Adapted from the new book Unbreakable Runner by Brian MacKenzie and T.J. Murphy. Learn more at unbreakablerunner.com.
Most long-distance training plans adopt the standard Lydiard-based training model, which has high mileage as its cornerstone—the more miles, the better. There’s no disputing that Lydiard developed a pathway for success, which he described in detail in his book, . But is the high-mileage model the only way to the top? Or the healthiest?
Lydiard argued vehemently that it was, but not everyone agrees. For some, the risk of injury is not worth the benefits that high mileage bestows. For these runners, it makes more sense to make every step count than to take as many steps as possible.
Challenges to the Lydiard method did not start with MacKenzie. One of the first came in the 1980s from coach Peter Coe, who adopted a type of high-intensity interval training (HIIT) for his son, middle-distance runner Sebastian Coe. Their plan kept Seb’s total mileage under 50 miles per week and included fast 200-meter repeats with 30 seconds of recovery between the fast segments. They also included weight training movements and plyometric exercises in a routine that looked similar to the typical CrossFit workouts one might see in a gym today.
How did this renegade training method work out for Seb? He won four Olympic gold medals in the 1980s, including gold in the 1500 meters in both 1980 and 1984. He set eight outdoor and three indoor world records in middle-distance track events—including, in 1979, setting three world records in the space of 41 days. The world record he set in the 800 meters in 1981 remained unbroken until 1997.
Even Lydiard would have had to admit that this method worked out pretty well for Seb, despite his relatively light mileage totals. The HIIT approach has gone under the microscope as well, with scientists examining its influence on athletic performance. In a 1996 study, Izumi Tabata and his team tested the effects on athletes of 20 seconds of ultra-intense cycling followed by 10 seconds of rest, repeated eight times, for a total testing time of about 4 minutes. Athletes using this method performed four 4-minute workouts per week and added another day of steady-state, lower-intensity cycling.
By the end of the study, the athletes using the HIIT method had obtained gains similar to those seen in a group of athletes who did only steady-state training, five times per week. While the steady-state group had a higher VO2 max at the end, the HIIT group had started lower and gained more overall. These findings suggest that had all the athletes started at the same level, the HIIT-oriented group would have ended up with higher VO2 max scores. Also, only the Tabata group had gained anaerobic capacity benefits—meaning they had added not just endurance but also strength.
A 2009 study by Martin Gibala and a team at McMaster University in Canada also took a close look at HIIT. Their study on students incorporated a 3-minute warm-up, followed by 60 seconds of intense exercise and 75 seconds of rest, repeated for 8 to 12 cycles. The total workout time ranged from 20 to 29 minutes, with the students repeating the routine three times per week for two weeks.
By the end of the testing period, subjects using this method obtained similar adaptations to the control group that used a “much larger volume of traditional endurance training.” As the Gibala team concluded, “Given the markedly lower training volume in the sprint interval group, these data suggest that high-intensity interval training is a time-efficient strategy to increase skeletal muscle oxidative capacity and induce specific metabolic adaptations during exercise that are comparable to traditional endurance training.” In other words, with HIIT, you can get the same results as with high-volume training, but with less training.
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These examples illustrate a central idea behind MacKenzie’s program, which trades long aerobic runs for short, hard bouts of effort. But there is more to the CFE approach. CrossFit Endurance is not limited to incorporating HIIT-based training principles, although that is central to the program. The CFE approach takes a much broader view of fitness than did Lydiard, or even Peter Coe. At its core, the CFE program is about two words you do not hear much about in traditional programs: health and sustainability.
CrossFit Endurance also works on developing running skill, balance and flexibility. A CFE athlete also focuses on nutrition and mobility. Why? Because ultimately, a CFE athlete is not just someone who runs and races well; he or she is someone who is, first and foremost, healthy and strong. As a result, a CFE athlete can also run very well and continue to do so injury-free.