A Data-Driven Lens
The other week I took two full days to comb through every year and every event of the CrossFit® Games and look really closely at the events while doing a statistical analysis.
While I felt I had a solid grasp on what the Games programming entailed, I needed more concrete data to allow me to best coach my athletes.
Turns out, I was right about a lot, but also that I was missing many critical pieces. In this breakdown, I’ll distill my key findings and share the data I collected.
The Statistical Analysis
Frankly, this process was very tedious. Yet, there were more than a handful of discoveries I made about the style of the Games, and how that differed from other tests, like the Open.
In this spreadsheet, I don’t offer interpretations or conclusions about what the stats mean, I just provide the information. Continue reading below for my key takeaways.
Takeaway #1: The Sport is Evolving.
The CrossFit Games have very humble beginnings. What started in 2007 as a fun, laid back weekend with 3 workouts, quickly exploded into a multi-day, dozen-event competition with big name sponsors, prize money and stadiums full of fans.
The inaugural 2007 Games looked dramatically different from just three years later when it moved to the Home Depot Center. It had tripled the number of events and the fan base exploded.
This first takeaway is important for two reasons.
One, I chose not to include the 2007, 2008 and 2009 Games into the averages in the spreadsheet because it would have greatly skewed the information. In my opinion, the 2010 Games shared more in common with the 2020 Games then it did with the 2007 Games.
Two, CrossFit has a long journey ahead of it to become a true professionalized sport. This includes not only normalizing the competitive season, but also determining and standardizing key factors for the Games, such as event type and number, the movement selection, and safety considerations.
Case in point, the Med-Ball – HSPU event in 2012 had athletes doing kipping parallette handstand push-ups to the metal surface of a competition plate, and the 2018 CrossFit Total had athletes maxing out their Back Squat on slick platforms in the rain.
My point is: CrossFit will continue to evolve. However, we also know it is constantly calling on the past for inspiration in the form of benchmarks and repeats as well. The 2020 Games included the 2007 Reload, CrossFit Total, Trail Run…all which were events in 2007.
Look to the future, but also remember the past.
Takeaway #2: The Scoring System Matters.
In terms of scoring, the Games is basically the opposite of the Open.
In the Open, a single bad workout can easily derail your spot on the leaderboard. This is because every place in the Open is a point. You can win four out of the five workouts and still not even qualify for the next round.
In the Games, the scoring flips, where the winner of the events gets 100 points and second place gets X number of points less, third gets a few less, etc. This means it pays to win events. And winning events at the Games means you are talented in a particular arena. Therefore, in the Games, it pays to capitalize on your unique strengths.
For example, say we have an athlete who is a very strong runner. If they were to win 5 out of 5 events at the 2020 Games that had a running element, they would be well on their way to a podium finish.
There are a number of scoring systems that could be adopted to the Games, and it would dramatically change the way athletes prepare for the competition and also in the way they attack individual workouts. However, it looks like the current system is here to stay, considering the last time there was any change to the system was 2008: the “every second counts” year.
Takeaway #3: The Curious Case of Mixed Modal.
There have only been three CrossFit® Open workouts that have not been mixed modal.
In other words: single movement workouts.
And interestingly, all three were prior to 2013. They were: 11.3, 12.1 and 12.2.
Every single other workout in CrossFit Open history has been couplets, triplets or more.
The Games is a different story. There are more single movement workouts at the Games than 2, 3, or 4+ movement workouts.
This is interesting and has serious implications for competitive athletes.
First, to get to the Games you have to be elite at mixed modal.
Second, to thrive at the Games you have to be elite at single modality tests.
Most athletes train their whole careers just for a shot at the Games. And it turns out that the type of training an athlete is forced to do to get to the Games, is not the type of training that will allow him or her to win the Games if they ever make it.
An athlete has to be able to do long cyclical events where running, cycling and swimming are involved. And not sitting on an erg either…they actually have to move themselves through space.
They have to be able to lift true max lifts in unfatigued environments.
They have to be able to be athletic: sprinting, sled drags, Weightlifting speed ladders and obstacle courses.
For the Games, it’s not enough to be good at mixed modal: you have to be good in isolation.
Takeaway #4: Strength Biased Fitness.
You have to be strong to have a shot at making it to the Games. There’s no way around that.
But I’ve personally heard some CrossFit coaches of perennial Games athletes say that working to develop 1RMs higher than the threshold needed to make the Games are resources better spent on developing “fitness.”
In my opinion, this is poor advice.
Like c’mon, it’s the Sport of Fitness, you had better be always developing your “fitness.” But to neglect further maximal strength development for a competition that tests 1-2 unfatigued max lifts every year, plus another event or two that is very heavy …is nothing short of a fatal flaw.
But I won’t stop there. Having a higher max also makes all those events with moderate loads lighter as a percentage of the athlete’s 1RM.
And considering Weightlifting (W) as a movement category (meaning external load) is the most common category, relative strength, strength endurance, and battery are crucial skills. An average of 8.8 events out of an average of 12.5 events involves W.
When over 70% of Games events involve W, it pays to be strong.
Mark Bell said it best, “Strength is never a weakness.”
But also, in the words of Dan Bailey, “If you want to be a different kind of strong, practice gymnastics.”
As a movement category meaning bodyweight acyclical movements, Gymnastics (G) are the next most movement category at the Games. Just over half of the events in Games history have involved a G element.
This could be obstacle courses, rope climbs, pegboards, muscle-ups, pistols or box jumps. But the moral of the story is, you can’t neglect strength to bodyweight ratio while in pursuit of 1RM development.
Last and least, is cyclical movements, which is commonly referred as Monostructural (M) in the CrossFit community. Just under half of the events in Games history have involved an M element.
While being involved in less events than G & W, M modalities do become a crucial piece of Games prep for athletes, only because CrossFit almost completely neglects M movements in the Open. Of the twenty-ish commonly tested Open movements, only two are M movements: rowing and double unders.
So despite the fact that M movements still aren’t as important from a points perspective as W and G movements, it becomes critical that Games athletes prepare for events involving an M element because most of their training season they can’t afford to allocate too many training sessions to this type of work.
Takeaway #5: Survival of the… Volume?
The CrossFit Games is not about survival of the fittest; they are about survival of the volume.
This is of course using CrossFit’s own definition of fitness, which is about the expression of maximal intensity in the given time: “Constantly Varied, Functional Movements executed at High Intensity.”
The Open is great at testing two out of three: functional movement at high intensity. One workout per week with familiar movements forces athletes to sell their soul every single workout.
The Games is also good for two out of three: constantly varied, functional movements. Sure, the intensity is high, but every test is not like an Open workout where athletes are reduced to laying on the floor like a puddle of mud for a few minutes.
An athlete’s ability to maximize his or her placing across 12-15 events requires being smart & calculated about when to hammer down and when to throttle back and coast through the finish.
It’s not about maximizing your time in each workout; it’s about maximizing your average placing throughout the course of the weekend. This often involves “gaming” workouts in a few events across the weekend.
Takeaway #6: The Games are a Spectator Sport.
The CrossFit Games aren’t just about finding CrossFit’s version of the fittest on earth. It’s about getting views, publicity for the sport and it’s athletes, and about inspiring and entertaining the masses.
It’s very important to Dave Castro that the workouts have visual appeal to their viewers. This takes several different forms. One simple example is athletes being required to move their barbell or implement down the competition floor through each round of the workout.
Or better yet, fill the entire floor with barbells, with each lane having its own row.
But the entertainment can be elevated even more.
Hmm, let’s add novel implements and pairings that no athlete would ever be able to recreate in their gym. This is how inventions like Rescue Randy, the Pig, the the Tumbler came about. And how workouts like Chaos, The Pool, and the Handstand Walk Obstacle Course were dreamt up.
And finally, there’s one last important piece to Games workouts that makes them spectator friendly: they’re For Time.
Unlike the Open where 70+% are AMRAPs where every gets done at the same time, having a work priority (aka. For Time) clearly displays who won the workout…they cross the finish line first.
After all, that’s what we all want to see…