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.
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 Zappos.com 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.
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 Zappos.com 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.
Learn How To Strength Train Correctly
My first exposure to weight training was through football during junior high and high school. Since then I’ve had numerous memberships to numerous gyms. One thing that happened because of attending CrossFit classes was this: for the first time I was taught how to do basic weight training exercises correctly. The emphasis on proper movement patterns when you do anything from a pushup to a back squat to jumping rope is on the obsessive side. The benefit of doing the exercises right is that you’re much less likely to get injured and you gain the full measure of the exercises. At a good CrossFit gym the newbie will be get a thorough education in how to do the basic functional movement exercises consistently well before intensity is added into the mix. This is the doctrine of “Virtuosity” as it is prescribed by the founder of CrossFit, Greg Glassman. I didn’t know how much I had learned and absorbed from going to CrossFit Elysium and attending a Level 1 CrossFit certification program until I stepped back into a commercial gym this past summer when on a road trip. It was a Gold’s Gym and I was shocked at all the bending of backs and caving in of knees that were going on with both free weights and exercise machines. I was seeing typical exercisers in a whole new light. And I’m sure it was exactly the sort of thing I was doing on my own pre-CrossFit, especially with an exercise like the squat. I had been butchering that one for a good 30 years. The point: runners wanting to add strength/power/core work to enhance and support their running can benefit from the coaching at a CrossFit gym. You’ll learn how to do the do the movements right, getting more value from the work with a lower chance of hurting yourself. And I can say this, too: I was 47 when I first joined CrossFit Elysium. The improvements in strength and mobility came within weeks. It was stunning to me.
Dial In Your Nutrition Program
In an article published on September 26 on Independent Online, Dr. Timothy Noakes, author of “The Lore of Running” and inarguably one of the most influential sports scientists on the sport of running said that those who own a copy of his book should “tear out the section on nutrition.” Noakes has long advocated a high-carb diet for runners but no longer. Noakes told IO, “In my case, most of the carbohydrate that I ingest is directed into my fat cells by the action of insulin each time I eat carbohydrate. Then the insulin locks the fat in my fat cells and prevents its release as energy for as long as I continue to eat a high-carbohydrate diet. This leads to progressive weight gain, continual hunger, lethargy, and in time, pancreatic failure and the onset of an irreversible and universally fatal condition, adult-onset diabetes. But the solution is simple – cut down the secretion of insulin by eating a minimum of carbohydrate.” This is the essential thrust of the basic nutrition program that is taught at the 4,000-plus CrossFit gyms now in operation. What Noakes has observed in research and also in his own health correlated directly with my experience and the before and after blood tests. In my case, the change in diet had a surprisingly positive effect in terms of my state of energy and my body fat composition. For runners interested in guidance into the diet Noakes is now supporting, CrossFit coaches can not only teach you the basics but set up a situation in which you can test and measure the effects on how well or not it works for you.
Experiment On Yourself
This is how I now view a CrossFit gym: it’s a lab where I can work on my athletic foundation and physical infrastructure. Through functional movement exercises and with coaches there to give you feedback on what you’re doing, you can spot imbalances and weaknesses early–imbalances and weaknesses that might normally surface as a running injury down the road. CrossFit gyms also encourage their members to spend time on active recovery and restoration techniques: compression, foam rolling, mobility exercises, etc., all valuable to a runner training for a running race.
At CrossFit Elysium I got to know Karen Gallagher, a law professor who had migrated into the gym with a passion for running half marathons. She had a similar first experience to mine. “I was shocked to see how weak I was. I could barely front squat an empty bar,” she told me. Although Gallagher was first apprehensive about the weight training involved in CrossFit–she has a chronic back problem–but her gains in strength and power not only showed up in consistent performance improvements in the gym but also on the road: With a minimum of additional running to her CrossFit workouts she was able to run the San Diego Half Marathon in one of her best times and with the benefit of not getting beat up by it. “I had almost no soreness,” she said. Gallagher’s experience is a common story you’ll hear from runners who have joined a CrossFit gym: more overall power, no loss in speed and sometimes a gain in performance and most of all, rapid recovery from races. At San Francisco CrossFit I’ve got to know an ultrarunner named Pan Sohmnhot. I’ve watched in awe this past summer as Sohmnhot has run an ultra every few weeks or so, running the Marin Headlands 50-miler recently. Just after the Marin race I worked out with him at CFSF and (again in awe) seeing him do a variety of body lunges and deep squat exercises. I asked him about his experience in tying together running and CrossFit classes. “I took 3 hours off my 50-mile time in one year,” he told me. “And it used to be that I could barely walk for a week after a race.” Now, he says, he’s good to go the day after and is presently on track to qualify for Western States.
Improve Your Running Technique
Chris McDougall’s “Born to Run” lit up the conversation about the running shoe industry, overbuilt shoes, barefoot running and minimalistic shoes. It also brought into light what correct running technique should be. Interval running is often a part of CrossFit workouts and coaches tend to teach the basic methods advocated by CrossFit Endurance with drills and exercises to shift runners from away from heel-striking. Like the diet, CrossFit coaches are a good resource for runners wanting to explore improving technique with a desire to ward off injuries and increase power efficiency.
Be Able To Run In The First Place
With record levels of obesity swamping the country and with both a moral and economic reason to help those overweight get into a health and fitness lifestyle, the fact is that not everyone can just buy a pair of shoes and start a running program. If you weigh too much you may not be able to run at all, or if you can the stress on the joints is so much that the first thing that might happen is you get hurt. CrossFit is set-up to help bridge the gap–by using a proper diet and scaling workouts and exercises into what an overweight person can do for exercise, a client can be set on a path to get to a place where he or she can become a runner. I was witness to this process with Irene Mejia, who started CrossFit at the weight of 415 pounds. Working with coaches Paul Estrada and Dr. Leon Chang, fellow members of the gym watched as Irene transformed from barely being able to walk a few blocks to being able to run the intervals that appear in the daily workouts. She’s now under 300 pounds and can be accurately described as an athlete. I was reminded of a Colorado running shoe store that started to offer CrossFit-style classes because they saw an opportunity to develop their business by guiding non-runners into being runners. As far as CrossFit’s overall contribution to the world of running and road racing, this may be the most valuable part.
T.J. Murphy is a contributing editor for Competitor magazine and author of “Inside the Box: “How CrossFit Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym and Rebuilt My Body.”
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