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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Crossfit Endurance, 7 months later



Those of you who have read my introductory Crossfit post know that I've been a loyal follower of Crossfit for many years.  In that same post, I told you about my possible interest in Crossfit Endurance (CFE). 
I had been intrigued by this program for quite some time.  But I had never been willing to go all in on the program.  Then this January I started training for my first ultramarathon in September (which I won't be running, because I'm injured...more on that later).  At the same time, I really lost my motivation to put in the 50+ mile weeks that would be required to train for an event like that.  But I still wanted to run an ultramarathon in 2011.  I needed a different kind of training program. 

For those unfamiliar with the program, Crossfit Endurance goes against the traditional methodology of training for endurance events.  The theory behind CFE is that logging mile after mile of long slow distance (LSD) doesn't do a whole lot for you except make you tired, weak, and a generally one-dimensional athlete.  CFE claims that you can get better results by reducing your total miles to around 10-15, so long as those miles are done at a high intensity.  It also asks that you supplement that training with frequent Crossfit workouts to build strength.  The hope is that you will not only improve your performance in your sport of choice, but also become a more well-rounded and healthy athlete.

I started the program at full-blast in January, doing Crossfit workouts 4-5 times per week in the morning.  Then I followed up with 3 running workouts per week in the evenings.  I feel like I've really acclimated and become proficient in the program.  So now that I've done about a half year's worth of CFE, I thought it was time to report back.

Running Performance

This is the part that I cared about the most.  I didn't want to cut my mileage if it meant sacrificing my hard earned gains.  Before starting the program I could pretty easily pound out up to a 20 mile training run.  I was running between 40-50 miles per week regularly.  I could finish a marathon, though not comfortably.  And my PRs, though not anything flashy, were respectible.  Here's a rundown of my PRs and other relevant times:

5K: 23:28
10K: 49:01
Marathon: 4:37
Average minutes/mile during training runs: 9:30 min/mile

Now I wouldn't say that I made any huge improvements in my times over the last seven months.  I have PRed at several different distances, but not by a whole lot.

5K: 23:25
10K: 47:11
Marathon: 4:31
Average minutes/mile during training runs: 8:15 min/mile

Granted I haven't really had good conditions to really test my speed.  For both my 5K and 10K PRs, I ran the distance with temps in the 90s.  In my 5K time trial, I was also dragging two panting black labs.  So I'm sure I can do a lot better.  I just haven't had the opportunity. 

What I've noticed more than any sort of huge time improvements is going faster has gotten really easy for me.  This is especially noticeable during my long slow distance runs.  I remember going out for a little training run with my friends and wondering why they kept shouting at me to slow down a bit.  I looked down at my Garmin and realized that I had been averaging an 8:00 min/mile.  That used to be fast for me.  Now apparently it was my standard training pace.

Not only is it easier to go fast, but I'm starting to enjoy it.  It's kind of fun to fly down the road in your bare feet.  Before I would get winded quickly if I did anything other than my normal 9:00 min/mile pace.  Now I have a ton of different gears.  I love being able to mix it up to keep my long distance runs interesting. 

More important than all of that though, I feel a lot better during races; especially those of the marathon distance or greater.  Normally during a marathon, I end up bonking by about mile 20 and have to drag myself to the finish line.  But during the Med City Marathon and my recent 50K fun run, I felt like I had plenty of gas left in the tank at the finish line.  I also felt strong the entire time during both runs.  No real peaks or valleys in performance. 

That's incredible to me considering how far I'm actually running.  I've cut my mileage to 1/4th of what it was previously.  I've only run over 12 miles a handful of times this year.  And most of those were races.  I usually don't run much further than 6 miles on any given day.  I was worried that not running everyday would mean giving up my endurance.  It's been quite the opposite.  I have more endurance.  This program really works!

Strength and Body Composition

One pleasant side effect of doing CFE is that you don't just become a stronger runner.  You become a stronger athlete overall.  Although I have always crosstrained with Crossfit, I knew that I was letting my muscles atrophy while I concentrated on my running.  As a former meathead, that's always made me feel pretty bad.  I worked hard to get those muscles.  It was a shame to see them go. 



Here I am after the 2010 Honolulu Marathon.  This was probably the least muscular that I've been since I was a high-school stick figure. 

What has been great about CFE is not only that my muscles are coming back, but I'm getting more cut than I've ever been.  I can see my abs for the first time in years.  I'm getting a lot of postive feedback about how fit I look.  While looking good in a bathing suit hasn't been the goal of this training, it is a nice side effect.


Do you have a permit for those guns?!  Here's a picture of me from this week.  I'm not sure why I can't take a shirtless picture of myself without doing a "Blue Steel" face. 

Now I don't necessarily think that all of this muscle has come exclusively from CFE.  Since I've done a lot of weight training in the past, I think a lot of the growth I've seen has just been muscle memory. 

And this muscle isn't all show and no go.  It's really functional.  Whereas I used to really feel my muscles fatigue during a run of over 15 miles, now they feel fine up into the ultra distances.  I've gotten a lot faster on my bike without doing any biking.  I can sprint faster and jump higher than ever before.  I've become really proficient in pretty much every category of fitness.  Of course, that's the point of the program.

I've also been impressed with my ability to stay lean on the program.  A lot of you already know that I'm a fan of the paleo diet and the Warrior Diet.  And I had lost a lot of weight in the form of fat on the diet.  Starting CFE took it to a whole new level.  The paleo diet is the recommended diet for CFE.  If you follow any other diet regime, you really will feel how much your performance suffers.  The added bonus is that it adds really awesome definition to your muscles.  If you're into that.  My wife is...

I've also hit a bit of a wall in my gains in the last month, which is pretty typical in strength training.  Actually, I expect any gains from here on out to be really difficult.  It's much harder to acheive strength gains when you're doing a lot of high-intensity endurance work.  But that's okay because it's not really my focus.  Not to say that I'm not excited in the progress that I've made on the strength side.  I feel a lot more well-rounded of an athlete than I did when I focused primarily on running. 

"Always Up"

Now for some problems that I've experienced with the program.

My training programs prior to CFE all involved some kind of "peaking", meaning that I built up my mileage week by week until I reached a peak about 3-4 weeks before an event.  At that point I would taper and gradually cut my mileage until race day. 

CFE doesn't really seem to follow any rhyme or reason when it comes to the distances they perscribe.  One week you could be doing a 5K time trial, and the next you could be running a half marathon.  So my training didn't follow any kind of progression.  And I didn't really run all that far, even during "long run" days.  Prior to going out on my 50K run a couple of weeks ago, I hadn't ran more than 12 miles since the Med City Marathon in May. 

CFE also doesn't require that you taper before a distance event.  They do have a one-week suggested taper, but I've found that it isn't much different than a normal week on the program.  What is great about this is that you're always more or less prepared to run an endurance race and be competitive (referred to in professional sports circles as "always up").  When I decided to run that 50K, I wasn't planning it for months and designing a training plan around it.  I decided to run it the week before. 

While it's nice to be able to jump into an endurance event and perform well at any time, being "always up" doesn't really allow for down time.  The program never gets any easier.  So you're always hitting it hard every day of every month for the whole year.  That kind of constant intensity can get old after a while.  I know that's what has made me cut down on Crossfit in the past.  I'm starting to feel that way again.  I find it hard to get up the motivation to complete my workouts at the same level as I did in the beginning. 

Overtrain much?

When I first started on the program, I ramped up to full blast right away.  I was doing two-a-days almost every day.  And within a week, I had gigantic knots in my calves and IT band that made walking painful.  I backed way off and progressed more slowly after that, working my way up to the full program over the course of a month.  But I'm lucky I didn't seriously hurt myself. 

The potential to overtrain on this program is huge.  Not only at the outset, but at any point during training.  Even after 7 months, I still feel like I'm one hard workout away from overtraining.  I'm always worried about pushing to hard and injuring something.  Because of how intense Crossfit workouts are, that potential exists in every workout. 

In fact, that's partly how I injured my knee during my 50K a few weeks ago.  During my taper I set a PR doing the Helen workout (3 rounds for time of 400m sprint, 21 kettlebell swings, 12 pullups...I did it in 8:45 minutes....beat that!).  I also felt like the workout made my knee feel a bit wonky.  Low and behold, during my 50K I felt it getting sore at around mile 12.  I pushed through it, and it developed into a full-blown injury.  Good times... 

Even when I stay healthy, my legs are still in a constant state of fatigue and soreness.  It's usually the good kind of fatigue...the one that is associated with muscles growing and getting stronger.  And it doesn't interfere with my workouts.  But it is annoying.

Only running 2-3x a week?!

After running a few marathon-plus distance events, I've really bought into the idea that you don't need to put in high mileage to run high mileage races.  But that doesn't mean I don't miss LSD-style running.  Occasionally it's nice to go out and put in some miles.  Again, you can get burnt out doing everything at full blast.  You need to stop and smell the roses once and a while.

That's all well and good.  It's nice to change it up.  So every now and then I've done an LSD workout to keep my interest.  I also find that doing so is kind of a bad deal.  Usuall two things happen.  One, I find LSD really boring now compared to my high-intensity running workouts.  Two, I find that the LSD will tire me out so much that my workouts later in the week will suffer.  So CFE has kind of sucked the fun out of something I used to enjoy. 

Conclusion

The jury is still out for me as to whether CFE is the revolutionary endurance program that it claims to be.  It certain is a different and efficient way to train.  It has allowed me to maintain my current level of endurance without sacrificing my strength goals.  It's also hard to maintain the full head of steam necessary to continue to progress and see results. 

I can't say that this is a training style I'll do for the rest of my life.  But it is my preferred way to train at the moment.  If you folks are looking to increase your all-around athletic ability while maintaining your endurance event focus, this program is worth checking out!

Happy Crossfitting citizens!





10 comments:

  1. Thanks for sharing! It is a whole new concept to do less runs a week and not focus on LSDs.
    You are a young pup-I am wondering for us "mature" runners if not keeping up the mileage would create injuries even if we are doing cross training.I don't do CFE,but I do other crosstraining to work on strength,balance,endurance,core
    It seems like if I cut my mileage back too much I get injured

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  2. Christian, have you made other changes between those PRs, such as diet? I do no CrossFit, but since eating paleo, my times have come way down, too. Of course, I've got a few years on you.

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  3. It's good to know that other forms of exercise influence running performance. I have to realign my exercising as my time will be constrained over the next six months. I will probably run no more than 10 miles a week. However, I have been doing a lot of gymnastics/parkour training. It's fun, challenging, and most of all it does not feel like working out. I see it as moving from one skill to the next, so the goals are very clear.
    For example I have been able to do handstands in the yard, my next goal is to hold them for a longer period of time with better form. I know where I am going, and will also know when I arrive so that I can advance to something more difficult.

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  4. Great read. I am a recent convert to CFE. My main reason for the switch is injury. I have completed 2 marathons but ended up walking in both of them due to knee injury. I wanted to try a less is more approach so, CFE and minimalist shoes for me. So far, so good. Speed has improved a ton. Keep us posted on your progress.

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  5. No real changes besides CFE Jeff. I am a bit more strict with my diet, but nothing else really.

    Sally, I have really come to believe that a fitness program that is big on crosstraining will make you a stronger runner. I do more cross training now than I do running, and I feel better than ever about my running

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  7. I had to fix my post above... damn cell phone. Arrgggh.

    I was so glad to hear your opinion since I'm pretty much doing the same training. Its a bit modified as you know for the exact reasons you listed in your cons section. I have a "deload" pretty much every 4th week and Seth almost always programs me for 70% efforts the week before a race. So far I've been amazed at my performances on so little running. And I love the variety my training provides. It will be interesting to see how I fare with my upcoming trail marathon. And being able to lift heavy stuff is so cool!

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  8. Oh. And I have abs now as well. ;-)

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  9. I'm going to try that deloading business. Sounds like just what I need to keep my motivation up. Thanks for the insight Zap!

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  10. Matt Fitzgerald advocates higher intensity runs and lower distances, but not nearly the amount of strength training. He does scale mileage for various distance goals. I wonder though you consider that your muscle gains may be due to muscle memory, but you dont seem to consider that faster runs at less distance feel good due to your already in place base? That being said you appear to be maintaining/slightly getting faster. I am a "you play like you practice" kind of person. If you never run fast in training, you wont be able to run fast in a race. Conversely i would think the overall distance in training is lowered eventually that will show. So i am interested in ur progress.

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