Burning Runner: Change Will Do You Good

Week 15: Looking to try something new and enhance his recovery, T.J. gives CrossFit a try.

Written by: T.J. Murphy

I’ve made solid progress over the last year following a traditional run training program. Six runs per week, a long run, tempo runs, 1-hour recovery runs, hill training and occasional bouts of speed training—this sums it up fairly well.

One of the things I’ve battled with has been the recovery process. I think I’m facing the fact that being in my 40s makes a 60-mile per week training program hard for my legs to digest. For the past five months I have struggled to maintain the training paces set down for me even though my heart rate was settled in the proper zone. In other words, I’ve felt like my leg muscles just haven’t been recovering from the recovery runs. They’ve felt dead except for rare occasions. With this has come the feeling that I’ve been on the brink of an injury.

Over the past couple of months I’ve been researching a new brand of run training called CrossFit Endurance. The brainchild of a triathlete and ultrarunner, Brian MacKenzie, CrossFit Endurance relies on a weekly foundation of CrossFit “Workouts of the Day” combined with a run schedule that cuts out anything resembling junk mileage and narrowing the sport-specific work to the core workouts: tempo runs, fartlek-type training and time trials.

MacKenzie has a deep background in strength and conditioning training, but his CrossFit Endurance approach–with low mileage supported by 4-6 weekly high-intensity CrossFit conditioning sessions—to sports like distance running and triathlon was honed in the years he spent consulting with exercise physiologists and using himself as a guinea pig. He describes some of the process on his blog, www.iamunscared.com:

“I completed Western States 100 in 2006 with a large reduction in volume to mileage and a huge increase in conditioning. I was following the likes of Jason C. Brown, Zack Evan-Esh, and Diesel Crew for a lot of the conditioning stuff. I was changing the way my athletes trained when things made more sense with my training, which was usually 2-3 weeks behind what I was doing. My gym was like a lab. We had exercise physiologists coming in doing metabolic testing, we were running lactate testing, heart rate stuff, you name it we were doing it. All of it was a waste, as what we found out was one factor was the most important… Performance! Every time performance changed all of the other numbers changed for the positive….I ran and finished the Angeles Crest 100 on about 6.5 hours of total training per week. At 187lbs, I finished 34th out of 125, or in the 27th percentile. My biggest week of running was 36 miles. My lowest was like 5. I trained my ass off in the gym, and at no point was my weight an issue (I did Ironman at 170lbs, and I’m 6’2″). I had about 20 athletes at the time that were following this same paradigm, with the same results. Albeit most of us were losing our minds about the reduction in miles/time we stuck to it, and everyone was getting the same results. Big performance change!”

This is certainly a radical departure from the standard Arthur Lydiard approach. But after talking with several of MacKenzie’s athletes—each transitioning to CrossFit Endurance out of staleness and burnout from heavy mileage work—I wanted to try it. So last week, two days after the 1:36 at Rock n’ Roll Los Angeles, I went for my first “fundamentals” session at CrossFit Invictus in the Little Italy neighborhood in San Diego. The core purpose of the fundamentals program is to learn how to do the essential exercise movements of CrossFit with correct form (to avoid injury and gain the most from the exercises).

What is CrossFit?  On the “Start Here” page of the CrossFit.com site, the founder, Greg Glassman, sums up the approach to thorough fitness in the following words:

“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat. Practice and train major lifts: Deadlift, clean, squat, presses, clean-and-jerk, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast. Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense. Regularly learn and play new sports.”

As odd as the power work and gymnastics elements might sound, one should recall how Australian coach Percy Cerutty trained one of the greatest runners in history, Herb Elliot, in the mid-part of the last century.

Cerutty called the strength training he put his runners through the “intensive method.” “Cerutty told “Training with Cerutty” author Larry Myers, “Strength is the main factor that will enable a person to reach his potential.” In Myers book, he lays out the specifics of how he coached his Portsea group with the “intensive” method of strength training—quality weight lifting, sprinting up sand dunes and using gymnastics—and why this form of strength work didn’t create the “muscle-bound” bodybuilder type. In re-reading this book, I couldn’t help but see potent similarities between the work Herb Elliot used to do and what lies as the foundation of the CrossFit Endurance approach.

I’m ready for the change and to try something new. As a runner, I’ve been doing essentially the same form of work since 1989. One thing I know that is a fundamental of training is variety—to be aware of ruts and to shock the body out of them. This will definitely be a shock to my body.


T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor to Competitor and the Editorial Director of Triathlete and Inside Triathlon magazines. Previous installments of his Burning Runnercolumn can be read here. He can be reached by e-mail at burningrunner@gmail.com.

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