The Sport of Fitness



“In implementation, CrossFit is, quite simply, a sport—-the ‘sport of fitness.’ We’ve learned that harnessing the natural camaraderie, competition, and fun of sport or game yields an intensity that cannot be matched by other means.” – The CrossFit Journal

This week’s New York Times Magazine has a provocative article whose title poses the question, Why are Americans so fascinated with extreme fitness? While the article calls out CrossFit by name, it also places it in the context of a wider movement away from gentle, low-intensity activities like jogging, towards intense, militaristic activities whose very purpose is to test mental and physical limits with every session. As the article puts it,

“CrossFitters represent just one wave of a fitness sea change, in which well-to-do Americans abandon easy, convenient forms of exercise in favor of workouts grueling enough to resemble a kind of physical atonement.”

I have no direct knowledge of CrossFit, and I have no intention of spoiling anyone’s fun. In fact, I feel sympathetic to those who value the experience of putting themselves through rigorous physical activities within a community that supports and values their effort. While I might argue that CrossFit’s definition of fitness (increased work capacity across broad time and modal domains) is somewhat circular and amounts to the increased ability to do CrossFit workouts, I won’t argue with the rewards of becoming part of a community of people who tackle these workouts together.

No, the question I have is why people have turned away from jogging.

It has been almost fifty years since jogging became a thing. According to one creation myth, Bill Bowerman brought it to the U.S. from New Zealand after meeting Arthur Lydiard and seeing scores of ordinary folk running along at an easy pace for miles and miles. Or perhaps the credit should go to Kenneth Cooper, whose 1968 book “Aerobics” made the case for improving broad cardiovascular fitness. In any case, these days its hard to imagine a world without joggers.

Unless, of course, they were all to join CrossFit gyms (are they really called “boxes?”) and abandon the roads.

If I sound a little incredulous, it might be because as I write this, I’m recalling a really lovely, slow run to and around Walden Pond yesterday afternoon with my team. It was the day before a meet, so we were doing an easy run, and I tagged along with one of the groups. No one pushed the pace, and there was a lively conversation the entire way. I suppose yesterday was an anomaly, being a rest day. Or perhaps my training methods are hopelessly out-of-date, but even taking those things into account, the sport of long distance running inevitably includes a lot of running at a sub-maximal pace. In other words, it’s not always about intensity.

But that’s not true about extreme fitness. As the NY Times article points out:

“The ‘extreme’ version of anything is now widely assumed to be an improvement on the original rather than a perverse amplification of it.”

It’s funny, I used to hate being called a jogger. I was a serious runner, dammit! But even at my most serious, I recognized that much of my fitness was expressed as the ability to relax and enjoy running for an hour or more at a pace that allowed for conversation. In this, at least, I resembled all the people who weren’t trying to set 5K, 10K, and marathon PRs. At some level, we were all out there to feel good and get some fresh air.

The funny thing is, I suspect that the rise of intense exercise is not actually about being more competitive. As someone who has never done it, I don’t know for sure, but I suspect that intensity is also related to a kind of impatience, or desire to pack in a lot of experience in a short time. There seems to be a strong interest in getting fit in the least amount of time possible. It could be that no one has time for the slow — one might call it tedious  — road to fitness offered by jogging.

Not everyone has the patience to run slowly for a thousand miles — or ten thousand — to become fit. It’s ironic, I guess, that in this regard, CrossFit and its extreme cousins offer an easier — not a harder — path.

About Jon Waldron

Running and Racing have been important parts of my life for as long as I can remember. I ran Track and Cross Country at Amherst HS, back in the day, and am proud to have been training and competing with the Cambridge Sports Union (CSU) for more than thirty years. If my bones hold out, I hope to continue for another thirty. Sixteen years ago, I began coaching, first as an Asst. Coach at Newton North HS in Newton, MA, and for the past ten years, as Head Track and Cross Country Coach at Concord Academy in Concord, Massachusetts. I've been writing about running for almost as long as I've been running, dating back to high school, when I would write meet summaries for the Amherst Record for about $0.33 per column inch. I've been blogging about running since 2005, and began blogging at "the runner eclectic" in 2014. Until recently I also had a day job, working full-time as a Technical Product Manager for Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, MA. But I am now on what might turn out to be a permanent sabbatical. Thank you for reading my blog, and please consider leaving a comment.
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