This is the site of Brant M Cebulla. Pretty awesome.

How do I improve my Helen (CrossFit) time?

May 14, 2014

On Monday I posted about what a good Helen time is in CrossFit. Helen is a workout of three rounds for time of 400m run, 21 kettle bell swings and 12 pull-ups. An average time for men competing in the CrossFit Open is about 9:50, while the average time for women is about 11:14.

In this post I’ll cover what’s more important in having a good Helen time:

  • Being able to do a lot of pull-ups in a row, or
  • Being able to run a fast 400m run.

Not being able to do many pull-ups in a row will leave you taking a lot of rest time in between pull-up reps, hence a slower time. On the hand, not being able to run a very fast 400m could significantly hinder you from getting a good Helen time.

We can answer this question by looking at data from the CrossFit Open. Participants reported a variety of best-marks, including Helen times, max pull-ups they can do in a row and best 400m sprint times. I gathered data from 5,376 CrossFit Open participants, 3,159 of which were men. Of these men, 139 self-reported their Helen times, sprint times and max pull-ups.

Of these 139 men, the mean Helen time was 9:34.91, the mean 400m sprint time was 1:10.39, and the mean max pull-ups was 38.46.

When we run a multiple linear regression, to try and fit how sprint times and pull-ups predict your Helen time, we get an equation of:

Helen-time(seconds) = 578.55 + 2.05*Sprint-time(seconds) – 3.85*Max-pull-ups.

The R-squared value says that 400m sprint time and max pull-ups account for 45% of the variability in Helen times.

If we think about this equation in concrete terms, this model predicts that for every one second we shave off our sprint time, we shave 2.05 seconds off of our Helen time, while every extra pull-up we can do in a row, we can shave off 3.85 seconds.

But what’s easier from a training perspective: shaving off our 400m sprint time or adding to our max pull-ups? For the fit athlete, probably adding to our max pull-ups.

Looking at the 25th percentile CrossFit Open athlete for both pull-ups and sprint, jumping up to the 50th percentile results in a five second improvement in 400m sprint time and an eight rep improvement in max pull-ups. Thus if you were trying to improve your Helen time as a 25th percentile athlete, it’s probably more important and easier to become an average pull-upper. If we use our model above, we’d see these kinds of improvements shifting from 25th percentile to 50th percentile:


If we wanted to improve from being an average 50th percentile athlete to a semi-elite 75th percentile athlete, running becomes slightly more important, but still can’t quite match the saved-time improvement we’d see in pull-ups: sprint times improve by 10 seconds, while max pull-ups improve by 9 reps. Using our model above, we’d see these kinds of improvements:


Obviously if you’re new to CrossFit and out of shape, improving your motor and ability to run a half-decent 400m time would probably be a big first step. Moving from a 2 minute 400m sprint to a 1:30 sprint will get you a better Helen score than moving from 1 pull-ups to 5 pull-ups.

But for the fit, seasoned CrossFit Open athlete, there’s no question that improving your ability to do a bunch of pull-ups in a row has a greater effect on improving your Helen time compared to becoming a better runner.

I tested if there was a statistically significant interaction term between pull-ups and sprint times and there was not.