact), but in that first half marathon I ran after participating in CrossFit for four months, I felt an amazing increase in overall body strength. I just felt strong, fit. It was an amazing feeling!

I've since gone back and read articles online warning of the dangers of CrossFit. I'm sure the dangers are real-but I'm equally sure that participating in any sport that you are ill-prepared for is dangerous. Having participated in both long distance running and CrossFit, I am personally not convinced that one of these activities is more dangerous than the other. In fact, a rudimentary Google search turned up zero cases of CrossFit deaths but 28 marathon-associated deaths over a ten-year period (2000-2009). Especially concerning to me (I'm at a higher risk for cardiovascular disease, according to my 23 and Me report), most of the running-associated deaths were cardiovascular in origin.

This article is not meant to pit one form of exercise over the other or contribute to the litany of passionate articles about the dangers (or lack thereof) of CrossFit. What I hope to achieve, however, is a truthful, non-biased insight into my personal experiences with both sports. Here is what I know:

I feel fitter-even while running long distances-after engaging in CrossFit regularly. In fact, I ran a grand total of four times between my half marathon in November and my half marathon in March and was able to maintain my usual race pace for ten miles. The last three miles were tougher, but what more could I expect when I only had four training runs? I was actually shocked at how well I performed.

I've always been thin, and especially self-conscious about my bony back and chicken wing shoulder blades. Now, my back muscles are starting to form and I'm looking more like a person and less like a baby bird. My lower back pain-which would come and go-is a thing of the past.

I'm finally getting the abs I've always wanted and haven't had since I was ten years old and riding horses every day.

My knee is not worse. In fact, it's better. I ran my half marathons in March without my knee brace and only wearing tape. Is my knee better from CrossFit? Is it better from taking time off from distance running? Is it better because it's simply had time to heal? It could be one or none or all of the above, and the truth is I don't know. But what I DO know is that CrossFit has not made it worse-something that several articles I had read made me fully expect (and worry about when I first started).

In my opinion, both sports are equally dangerous. I've seen the taped-up masses at races. I've seen people injured from CrossFit. I honestly believe that the reason why more people associate danger with CrossFit is due to the nature of the movement. It took the world by storm, and yes, there are certainly "evangelicals" associated with the sport. The mentality it promotes may indeed be at the root of the problems associated with CrossFit. I truly believe that responsible athletes that are in tune with their bodies and respect their limits can participate in CrossFit safely and see amazing results while doing so. I believe that good coaches (like my own) will be key for this as they are instrumental in teaching and enforcing good warm up, cool down, and stretching practices as well as a healthy mentality and good form while engaging in the workouts.

In short, long distance running is dangerous. CrossFit is dangerous. Both of these sports-and hundreds of others-are riddled with injury. Educating athletes and coaches is what will make the difference to improve safety and reduce injury in all sports-not the doomsday articles. I hope to see more positive, proactive articles in the future, and will play my role in contributing to such articles in any way I can!