Six Ways CrossFit Can Benefit Runners

T.J. Murphy explains how CrossFit can be a good tool for the distance runner.

In 2005 there were 13 CrossFit gyms in existence. Now, according to CrossFit, Inc., there are more than 4,000. With the rise of CrossFit has also been the rise of CrossFit as a mechanism to help runners rehabilitate from injuries, prevent injuries and offer the possibility of improved performance. CrossFit Endurance programs that program a mix of CrossFit classes with running workouts are increasingly available at CrossFit gyms and usually target local half-marathons, marathons and Muddy Buddy-type events.

With this growth there’s a fair amount of argument about the value or lack there-of of CrossFit for runners. Excellent cases can be made for or against CrossFit for the advanced runner. For the average runner, I personally have come to believe that in most cases CrossFit is going to be more valuable than not. As far as runners commenting on the issue, I can speak from the standpoint of being a traditional runner who almost immediately dismissed the notion of CrossFit the first time I became aware of it but later came to try it and embrace it. In my case I can report that CrossFit fit my running life.

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It was in early November in New York City that the wheel came off. This was in the fall of 2010. I was walking in midtown on my way to a subway train when my right knee began collapsing. It was as if an electric plug was being yanked and the power lapse caused my entire leg to noodle-out and fail. It wasn’t just a problem of locomotion either. The pain was awful and sharp on each and every step.

I was training for the Rock n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon and, of course, I had a workout scheduled for that day. The painful limp I had just picked up seemingly out of nowhere (all I was doing was walking) grew worse. I went to a Duane Reed drug store and spent about $60 on knee braces, wraps and various over-the-counter anti-inflammatory products. I took a bunch of Advil, iced for a half hour then I wrapped my knee tourniquet-tight and climbed on the hotel treadmill. I found if I landed my foot a certain way the pain and the weird collapsing-thing could be avoided. I made it through the tempo run and hoped it was all just a close call.

Some quick historical perspective: My love for running goes back to when I first ran the Big Sur Marathon in 1989. I went nuts for the marathon, getting a job at a running shoe store and training and racing as much as I could. At my best I ran a 2:38 marathon and a 15-minute flat 5K. I was hooked on running for life. Or so I thought. As I got older and put more and more miles on the odometer, my personal rate of injury began to spike. Following training programs that took me over 50 miles a week always seemed to do two things: one, get me fit and two, collide with a new injury that put me on the sidelines.

The last 10 years I’ve been dogged by injuries so much that my weight climbed out of control and I experienced several bouts of low-grade depression. In reading John L. Parker Jr.’s second running novel, “Again to Carthage,” the character Bruce Denton opines that some runners may be depressives self-selecting for the sport for the self-medicating factors that running can bring. I have a feeling the author picked up that idea in his research for the novel and I recall thinking that he may have been onto something.

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At any rate, my training for Las Vegas came to a halt when a week out from the race I tried to go for an easy 30 minutes and couldn’t run 20 yards. Physical therapy and ultrasound and stretching had not seen me past the problem. The limp and the pain were bad enough that surgery seemed imminent. And the notion that a knee replacement might be involved was beginning to form like a dark cloud. For years I’d tried cross-training, triathlon, weight training, core work, stretching, you name it. It seemed like I’d just worn things out.

At the time I’d been reporting on CrossFit as it was being used by triathletes for a story in Triathlete Magazine. As I assume many runners with my background would be, I was exceptionally skeptical. But as I interviewed Brian MacKenzie, the founder of CrossFit Endurance—a specialty branch of CrossFit that marries CrossFit workouts with a streamlined program of speed endurance workouts, technique, mobility and a low-carb nutrition program—and also interviewed triathletes that had been following the program, I decided I wanted to give it a try. If the Lydiard-style training that I’d been following for 20 years had still been working for me I probably wouldn’t have. But the facts in my case were clear: I was always injured and my overall health and well-being were falling apart. I was a vegan at the time, practicing a diet that was roughly 75% carbs and very low fat. After six months of the diet I had a checkup and a blood test showed that I had hyperglycemia—high-blood sugar. The doctor warned me that I was pre-diabetic, which didn’t make any sense until a later discussion with the sports scientist Dr. John Ivy at the University of Texas, who told me about research being performed on runners in their 40s who–when they stopped running for as little as a week–showed signs for full-blown diabetes. Ivy said the research seemed to indicate that running can keep type-2 diabetes at bay but as soon as the running stops, the diabetes, apparently caused by high-carb diets, begins to take hold.

I spent the next year edging my way into the CrossFit world, experimenting with the program based on “constantly varying high-intensity functional movements” and also with a diet where the amount of fat, protein and carbohydrate was moderate across the board.

The first thing that happened that incentivized me to look deeper into it was that my knee problem vanished. I had worked directly with CrossFit’s Dr. Kelly Starrett, a physical therapist who leads the CrossFit mobility and movement seminar. I then began following MacKenzie’s advice on diet and in a follow-up blood test saw that my blood sugar levels had dropped back to a healthier range. I also began to understand the principles behind functional movement such that I became curious as to how much I could gain from the CrossFit approach. I joined a San Diego CrossFit gym, CrossFit Elysium, and decided to not worry about my running for a while but rather see how much overall athleticism I could regain. One of the most telling improvements in my life came with my first few moments getting out of bed in the day. For years–and I had assumed this was part of the price I paid with being a long-distance runner for so long–I spent 15 minutes walking around my home a physical disaster, my back, knees and ankles stiff and hurting. Like the high-blood sugar problem, the CrossFit work had swept this away.

My initial skepticism about CrossFit had been swept away as well. I recall being warned that I would get injured in CrossFit. But my response to that was: Injury is all I know anymore from running so it surely couldn’t make things worse. I began meeting other broken-down runners who had limped into a CrossFit affiliate for similar reasons to mine. I wrote about my various discoveries of what CrossFit was and what it wasn’t in the book, “Inside the Box.”

It’s now close to two months out from this year’s Rock ‘n Roll Half and I have resumed my goal for the race. For me it’s a test of how well the CrossFit Endurance program can work or not work. While I’m sure I’ll be able to run the distance I don’t have a good idea of how fast I’ll be able to run with the CFE program. I suppose one of the things I’m enjoying in this second chance at being a runner and an athlete is the opportunity to try some new things and see what happens. As it was when I was injured two years ago and considered getting into CrossFit, I knew one thing for sure: I had nothing to lose.

From what I’ve discovered so far, here are a few thoughts I have on the discussion of whether or not CrossFit is a good tool for the distance runner. In the following pages are six ways I believe it can be of benefit.

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