Here’s Why So Many CrossFitters Are Flocking to Bobsledding

James Newbury, Colleen Fotsch, and Tia-Clair Toomey are all transitioning onto the ice.

James Newbury‘s decision to ride a sled down an ice track at speeds of 93 miles per hour didn’t come by way of epiphany. Nor was it a longtime dream of the four-time CrossFit Games veteran. In a very 2020 way, Newbury’s idea to try bobsledding was birthed scrolling on the internet.

“I watched it on YouTube, and I was watching how fast these dudes are going around the bend and how much G force they were pulling,” Newbury tells BarBend. “Anything extreme like that, anything that comes with a little bit of risk and a little bit of adrenaline, I’m particularly attracted to.”

Newbury then took to Instagram in July and messaged a member of the Men’s Australian bobsled team, who competed at the 2018 Winter Games in PyeongChang, South Korea. One thing led to another, and Newbury, who followed up with the Australian Bobsleigh Federation, met up with the Australian bobsled team for a trial sometime in November 2020. “The next thing I know, six weeks later, I’m here in Europe competing in the European Cup,” he says.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by James Newbury • Adelaide (@jamesnewbury)


The 2019 CrossFit Games fifth-place finisher made his competitive bobsled debut at the International Bobsleigh and Skeleton Federation (IBSF) Europe Cup on Dec. 5, 2020, alongside teammate Evan O’Hanlon. According to IBSF.org, Newbury and O’Hanlon completed two runs that resulted in times of 58.99 seconds and 59.82 seconds for 31st place — not bad for his debut on the world stage. For context, the first place German team of Hans Peter Hannighofer and Christian Roeder posted times of 56.08 seconds and 56.25 seconds.

Newbury isn’t the only CrossFit athlete to develop a love affair with bobsledding. Two-time CrossFit Games competitor Colleen Fotsch was selected as a member for the 2020-2021 USA Women’s National Bobsled Team. Three-time CrossFit Games Team division athlete Kelsey Kiel has also transitioned from the box to the sled. More recently, the four-time reigning Fittest Woman on Earth® Tia-Clair Toomey announced that she plans on trying to qualify for the 2022 Winter Olympic Games as a member of Australia’s women’s bobsled team. Also, Blaine McConnell, a sixth-place 2016 Games finisher (in the Team division), is a current member of Team USA’s Olympic bobsled team. 

Why CrossFitters Like Bobsledding

Of all the sports in existence, CrossFit may be one of the most physically and mentally demanding. Athletes sign themselves to compete in a series of events with volume well beyond what most people would willingly subject themselves to. The 2020 CrossFit Games, for example, featured Atlanta, a workout that included two-miles of running, 100 handstand push-ups, 200 single-leg squats, and 300 pull-ups — and that was just one of the 12 events athletes did over three days. Clearly, Games athletes like a physical challenge, and bobsledding — while not as physically taxing — requires elite levels of power and strength.

“I think for CrossFitters in particular, we do a lot of weightlifting, and we have to train in sprinting, too. The skills that we picked up through CrossFit can crossover into bobsled pretty easily,” says Newbury, who, as the brakeman, is responsible for pushing the sled and getting it up to speed from the jump. That position, in particular, requires an extreme amount of short-term explosive strength. 

As Newbury points out, most Crossfitters already possess a solid skillset in weightlifting and running — which, with some bobsled-specific training, it makes them ideal candidates for the sport. 

There is, of course, the mental aspect of bobsled that many athletes seem drawn to. To dominate — let alone finish — any number of WODs, CrossFit athletes need to be mentally dialed-in. It’s well-recorded that some athletes thrive off of adrenaline and are fueled by both the crowd’s cheers and, in some cases, competing with other athletes. 

Bobsledding deals out doses of adrenaline differently. Each sled carries either a two or four-person team. Athletes push a sled with a running start and then jump in and glide down an icy track. The frontman, or pilot, steers while the man in the back, known as a brakeman, controls the speed. Bobsleds reach up to speeds of almost 100 miles per hour. This is sledding on a whole other level. 

It’s also an extremely dangerous sport. Athletes do wear helmets and gloves, but bobsled crashes are violent and fast. It’s not unusual for a sled to invert — again, at 93 to 100 miles per hour — and drag competitors across rough ice. Once that happens, there’s no way to stop. 

“I saw some crashes, and I was like, ‘Oh, I want to give that a go,'” Newbury says. Case and point: The danger and the thrill, which would turn most people away, is exactly what these CrossFitters seem to crave. In a video posted to her Instagram page, CrossFit Games Team division athlete Kelsey Kiel appears nearly speechless after her first-ever bobsled run on Nov. 5, 2020, in Lake Placid, NY. After stammering and laughing, all she could utter was: “Jesus and I just had a good conversation.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by Kels Kiel (@kelskiel)

[Related: “The Last of Us 2” Lead Character’s Body Modeled After Colleen Fotsch]

Training For Bobsledding

A vital part of bobsledding is called the push-off stretch. A stronger and faster push-off stretch, which is the sled’s initial push, can be, and often is, the difference between winning and losing. As a brakeman, Newbury’s job is to get the sled up to speed as quickly as possible. A four-person sled weighs 462 pounds (and up to 1,300 pounds with the crew in it). That’s a lot of weight.

According to Newbury, the squat, power clean, and 30-meter sprint are three movements that bobsledders focus on. He also adds that elite men are back squatting around 250 kilograms (551 pounds), power cleaning close to 200 kilograms (440 pounds), and sprinting 30 meters in around 3.7 seconds. Newbury’s best 30-meter sprint has been logged at 3.9 seconds. In addition to altering his training, Newbury is also trying to gain some weight — about five to six kilograms from his normal bodyweight of 88 kilograms (194 pounds). 

“The thing that I’m not doing at the moment, which I was doing a lot of before, was a lot of endurance work,” says Newbury, who has brought his 12-kilometer runs and two-hour swimming sessions to a halt. “I still move around, get my heart rate up with other things, but basically, I’m focusing all my energy into getting fast and getting strong and powerful. You don’t need to have a super high Vo2 max to push a bobsled. It’s mainly about how fast can you get that bobsled moving within about 30 to 50 meters.”

 

 
 
 
 
 
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A post shared by James Newbury • Adelaide (@jamesnewbury)

CrossFitters and bobsled athletes are, typically, both strong and explosive athletes. They don’t put powerlifting-level numbers on any barbell lift — but a 500-plus-pound back squat is nothing to scoff at. So, the biggest learning curve for CrossFit athletes would be the technicalities of handling and maneuvering a sled. As Newbury mentioned above, he’s actually toned down his general training schedule — just a little, that is. Here’s an example of one of Newbury’s current training days:

Newbury’s Bobsledding Strength + Power + Physique Workout

“This six-week program is created to build overall strength through predominantly Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk), squat variations (front and back), and increased vertical jump whilst having a designated focus on prehab accessories to keep joint tendons healthy and pain-free,” Newbury writes to BarBend.

Warm-up:

  • Tabata cardio of choice for two minutes.

Two rounds of:

  • 20 Fake Double Unders
  • 20 Mountain Climbers
  • 10 Laying Leg Twists
  • 10 Downward Dog to Upward Dog

Then do:

  • Ankle Floss: two sets of 30 seconds on each side.
  • Seated Straddle Forward Fold: two sets of 30 seconds.
  • Tabletop Twists: two sets of 10 reps on each side.

Main work:

  • Back Squat: work up to 95% of your perceived one-rep max.
  • Back Squat with Pause: two sets of three reps at 65% of your 1RM / three sets of two reps at 70% / two sets of one rep at 75%.
  • Power Clean: work up to 95% of your perceived one-rep max.
  • Power Clean: two sets of three reps at 65% of your 1RM / three sets of two reps at 70% / two sets of one rep at 75%.
  • Clean Pull: two sets of three reps at 90% of your power clean 1RM / three sets of two reps at 100% / two sets of one rep at 110%.
  • 1RM Standing Box Jump
  • 1RM Standing Broad Jump

Accessory work:

  • Single-arm Dumbbell High Pull: five sets of eight reps.
  • Foam Roll Quads: one set of 20 rolls per quad.
  • Core complex: do four sets of 10 reps each for hanging oblique crunch (right and left side) and then toes-to-bar.

The CrossFit Effect on Bobsledding

Combined, Newbury, Toomey, Fotsch, and Kiel have 2.2 million Instagram followers. That’s a lot of eyes on a sport that only gets worldwide attention once every four years. This influx of new blood, most of whom come with a built-in audience, is good for drawing more attention to bobsledding.

“I think it’ll probably have a similar effect to what CrossFit did with weightlifting,” Newbury says. “Olympic weightlifting was a very niche thing that people only did if they were introduced personally by somebody who was actually doing it. CrossFit kind of made Olympic weightlifting more mainstream. Potentially it could have a similar effect, maybe to a lesser degree. Still, it will definitely shed some eyes on what bobsled is and potentially draw a much bigger crowd when the Winter Olympics is on for sure. You never know.”

The future seems bright for bobsled as more elite CrossFitters find avenues in their training that lead to the adrenaline rush on the ice. With Newbury, Fotsch, Kiel, and Toomey apparently committed to continuing their bobsled journey, it will be interesting to see who joins them.

Featured image: @jamesnewbury on Instagram