By T.J. Murphy
I’ve had a number of discussions with runners who have heard very little about what Brian MacKenzie’s CrossFit Endurance is and what it offers (the subject of our upcoming book, Unbreakable Runner). In these discussions, I find there’s a lot of misunderstanding about what Brian’s program is and what CrossFit is, and what the benefits might include for a runner making the switch from a traditional program to a low-volume/high-intensity/strength-and-conditioning-reliant/running-is-a-skill matrix that is CFE.
I take pains not to make claims that CFE is “the only way to train” or superior to other programs. I talk about what I know: that it’s worked out well for me and there’s a generation of CFE runners that offer additional anecdotal reporting. It’s typical to hear about new PRs, less injuries and faster recoveries from hard workouts and hard races.
Here are the key benefits I sincerely believe that MacKenzie’s program offers those who are willing to give it a full-on try.
- Fixing a broken runner. The runner who can barely run anymore or can’t run anymore because they’re so banged up from injuries like Runner’s Knee, plantar fasciitis, iliotibial band syndrome, sciatica, muscle tears, achilles pain, etc. The broken runner is at a fork in the road. They either buy a bike or some swim goggles and forget about running, or they keep trying to run. CFE is a possible solution for many trapped in a quagmire of injury. Although it strikes some that CFE is an injury risk in itself, there’s a generation of reborn runners out there that have solved their injury woes through the following mechanisms that are built into MacKenzie’s program: Less destructive running form through skill work, strength and conditioning to weed out weaknesses and imbalances, and a revamp of your power flow through the posterior chain. I was in my late 40s when I made the jump. I was warned by a colleague that “You’re going to get hurt doing CrossFit!” His source was a physical therapy clinic in San Diego. But my reasoning was, What do I have to lose? I’ve been injured at least twice a year, usually more, just trying to get through a running schedule. My experience: I was transformed by CFE in a matter of two months. Not everyone may have had such a positive experience with CFE as I did, but most CFE runners I’ve talked to say the same thing I do: “If you stick with it for at least six weeks, there’s no going back to the way you used to train.
- Preventing the creation of a broken runner. There’s a PhD and exercise physiology professor at Florida A & M who is a living expert on this idea. He’s a lifelong running fanatic. He ran college track at Syracuse, and these days, as a Masters athlete, loves duathlon and racing all distances at track meets. Dr. Brian Hickey is a unique voice in training theory because he is so well-versed in all sides of it: the history of running and training, the physiology involved, and his own personal experience. In working on the book, Unbreakable Runner, Hickey helped me see deeply into not only why MacKenzie’s program is effective for an older runner, but why a younger runner should open his or her mind to the principles of the program. Number one in this regard is the typical mileage ramp that young runners are encouraged to climb–the belief that increasing mileage should always be the priority in the career of a competitive runner. Hickey’s thought is that running mileage can be effective, but the downside of slowly grinding away cartilage, connective tissues and joint capsules should always be a part of the calculation. Just because your 23 doesn’t mean that you might not be scraping away precious connective tissues. The old beaten up runner was once a young runner, and there’s a reason he or she ended up the former. (Even though CFE has given me a new life as a runner, I can still point out the scar tissue and permanent damage that will always be a drag for me). Rather than just blindly trying collect mega miles every week as many weeks of the year as possible, each running mile, Hickey says, should be spent with painstaking care. It’s Moneyball for running. Make each mile count, make each step count. Even though CFE emphasizes the development of running form so that this grinding is minimized by eradicating faulty movement patterns, the runner should still spend mileage like a card-counter making bets at the blackjack table. Get your most bang for you buck, in other words. And if you can use alternative training methods that are less destructive to enable the adaptations that base mileage running enables (high-intensity functional movement exercise being key to this in CFE), then what’s the problem? As Hickey explained it to me from an exercise physiology point of view, constantly-varying functional movements performed at high intensity not only zaps your energy systems with a high-dose of training effect, it also does wonders for your mobility, your balance, your body chemistry (it triggers the natural release of HGH and testosterone), coordination and more. So if CrossFit-style workouts can effectively help you get the job done on overall less running mileage, with other ancillary training effects, why not at least test it? As I mentioned to the two young runners that host the Run Colorado podcast, my advice to a 20-something marathoner who is skeptical about the low mileage requirements of CFE is this: give it a test. Take a six-week break from higher mileage levels and do the CFE program. One thing we know about training in general is that new stimulus is always good, and taking a break from a high-mileage plan is a good thing to do one a year anyway. As Dr. Joe Vigil might have termed it, it could be your active recovery phase for the year.
- Power and speed. There are elements of CFE that look very similar to how sprinters train and how many middle-distance runners train. Explosive power movements, plyometrics, full-body training. In the years I was training through classic Lydiard methods, I did some light weight training on machines and a standard core routine, but never could imagine jumping onto a box. Yet in CFE, I was doing this in a matter of weeks and actually started to feel some fresh elasticity in my springs. I never had imagined I could recover that athletic side of myself.
- Preparing the body for technique. As we’ve seen over the last few years since the rise of minimalistic shoes and technique workshops like Pose, Chi and such, is that at least some runners seem to gravitate toward these things bewitched by the idea that a zero drop shoe is a magic pill. Same with a weekend workshop. The truth is, of course, change is possible but change takes time. Changing your running form might take a year of concentrated, patient work, with daily attention to skill work, mobility work, and cadence work. One thing that CFE offers in regards to a form overhaul is the strength and conditioning component to help you travel this path better. If you’re a particularly fragile runner (like I was), I think spending a couple of months doing the strength and mobility work first and then starting to work on changing your running form will help you decrease the chances of an injury as you change patterns.
- Break out of a rut. This refers back to the problem that any one-dimensional training program has. If you just keep doing the same thing day after day, week after week, and so on, your body adapts and you may actually lose fitness. One thing athletes of all types tend to do is to favor workouts that play to their strengths. You may be able, for example, to pull together a great 5 x 1000-meter workout on the track, and so you do it every Tuesday night. Meanwhile, you move away from training that you suck at, like hill training, for example. MacKenzie emphasizes a full reversal on this tendency: you find your weaknesses and rejoice, because as you let go of your ego and start working on them, this is where you’re open up new streams of revitalizing potential. Any runner who is in a rut should try CFE for three months or so. It’s a bunker busting bomb.
- Add something different. Variety. Just an extension of #5, but CFE is endless in terms of variety, thanks to CrossFit. There is always a new movement to work on.
- Add challenge. This is an extension of #6. For citizen runners wanting to add some spark to their life and take on challenges like the marathon and such, CFE is an opportunity in itself. It’s immensely challenging, learning how to do a clean and jerk, or a rope climb, or a handstand pushup. You’ll keep a notebook with a set of objectives to chip away at, and it keeps you coming back.
- Fun. A few months back I spoke with running coach in Boulder, Colorado, Scott Fliegelman, who was overseeing a CFE experiment with some traditionally trained runners. He said the key benefit of CrossFit was that it was with a group dynamic. CrossFit is strength and conditioning work, which is easy to skip out on if you’re just doing it on your own at the local gym. But his runners said they enjoyed the workouts and also the camaraderie.
- Free yourself from the periodization prison. MacKenzie’s program does not follow a long term periodization program as you find in a standard Lydiard program. Rather, it’s designed to so that you’re ready to race throughout the year. To whatever degree you sacrifice one or two 100% peaks in a year, the program is designed to have you at around 95% of your peak capacity, as you chisel away at a steady state of increase through the program. For anyone who has followed a six-month or so program designed to deliver you from a base phase, to a strength phase, to a speed phase to a peak phase for “The Big Race” and suffered an injury in the final buildup (I have experienced this) this is an attractive compromise. Another screwed-up thing that can happen is that you train for six months and then on the week of the big race you come down with a cold or flu. Or race day dawns with hideous wind and weather, and a goal PR is jeopardized. For those who like to race a lot and like to race a variety of distances and events, CFE can be a promising alternative.
In his new book, Unbreakable Runner, CrossFit Endurance founder Brian MacKenzie tears down old-fashioned run training traditions to reveal the new rules for fast, powerful running.
Unbreakable Runner includes CrossFit-based training programs for the most popular running race distances from 5K to ultra marathon.
Now available! Autographed copies of Unbreakable Runner from Brian MacKenzie!