Super Running: Is Crossfit Endurance The New Way To Train?

Photo: Chris Bishow

A Healthier Approach

“‘If the elites do it, well, then it must be the best way to train.’ There are a lot of smart guys with physiology backgrounds that think this way,” says Richard Gibbons, an exercise scientist who has made the debate between the value of LSD training versus that of high-intensity models central to his website, Power Gibbons makes a habit of jumping into the fray of Internet forums and arguing in support of low-volume, high-intensity training methods, often prompting an attack against his lack of elite running credentials. “I say this: Is there a correlation between speed and knowledge?”

A former Green Beret who started running in 1981, Gibbons says it doesn’t make sense to think the average person can copy how a world record-holder like Haile Gebrselassie trains. “Haile is probably 16 deviations above the mean. I have a suspicion that the genetic structures that allow him to be as fast as he is also allow him to handle the mileage he runs.” The research on running injuries, Gibbons remarks, shows that high mileage isn’t for everyone. “One study showed that running 40 or more miles a week is going to leave half of us injured.”

Gibbons, who became frustrated by injuries and burnout in his high-volume days, is a proponent of cutting down the number of runs per week in favor of high-intensity runs that specifically train the varieties of muscle fibers and leave it at that, sighting research that supports base building as less effective for some athletes than a high-intensity, low-volume program. “A smart coach will look at individual athletes rather than try to force them into something they can’t handle. It’s all about dose response,” he says. “If you have a headache and I give you half an aspirin, it might work a bit. If I give you one, it works better. But that’s the max dose where it’s effective. If I give you three, or four or five, it won’t work any better, and after that it gets detrimental. It’s the same with running—beyond the dose limit it’s detrimental. You’ll overtrain, slow down and get injured.”

There’s also scientific support that indicates volume isn’t the only way to stimulate cellular adaptations, such as increasing the number of mitochondria, which break down nutrients to produce energy, in a cell. Studies conducted on exercise metabolism by McMaster University’s Kirsten Burgomaster in the last decade have supported the idea that short interval training increases aerobic capacity. Ed Coyle, a sports scientist at the University of Austin, in an editorial for the Journal of Applied Physiology, wrote emphatically about the importance of Burgomaster’s findings on how interval training can “markedly increase aerobic endurance” and that “sprint interval training is very time efficient with much ‘bang for the buck.’”

Perhaps MacKenzie’s best argument for the endurance world to embrace Crossfit is the issue of health. A close friend of MacKenzie’s, Kelly Starrett (profiled in the March issue of Competitor), is a physical therapist who runs Crossfit San Francisco. He says that there are cases where you can justify an athletic life that incurs permanent damage—like a pitcher with a multi-million dollar contract putting an elbow and shoulder through the grind of a major league baseball career—but for must of us, longevity and health are attractive goals.

“A lot of people are missing the point when they criticize CFE,” Starrett says. “They want to peg Brian’s program as just interval training—some sort of short cut. It’s no short cut at all—look at how much emphasis he puts on running technique alone. Brian is out to answer the question, ‘How do we build athletes so they can run forever?’ Sure, there are the gifted outliers, but you have to throw them aside when you coach most runners. Brian’s making running accessible to those who can’t handle 60 miles per week.”

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