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CrossFit Appeal
Jeff Banowetz

The Grassroots approach to fitness has a devoted and growing following that is about to hit the mainstream. Are there opportunities for running stores?

Does the growing CrossFit category represent an opportunity for running specialty stores? The sports community is starting to take notice of this trend as its popularity spreads. Reebok has just signed an exclusive 10-year deal to make CrossFit shoes and apparel. This year’s CrossFit Games—a competition looking to find the world’s fittest men and women—aired on ESPN3. And more and more companies are filling unique niches created by this unorthodox fitness program. CrossFit has created a huge demand for both old-school staples like kettle Bells and weight-lifting shoes while also embracing high-tech compression fabrics and yoga apparel.

While the workout regimen may have its roots in training police, firefighters and the military, it now features a broader appeal to a wider population of all ages who want to focus on whole-body, “functional” fitness. CrossFit endurance coaches have branched out to include marathon and triathlon training as part of their services. And some affiliates are reaching out to mothers and pregnant women to emphasize that CrossFit isn’t just the domain of elite athletes.

Not bad for a company that started as a small-town gym that couldn’t get the money to expand.

The CrossFit Story

CrossFit began as a single facility in Santa Cruz, Calif., founded by Greg Glassman, a former high-school gymnast. He created a broad and inclusive fitness program to prepare police trainees for the physical demands of the job. He eschewed traditional exercise machines in favor of movements from gymnastics, weightlifting and plyometrics. Endurance exercises—basically running and some time on a rowing machine— are incorporated into the workouts rather than treated separately.

The traditional means of expanding his business—large amounts of venture capital—weren’t working for Glassman, who instead started posting his unique workouts on the Internet. Using things like gymnastics rings, kettle bells, chinup bars, jump rope and other equipment In his gym, he created gravity-focused workouts that eventually developed a following across the country.

More importantly, the concept of functional whole-body fitness—using real-life movements, free weights and untraditional equipment (tractor tires are a CrossFit favorite)—started to develop zealous converts, who began blogging about CrossFit themselves and posting their own Workouts to the Internet.

CrossFit affiliates started to pop up across the country and overseas. By 2001, there were nearly 50. In 2008, the number reached 500, and this year it’s up to 2,800 affiliates. Nearly all of them seem to revel in the garage-gym origins and no-frills industrial space that’s the opposite of most health clubs. “You won’t find any plush couches in a CrossFit gym,” laughs Josh Courage,Who runs an affiliate in Bethesda, Md. He’s had so much success that he needs to expand but would like to maintain the industrial atmosphere. “I need more space, but I still want that feel of the garage. That’s just CrossFit.”

Kevin Fitzpatrick, New Balance product marketing manager for performance training, says CrossFit is a case of “the barefoot trend moving into the gym.”

New Balance started looking into creating a CrossFit shoe two years ago. They actually went to California to study what was going on because so few gyms in Boston were doing it. But this July, New Balance debuted the MX20 (WX20 for women), which is part of the Minimus line, and designed for the CrossFit athlete. Designed to be worn with our without socks, the shoe has a low profile and a grippy rubber outsole for traction.

Who’s buying the shoes? Runners or new people to the sport?

“I definitely think it’s a new group of people coming to the sport and to the brand,” Fitzpatrick says. “You’re seeing a lot of ex-college athletes who are drawn to the competitiveness and the community that they find with CrossFit. They left college and maybe they became somewhat sedentary. Now they want to get back into really good shape and do it in something like a team setting.”

Fitzgerald estimates that 70 percent of New Balance customers who are doing CrossFit are coming from outside of running.

“It (CrossFit) has very mass appeal,” Fitzpatrick says. “We’re seeing people as young as 14 and 15 up to your grandparents who are doing it to stay in shape.”

“The barefoot trend obviously started in running, but we’re seeing it branch out across categories.”

“From space at a retail standpoint, (the minimalist trend) is going to get much more crowded. It’s here to stay,” Fitzpatrick says. “When it first started, I think people were skeptical. And you’ll find a huge variety in what people call minimal. But you’re going to see more and more manufacturers adopting it.”

“Could (minimalist) be applicable on the field, on the court?” Fitzpatrick asks. “I think we’re going to ask those questions and see where we go.”

Kris Hartner Owner of Naperville Running Company, has definitely noticed that CrossFit athletes are taking advantage of the minimalist running trend.

“A lot of them are buying the Vibram Five Fingers or another minimalist running shoe,” he says, ‘They’re looking For something with a low profile and less cushioning.”

For his store, the minimalist shoes are making up 15-25 percent of his sales.

“Now that includes racing flats. And it includes Newton. And it included Nike Free. We do big numbers with Nike Free. It depends on how you define the category: barefoot, minimalist, natural, lightweight. But if you look at it broadly as lightweight or minimalist, I’d say it’s 15-25 percent of the store.”

He finds that most traditional runners aren’t necessarily doing CrossFit. But CrossFit is bringing new people to the store, and it uses running in a different way.

“I think there’s a trend to do things in a natural way, and CrossFit is part of that trend,” he says.

The core of CrossFit is the Workout of the Day (or WOD, rhymes with pod, to the CrossFit crowd). It’s a unique workout created by local affiliates that incorporates many elements from the CrossFit repertoire into a single workout. Think of taking weightlifting exercises from Column A, flexibility from Column B and endurance from Column C, and you can see how many variations become available. But even that description oversimplifies the creativity that goes into the workout. CrossFitters (as they affectionately describe themselves) lift Unwieldy objects, incorporate climbing ropes and exercise rings, and cycle through dozens of calisthenics to make sure all parts of the body are being used in a functional way.

The workouts lead to exceptional results for those who put in the time (usually four to six workouts a week). They are also scalable, enabling athletes of any ability to do the same workout at the same time. The Navy SEAL in the room will lift heavier weights and do more repetitions, but it allows anyone to participate and develop a sense of camaraderie with the group. That social element becomes a big draw for people.

“I think a big part of the appeal is the community,” says Jonny Vu, an instructor and marketing director of CrossFit Chicago. “People are out to get in the best shape of their lives, and they get support from the group. We hang out. We get to know each other by name. We do events together.”

That camaraderie, enforced by a heavy emphasis on blogging, social media and friendly competition, has meant that products that work well for CrossFit can quickly develop an intense following.

Equipment Challenges

“I found this minimalist trail running shoe by New Balance, and I loved it,” Courage says. “And within a few weeks, half of my gym was wearing them. There aren’t a lot of products designed for CrossFit, so when you find one that works, word spreads fast.”

The demands of Crossfitters on footwear are particularly difficult. In theory, they’d like to be able to wear the same shoe for an Olympic-style dead lift as for a mile sprint—since the workouts are without pause.

“It’s very uncommon to have a shoe that’s stable enough for overhead lift and then cushioned enough to run in,” says Chris Froio, the head of fitness for Reebok. “And then you have to make it lightweight.”

Reebok spent nine months studying the movements of CrossFit before even beginning to design a shoe. Then they took the shoe out of their traditional development timeline to ensure that they had a product that worked in real life before launching it. What they ended up with was a CrossFit training shoe and a weightlifting shoe, which are both available in small quantities via e-commerce sites. They’ll launch to specialty retailers early next year.

“If you had told me a year ago that we’d be doing a new weight-lifting shoe, I’d have said ‘no way,’” Froio says. “But when we studied the sport, we saw it was needed.”

Until now, many CrossFitters took advantage of the minimalist running movement to find shoes without thick cushioning, which becomes compressed and possibly unstable lifting free weights. The Vibram Five Fingers is a common sight in CrossFit gyms, as is Inov8, a British shoe company Focusing mostly on trail running with a U.S. headquarters in Southborough, Mass.

“CrossFitters are looking for a shoe with a flat differential from heal to toe,” says Gina Lucrezi, Inov8’s U.S. marketing manager. “They want stability and a sticky rubber bottom that grips extremely well.”

So Inov8 removed the midsole and added a rope guide on its Bare XF-210 model, which will be launching in early 2012. “It’s a demographic that’s a lot like trail running,” Lucrezi says. “They’re very dedicated and they’re pretty exact on what they want a shoe to do.”

On the apparel side, Under Armour and Lululemon have made inroads into the market, with tight-fitting clothes that offer plenty of flexibility for movement. Reebok will launch CrossFit licensed apparel along with the shoes early next year. And like many sports, compression is a growing category with elements designed both for performance and recovery gaining hold in the CrossFit world.

“CrossFit is a perfect application for compression,” says Richard Verney, who heads the U.S. distribution of 2XU. The compression apparel company launched its PWX fabric this fall and is targeting the CrossFit market. “They can use the garment (during exercise) to insure, first and foremost, the control and protection of the muscle. And then, like other athletes, they can Use it to help aid recovery.”

Manufacturers of traditional gym equipment like jump ropes and kettle bells are benefitting from the attention CrossFit brings. As is Concept2, the rowing machine manufacturer, which is about the only piece of machinery you’ll find in a CrossFit gym.

“It’s one of the first groups outside of the rowing community to really be interested in the sport,” says Tracy Desrocher manager of commercial and government sales for Concept2. “They want to know how to use the equipment and how to train effectively. They’re serious about technique.”

Plus, there’s been some noticeable overlap.

“It’s great to see CrossFitters moving into the rowing community, and rowers moving to the CrossFit community,” she says.

That’s not the only product to gravitate to the CrossFit universe: The Paleo diet, which focuses on lots of protein and is usually recommended at CrossFit affiliates, is getting more attention, as is the Pose Method of running, another CrossFit favorite.

Despite its fantastic growth, CrossFit is still primarily a word-of-mouth business. But with a big player like Reebok on board—as well as the exposure that the CrossFit Games received on ESPN this summer—you can expect more people discovering what all the fuss is about.

“This morning at 9 a.m., I taught a group of 18 housewives from age 25 to 55,” says CrossFit Chicago’s Vu. “Yesterday I had an 81-year-old woman who did CrossFit for the first time. Don’t get me wrong—we have some phenomenal athletes. But the general population is here to get fit and live a better life.”