The Long Run

In a recent article posted on Active by my former colleague, star author and longtime friend, Matt Fitzgerald, Matt takes up the issue of injury prevention for runners, using an initial mention of Unbreakable Runner to make his point.

He writes, “In their book, MacKenzie and Murphy take it as a given that runners who run more get injured more. However, recent research suggests the opposite is true.”

The first study Fitzgerald cites was a web survey of 668 marathon finishers. Sixty-eight of the respondents reported an injury that hindered their training for at least two weeks. From the data, researchers concluded that runners should put in no less than 18 miles per week before a marathon “to reduce their risk of running-related injury.”

Fitzgerald also refers to a 2014 study that looked at 517 runners with a 9-month follow-up. Researchers focused on overall mileage, speed and frequency of runs. From the data collected, they predicted that injury risk in regards to training load is affected by body-mass index and previous injuries.

Fitzgerald then effectively dismisses a program like CrossFit Endurance—the subject of Unbreakable Runner—with his own deduction:

“Why do runners who run more get injured less?” Fitzgerald posits. He answers that “running alone develops the specific kind of durability that makes the body resistant to running-related injuries.”

He adds his bottom-line: “All of the strength training and technique drills in the world won’t match the toughening effect of actual running.”

To support this contention, he cites a 2012 study with 432 beginners, split into two groups, and where researchers had them prepare for a “four-mile recreational running event.” Both groups would follow a 9-week training program, but the test group first prepared with a four-week phase of pre-conditioning comprised of walking and hopping exercises. Researchers concluded that the four weeks of hopping and walking didn’t have a valuable effect on shielding newbie runners from injury.  

Fitzgerald compares these results with a study that suggested that high school kids, preparing for the fall cross country season, should put in more consistent weeks of training than less, and that during those weeks they should mix the length of their runs.

“The lesson of these two studies is clear,” writes Fitzgerald. “In order to minimize the risk of running-related injuries, you need to build durability. Only running itself builds the kind of durability that prevents running-related injuries. Drills and strength training just don’t cut it.”

I think this is an important discussion to have and I think Matt brings up some valuable insight, especially for beginning runners. From the data, Matt extrapolates that “drills and strength training” just don’t cut it. I assume he’s talking about the inclusion of running drills, bodyweight gymnastic work, mobility and functional-strength training workouts in MacKenzie’s approach, and not the ‘hopping and walking’ exercises that the pure beginners used before their 9-week running program. At any rate, one thing I wish to clarify is the primary messages we wanted to get across in Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength and Conditioning for a Lifetime of Running Strong.

I want to underscore the “Lifetime” part of the subtitle a little later on, but first, a stress within Unbreakable Runner I wanted to make is not that it’s the best program or the only program worth following—something MacKenzie seems to be routinely accused of saying. There are so many different types of runners with different goals and different issues, I think a variety of options and ideas is a good thing. Lydiard isn’t for everyone and CFE isn’t for everyone as is Galloway isn’t for everyone or Vigil isn’t for everyone (pity the recreational runner who tries to follow Joe Vigil’s 10K program, preferably performed at 8000-feet of altitude).  I remember the moment I was sitting in the back row of a seminar, with Brian trying to make this point that what he was offering was an alternative approach. And that’s a core message in the book: We wanted to communicate an accurate picture of CrossFit Endurance and offer it to those who might be frustrated with injuries from the programs they’ve been following, or for those who might find the variety and all-around athleticism appealing. But we weren’t out to force it down anyone’s throat. Recently, a link to a story on the book was announced with the Twitter text: ‘Why Brian MacKenzie thinks that traditional training programs don’t work.” I’ve been talking and interviewing Brian for years and he’s never even hinted at a sentiment as controversial and easily proved wrong.

Actually, if Brian preaches about anything, it’s about why a runner needs to keep an eye on the long-term effects a training program has on a runner’s health. He doesn’t dispute that high-mileage programs can work—in fact, the foreward is written by the human odometer, Dean Karnazes—what Brian does suggest is that a runner should look for every opportunity to minimize the wear and tear of running and factors, like a poor diet or not getting enough sleep, that lead to chronic inflammation, which science clearly links to premature aging. (All of these things, by the way, key priorities for Dean and, he reports, at the root of his longevity).

As an example, if you ask MacKenzie what the number one benefit of a CrossFit workout is for a runner, he’s going to talk about how functional movements, performed under load and at high-intensity, can do wonders for a coach trying to sort out biomechanical weaknesses, imbalances and other “holes” that ultimately, down the road, will probably be the cause of an injury. The weaknesses are exposed well before they manifest themselves in a tweak.

There’s also the value of the strength work. As Jay Dicharry, MPT, puts forth in his detailed examination of biomechanics and running, the excellent book, Anatomy for Runners, nothing drives him crazier in his practice then when a veteran runner comes into his office with a chronic injury (or injuries) and Dicharry asks what the runner has been doing as far as routine maintenance over the years, and and the answer is ‘lots of running’ and nothing more. To illustrate his point, Dicharry uses the metaphor of a car mechanic talking to a customer whose car is breaking down at 73,000 miles and reports that he never changed the oil, timing belt fixes, tire rotations etc. “Nope,” the car owner says. “Just parked it in the garage and when it was time to go, expected it to run.”

Dicharry’s model is similar to MacKenzie’s and to Kelly Starrett’s: Correcting your movement errors is something you should do first rather than later. Dicharry also advocates the style of strength training that MacKenzie does:

Weight training (at high intensity) requires the runner to produce forces well above those seen during running. It’s possible to activate a very high percentage of a runner’s muscle mass, with minimal physiologic fatigue…it’s a great training tool to better develop the runner.

The study I would be interested in seeing would be a six week (or more) preparation program that went above and beyond walking and hopping and prepared new runners with movement drills and basic functional strength training moves. Then compare them to a control group and a nine-week training program.

But even then, that’s just going to offer another ray of information for the discussion. The one study that I know of that looked at a pool of very good runners over a long time has been conducted by Jack Daniels, Ph.D., the longtime coach, researcher and author of The Daniels Running Formula. In a phone interview about a year and a half ago, Daniels described to me how he’s kept tabs on the elite runners he first studied circa 1970. During the call, he told me how he had completed a third survey with his cohort, and said there was one conclusion he could draw in regards to those who still were enjoying their running and running well. “They were the ones who, over the decades, have missed the most days of running,” he said. The ones who had run the least were the least broken, in other words.

That’s just another piece of the puzzle, of course, when it comes to the discussion of running mileage. Steve Magness, author of The Science of Running, examines the subject of volume in his book and concludes that we just don’t know enough—it’s his contention that there just aren’t enough studies on the subject that one can use research alone to make a decision on what mileage level is the best mileage level.

One of my favorite people to talk to on the subject is Dr. Brian Hickey, a PhD at Florida A&M. In his 40s, Hickey has been a running and track geek since he was a kid, and he’s applied his vast knowledge of exercise science toward his own athletic career. Even though he’s been competing since high school and ran at Syracuse, he still loves to spend his summers finding duathlons and Masters track meets to frequent. I seem to recall him telling me that he not only likes to enter just myriad race distances, from the 400 to the 5000, but also likes to enter the triple jump. That the guy has been at it for more than two decades and is still racing a lot is one thing; it’s another thing to be able to do a field event that I can barely watch because of the impact stress involved.

Hickey, in fact, was a like a third author on the book, Unbreakable Runner, and I’m looking forward to reporting more about what he has to say. He’s all about minimum effective dose when it comes to running miles, using functional strength movements and heavy weights as part of his long-term durability plan. “Lift something heavy every day,” he told me, saying that even if it’s just a couple minutes of heavy kettle bell swings, you don’t want to miss out on stimulating your natural testosterone and HGH production. “Don’t leave that on the table.”

On the subject of mileage, he helped me frame my answer to 20-something runners intrigued by CrossFit Endurance. If you’re in your 20s, should you seek to run the least number of miles in your training and use CFE-like workouts to supplant the easy maintenance runs? I think the answer is very individual, and may have something to do with the quality of your mechanics and any mobility issues you have. A thought sparked in discussions with Hickey is that the day that you end up in your 40s or 50s and can’t run another step—that the achilles is fried or the back is out or the knee is a shambles—does that day come all at once? Or is it the inevitable result of all those steps you took doing 60, 80 or 100 miles a week while in your 20s and maybe even your 30s?


It’s different if you’re a professional runner who is out to make a killing and be finished with running by the age of 25. But it’s a different thing for the age-grouper sort who wants to run forever.

I totally agree with Fitzgerald that running produces adaptations that lead to stronger connective tissue, bone density and the like—durability, as he puts it. My question—for those who love running and want to be able to run in their later years—is what else can you do besides just more running? What can you do to insure your bet? That’s what Unbreakable Runner is about.

Unbreakable Runner by Brian MacKenzie and TJ MurphyIn their new book, Unbreakable Runner, CrossFit Endurance™ founder Brian MacKenzie and veteran journalist T.J. Murphy examine long-held beliefs about how to train, tearing down those traditions to reveal new principles for a lifetime of healthy, powerful running.

Unbreakable Runner includes CrossFit-based training programs for the most popular running race distances from 5K to ultramarathon.

Now available! Autographed copies of Unbreakable Runner from Brian MacKenzie!

Find Unbreakable Runner in your local bookstore, CrossFit gym, or from these online retailers: VeloPress, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, your local bookstore


4 thoughts on “The Long Run

  1. Pingback: TJ Murphy: An 'Unconventional' Road to Running Injury Free, Strength Training for Endurance Sports, Q&A, And More | Endurance Planet

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