The long run is the cornerstone of marathon training, yet it trips many runners up. You may be one of them: Once you start amping up the volume, your body starts shutting down. Another 42.2 dream dashed. Or is it? According to Brian MacKenzie – a power lifter turned ultraendurance athlete – to go long, you have to be strong.
To that end, MacKenzie – along with partner and elite cyclist 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.MacKenzie and Katona’s CFE reduces mileage to as little as one-quarter the average of a typical marathon programme.
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 CrossFit workouts, a conditioning programme 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 42.2 plans, like 400- and 800-metre repeats. It worked for him – MacKenzie’s high-test training twist helped him 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 rigours 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.
Runners spend a lot of time talking about ‘base’, the aerobic fitness foundation – characterised 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-metre repeats, the vast majority of energy is coming from aerobic metabolism, making sprints a very potent aerobic stimulus,’ says Dr Martin Gibala, a leading professor of kinesiology. 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 realised 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.’
The other half of MacKenzie’s programme 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, and the easier fast running feels, says Dr Stephen S. Cheung, professor of kinesiology and fitness expert. ‘It also makes you more balanced, and probably 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.
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, such as 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.’
If you’re a longtime athlete who’s feeling worn down, a programme like CFE could be just what you need, says James Herrera, owner of the Performance Driven coaching and consulting business. ‘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 CFE prescribes – while increasing intensity, and they’ve all posted PBs, some of them better than their 25- and 30-year-old times.’
What’s less clear is how well the programme works for less seasoned runners, particularly those gunning for marathon (and longer) distances. CFE proclaims that by following the programme 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 importantly, 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 that a runner – especially a new runner – must 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 CrossFit Endurance – after all, who doesn’t want stronger glutes, more stable hips, and faster times? And with the long days and warm nights of summer upon us, now is the perfect time to hit the gym and try something fresh. Who knows? You might find a new religion.
Mix and match three to four of the following CrossFit exercises once a week to boost your strength and endurance:Intro Deadlifts Squats& L-Sit Sit Ups & Double Unders Box Jumps & Pull Ups Kettlebell Swings Deadlifts Run It