For 50 years, the world’s best runners have adhered to the Arthur Lydiard doctrine: the importance of a high-mileage base. Now, a skateboarding powerlifter turned endurance athlete is trashing tradition, claiming high-intensity, low-volume training is better. Runners have called Brian MacKenzie the antichrist. But could he be right?
This piece first appeared in the June 2011 issue of Competitor Magazine.
The headquarters for Crossfit Endurance is a two-bedroom house, just a few blocks off Interstate 405, in an Orange County suburb. Brian MacKenzie, the founder of Crossfit Endurance, lives and works here. There are whiteboards throughout his home and garage, and MacKenzie even uses the glass of his dining room table to scrawl notes, workouts and diagrams. A bike is set up on a stationary trainer in the family room, a treadmill resides in the living room, and his “office” is a broad desk piled with books, magazines and a desktop Macintosh. It is through this computer that he does the bulk of his communicating with what has become a loose-knit network of coaches and endurance athletes around the world.
The heart of MacKenzie’s laboratory is in the garage. The cardio gear includes a Versaclimber, a rowing machine, a watt-based bicycle ergometer and another treadmill. Against the rear wall is a squat rack with piles of barbell weights on either side. Kettlebells—including one in the shape of a skull—are scattered throughout. A pull-up bar hangs from the ceiling, as does a climbing rope.
When I visit MacKenzie, he is wearing board shorts, a black T-shirt and black leather Chuck Taylor high-tops. Built like an MMA fighter, the sinewy 190-pound MacKenzie is not your average ultrarunner. He stands in the center of the garage over a heavily plated barbell preparing to deadlift the weight from the floor to waist-level. He’s doing seven rounds of two repetitions, and to increase the resistance at the top phase of the lift, two green stretch bands are hooked to clips bolted into the cement floor. They are taut across the barbell at each end. MacKenzie’s posture is taut as well, like a fist. He reaches down with tattooed arms and hands, and the weights explode upward as he launches the lift.
Dynamic powerlifts like this are one of the core elements of his creation, a regimen that seems to have divided the runners and triathletes familiar with it into two camps: reverent followers on one side and on the other side, CFE skeptics, some of whom post on forums such as Letsrun.com and Slowtwitch.com, calling him a “tattooed snake-oil salesman” and “the antichrist.” So far, the dissenters haven’t been able to bring him down.
The Guinea Pig
MacKenzie, in response to an onslaught of overuse injuries that he developed while training for and racing Ironmans and ultramarathons, used himself as a guinea pig to create a drastically different way to train for endurance events. Crossfit Endurance, launched in 2007, is a strength, power and stamina regimen that combines fast running with the inferno-like workouts of Crossfit, an emerging new form of overall strength training that’s going viral. In 2011, more than 100 Crossfit Endurance programs have launched. The number of Crossfitting endurance athletes continues to grow as MacKenzie travels around the world conducting certification seminars on how to execute and teach a method that throws classic endurance training methods overboard, polarizing the running community.
MacKenzie is the flash point between two cult-like worlds: traditional distance athletes and the more recent phenomenon of Crossfit followers. MacKenzie’s approach to training disposes of two sacred cows of the endurance world—the long, slow, distance (LSD) approach to building an aerobic base, and periodization, a concept that says to achieve high performance an athlete must orchestrate a season-long build-up and peaking process.
In place of LSD workouts, MacKenzie uses Crossfit workouts—high-intensity combinations of exercises drawn from worlds foreign to most distance runners, such as basic gymnastic movements, powerlifting and Olympic-style lifts, including the “power clean” and the “snatch.” While an LSD run is typically at 70 percent effort or less exerted for a half-hour to more than two hours, a Crossfit metabolic-conditioning workout, or “met-con,” as Crossfitters say, goes full blast and is over in less than 20 minutes. MacKenzie is fervent in trying to make his case that CFE is superior in that its emphasis on technique, quality over quantity, strength, power and nutrition builds a better and healthier athlete.
At his seminars MacKenzie argues that while traditional high-mileage programs work for some athletes, for most high mileage is a one-way ticket to injury, plateaus, poor health, burnout and knee replacements. It’s a campaign he primarily fights through Crossfitendurance.com, where he posts daily workout plans for runners, triathletes and cyclists. Because of the ease with which MacKenzie can be contacted through e-mail and social networking, “haters,” as he calls them, have not held back. Give MacKenzie a spare moment and he’s typing responses on his iPhone at a ferocious speed.
After the deadlifts, MacKenzie takes a break in his garage before the next phase of his workout, a met-con comprised of spurts on the rowing machine, handstand pushups and swings with a 70-pound kettlebell. He sits on a weight bench and leans forward, staring into his phone. “I just got this e-mail from a girl asking me about the program,” he says. “She writes, ‘You can’t possibly mean that I’m supposed to stop easy running altogether in favor of Crossfit workouts?’” He smiles slightly and taps away at the screen. “This is what I’m writing back: ‘Yes, you got it. That’s it exactly.’”
The controversy about Crossfit Endurance seems to stem from the fact that the program is stripped of low-intensity runs. The development of LSD is attributed to New Zealander Arthur Lydiard, who devised his method of training and coaching by experimenting on himself and his neighborhood crew of runners in the 1940s. Today, most distance running coaches continue to construct training plans that are a formulation of Lydiard’s methods: They start with a base phase—typically several months of easy runs and long easy runs—followed by a strength training phase, followed by a speed or racing phase, ideally delivering the athlete to a goal race, or series of races, in peak condition.
When Lydiard coached Peter Snell to Olympic gold medals in the 1960s, 100 miles per week was the standard he preached for the base-building phase. The aerobic-foundation method of preparing for distance races is at the heart of most popular variations on how to train. Pick up any book on how to train for a marathon, or a magazine that offers a training plan, including this one, and you’ll find a Lydiard-style program—one might be based on miles, another on hours or heart rates, others going by pace per mile, but within the infrastructure of the program you’ll find the late, great Lydiard staring you in the face.
Modern-day elite marathoners run between 100 and 140 miles per week at peak volume levels. You might find a great deal of difference in speed and strength-training ideas, but high mileage is considered a necessity to be competitive.
Because of this connection between high mileage and greatness, a runner and his commitment to the sport is often measured within the distance community by how many miles are logged on a daily basis. As romanticized in the cult running classic that drew from the Florida Track Club heydays of the 1960s and 1970s, “Once a Runner,” by John L. Parker Jr., the Trial of Miles has long been the image by which we judge how much a runner truly wants it. As Parker vividly portrayed, it’s one thing to do a few weeks of high mileage, quite another to log weeks, months and years of it and all the deep fatigue that comes with it. Two facts that continue to support the notion that high-mileage training programs are superior to all others are these: All the great long-distance runners of our time use it, and the lore of Kenyan and Ethiopian runners—the best of the best—reportedly spend their childhoods logging 12 or more miles daily running to school and back.
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
running.com. 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.”
The Missing Piece
MacKenzie began developing Crossfit Endurance when he became, as he puts it, “a broken down runner.”
“I did the volume stuff and it just destroyed me,” he says. “I was doing big miles getting ready for Ironman Canada in 2004, but I shut down with plantar fasciitis and knee problems.”
Frustrated, MacKenzie looked for a new method. Having cultivated a powerlifting background in the 1990s, his return to a gym for strength training showed him how much he had lost. “Back in the day I was able to squat 300 pounds,” he explained. “I went into the gym and squatted 75 pounds for four reps and it killed me. I thought, ‘Dude, what have you done to yourself?’”
MacKenzie began testing mixes of powerlifting, diet, running technique and running, but ran into several walls. Certain combinations produced too much muscle bulk and others produced too much breakdown.
“Crossfit was the missing piece,” MacKenzie says. “The training effect is better in all metabolic pathways. It produces an athlete that doesn’t break down.” Inserting Crossfit into the equation also had the advantage of slashing overall training time.
While MacKenzie retained the key speed endurance workouts from traditional endurance training—long and short interval workouts and time-trial-like tempo runs—he replaced easy-to-medium effort, short and long runs with Crossfit workouts, maintaining that preparing an athlete for a long race was covered by developing a superior technique and fortifying the body with the strength and power developed through Crossfit, powerlifting and Olympic-style lifts. Things clicked for MacKenzie as he used the new combination to finish ultramarathons on less than 10 hours a week of training. His clients became fans of it, too.
Is Crossfit The Future?
Developed by Greg Glassman and first embraced by soldiers, firefighters and elite police forces, Crossfit has exploded. Through an affiliate system connected by Crossfit.com, the movement now boasts upwards of 2,500 gyms. Whereas a modern-day fitness facility is stocked with Cybex and Nautilus machines, a Crossfit gym looks a lot like MacKenzie’s garage gym—basic equipment used for compound, functional movements opposed to the isolated movement created by, for example, an arm curl machine.
The main theory of the Crossfit movement is that an overly specialized athlete—let’s say a traditionally trained runner with low-muscle mass and creaky joints—is a poor example of overall fitness, and that if fitness is what you want, then first become an all-around athlete—strong, mobile, agile and powerful with a high-level of stamina. Then one can go run a race, play a football game or become a mixed-martial arts fighter.
While the same argument flung at Gibbons has been used against MacKenzie—saying that since he’s not an elite athlete he has no business talking smack about Lydiard training—there’s no denying that MacKenzie embodies Crossfit’s ideal.
After his workout of deadlifts and met-con training back in his garage, he was soon bouncing on his backyard trampoline with his dog, Izzy, rocketing into the air, peeling off front and back flips. He plans to skateboard for the rest of his life, and this past winter he broke up an intensive CFE seminar travel schedule for skiing and snowboarding trips. This is not the standard fare of runners who have qualified and run the 100-mile trail epic of Western States or the 135-mile Badwater Ultramarathon.
Considering the trajectory and appeal of Crossfit, it seems likely that CFE will continue to gain traction with recreational runners, cyclists and triathletes. But will we ever see a sub 2:10 marathoner use it? MacKenzie thinks so. “I really believe it’s the future. It may not be exactly what I’m teaching, but in one form or another, I think we’re going to see change in how the elites train to be great.”