We often tell you that the long run is the cornerstone of marathon training, and with good reason. The physiological and psychological benefits are well established when it comes to prepping for the distance.
However, the long run does trip up many runners. It could be the practicalities of finding four hours to run on days already packed with work, kids and all the other demands of your life. Or it could be that once you start ramping up the volume, your body starts shutting down. Another 26.2 dream dashed. Or is it?
Goodbye long runs
According to Brian MacKenzie, a power lifter turned ultra endurance athlete based in California, US, to go long, you have to be strong. To that end, MacKenzie, along with cycling champion Doug Katona, created CrossFit Endurance (CFE), a high-intensity, low-volume training plan that blends CrossFit conditioning (heavy, explosive strength training) with sprints, time trials and tempo workouts. Goodbye, long runs.
CFE reduces mileage to as much as quarter of that in a typical marathon programme.MacKenzie developed CFE while training for Ironman and ultra marathon events. Following long, slow distance (LSD) training while preparing for an Ironman, he experienced knee problems and plantar fasciitis. So he tried something radical.
He replaced LSD workouts and easy runs with 20-minute CrossFit workouts, a conditioning programme developed by former gymnast Greg Glassman that takes functional training to the extreme by combining power lifting, gymnastics, kettlebell training and other muscle-pummelling strength training. He kept the high-intensity speedwork found in many 26.2 plans, such as 400m and 800m repeats. It definitely worked for him.
His high-test training twist helped MacKenzie dodge injury and finish ultra marathons on less than 10 hours of training a week. So he launched CFE, believing passionately that a strong – really strong – body will carry you as far as you want to go.
A word of warning: some experts are concerned that forfeiting the long run does not adequately prepare marathoners – especially newcomers – to the rigours of extended time on their feet. However, even the most sceptical scientists acknowledge there’s wisdom behind CFE and that – like most plans – it may work for some runners.
Build your base — faster
Runners spend a lot of time talking about ‘base’ – the aerobic fitness foundation characterised by stronger heart muscles, thicker capillary webbing and improved enzyme production – necessary for optimum endurance performance. Traditionally, you’ve been told the best way to build your base is with long, slow aerobic workouts.
Yet some experts argue such adaptations can occur in less time with high-intensity runs. “If you do 400m repeats, the vast majority of energy is coming from aerobic metabolism, making sprints a very potent aerobic stimulus,” says Dr Martin Gibala, a professor of kinesiology (the scientific study of human movement) at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada.
Gibala and his colleagues found that people who did short (25-minute) cycling workouts with a series of 30-second sprints improved their fitness over two weeks at the same rate as those who rode for two hours at a lesser intensity. “Pretty much every adaptation we measured could be realised through high-intensity interval training [HIIT] and lower volume,” explains Gibala.
He acknowledges that his study reflects a short period of training. “What we don’t know is how this plays out long term,” he says. “If you have 50 runners doing traditional training and 50 doing HIIT for a full year, who turns out better trained? We haven’t done that study. But I bet they’re close.”
Build a really strong body
The other half of MacKenzie’s programme is building strength through CrossFit. Workouts average a life-friendly 10-20 minutes, and combine ‘metabolic conditioning’ exercises such as kettlebell swings, handstand press-ups and pull-ups with classic moves such as deadlifts and squats.
We know what you’re thinking, but the scientists argue that all the heavy lifting can translate to distance running. For one, it increases the force of your stride, and the more powerful your push-off, the less effort you exert with each stride, and the easier running fast feels, says Dr Stephen Cheung, professor of kinesiology at Brock University, Canada. “It also makes you more balanced and less prone to injury.”
It may also make you faster. In one study, highly trained runners who replaced a third of their running workouts with explosive, sport-specific strength training shaved 30-40 seconds off their 5K times after nine weeks compared with those who ran and did minimal strength training.
Put it together
For runners, a typical CFE workout week might look like this: three double days consisting of a strength-building session followed several hours later (to allow for recovery) by a short, high-intensity run; and one or two days of longer endurance workouts such as tempo runs or time trials. There are no easy days or recovery runs in CFE. You’re either on or you’re off.
“The act of taking real rest might be enough to help many runners improve performance,” says Gibala. “Runners often go out for these recovery runs, but they’re just making themselves tired. You’re better off reducing the total training load, getting rid of the junk and getting real rest.” It’s the tantalising promise of achieving more by doing less (at least in terms of time and distance, anyway).
Is it for you?
If you’re a longtime runner who’s feeling worn down, a programme like CFE could be just what you need, says James Herrera, owner of Performance Driven coaching and consulting in Colorado Springs, US.
“Most experienced runners have trained in the classic format for many years and have developed a huge volume base,” he says.
“If you drastically reduce volume and increase strength and training intensity, you will improve on many fronts: speed, power, economy of movement, lean body mass, as well as confidence. I’ve taken 40-60-year-old clients who’ve done endurance training for 20-plus years, cut their volume in half – though that’s still more volume than CFE prescribes – while increasing intensity, and they’ve all posted PBs, some better than their 25-year-old times.”
What’s not as clear is how well it works for less-seasoned runners, particularly those gunning for the marathon and beyond. CFE claims that by following the programme to the letter, you can compete in – not just complete – ultra and Ironman distances on just six to eight hours of training per week.
It’s an amazing promise, particularly as it includes ‘long’ runs that never exceed 90 minutes. But if you’ve never done a really long run, race day could prove challenging, says Herrera, an ultra runner himself.
“Long runs prepare you for time on your feet, pacing, mental toughness and how to fuel yourself for multiple hours – you don’t really need to eat for a 90-minute training session,” he says. “I’m a firm believer in HIIT, but I still feel a runner – especially a beginner – has to cover 75 per cent of the distance in training for 26.2 to prepare for those elements.”
What is clear is that for some runners, particularly the experienced, time-pressed and plateauing, CFE may be the key to taking performance to another level. And that most runners can benefit from some components of CFE – after all, who doesn’t want stronger glutes, more stable hips and faster times? And with the cold, dark winter days still hanging around, now is the perfect time to hit the gym and try something new.
Give it just four weeks and you should notice a marked improvement in fitness. Then you might just want to see how much further it can take you.