CrossFit Endurance: A New Way Up to the Mountain Top
By: Alyssa Graham
Some of you may be aware that I have been training for my first half marathon that will take place at the end of this month. Recently, Nick surprised me with a book written by CrossFit Endurance founder Brian MacKenzie called Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength & Conditioning for a Lifetime of Running Strong. The program outlined in this book challenges conventional training models, such as high mileage and high-carb diets, to show how reduced mileage and high-intensity training can actually make runners stronger, more efficient athletes and help better prepare them for races of any distance. CrossFit Endurance differs from Greg Glassman’s broad, general, and inclusive fitness program of CrossFit in that CFE is sport-specific. A CFE running program prepares runners for a race by exposing the athlete to specific running workouts, strength workouts, and CrossFit metabolic conditioning.
According to MacKenzie, nearly every long distance running plan that is available in the running world today is a variation of a model first developed by famous New Zealand coach Arthur Lydiard. Those following the traditional Lydiard plan spent at least eight weeks building a foundational aerobic base, with the most essential tool for developing this base being the standard training run. Many training plans refer to this type of workout as “LSD”, or long, slow, distance runs, however, Lydiard did not intend for these to be easy jogs; they were to be up-tempo strength runs. Whether you were a 400-meter runner or a long-distance athlete, those following Lydiard’s model ran at least 100 miles per week during this 8-week building period, with a weekly long run of 20 plus miles. Following the aerobic base-building phase was a month of hill work, followed by four weeks of traditional speed work running intervals on a track, and ended with a peak that was intended to present an athlete with their best possible performance.
To be able to run long distances well, your body must adapt for changes in the muscle cells, heart, blood, joints, and bones. Because of this, whether it be for the beginners and first-time marathoners or those more seasoned, advanced runners, an emphasis is placed on progressively building up the weekly mileage total of your LSD. The defining characteristic of LSD training is that it is an aerobic activity, meaning that the intensity is so low that the oxidative energy system (the lower-gear, fuel-burning bodily process that works only in the presence of oxygen) can handle such demand over an extended period of time. It is a long-held belief that in order to see noticeable improvements in one’s performance of an activity, one must devote the bulk of their training to that activity. Therefore, most training plans have long pointed to cross training as an acceptable alternative to maintain fitness while injured, but not as good as running itself. Under that theory, to get better at running, you need to run. Far and often.
Coaches that focus on the LSD method believe that their training programs improve a runner’s ability to stay in the aerobic zone and to burn carbohydrates and fat most efficiently. They also claim that LSD training will ideally deliver these favorable adaptations:
- Improved oxygen intake
- Changes in the skeletal muscle cells
- Increased bone density
- Improved tendon and ligament strength
- Increased density of the capillary network
- Maximal fat burning
Though the LSD, high-mileage method has had proven success and is held to be sustainable for a period of time, eventually, the toll of high-mileage will begin to take effect and result in increased risk of injury. Why does this happen? Because high-mileage running can reduce an athlete’s mobility, range of motion, and explosive power, resulting in muscular imbalances and postural weaknesses. It can also have negative effects on overall health, such as increased stress on the endocrine system, accelerated aging, and compromising the immune system. Luckily, however, taking a little focus off of the actual running itself and gearing our attention instead toward some other areas of training, such as strength and mobility, can greatly improve an athlete’s overall fitness and help to lessen the chance of injury.
A closer look at emerging data shows that runners of all levels are able to cultivate better race performance, reduce risk of injury, and lengthen their running careers by taking a low-mileage, high-intensity approach to their training. This approach focuses on using strength to improve coordination, speed and running economy. There is solid scientific evidence to support that higher-quality training can achieve the same positive results as LSD training, but with a lower chance of injury.
MacKenzie’s approach to training, which he tested himself, is known as CrossFit Endurance, and merges weight training, body-weight gymnastics movements, and cardio intervals into high-speed circuit workouts. He found that he could afford to dramatically reduce his running mileage and allow CrossFit to help develop and sustain his endurance. This program placed a huge emphasis on strength and conditioning. Rather than building an aerobic base with long, slow miles to fill a week of training with as much running as possible to amp up mileage, MacKenzie relied on CrossFit for a broader, more inclusive training stimulus. His running was reduced to two or three speed-endurance-style workouts per week: a tempo/time trial run and two interval workouts. MacKenzie’s method differs in that CrossFit workouts impact both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems, stressing the athlete with a never-ending variety of functional movement patterns that improve speed, coordination, and power through pulling, pushing, jumping, running, lifting, and throwing (think wallballs!).
As a runner begins to integrate CrossFit exercises and workouts into their program, they can expect to see and feel results, both in their training and in their general overall fitness. This isn’t an overnight process, but over the course of months, they will reap the benefits as their bodies begin to adapt to this new method of training.
So what exactly can runners hope to achieve from following these methods? They can expect to see the following:
- Sustained or improved performance while running fewer miles overall
- Reduced injury risk as “junk” mileage is replaced with functional fitness workouts that train the same energy systems
- Increased explosive power and speed
- Less damage to mobility and range of motion through incorporating workouts that improve range of motion in the joints and muscle tissues
- Increased production of human growth hormone, which helps counter the natural loss of muscle mass that comes with age
- Revved-up fat-burning metabolism to burn excess body fat
- Improved coordination of upper- and lower-body muscle groups through the inclusion of compound movements in training
- Better race performance through greater strength, improved form, and greater running efficiency (MacKenzie & Murphy, VeloPress, 2014).
It seems as though the positive adaptations of incorporating CrossFit into an endurance athlete’s training program are endless. Likewise, for the avid CrossFitter who is looking to take a larger step into the running world, there are a number of benefits to be gained, and a couple of things to consider: first, pick a specific race date and begin from there. Having a specific date and goal to work towards is the glue that holds the entire training plan together. Second, do not assume that you can skip over skill training. It will ensure that you are not just running to build endurance, but training to improve and maintain proper running form. Next, you will begin to understand how different cadences, or stride rates, are recommended for different workouts. Generally, a cadence of 90 steps per foot per minute (or 3 steps total per second) is recommended. However, there are appropriate times that your cadence will change. And finally, be aware of deviations from the target split times for the speed workouts. It is important to note that an effective speed workout is hard, but should not be as draining as a race. You should not be completely emptying your fuel tank during your workouts. If you find that you are deviating by more than one or two seconds from one repeat to the next then you are slipping past training into race pace, and are therefore not training the body properly.
The thing about giving our method of health and fitness a name is that it becomes all too easy to identify ourselves as either strictly “runners” or “CrossFitters”. By doing so, we tend to put ourselves, as well as others, into boxes that have certain ideas or assumptions attached to them. Whether you are a seasoned runner who is looking to build more strength and reduce risk of injury, or you’re an avid CrossFitter who is looking to enter the running world, what’s important is that we are able to look past our self-given labels and appreciate both methods for what they are: a chance to better improve our overall fitness, health, and happiness. Now drop and give me five burpees! 😉
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MacKenzie, Brian, and T.J. Murphy. Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength & Conditioning for a Lifetime of Running Strong. Boulder, CO, VeloPress, 2014.