How Cross Training can help your Marathon, While traditional CrossFit can Ruin It!

Crossfit, as much as I hate to say it, is here to stay (at least for awhile). If you read my blog, my posts or just know me in general, you’ll know that I don’t have many positive things to say about the typical Crossfit training and the gyms that brainwash their members into drinking the Koolaid.

Do I despise Crossfit? No, I do not! Let’s make that clear right now. Do I think that many of it’s movements can be beneficial, YES!! I do believe that some of it can be very beneficial. In fact, it’s not CrossFit per se that bothers me, it’s the majority of the application that I don’t care for.

First off, CrossFit actually hasn’t invented anything new. All they’ve done is taken traditional strength movements and workouts and, coupled them with already existing cardio workouts, to try and create a hybrid style workout that is guaranteed to get you sweating and working hard, which, is precisely the problem.

Sweating and working hard, does not necessarily translate over to other modalities of training, especially if you are really trying to improve in that other event. In this case, the marathon.

Will CrossFit kick your butt and improve your general GPP (General Physical Preparedness)? Without a doubt it will, provided you recover properly and do not get injured in the process.

Crossfit designs most of it’s workouts around HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training), which generally falls into the anaerobic threshold area of training. Most of their workouts rarely go beyond 30 minutes in duration but, in those 30 minutes, you will certainly get your ass handed to you if you put forth the effort.

So why is that a bad thing? On the surface, it isn’t. Problem is, Crossfit rarely touches on the true aerobic conditioning that is needed to improve endurance performance. Take the following workout for instance, the Filthy Fifty.

This workout has you doing 10 different exercises, as quickly as possible, with average times being in the 20:00-25:00 range.

For time:
50 Box jump, 24 inch box
50 Jumping pull-ups
50 Kettlebell swings, 1 pood
Walking Lunge, 50 steps
50 Knees to elbows
50 Push press, 45 pounds
50 Back extension
50 Wall ball shots, 20 pound ball
50 Burpees
50 Double unders

No doubt that this workout is intense and if you go all out, it will leave you spent but, how will it improve your marathon performance? Sure, it will boost anaerobic and work capacities, all the while working a bit on aerobic development but, it sure won’t prepare you for the rigors of an event that will last well over 2 hours for most. Not to mention, many of these movements are rather complex and, form and technique is paramount. What happens to form and technique as you fatigue, yet are still trying to go as fast as possible? It falls apart, which opens up your vulnerability for injury.

So, where can “CrossFit” help with marathon training? Crossfit, in a controlled manner (which is nothing more than cross training), can provide many benefits in improving the complimentary areas of your marathon training. No true Crossfit workout is going to better prepare you for a fast marathon than doing something like a fast long run or a quality tempo run but, incorporating dynamic movements that strengthening the posterior chain and core, are certainly going to serve you well.

Getting stronger, increasing range of motion, improving general overall conditioning. These are all great things. Problem is, the majority of Crossfit “boxes”, do not stress the importance of form and technique, nearly enough. Nor do hardly any of the coaches understand how to design appropriate workouts, based on the athletes within their audience.

So, lets take a very common scenario of an average Crossfit gym. In some 6pm class on a Tuesday afternoon, we have Mary, who is training to run a PR at her upcoming marathon. We have Steve, who recently decided to get his life turned around and is wanting to lose weight and get in shape. We have Derrick who, is a high school baseball player, hoping to get a scholarship and finally, we have Alex, who wants to crush the upcoming Crossfit Open 15.1.

Despite the various skill levels, there is also the element of WHAT are these individuals are training for. Because of their extreme differences, their daily WOD, in reality, SHOULD be tailored to their individual goals and what it is they are training for, the problem is, it’s not. They will all be given the same WOD, with the same movements and, the same amount of time to complete it in. The weight used, will typically all be the same and, though there might be scaled versions of the actual RX, most of these athletes will go beyond their capabilities, in hopes of keeping up with everyone else. This is quite possibly, the most foolish way to train a group of athletes that are not on the same page in regards to 1.) level of fitness, 2.) skill level, 3.) dissimilar training goals.

Do you see a football coach telling his star lineman to go train with the distance runners today because “boy, you need some conditioning”. Does a top marathoner go jump in the ring with Floyd Mayweather a couple times a week, to improve his stamina and his ability to take a beating? How about an MLB pitcher…you think he goes and hurls 100 fast balls a day to condition himself for an upcoming game?  Of course you don’t see this, it’s not really practical or beneficial to the success of these athletes in their respective sport.

Take the upcoming Crossfit Open 15.1 for example. Workout is an AMRAP (as many rounds as possible) of 15 toes to bar + 10 deadlifts + 5 snatches, in 9 minutes. Now granted, many of those who compete in these opens, aren’t necessarily training for a marathon but, some are. Besides that, whether or not someone who is focused on an upcoming marathon will or will not be competing in the opens, they will still be doing similar workouts if they regularly attend a Crossfit gym.

Programming this way, would be similar to me as a running coach, telling a marathoner to go out and run 40 miles a week but, make it all broken up into 100m sprints. So, just go and do 640x100m for the week and, you’ll be good!!! I mean, hell, it’s only around 5.7 miles a day. No big deal!

Ok, so back to the main topic! Should you Cross Train? Should you do strength work? Should you focus on mobility, flexibility and range of motion? Without question, the answer to all of these questions are YES!!

Should you be doing deadlifts and squats to increase strength, power, mobility and range of motion? ABSOLUTELY!! Should you be doing 100 deadlifts + 100 burpees + 100 toes to bar, as quickly as possible? ABSOLUTELY NOT!!

I am a huge proponent of implementing strength training and conditioning into my marathon training programs. With that said, it’s added gradually, progressively, and, in a controlled manner. In fact, for some of my advanced athletes, they will do 100 deadlifts in a workout but, there is no emphasis on time. It’s all about form and, the rep where form slips, the workout is done.

As with anything, specificity is key to improving in your particular discipline. Though there are slight overlaps in regards to conditioning, your main focus needs to remain on the area you want to reap the greatest benefits. A hard 5 minutes of burpees will no doubt be a good workout in making you fit and it can help boost Vo2max, aerobic conditioning and anaerobic capacity, however, to run a good 5k, at some point, you are going to have to start doing a decent amount of time training at the paces you want to run, as well as develop a more superior aerobic system, by way of conditioning your body for the running itself. Take Rich Fronning for instance. The king of Crossfit and deemed “The Fittest Man”. No doubt that he can absolutely crush some workouts but, his 5k PR is 21:00…that would barely make the JV girls cross-country team. Now, if he were to train specifically for the 5k, no doubt he could get substantially faster (especially with his work capacity) but, he obviously don’t care much on how fast his 5k is. WHY?? Well, it comes back to that SPECIFICITY thing. Just as he doesn’t need to run a faster 5k to dominate his sport, YOU don’t need to get better and better at Fran, in order to excel at your marathon.

When adding cross training and strength/conditioning into your marathon training, find the elements that will enhance your marathon performance, rather than hinder it. Deadlifts, deep box squats, single leg step-ups, jump rope, lunges, incline running, sled pulling, core strengthening, etc., these will all help to improve your strength, your mobility, and, your range of motion. Doing as many as you can, as fast as you can, does not crossover the same and, will likely take away from your running performance and or leave you over trained or, injured.

If you are searching for a gym, find one that has a trainer/coach that understands the demands of blending together both the strength and endurance components of your programming. I’ve been to many Crossfit gyms and, despite what their members might say, they are 9 times out of 10, the same old thing. Cookie cutter WODs that are pulled from some website, then force fed to the members, daily.

When you show up to class and look at the whiteboard and see 100 kettle bell swings, you should ask your coach/trainer, “So how does this effect my 15 miler tomorrow”? This is important because, chances are, the rest of the members will not be doing a 15 miler tomorrow, nor are they training for a marathon. So, a good coach, that is knowledgeable, should have no problem in modifying your workout and or changing it all together, based on your goals. If they continue to try and push you to do all the same workouts as the other members, then that gym is not for you and, will ultimately sabotage the main focus of your training. A good coach will have experience across all the training modalities and should understand how to tie them all together. Even if they may not specialize in one specific discipline, they should at the very least, understand how it impacts the other components of training.

So, to summarize. You do NEED strength and conditioning and, it CAN and WILL help improve your run specific training, provided it is done correctly, at the right time, in the right doses.

If you have questions and or are looking for a specific type of coach, then please ask. If I can’t provide the best insight or advice, I know plenty of specialty coaches who can.

As always, train hard, train smart and, HAVE FUN!! 🙂

SPEED – The Redheaded Step child of Endurance Training

SPEED!!! We all want it, we all need it, but, most  of us are scared of it! So if it’s speed we seek, why are many so timid about incorporating it into their programs?

A good friend of mine, who is an elite marathoner, often texts me in regards to their daily and weekly workouts. We discuss the details of the workouts, how they went, how they will progress, based on what their coach is giving them week to week, month to month, etc.

This particular individual is an endurance machine in regards to training. Meaning, this person seems to handle, prefer and see the greatest results from high volumes of modest intensity. Based on past training, this individual seems to struggle the most with “speed work” and often finds their body rejecting it by way of tweaks here, nagging niggles or injury there. Often times, these little injuries, be them minor or major, seem to stem from post speed work sessions. So, naturally, it seems the culprit is SPEED!! But, is it?

For some time now, I have been tinkering with the “perfect blend” of components to comprise my endurance specific programming. It’s like a heirloom recipe in that, Grandma always seemed to make it the best. But why? Too often, the endurance game comes down to plain and simple, black and white. It’s either you sleep in “high mileage” camp or you sleep in the “low mileage, high intensity” camp. Very few people cross over and go behind enemy lines.

But what if you could have both? What if you could use one to better the other and vice versa? Maybe your “pinch” of oregano is substantially more or substantially less than Grandma’s “pinch”.

In my opinion, I think speed work gets a bad rap in that, most are doing it wrong (or, doing it in the wrong doses at the wrong time). As most people in the endurance world know, ones respiratory and cardio system(s) seems to progress and adapt at a much quicker rate than that of their musculoskeletal system. Because of this, our muscles, joints, bones and tendons, all respond and adapt at a much slower rate and take some significant time to catch up with the other systems at work. Because most endurance athletes have been doing the long, slow aerobic conditioning for some time (building a base), their bodies can handle these intensities for long periods of time and everything has adapted at a somewhat even rate. NOW, start throwing in speed work and, BOOM!! They get injured and, of course they blame speed work for this. This is where I believe it comes down to HOW one does speed work.

Let’s take a marathon training plan, particularly for those individuals who come from no prior running background (those who were not former track runners or 5k-10k specialists). So, traditionally, it’s not uncommon to see a “speed” workout that consists of 3×1 mile at 5k pace or, 12x400m at 5k or faster. Now, if you notice, each of those examples have 3 miles worth of “speed” with some corresponding rest interval between each. Even with many “beginner” or “intermediate” programs that you can find all over the internet, you’ll see regular bouts of 400 meters or more at 5k pace.

Now, what’s the problem with this? Well, lets get back to that recipe! So, what happens if I go to sprinkle a bit of salt in my sauce and the top comes off? Essentially, I am screwed! You can’t un-mix the damage and you can’t just take a bit of the salt out. Same goes with your training.

You’ve gotta sprinkle that speed in, starting in much smaller doses. A pinch here and a pinch there, rather than a cup here and a cup there. If my 3×1 mile at 5k pace = 6:00 per mile pace, then perhaps, repeats up to a mile in length are far to great to start with, especially if you haven’t been doing much of those paces regularly. Even the shorter distances  of 12x400m could be too much. Not in the sense of total volume (3 miles) but, in the individual repeats of 400m.

Envision these typical speed sessions. How often have you started a 12×400 workout, to get comfortably through the first 4-6, only to start fading (be it pace, form or, both) over the last 4-6? Or, in the same workout, how comfortable has it been to hit your paces for the first 200m of the 400, only to struggle and strain over the last 100-200 meters?

In both scenarios, the same thing is happening. You are starting to push the envelope in regards to your current aerobic threshold. Your turnover and efficiency at those speeds cannot quite match the duration in which you wish to run them. Put another way, the musculoskeletal system cannot keep up with the respiratory and cardio systems for that length of time/distance.

So, how do you get this volume at intensity, without sacrificing form and quickly deteriorating the current efficiency of your musculoskeletal system? You shorten the duration/distance!

Instead of say 12×400 at 6:00 pace with 1:00 rest, how about 36×30 seconds with 30 seconds rest? If your math skills aren’t so great, both workouts allow for 3 miles total at 6:00 pace.

So, what’s the difference between these two workouts? Well, clearly the duration/distance but, there is more than that. In the 36×30 second workout, you are able to get up to speed and hold it over a much shorter duration, which means that the heart rate will not climb nearly as high as if you were to extend that duration by 2 fold so that it’s 1:30 as in the 12×400 workout. Over the longer distances/durations, your body starts to struggle in clearing the acidic buildup that your body is creating. Though your cardio and lungs might have no problem handling this pace for what amounts to a “mere” 90 seconds, your muscles, tendons and joints might not be able to efficiently keep up. As you continue to compile the effects of a deteriorating form and progressive fatigue, your muscles are now forced to continue this process in an inefficient manner, ultimately resulting in a strained and broken gait, which over time, will no doubt lead to a strain or other injury.

Now, with the example of 36×30 seconds, the body can keep up with the gradual and minimal increase in acidic buildup, as well as maintain efficient form with a smooth and relaxed gait. This can be best observed using a heart rate monitor and can be a two fold benefit in regards to what you are trying to accomplish with these workouts.

If you are a traditionalist in regards to the long slow distance and or low end aerobic conditioning, then you are likely familiar with Dr. Phil Maffetone. If you aren’t familiar with Maffetone, check out this link to get an idea of his methods.

Now, I personally think the Maffetone method is 100% effective and used it myself to take my MAF (max aerobic function) pace from 8:50 per mile, down to 6:20 per mile in less than 6 months.

The problem with the Maffetone method is that, it’s nearly impossible to get a runner to subscribe to it. Most athletes cannot be convinced of it’s effectiveness and therefore, will NEVER follow the plan 100% as it is intended. So, how do you get a stubborn runner to stay within the confines of Maffetone’s method, all the while allowing them to get in their intensity and “speed”? Easy, you manipulate the duration.

For me, my current MAF heart rate is 150-155. Meaning, to get the best benefit for aerobic development, I need to, according to Maffetone, stay AT or BELOW this range for all of my training (over a certain phase/block/cycle). So, what happens if I go out and run a mile at 5:00 pace? Well, by about 600 meters, I am well above 160bpm. Meaning, I have far exceeded my MAF number of 150-155. So, how do I get in my speed work, while maintaining my MAF or below? Simple, I throw on my heart rate monitor and manipulate the duration of the WORK vs. RECOVERY to allow my heart rate to stay within the set parameters.

I am going to share with you a recent workout that allowed me to stay within my MAF parameters, while getting good volume of “time at pace” during the workout. Keep in mind, I have built up to this workout and started with shorter durations of WORK and longer durations of RECOVERY. Over several months time, this is where I am currently for this workout.

15×30 seconds at pace with 30 second recovery, 15×1:00 at pace, with 1:00 recovery, 15×30 seconds at pace with 30 second recovery. Total time at pace = 30:00 (5-6 miles depending on what race pace I am targeting). The last time I did this workout, my average heart rate for the total workout (60:00 with warmup and cooldown) was 147bpm with a max peak spike of 157bpm.

So, based on the stats of this workout, I was able to get 1 hour of “aerobic conditioning” at or below my MAF, while still being able to get in plenty of volume at both aerobic and anaerobic thresholds. As my fitness improves, I will either increase speed and maintain the same recovery, tweak the volume/duration, and or maintain the same speed and decrease recovery, until I can effectively and efficiently maintain the desired pace for the chosen race distance.

CONCLUSION: Your training is a recipe and can take years to perfect. Just as aerobic conditioning is paramount for endurance training, so is speed and threshold work. To reap the greatest benefits and to reach your max potential, it takes balance and periodization. Rather than denounce speed, find the most effective way to include it in your training, while minimizing the risk of injury or overtraining. The link below touches in greater detail/explanation of how to incorporate speed into “short bursts” throughout your training.

So, stay focused, train smart and, as always, have fun in what you are doing 🙂 #DWEP