Long distance running and CrossFit? YES!
The recent issue of Runner’s World published an article examining how athletes could potentially use CrossFit Endurance WODs as a training method for marathons. Is there a suitable crossover that would allow runners to be successful in their endeavors by incorporating CrossFit into their routines? It is truly hard to convince someone that they can be successful in their event, running in this particular instance, if they are using training methods other than what their event actually is, right? It is possible, though. Could there be a delicate balance, yes. The needs of each individual vary, and so the training needs need to be modified and adapted to help the athlete reach their potential. Featured below is an exert from Runner’s World, February 2012 issue.
Devotees of an intense new training regimen say you don’t need long runs to train for distance running.
By Selene Yeager
Image by Justin Steele
From the February 2012 issue of Runner’s World
The long run is the cornerstone of marathon training, yet it trips up many runners. You may be one of them: Once you start amping up the volume, your body starts shutting down. Another 26.2 dream dashed. Or is it? According to Brian MacKenzie, a power lifter turned ultraendurance athlete based in southern California, to go long, you have to be strong. To that end, MacKenzie, along with partner and two-time California state cycling champion Doug Katona, created CrossFit Endurance (CFE), a high-intensity, low-volume training plan that blends CrossFit conditioning (i.e., heavy, explosive strength training) with sprints, time trials, and tempo workouts. Goodbye, long runs. CFE reduces mileage to as much as one-quarter the average of a typical marathon program.
MacKenzie developed CFE while training for Ironman and ultramarathon events. Following long, slow distance (LSD) training while preparing for an Ironman in 2004, he experienced knee problems and plantar fasciitis. So he did something radical. He replaced LSD workouts and easy runs with 20-minute Cross-Fit workouts, a conditioning program developed by former gymnast Greg Glassman that takes functional training to the extreme by combining power lifting, gymnastics, kettlebell training, and other blisteringly hard strength training. He kept the high-intensity speedwork found in many 26.2 plans, like 400-and 800-meter repeats. It worked for him—his high-test training twist helped MacKenzie evade injury and finish ultramarathons on less than 10 hours of training a week. In 2007, he launched CFE and remains vehement that a strong—really strong—body will carry you as far as you want to go.
Some experts are concerned that forfeiting the long run does not adequately prepare marathoners—especially newcomers—to the rigors of extended time on their feet. However, even the most skeptical scientists acknowledge there’s wisdom behind CFE and that—like most plans—it may work for some runners.
Build your base—faster
Runners spend a lot of time talking about “base,” the aerobic fitness foundation—characterized in part by a stronger heart muscle, thicker capillary webbing, and improved enzyme production—necessary for optimum endurance performance. Traditionally, you’ve been told the best way to build your base is with long, slow aerobic workouts.
Yet some experts argue such adaptations can occur in less time with high-intensity runs. “If you do 400-meter repeats, the vast majority of energy is coming from aerobic metabolism, making sprints a very potent aerobic stimulus,” says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Gibala and his colleagues found that people who did short (25 minutes) cycling workouts with a series of 30-second sprints improved their fitness over two weeks at the same rate as those who rode for two hours at a lesser intensity. “Pretty much every adaptation we measured could be realized through high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and lower volume.”
Gibala acknowledges that his study reflects a short period of training. “What we don’t know is how this plays out long term,” he says. “If you have 50 runners doing traditional training and 50 doing HIIT training for one full year, who turns out better trained? We haven’t done that study. But I bet they’re close.”
Build a really strong body
The other half of MacKenzie’s program is building strength through CrossFit. Workouts average 10 to 20 minutes, and combine “metabolic conditioning” exercises such as kettlebell swings, handstand push-ups, and pull-ups with classic moves like deadlifts and squats.
All that heavy lifting can translate to distance running. For one, it increases the force of your stride—the more powerful your push-off, the less effort you exert with each stride, the easier fast running feels, says Stephen S. Cheung, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at Brock University in Ontario. “It also makes you more balanced and likely less prone to injury,” he says.
It may also make you faster. In one study, highly trained runners who substituted almost a third of their running workouts with explosive, sport-specific strength training shaved 30 to 40 seconds off their 5-K times after nine weeks compared with those who ran and did minimal strength training.
Put it together
For runners, a typical CFE workout week might look like this: three double days—a strength-building session followed several hours later (to allow for recovery) by a short, high-intensity run; one or two days of longer endurance workouts like a tempo run or time trial; and one day of rest.
There are no easy days or recovery runs in CFE. You’re either on or you’re off. “The act of taking real rest might be enough to help many runners improve performance,” says Gibala. “You have runners going out for these recovery runs, but they’re just making themselves tired. You’re better off reducing the total training load, getting rid of the junk, and getting real rest.”
Is it for you?
If you’re a longtime athlete who’s feeling worn down, a program like CFE could be just what you need, says James Herrera, M.S., C.S.C.S., owner of Performance Driven coaching and consulting in Colorado Springs. “Most runners have trained in the classic format for many years and have developed a huge volume base,” he says. “If you drastically reduce volume and increase strength and training intensity, such an athlete will improve on many fronts: speed, power, economy of movement, lean body mass, as well as confidence. I’ve taken 40-to 60-year-old clients who’ve done endurance training for 20-plus years, cut their volume in half—still more volume than what CFE prescribes—while increasing intensity, and they’ve all posted PRs, some better than their 25-and 30-year-old times.”
What’s less clear is how well the program works for less-seasoned runners, particularly those gunning for marathon (and beyond) distances. CFE proclaims that by following the program to the letter, you can compete in—not just complete—ultra and Ironman distances on just six to eight hours of training per week. That includes “long” runs that never exceed 90 minutes. But if you’ve never done a really long run, race day could prove challenging, says Herrera, an ultrarunner himself.
“[Long runs] prepare you for time on your feet, pacing for the long haul, mental toughness, and, most important, how to hydrate and feed yourself for multiple hours—you don’t really need to eat for a 90-minute training session,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in HIIT, but I still feel a runner—especially a new runner—has to cover about 75 percent of the distance in training for a marathon to prepare for those elements.”
What is certain is that most runners can benefit from some components of CFE—after all, who doesn’t want stronger glutes, more stable hips, and faster times? And with the dark days of winter upon us, now is the perfect time to hit the gym and try something fresh. Who knows? You might find a new religion.