I thought I would write some thoughts on this topic since I’ve personally seen members, coaches and myself struggle with this over the years.
In simple terms redlining in a workout (not just CrossFit) is when you push it too hard past the point of recovery where there are diminishing returns aka hyper-ventilating, puking, dizziness, shakiness, etc. A perfect example is when you hop on the Rogue Echo bike for an all-out 50 cal sprint and when you get off your legs are so shaky you can’t imagine doing anything else after. A classic CrossFit workout where most people redline is “Fran”. 21-15-9 reps of thrusters and pullups. Meant to be done in less than 7 minutes this is a sprint where you are going close to if not past your 100% threshold. Sounds great, right?
The Morning Chalk Up recently wrote an article named, “If you’re redlining, you’re kind of doing it wrong”. When I started CrossFit 10 years ago in 2012, it was frowned upon if you didn’t go ALL out every single WOD. There were no training percentages or EMOMS or relative recovery days. It felt almost like every day was a redline day. The article argues that if you’re doing CrossFit like that, then you’re doing it all wrong. In some aspects, I agree but in others, I could also see the benefit of redlining in your CrossFit training.
To me, redlining is all relative to a person’s baseline fitness level. My all-out 100% is quite different than someone who is coming off the street with no background in high-intensity CrossFit training. And the same goes for elite games level athletes. Their redline threshold is absolutely way higher than mine. The point here is that if you never go to that dark area, how will you know what to base your training intensity on? If you always cruise around going nice and slow, how will you ever get comfortable being uncomfortable? If I were to guess, elite-level CrossFit athletes probably redline a few times a week in their training. For the rest of us, I would argue it’s productive to find that redline area about 1x every few months. That way you know when to push it, for how long and how hard during your workouts.
However, just like in the article, I would argue that redlining probably does more harm than good in the grand scheme of CrossFit training. As a coach for over 10 years, I’ve honestly pushed clients way past their relative fitness levels a few times where I probably shouldn’t have. To make CrossFit more applicable to the everyday person, it needs to be consistently scaled back on a weekly basis to fit your long-term health goals. At Boulder CrossFit, we never want someone to be so wrecked that they can’t walk the next day, thus not getting back into the gym on a regular basis. As a gym we want people to feel good about their bodies. Not day in and day out beat them up. That’s why we program Thursdays as active recovery days where you can move at your own pace. That’s why we offer percentages of training maxes in most WODS. If you push yourself to or close to redlining every day, it will eventually lead to burnout and hatred for CrossFit training. I’ve seen it in coaches, members, and myself over the years.
At the end of the day, I approach my fitness training as follows. I push it in the WODS and my lifting on a daily and weekly basis at about 75-80% of my all-out max. Once every few weeks, I will push it past that so I can see how it feels being uncomfortable and moving at that level. And then once every few months, I will go ALL out and redline so hard where I can’t get off the ground for a solid 5-10 minutes post WOD. That way I can adjust my effort accordingly based on that redline level. My goal is to continue doing this for the next 40 years and to be able to move well outside the gym, pain-free, for as long as my body and brain allow.