Can CrossFit Endurance Improve Your Runs?

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The long run is the cornerstone of marathon training, yet it trips up many runners. You may be one of them: Once you start amping up the volume, your body starts shutting down. Another 26.2 dream dashed. Or is it? According to Brian MacKenzie, a power lifter turned ultraendurance athlete based in southern California, to go long, you have to be strong. To that end, MacKenzie, along with partner and two-time California state cycling champion Doug Katona, created CrossFit Endurance (CFE), a high-intensity, low-volume training plan that blends CrossFit conditioning (i.e., heavy, explosive strength training) with sprints, time trials, and tempo workouts. Goodbye, long runs. CFE reduces mileage to as much as one-quarter the average of a typical marathon program.

More: How to Train for Your First Marathon

MacKenzie developed CFE while training for Ironman and ultramarathon events. Following long, slow distance (LSD) training while preparing for an Ironman in 2004, he experienced knee problems and plantar fasciitis. So he did something radical. He replaced LSD workouts and easy runs with 20-minute CrossFit workouts, a conditioning program developed by former gymnast Greg Glassman that takes functional training to the extreme by combining power lifting, gymnastics, kettlebell training, and other blisteringly hard strength training. He kept the high-intensity speedwork found in many 26.2 plans, like 400-and 800-meter repeats. It worked for him—his high-test training twist helped MacKenzie evade injury and finish ultramarathons on less than 10 hours of training a week. In 2007, he launched CFE and remains vehement that a strong—really strong—body will carry you as far as you want to go.

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Some experts are concerned that forfeiting the long run does not adequately prepare marathoners—especially newcomers—to the rigors of extended time on their feet. However, even the most skeptical 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—characterized in part by a stronger heart muscle, 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.

More: How to Build Your Base for Peak Performance

Yet some experts argue such adaptations can occur in less time with high-intensity runs. "If you do 400-meter repeats, the vast majority of energy is coming from aerobic metabolism, making sprints a very potent aerobic stimulus," says Martin Gibala, Ph.D., professor of kinesiology at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Gibala and his colleagues found that people who did short (25 minutes) 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 realized through high-intensity interval training (HIIT) and lower volume."

More: 3 Interval Training Plans to Build Fitness Fast

Gibala 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 training for one full year, who turns out better trained? We haven't done that study. But I bet they're close."