Training for the CrossFit Open: how to manage your training workload

Competing in the CrossFit Open? Here’s how to structure your training and workload to get you to and through this year’s workouts.

The CrossFit Open is an all-inclusive, world-wide event and a part of the CrossFit Games. And it’s just around the corner.

To help you work hard and move well, we’ve put together this guide to keep you injury-free and working to your ideal training load.

This is what we’ll cover in this post. We’ll show you how to:

  • Structure your training to help prevent injury

  • Measure the intensity of your acute training load to your chronic training load (ACWR)

  • Work within the safety zone in terms of your ACWR of 0.8-1.3

More than 20% of CrossFit Open competitors drop out from injury

In the 2019 CrossFit Open almost 360,000 people around the world registered. Of all the competitors who lodged scores for workout 19.1, only 78% of them did so for the last workout, 19.5

That’s more than one in five competitors dropping out! It’s a safe bet that a reasonable portion of that was due to injury.

Don’t be an injury statistic

I’m betting you’d like to avoid becoming one of those statistics in this Open… 

Working towards an event like the CrossFit Open is a great way to motivate your training. And we train to improve our athletic abilities. 

Asking more of our bodies than they are used to giving is what promotes the physical and neurological adaptations that result in stronger muscles, cardiovascular systems with more endurance, and skills that allow us to move more efficiently.

People tend to train harder and more consistently when they have a goal to work towards, so the CrossFit Open can help you get gains in your strength and performance. 

But how do you know:

  • How hard to push yourself in training? 

  • Is there an ideal intensity of training? 

  • Does your training have anything to do with injury rates? 

Acute to chronic workload ratio (ACWR)

We know from a bucket load of studies that training can be protective against injuries when the intensity sits within a specific range. But too much or too little will increase your chance of injury, sometimes by a lot! 

So how you structure your training can play a big part! 

It’s all about what’s called the “Acute to Chronic Workload Ratio”, or ACWR. Let me tell you what that means.

Chronic workload

A common way in professional sports of assessing your chronic workload is by taking an average of your training load over the last 6 weeks. 

One way to think about your chronic training load is to consider it as the level of fitness you have after your last 6 weeks of training. 

Acute workload

Your acute workload is about your current training period. 

The most practical way to measure your acute workload is across all the training you do in the current week of training so you can factor in days with more intensity and days where you may take it easy. 

Think of your acute workload as the impact on your body due to your training right now, in other words, the way you are fatiguing your body!

As the name suggests, your ACWR is literally a comparison of your acute workload to your chronic workload. So, to calculate your ACWR, divide your acute workload by your average weekly chronic workload.

ACWR = acute workload / chronic workload

The ideal ACWR

The ideal ratio of acute to chronic workload is in a range of 0.8 to 1.3. Now, if you are working to increase your athletic capacity, you’d want to keep it closer to 1.3. If you are currently in a deload phase of your training, or you are tapering your training before an event, you may choose to keep the intensity closer to the low end of that range.

Guide to interpreting and applying acute:chronic workload ratio data. The green-shaded area (‘sweet spot’) represents acute:chronic workload ratios where injury risk is low. The red-shaded area (‘danger zone’) represents acute:chronic workload ratios where injury risk is high. To minimise injury risk, practitioners should aim to maintain the acute:chronic workload ratio within a range of approximately 0.8–1.3. Copied and quoted from Blanch and Gabbett.

Guide to interpreting and applying acute:chronic workload ratio data. The green-shaded area (‘sweet spot’) represents acute:chronic workload ratios where injury risk is low. The red-shaded area (‘danger zone’) represents acute:chronic workload ratios where injury risk is high. To minimise injury risk, practitioners should aim to maintain the acute:chronic workload ratio within a range of approximately 0.8–1.3. Copied and quoted from Blanch and Gabbett.

Your injury risk increases dramatically once your acute workload is greater than 1.5 times as intense as your chronic workload. 

In fact, even this can vary depending on:

  • Where you are in your cycle  - you can train harder in pre-season than while competing

  • Your age - you young-guns can cope with a higher training load 

  • Your training age - the longer you’ve trained, the more protection against injury you derive from a well-structured training schedule.

How to measure your training workload

That’s great, but how do you measure your training workload, I hear you ask? 

Well, we consider it in two ways, either as external workload or internal workload.

External workload 

External workload is literally the things you can measure: how far you’ve run/rode/rowed, your speed, how heavy you’ve lifted and how many reps, etc. 

For us as CrossFitters, this can be hard to quantify, because there are so many variables. 

Internal workload

Internal workload is easier to track, because it’s more about your subjective sense of effort. For any given training session, estimate your rate of perceived exertion (RPE) out of 10, and multiply it by the length of the session in minutes. Add these up for the week. That’s your internal training load. 

However you measure it, just try to keep your ACWR within the 0.8-1.3 range. It’s that simple.

Example training ACWR workload

Let’s have a look at what that might look like: in this example we’ll assume you’ve been training regularly for months, maintaining attendance at four CrossFit sessions a week. 

Each session is 60 minutes long, and on average you push pretty hard (an RPE of 9) for one session, and moderately so for the other 3 (each an RPE of 6). 

Example chronic workload

Table 1: Example chronic workload

Table 1: Example chronic workload

So your chronic workload is 1,620. 

You register for the CrossFit Open, and decide to ramp up your training. 

Now you start going to five sessions a week, and you push yourself pretty hard in three of them (an RPE of 9 each), and allow yourself to take it a little easier in two (an RPE of 6 each). 

In addition, you decide to work on your cardiovascular fitness, so you stay after two of your sessions and bang out a half-hour row (RPE of 7 each). 

You also decide you really want to get muscle-ups before the Open starts, so you add in two sessions of 15 minutes working on your pull-ups and technique (RPE of 6 each). 

Example acute workload

Table 2: Acute workload example

Table 2: Acute workload example

In this example your acute workload is 2,940. 

That gives you an ACWR of 1.8 (2,940/1,620). 

You can see this is well above the range of 0.8-1.3, and in fact is well into the danger zone! 

This individual is setting themselves up for either an injury or burn-out! 

An example of a safe increase in workload

This particular athlete could probably safely add a fifth session to their week, and push it hard (RPE of 9) in two of these sessions, and still stay in the “sweet spot”. This is how that would look:

Table 3: Safe increase of workload example

Table 3: Safe increase of workload example

Now the acute workload is 2,160. 

And the ACWR is 1.3 (2,160/1,620), which is just inside the acceptable range. 

Increasing your acute weekly load safely

Keep in mind, also, that your chronic workload is a rolling calculation. 

So you can progressively ramp up your training load. If you are calculating your chronic workload by averaging your weekly workload over the last six weeks, and you start increasing your acute weekly load, your chronic load will also increase (although at a slower rate). 

It’s a good idea to record your RPE and session length every time you train, then calculate your workload every week. Then you can easily chart your chronic workload by just taking the average of the last 6 weeks. If you don’t have these measurements for the last 6 weeks, try to estimate. It’ll give you a good starting point.

Play with the numbers, you’ll get it. And if you get stuck, get in touch.

References

Bourdon PC, et al, Monitoring Athlete Training Loads: Consensus Statement, Int J Sports Phys and Perf 2017; 12: S2-161 - S2-170

Gabbet TJ, The training-injury prevention paradox: should athletes be training smarter and harder? Br J Sports Med 2016; 50: 273-280

Pontzer H, Wood BM, Raichlen DA, Hunter-gatherers as models in public health, Obesity Reviews 2018; 19.1: 24-35

Tigbe WW, Granat MH, Satter N, Lean MEJ, Time spent in sedentary posture is associated with waist circumference and cardiovascular risk, International Journal of Obesity 2017; 41: 689-696