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!! 🙂

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