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Respiratory Endurance Training for the Competitive CrossFit Athlete

January 12, 2023 by

The Athlete

• 24 y/o, Male
• Training Age: 11
• Track & Field; High School (200m, 400m, Triple Jump)
• Baseball; High School & College (Center Field)
• 2 Years of Blog Style CrossFit (post-college)

I recently had an athlete approach me for competitive CrossFit development.  This was some basic information I gathered from one of our initial conversations.

One of the main things this athlete was struggling with in the Sport of CrossFit was longer, aerobic events (15+ min), in both cyclical and mixed environments.

The athlete’s strength level is on par for many Semifinals level athletes, but the majority of his points in the 2022 CrossFit Quarterfinals came from the sustained power events.  Events biasing strength & power were on track for their goals (Semifinals Qualification).

After some digging in conversation and additional testing, we confirmed that across the board they were lagging in aerobic prowess.

One quality -in particular- that was lagging was the ability to sustain a high ventilation rate (speed of breathing) without dropping tidal volume (depth of breaths).  

In other words, when I watched him perform tough bouts of prolonged work, he would wave between a high work rate & high respiration rate to a lower work rate & lower respiration rate.  

Here’s a rough outline of the mental model I used to progress him towards developing this limitation…

Start By Adding Volume

The only way to effectively build aerobic prowess is by doing sustainable work.
The only way to learn how to sustain work at a repeatable pace is to do a lot of contractions.
The only way to do a lot of contractions is by adding volume.
The only way to do more volume without severely overreaching is by reducing work rate.

If an athlete is scared by the duration or number of contractions in a test, they only way to overcome this is by exposing them to more.

Confidence & experience go a long way in the ability to sustain high work bouts, without dropping power for moments across the test.

It’s doesn’t matter if one of my athletes is dipping their power mid-test because they don’t have the confidence in their system to keep pushing or if they’re running up against a physiological ceiling because the training I prescribe will result in both physiological and psychological changes.

From the physiological standpoint, cardiac output is best developed through total time under stress.  This allows for steady blood flow during stronger contractions at high work rate down the road.

Breathing hard won’t help if you can’t get blood through a muscle and back again to the heart.

Avoid this Mistake: Writing Only Slow Conditioning Work for a Power Athlete

It’s important to remember that the goal of “endurance” for a CrossFit athlete is different than other sports.  In CrossFit, you must be able to perform well across a spectrum of time domains, an array of contraction types, and a variety of patterns.

An athlete who is biased towards strength and power events will rarely get excellent adaptations from endurance work alone: you’re slow to get better at the things you’re bad at. ...that's why you're bad at them.

For a power athlete, combine longer, slower aerobic accumulation work with circuits of sport work in tiny chunks.  


Monday PM
[60:00 External Clock]
Row @ Zone 2 Avg. HR
*E5M (-0:00): 2 Rounds
-6 No-Jump Burpee
-8 Ring Row
-10 Air Squat

Wednesday AM
15 Rounds @ 80-85% Effort
-4 Box Jump Over, Step Down 24”
-4 American KB Swings 53lb
-4 Shuttle Run (25ft =1)
-4 Hang Power Snatch 95lb 
-4 Toes-to-Bar
-Rest 30s-

Build Work Rate

While building a broad foundation of aerobic contractions is essential supportive work for high-effort metabolic events (the majority of CrossFit events), it’s not enough.

Doing endurance work in off-season training and then launching an athlete back into the chaos of CrossFit as the season approaches is a great way to waste an off-season by failing to transfer the capacities they gained in one cycle to the next.

Building an intentional progression for aerobic work also means a calculated transition from one phase of training to another. 

Slowly prune back the volume and replace machine-based cyclical with elements and time domains that begin to mirror the sport.

This means that effort & power output will continue to climb together but the key aspect of aerobic training will remain: repeatability.

As the athlete spends more time at threshold, they will also spend more time at respiration rates that mirror the sustained, fast ventilation of CrossFit workouts.

As the focus on training pieces becomes performance-oriented, the athlete is required to maintain high ventilation rates to be successful.  He is building confidence through challenge.


E10M x 5 Sets:
AMRAP 5:00 @ 85% Effort
-15 Calorie Row
-12 Wall Ball 20lb, 10ft
-9 Burpee Over Rower Rail
(between sets, ride the AirBike @ recovery pace*)
*return to nasal breathing ASAP on the Bike

Avoid this Mistake: Prioritizing the Progression Over the Adaptation Rate

Too often I see coaches hold their progressions in their minds as having greater importance than their athlete’s adaptation.  This is arrogant and short-sighted.

You don’t know how an athlete will adapt or the length of time it will take for them to improve, especially in qualities that are contrary to their essence (aerobic training for a power responder).  

An Athlete-centric Coach prioritizes athlete feedback to dictate the program through Reactive Periodization.

Add Dynamic Contractions

Mastering Breathing in CrossFit can’t be done with cyclical movements, as the majority of the tests in the sport have an acyclical component.  This means there are varied patterns in high-eccentric environments.  Volume tolerance and breathing are movement specific and can’t be mastered through machine work.

Avoid this Mistake: Failure to Bridge Between Low & High Eccentric Environments

If you have realized the theme yet, once again a common mistake I see is failure to adequately balance & blend an aspect of training.

Adding back in too many high-power, high-eccentric contractions too quickly will (a) leave the athlete unable to express & recover from the volume, and (b) fail to drive aerobic adaptations from easier cyclical work into the new context.


Week 1
E4M x 7-9 Sets: 
-Bar-Facing Burpee

-Max AirBike Cals, Until 2:00 Mark
*the goal is to match or improve your score each round

Week 4
E5M x 5-6 Sets:
-Ring Muscle-Up
-Burpee Box Jump Over 30”

-Wall Ball 20lb – 10ft, Until 2:00 Mark
*the goal is to match or improve your score each round

Work Your Way Back to the Sport

At the end of the day, your job as a coach is to prepare an athlete to compete.

And an athlete will never be prepared to compete at their best if they haven’t mirrored what they will be asked to do on game day.

In the context of this post, sustained ventilation through acyclical, novel tasks to support high-metabolic work is not a luxury.

Avoid this Mistake: Failure to Understand Training vs. Competing 

The goal of training to stack small wins by accumulating quality work.  Mechanical & metabolic work should stress an athlete enough to stimulate a good adaptation without detracting from future opportunities for practice (aka. their next session).

Competing is about maximizing your placement in a sport.
The goal is to win.  

A coach needs to understand when it is time for each and how to best communicate this through to their athlete.

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