An Endurance Paradigm for the CrossFit Athlete

This Sunday, February 11th,  CrossFit Love’s Running & Endurance Club will start a new cycle in preparation for the Broad Street Run 10 miler on May 6th. The race is an iconic Philadelphia event, and I’m excited for Love and its members to be a part of it. Ahead of the new cycle, I wanted to give a rundown of what our training will look like, why I think it will prepare us to run a solid race, and why you should join us.

Let me start by saying that if you aren’t looking to race, you should still come out to endurance class! A little extra work on endurance and running can do most CrossFitters good, and we will scale appropriately no matter your goals. Now that that’s out of the way, let’s take a look at traditional endurance training, and how ours will differ.

Most recreational runners, and many pros, follow a program that emphasizes getting up to running a certain number of miles per week no matter the pace. Table stakes for the big dog marathoners is 100 miles a week. Whatever the number, the program says “get to X miles per week, then we’ll talk.” After hitting that threshold, there might be some type of more intense running or speed work, like adding some sprints, hills, or “tempo” runs where the athlete has a quicker goal pace. Once an athlete adds some intensity, there might be some running technique thrown in the pot. Traditionally, that takes the form of “striders” or skipping.

We will take this paradigm and flip it upside down. Our program will prioritize technique/form, then get some intensity/speed, and finally add volume/mileage. When we look at running like any other movement we do in CrossFit, this should make sense. The first time you came to CrossFit, you probably didn’t do 500 air squats not for time before being taught squatting technique. It makes much more sense to learn proper squatting technique, then add some weight on a back squat, and then, much later, do something with lots of reps like Murph. But even with those long workouts, we still use a timer. It isn’t just “make sure you do 1,000 air squats over the next week.”

Somehow, this basic framework gets lost in running training. Many people and coaches assume that technique should not be a primary focus because we’ve been running our whole lives. We surely must have it mastered by now. A CrossFit analogy is again useful here. We’ve been sitting down and standing up from chairs our whole lives, but we still work on squat technique before banging out a heavy set of back squats. We’ve been picking things up off the ground our whole lives, but we still practice our deadlift form. We know that if we are inefficient in any of our CrossFit movements, we do not perform that movement as well as possible, and we get hurt. Running is no different than power cleans in this regard.

So, into the nitty gritty. We will run an absolute maximum of four times per week and continue performing regular CrossFit workouts three to five times per week. For the first six weeks, running will include one day of form and intervals, one day of just technique, one “long” run, and one more optional day of just technique work. For the final six weeks, we will do two days of form and intervals, one “long” run, and one optional day of just technique work. We will meet on Sundays for form and intervals. The rest of the training you can perform whenever your weekly training/work/life allows.

For technique, we will be following a “cadence” program. This six-week program will teach us to run with light, fast feet and short strides. Doing so helps prevent injury. Running injuries occur when the foot is on the ground, not when the foot is in the air. Minimizing ground time and ground impact forces leads to lower injury potential. We’ll go over these drills in the first class. If you can’t make it to that, we’ll rehash the drills in subsequent Sunday classes.

The long runs will not be very long by traditional endurance standards. No 100 mile weeks here. Nowhere close. They will, however, be fast. Quality will be more important than quantity. Fast, short runs can and will prepare you for longer, slower runs. But long, slow runs will not make you fast. Intervals will be hard, short, and fast. Skill-based warmups will precede every workout.

At this point, you may be thinking that this sounds either too easy or too good to be true. It is neither. Low mileage is not synonymous with easy training. Our workouts will be very tough, but we will not add a long slog of miles at a slow pace with poor technique. These miles add unnecessary stress and lead to injury. Programs emphasizing long, slow distance have been shown to lead to a battery of problems: declining strength, low bone density, loss of mobility/flexibility, hormonal imbalances, premature aging, and enough words ending in “itis” to double the word count of this already lengthy blog.

This type of training is also far from too good to be true. Our regular training at Love already has us mostly prepared for running. CrossFit training helps improve our mobility, flexibility, and stability to help prevent injuries. It improves our strength to help prevent excessive muscle breakdown during low intensity efforts such as a longer runs. It gives us balance and coordination to help improve our form. It improves our cardiovascular health. It increases mitochondria production. It develops all of our energy systems in appropriate proportions. It does everything. The hay is already in the barn. We take the high quality movement we already perform, add some technique work, a handful of longer runs and hard intervals, and we’re there.

All the time I hear people say that they don’t like running. What a load of crap that is. Running’s amazing, and I love it. But I can imagine what it would be like to hate it. If I had never learned to run correctly and train intelligently, I imagine running would be awful. I imagine my knees and ankles and hips and back would hurt constantly. I imagine that I’d be weak and inflexible. I can’t see how I would like it. At the end of the day, I just hope our Sunday sessions make everyone feel about running the way I do. Our bodies evolved over thousands of generations to move, and running is the movement we, as a species, have been performing and perfecting since our first ancestors crawled out of the primordial ooze. Running is imbedded instinctually in our DNA more deeply than we could ever conceptualize. Running should be a joyous expression of our innate humanity, of why we’re here, what we’re capable of, and—most importantly— who we fundamentally are. See you on Sunday.