Thursday, April 15, 2010

Training for a Race by NOT Running: A Case Study

EDIT: updated with link to a CNN article about the runners and heart conditions

With the weather getting nicer on the East coast, more people are out doing the most common form of exercise: running. Some of these folks will do races ranging from your local town 5k to ultramarathons out west. On August 26, 2009, I decided to turn myself into a guinea pig. I decided to run a half marathon that was scheduled less than a month away. Not only that, but I decided that I would not run, unless the run came up in a workout at CrossFit King of Prussia. The day before the half marathon I totaled up the previous 30 days' worth of running: less than 6 miles. The next day I was supposed to run 13.1 miles non-stop?? What was I thinking? Not only did I finish, but I set a PR and was back to working out the next day, setting two more PRs in the gym. Here is a breakdown of what I did to prepare, how the race went, and what the days were like after. 

The point of CrossFit is to prepare you for the unknown and unknowable. You should be ready for anything. When I read Greg Amundson's account of attempting to run 100 miles solely on CrossFit WODs, I was inspired. I wasn't so inspired to run 100 miles, but I decided to sign up for a half marathon and do NO supplemental running. Now, to be fair, I had run a few races before, but all included running as preparation. Here is a list of all races I had done prior to the half marathon and my results:

5/4/08 Broad Street 10 miler - 1:38:10
8/2/08 Sea Isle City 10 miler - 1:21:34
11/23/09 Philadelphia Half Marathon - 1:36:56
5/3/09 Broad Street 10 miler - 1:09:16
6/19/09 Media 5 miler -33:34
8/1/09 On Your Marc 5k - 19:49

For the month before the Half Marathon, here are my workouts and the movements involved. Any sort of running is highlighted in red and totaled at the bottom:

8/20/09 - "Rowing Kelly" (row, box jump, wall ball)
8/22/09 - walking lunges, pullups, situps
8/23/09 - hang power clean, weighted pushup
8/25/09 - run: 1600m, 800m, 400m, 200m
8/26/09 - thrusters, hpc's, sdlhp's
8/28/09 - row, deadlifts, box jumps
8/29/09 - Team chipper with run: 1 mile
8/30/09 - Overhead squats, pullups, press
9/1/09 - Tabata burpees, squats, hang power snatch
9/2/09 - "The Bear Complex" (barbell lifting)
9/4/09 - "Karen" (wallballs) and split jerks
9/5/09 - "Michael" (situps, back extensions, run: 3 x 800m)
9/8/09 - "Angie" (pullups, pushups, situps, squats)
9/9/09 - clean and jerk, AMRAP burpee, squat, run: 5 x 200m
9/11/09 - bear crawls, step ups, SDLHP, buddy carry
9/14/09 - row, rope climb, hang power cleans, backsquats
9/15/09 - heavy deads, pullups, box jumps, sprints: 7 x 200m
9/16/09 - Push Press, Tabata pushups and row
9/19/09 - "Grace" (clean and jerks)
Total mileage: 5.875 miles 

As you can see, total mileage is less than half of the distance I expected to run in the race. Also, most of my running came in the form of sprints or short intervals built into the workout. Only twice did I run 1 mile at a time. 

pre-race picture with Ditty. Will the guinea pig survive or drown?!

I'm not going to lie, I was both nervous and excited to see if this experiment was going to work. It was my first time placing myself in a faster "corral" at the start, and when that gun went off, I got passed by a good number of folks. Usually I was the one passing others, but that's because I usually started farther back. My first mile was my slowest (as always), and I had a rude encounter with an older man who pushed me. Needless to say, I was grumpy for another 2 miles until someone tapped me on the shoulder at mile 3. I turned, waiting for another rude look, but the guy asked, "CrossFit?" I was wearing my American flag CrossFit shirt and he was a CrossFitter from Ohio. We chatted for about a half mile before wishing each other luck and separating. I wish I could say he gave me some good CrossFit karma, but miles 4-7 were tough. I felt slower than I wanted to be, and my pace was just over my target. However, things started picking up along scenic Philadelphia and I felt a surge around mile 9. For most of the race I was with the same pack of folks, but over miles 10-13, I passed a good number of them (including the CrossFitter from Ohio) and finished in 1:31:37, or exactly a 7:00/mile pace. 

Chip time: 1:31:37
Pace: 7 min/mile
Place: 726 out of 12,379
Age grade: 64% (over 60% deemed "local class")

Was my time spectacular? Definitely not. Ryan Hall became the first American to win that race in 23 years with a time of 1:01:52, or a half hour faster than me. But I beat my last half marathon time by 5 minutes and ran significantly less in training. And this is the cool part. I didn't need to do a lot of running long slow distance (LSD). No 20-50 mile weeks, no long hours on the road, pounding the pavement. I worked out 19 times in 30 days and each workout took 10-30 minutes. About 10 hours of total work, not including things like warmups and cool downs. So not only did I save time to do other stuff, but here's another cool thing: given any other task, your average CrossFitter would do better than your average runner. Why? Because what we do is contantly varied, functional movements done at high intensity. We do EVERYTHING. We might not be the best in a particular category (specialist) but we're darn good at most things. I'm OK with not coming in first at the Distance Run because I can also deadlift 3x bodyweight, do 24 rounds of Cindy, and Grace in 4 minutes. (The scary thing is that these numbers are pretty average and even low for some firebreathers out there.)

Essentially, I think there are several factors that helped me finish the race quicker than I thought:
- having a good strength base from workouts
- running mostly POSE (deteriorated towards end)
- decent nutrition (we had been doing a nutrition challenge at the gym, so I was eating really clean up to the race)
- good hydration during the race
- a really good playlist


 WODing in my half marathon shirt

For a few days after the race, the bottoms of my feet hurt. They just weren't used to running 13 miles at a clip. Besides that though, I felt absolutely fine. As you can see by my following workouts, I went to the box the day after the race and set a PR on my CF Total. A few days later we had the FGB IV fundraiser and I set another PR. A year ago I would have taken at least a few days off, not to mention I would have felt drained and aching. This time, my recovery time was hours. (with the exception of my soles)

9/21/09 - CrossFit Total (combined score of 1RM deadlift, press, backsquat) Score: 755 (pr)
9/22/09 - AMRAP in 20 minutes: 115# hang power clean, 12 ring dips, 21 situps. Score: 8 rounds
9/23/09 - 500 double unders, everytime you stop, do a round of Cindy. Score: 1500 single unders and 8 rounds (still didn't have double unders yet!)
9/26/09 - Fight Gone Bad, score: 303 (pr)

The idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon piqued my interest about a year ago. The challenge of needing to meet a tough standard just to get INTO the race is what appeals to me,* not necessarily running 26.2 miles. I still haven't decided if I'm going to try and qualify, but if I do, I would change some things around.

1. I actually would get a few longer runs just to get the feet used to the pounding and running longer than a mile at a clip.
2. I would follow CrossFit Endurance programming along with regular WODs. Lots of short interval work and some tempo runs. Very few long distances.
3. I would focus on strength training (which is built into both CF and CFE) with squats, deads, etc. to increase leg strength. I would also maintain upper body strength.

*you can also run Boston by raising money for charity. A ton of my friends have done this and have had amazing experiences.

In the end, I'm not putting down "runners" or lifting up "CrossFitters." I'm not even telling you to stop running if you are training for a race! If running is your jam, go ahead and focus on that. (Hopefully you at least realize the whole "high carb, lots of pasta" is a joke and will ruin your health) As a specialist, I would expect Ryan Hall to do mostly running. However, I would also suspect doing supplemental CrossFit would jack up with strength and intensity and just make him faster.  As for me, I want to be good at everything and be prepared for anything that comes my way. I'm a generalist - a person that just wants to lead a healthy, useful life. I want to put in the least amount of time and get the most return. This experiment showed just a glimpse of what is possible.

Update: Here is a CNN article about marathon runners and the amount who have heart conditions or have even died during races. It's tragic, but I believe the chronic cardio and the high carb diet (pasta, bread) lead these "active and fit" people to their deaths. What do you think?

-are you an endurance athlete still on the LSD kick? or one that has kicked the habit?
-are you a specialist who has used CrossFit to increase your performance at your sport/game?
-other thoughts/reactions?


  1. Chris I totally agree. When I trained for the Marine Corp 10K last year and a 5k fun run this year, I hardly ran. I have to admit I did run a couple of times to get the feel, but I did no where near a "runner's training program." For the 10K I didn't even run the full 6.2 miles...the furthest I ran was 5 miles before race day. Both runs I got a PR and recovery was quick - I was totally fine hours later. CrossFit is a beautiful thing! :)

  2. Thanks for this post. I am getting ready to do the Broadstreet Re-Run (5 miles) on May 15th. As that date approaches I have been getting nervous because I haven't been able to get out and run any more than a few days a week, and some weeks not at all (like this week).
    I have limited running experience. I started running last June and couldn't even run a mile. I ran a 5K in Oct. And I joined Crossfit right after that. I'll let you know how it goes so that you can add evidence to support your theory.


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