Sunday, December 12, 2010

Running a Marathon: Powered by CrossFit

For those of you that remember, last year I ran a half marathon by doing no running other than in the WODs (Workout of the Day) at CrossFit King of Prussia. I ran 13.1 miles in just over 1 hour, 30 minutes for a pace of 7:00 min/mile. My end lesson was that if I did another long-ish run (13 miles or more), that I would get some long runs in beforehand to get the bottoms of my feet ready for the pounding. Little did I realize just how soon I would running a marathon.

I never grew up wanting to run a marathon. The thought of even doing cross country in high school was unappealing. But with CrossFit came tests of fitness, including 5ks, 10 milers, and half marathons. I'm not quite sure how the idea came about, but sometime this past summer my fiancee and I decided to sign up for the Philadelphia Marathon. Doing a marathon was always on her bucket list and she would actually be 26.2 years old at the time of the marathon. It seemed like a cool time to get it done. My friend, TP, also was going to run it as his first marathon. TP and I had thoughts of trying to qualify for Boston, but realized quickly in our training runs that a 3:10 marathon was a stretch. No big deal, a first marathon is a first marathon!

Not willing to give up CrossFit just to train for the race, I kept doing the daily WODs at CF KoP and added in one long run per week. As you can see from my schedule below, this didn't even start until 2 months before the marathon. Most traditional running programs have people starting 4-5 months out and running 3-5 times per week at varying distances. Usually these programs have the athlete running one long run per week and doing speed work or tempo runs during the week. The smart programs mix in cross training. CrossFit Endurance scraps this traditional model for a lot of interval training, strength training, and rarely long slow distances. I was not organized enough (nor did I have the time to do two WODs in one day) to do CFE, but I see a lot of value in it. Instead, I opted to go with daily WODs plus one long run per week.

Fundraiser WOD at CF Del Val. a month before the marathon. Photo by Tom C. 

Below is a list of activities done two months out from the marathon. My goal was to maintain my metabolic stamina, my overall strength, and get my feet used to the 3 hours+ of pounding. If a date is not listed, I did not work out that day. I also note the type of workout to give you an idea of which metabolic systems I was hitting.

9/21 - heavy deadlifts - STRENGTH
9/22 - row/kb swings - METCON
9/28 - heavy backsquats, deadlifts, cleans - HEAVY METCON
9/29 - 400m timed run - GLYCOLYTIC (short)
10/1 - run, pull ups, push ups, run - METCON
10/3 - 13.1 mile run 1:43 - FIRST LONG RUN
10/4 - kb swings, du's, box jumps, rope climbs, squats - METCON
10/5 - squat cleans, ring dips -SHORT METCON
10/7 - 5 mile run 36min. - TEMPO RUN
10/11 - 16 mile run 2:04 - LONG RUN
10/12 - "Hansen" kb swings, burpees, GHD - LONG HEAVY METCON
10/15 - row, squats, sit ups, push ups, pull ups - GLYCOLYTIC (short)
10/17 - 18 mile run 2:32 - LONGEST RUN OF TRAINING
10/19 - du's, heavy deads, kb swings, burpees, du's - HEAVY METCON
10/24 - 9 mile run 1:46 - RUN
10/25 - squat cleans - STRENGTH (set a 1RM of 215#)
10/26 - "Nancy" run, OHS - METCON
10/27 - row, box jump, burpees, hspu's, wall ball - METCON
10/28 - run 2x12min; 1:4:30min - CFE WOD RUN
10/29 - "Wolverine" clean and jerks, pull ups, sit ups, run - LONG METCON
10/31 - 16 mile run 2:10 - LONG RUN
11/6 - deadlift - STRENGTH
11/10 - hspu, hpc, du's - GLYCOLYTIC (short)
11/15 - 4.3 mile run 33:32 - RUN
11/18 - 2 mile easy jog - RUN
11/21 - Marathon 26.2 miles in 3:27:29 for a 7:55 min/mile pace

A few things to note. Although I would have liked to have more strength days, there were a good amount of heavy metcons where I feel like I got good strength responses. I did a total of 4 long runs with the longest one being 18 miles. I also went out for a few tempo runs in order to work on my speed. One of the sillier things I did was workout six days in a row (10/24-10/31) and ending that with "Wolverine" which is our house WOD: 6 rounds for time of:
10 clean and jerks, 135/95 
20 pull ups
100 sit ups
600m run

I ended up running 16 miles two days after that, but then needed rest. Even with a minimum schedule of long runs, the 11/6 deadlift day was a reality check. My 1RM is around 425lbs., but 385 felt heavy. Maybe it was because I was visiting a different box (San Francisco CrossFit), but I played it safe and stayed at 385 for the day. Overall, I felt like I played it safe, especially leading up to the marathon and did not workout as frequently as I normally would.

Adidas Adizero Pros - notice the minimal heel 
 Skins compression tights. I use them for CrossFit and running.
Camelbak Delaney Plus Waistpack - hydration and food

As I wrote in depth about footwear in "What Kind of Shoes Should I Wear?" I promote and encourage flat shoes instead of typical running shoes with chunky heels. Knee injuries have skyrocketed in the past 40 years due to people heel striking when they run. A flat shoe promotes natural running gait and proper foot striking. Even though this was going to be the longest distance I would ever run, I was confident that I would be fine with a flat shoe, the Adidas Adizero Pro. I wear these anytime I workout except for specific strength days where I might wear my olympic weightlifting shoes.
Another piece of equipment I use whenever I workout, and thus for the race, are my Skins. These are compression tights that are claimed to help blood flow during the workout, reduce injury, and aid recovery. Although I know there is a lot of marketing involved, I can honestly say I feel better and perform more confidently in these. So whether they are a placebo effect or not, I like them and will keep on using them. For running, I like the fact that they reduce vibrations and possibly fatigue from those vibrations. They also keep me cool in warm weather and warm in cold weather!
The last piece of equipment used was a waistpack which held my water and food (food will be discussed later.) I used the Camelbak Delaney Plus Waistpack and although I usually don't like the extra weight, it was necessary on training runs to have water on hand and during the race to carry food and my own hydration. If anyone is looking for a pack, I would recommend it, especially for the amazing water bottle which you can also buy separately. Camelbak knows their water bottles and this one is no exception. Nice sqeeze bottle that does not leak and water doesn't even come out unless you squeeze or suck on the top. If anyone from Adidas, Skins, or Camelbak is reading this, feel free to send me equipment to try out and review, haha!

WOD: 26.2 rounds of 1 mile run. For time.

The race itself went pretty well. The weather cooperated and stayed around 45-50 degrees. I got to 13.1 miles in 1:37:15 which was about a 7:25 min/mile pace. Looking at the data from my Garmin, my fastest mile was at 7, where I ran a 6:28 mile. The scenery was great, the crowd was motivating (in the city at least), and TP and I even had a girl say to us "I love CrossFit!" after she read our shirts. Even though I had never run more than 18 miles, I felt great up until mile 22. There, I hit a major cramp in my left quad. I had to stop several times, although walking was more painful than running. The last four miles were pretty painful, but people along the way were encouraging. Mentally I was in it, but physically my leg felt like a big rope that got a huge knot in it and was just getting tighter. Our support group (read: fans) were at an ideal location (mile 24.5) so the end was manageable. I ended up completing the marathon in 3:27:29, or a 7:55 min/mile pace. My Garmin said I was running (hobbling?) around a 10:00 min/mile pace the last 2-3 miles. 

 homemade shirts = lots of shout outs during the race!

Although I was sore that afternoon and the next day, it was not nearly as bad as I expected. My feet felt fine, but walking down stairs was quite the ordeal due to the quads being blown up. Two days after the race I felt good enough to workout, but had a night program at work, so it wasn't until the next day that I did. The workout was a circuit of rowing, mountain climbers, kb swings, weighted step ups, and push presses. I also did a lengthy double under workout called the Flight Simulator right after that.

 Breakfast pre-marathon: Steak, mango, olive oil, and water

Leading up to the race, I kept to the usual routine of eating. Meat, fish, fruit, veggies, avocado, nuts, seeds, oils. I am by no means completely strict, but two weeks before the race I did try to tighten things up. This meant also abstaining from coffee for a week which I did not like, but was manageable. As you can probably guess, I did not have the traditional big pasta meal the night before the race. For glycogen, I relied on the usual suspects: sweet potatoes and squash. The morning of the race, I got up early and had a breakfast consisting of steak, mango, and olive oil. These are all things that I know I digest well and enjoy eating. 
For the actual race, I had a bottle of water with some Cytomax and BCAAs (branch chain amino acids). On training runs, I found that Cytomax was very sweet, so I halved the dosage. Also on training runs, I used the standard GU gel packs, but again, they were sweet and made my stomach upset. So for the race, I ate some chocolate covered espresso beans and dried cherries. I did not eat much at all, maybe a half cup of dried cherries and only a few espresso beans. I also drank some water on the course, but perhaps not enough to prevent that cramp at 22. After the race was done, I ate a banana, some apple juice, some sliced turkey, and an orange. The week after the race was deemed "Junk Food Week" and I indulged in delicacies such as chinese food, McDonald's, and yes, even pizza. I can say that I did not feel like total crud, but I definitely noticed gaining adipose tissue, aka fat even in that week. I also was just craving real meat, fruit and veggies! 

Seconds after finishing. Fellow CrossFitter John P. had a spare coconut water for me!

In the end, running a marathon is a tough, but worthwhile thing to do. I admired those folks who kept trucking through the race, especially towards the end. For me, I don't know if another marathon is on the horizon. If so, I would definitely follow CF Endurance's program since they incorporate strength training, CrossFit, and endurance training all in one package. I would eat the way that works for me: meat (especially red meat), veggies such as sweet potatoes and squash, and fruit that is in season. I would also be careful to hydrate better during the race. Overall, I think it was a great thing to cross off the bucket list, but I thoroughly enjoy CrossFit and its constantly varied format too much to make the jump over to specialized marathon running. To me, running races, tough mudders, and other competitions are just a way to measure my fitness and to have fun. In other words, a race is not my end goal, but rather a litmus test for my physical capacity. If I can run a sub 3 hour marathon, but at the sacrifice of my deadlift dropping, or pull ups suffering, it is not worth it to me. I would rather be good at everything than great at just one thing. I'm sure there are a lot of people that would disagree, but that's fine! In the end you need to do what you enjoy. Who knows, maybe in ten years I'll have a reawakening and turn myself into a serious marathoner.

Three marathoners and their awesome friends

Have you ever ran a marathon or longer? What was your experience?
Do you come from a specialized sport or broad based program? Which do you prefer?


  1. Great post! I go back and forth all the time about running another marathon, but I think what is more important is that you keep dreaming big and exploring other types of races, sports or adventures. You may just find another true love along the way. What's great Chris, is that you always push yourself to the limit and discover... wait.. there is more! no way. :) The body's potential coupled with a spirit like yours can do great things. You my friend have a lot more in store. CrossFit is lucky to have you and is proving to build elite fitness.

  2. Absolutely true John! Being able to do challenges/races is a great way to test your fitness and have fun doing it.

  3. Great article Chris, thanks for writing this up! I am seriously considering running the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011 to raise money for the Injured Marine Semper Fi Fund. But honestly I'm am very scared of the high mileage, even though I did a half marathon with just CrossFit training and it turned out OK -- 2 hours, 20 minutes. What was not OK was not being able to walk very well that day or the next day! I need to look into the CF Endurance program a bit more, I think...

  4. hey plentus...i've been going back and forth on this for a while and wanted to post it here to get your POV. I struggle with POSE running and definitely need more instruction from TP, but in the meantime, what is your thought on running with minimal shoe/barefoot/vibrams on pavement/macadam/asphalt if you haven't yet mastered a stride that doesn't heel-strike? or even if you have? our ancestors ran without foot protection but they weren't running on paved roads. thoughts? i love my Innov8s and vibrams for WODs, to be sure...but I'm worried that for running, I'm just doing a different kind of damage to my body with the way i run.

  5. also...i don't think i have officially mentioned this anywhere, but i am really proud of all you guys for taking this on. i could never survive such a distance run (i'm way too much a sprinter to make it)...but it was great to see you guys take it on and excel! you did us all proud.

  6. Donkey! sorry for never officially responding to you. First off, thanks for the support, I know you COULD do it, but really it's a matter of wanting to or not. As for the running, I guess a few factors come to mind: how far you're running, at what intensity, your stride, etc. Pavement is hard, but I still generally think if you have the right stride, you'll be fine b/c you're not creating a straight leg that compresses that knee as with a heel strike with traditional shoes. If you were barefoot, you'd naturally avoid a heel strike, it doesn't matter if it's on grass or pavement. Of course, I don't suggest to always run barefoot; just because our "ancestors" did it, doesn't mean it's the right thing to do. (But it can be a good starting point) In the end, yes, I suggest having Timmy take a look at you with his Kodak Playsport to film and look at you in slow mo.

  7. remind me next time i see you...runners magazine did an article on the "barefoot/minimal" running trend. in favor, btw!

  8. Chris, thanks for this post. I was diagnosed with patellar arthritis a few years ago and thought I would never run long again. But through the help of CrossFit, my knee feels much better, albeit with limited mileage still. Knowing that I can run less and still train for distance is very encouraging and I plan to develop a similar plan for myself for a fall race. Thanks again.


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