It’s an odd mix for a running clinic: Thirty-two muscle-bound gym owners and skinny endurance athletes gather for a two-day CrossFit Endurance Seminar in Edison, N.J. They do have something in common, however. They’re all looking for a new way to train themselves or their clients for endurance events, and in a small, graffiti-strewn garage called the Underground Strength Gym, Brian MacKenzie is trying to show them the way.
The intense founder of CrossFit Endurance, MacKenzie — built like an extra-strong triathlete with short dark hair and tattoos completely obscuring his arms — fiddles with his sleek new projector and mingles with attendees. The program, considered a miracle training cure by some, enjoys a cultlike following. It mixes running drills and skills, interval training and middle-distance, fast-paced runs with high-intensity weight training and heavy lifts like the clean and jerk, deadlift and squat. In all, CFE drastically reduces mileage to as much as one-tenth the average of a typical marathon training program.
That high-mileage requirement, along with the fear of losing a muscular build, often keeps gym rats off the endurance circuit. But in front of the rapt audience, MacKenzie and his CFE partner Doug Katona, looking every bit the two-time California state cycling champion he once was, detail a program at odds with conventional endurance wisdom. Instead of long, slow distance (what they term LSD), they promote short bursting intervals. Instead of little or no weight training, lifting is the core of CFE. With this program, athletes can run long and fast while lifting heavier than ever.
“If you’re not getting stronger and faster, you’re doing something wrong,” says MacKenzie, whose fingers are also inked with U-N-S-C-A-R-E-D, a CFE motto.
The crowd seems skeptically sold, peppering the pair with questions throughout the weekend. At least 60 times this year, MacKenzie and his stable of 10 CFE coaches will preach his gospel, from ultramarathon trails to clinics across the world. MacKenzie says 10,000 or more use CFE at no cost through its website (crossfitendurance.com) or in person at various CrossFit gyms. Not all the program’s secrets are free, of course. During 2011, more than 1,400 endurance athletes and trainers paid $595 to better understand the program through seminars like this one. Since 2008, MacKenzie and Katona have certified more than 3,000.
The End of Distance
MacKenzie began training himself and others using more traditional LSD programs for marathons and triathlons in the 1990s. His athletes saw gains for a bit, but nearly all of them soon quit getting faster, he says. Adding more distance and training time didn’t seem to help, and they were often injured for months at a time. As MacKenzie puts it, “I was sick and tired of being sick and tired.”
So in 2001, he began toying with weightlifting as part of his program. Problem was, high-mileage workouts didn’t mix well with clean and jerks or squats — dead legs meant running times were slow while weights never got heavier. Rather than eliminate the lifting, he shortened the runs to 400- and 800-meter repeats. It seemed to work, although he wasn’t entirely sure why. He and Katona constantly tweaked the protocol until 2005 when they discovered CrossFit, the popular workout program (now a phenomenon) that combines conditioning, bodyweight exercises, gymnastics and weightlifting. By 2007, they’d settled on a basic weekly program of four to six CrossFit-based weight-training sessions and three running workouts.
For years, of course, elite athletes used sprint training as a portion of their programming, but recent studies also demonstrate that high-intensity strength training also improves performance. A nine-week study out of Finland on elite male cross-country runners found that “explosive strength training” reduced running times in the 5K — and improved running economy and muscle power. And a comprehensive review of resistance-training research on elite-level athletes published in 2008 found that this type of weight training resulted in a 2.9 percent improvement in 3K and 5K times.
MacKenzie also believes heavy lifting improves endurance. “The heavy deadlift and heavy squat are the most valuable lifts,” he says. By developing new hip, gluteus, vastus medialis and other leg strength, runners can efficiently engage those muscles as part of an endurance race. “We’re developing a stronger athlete,” he says.
One of those stronger athletes, Rebekah DelaTorre, 27, recently trained for the Virgil Crest Ultramarathon using CFE, running the mountainous 50 miles in 12:04 and finishing fifth among the women. DelaTorre completed roughly eight workouts each week for a total training time of eight or nine hours. With her old training method, she says, “she would’ve spent eight hours running every weekend!” Her longest training runs leading up to the race were two separate 10-milers. Moreover, in her year of training, all her major lifts have increased, including her deadlift, which has jumped 20 percent to 210 pounds.
“I feel stronger than ever and better able to negotiate rocks and hills on the trail,” DelaTorre says. “This is a true test of how CFE works.”
Another notable athlete is Von Ralls, a 36-year-old who walked into Faction Strength & Conditioning in Memphis, Tenn., nearly three years ago, overweight, out of shape and with no running or lifting background. But with his coaches there programming CFE, he has since run more than 15 races, including several ultramarathons. In his most recent outing, Ralls knocked 39 minutes off his Sylamore Trail 50K time in Allison, Ark.
“You typically go to these races and see how skinny the runners are, and they can’t lift heavy at all,” Ralls says. “I started thinking it would be cool to try to become the strongest ultramarathoner in the world. It’s been fun.”
To that end, Ralls recently broke 400 pounds in the deadlift and 300 pounds in the squat. His press has jumped 50 pounds in six months to 180, and he’s clean-and-jerking 195 pounds, up 30 pounds in that time. He tracks his progress at liftheavyrunlong.com, where he’s also created the tongue-in-cheek “400lbs./50 Mile Club,” consisting of those who deadlift 400 pounds and complete a 50-mile race.
He’s currently the lone member.
CFE Training Camp
Care to join him? The seminar at Underground Strength Gym provides a crash course in CrossFit Endurance training. Nearly the entire first day is spent on running technique and drills based on the popular Pose Method (characterized primarily by landing on the ball of the foot and using gravity to “fall” forward in the stride) to ensure runners move as efficiently as possible.
But Day Two’s lessons demonstrate CFE’s greatest split from traditional distance training. Not one to mince words, MacKenzie, with a simple black-and-white PowerPoint behind him, begins the day by calling LSD training “an imaginary thing people believe is going to make them better.” Instead, CrossFit strength-and-conditioning workouts form the foundation of the training. Each week, adherents complete four to six of these workouts, which can include movements like pull-ups and sit-ups, box jumps, and even traditional squats and deadlifts. Often, they’re asked to complete these as quickly as possible.
There is still running, though not nearly as much as standard marathon training. The endurance portion of the program consists of three distinct running workouts each week. First up are short intervals, ranging from less than 50 meters to 400 meters, typically repeated six to 12 times with prescribed rest between them. Next is the long interval run of 800 meters, up to the rare 5K repeat. Athletes do these workouts three or more hours before or after the strength workout. (See sidebar “CFE for Me” on Page TK for a sample program.)
The final workout of the week is CFE’s stamina run, the most direct affront to traditional endurance training. This is no “recovery run” often seen in marathon-training programs. Instead, it’s either a time trial (as short as a mile or up to 13 miles) run as fast as possible or a tempo run paced at 85 to 95 percent of maximal effort for a given distance. In contrast, most LSD runs are set at 70 to 80 percent.
The final, critically important component of CFE is recovery. For a program prescribing seven workouts a week, that may seem ironic, but there are two rest days in which athletes do not lift or run at all. “You need to rest as hard as you train,” MacKenzie explains. “Unwillingness to rest is often the athlete’s biggest weakness.”
By the end of the seminar, MacKenzie and Katona were preaching to the converted. Take Christella LaRosa, a 40-year-old who has run for nearly two decades without lifting weights. Injured and tired, she’d never qualified for the Boston Marathon. After plantar fasciitis sidelined her for three months in late 2010, she joined her husband at CrossFit KOA in Cranford, N.J., for strength training. She literally wasn’t running, but after just a month of CrossFit-only workouts, her feet felt better and she shaved a minute off her 5K race, with a time of 21:50. Her interest in CFE was officially piqued. After just four months of CFE training, LaRosa cut a whopping 20 minutes from her previous year’s New Jersey Marathon time, finishing fourth in her age group at 3:35 and easily qualifying for Boston, which she ran in April. “It was mind-boggling,” she says.
Moreover, she keeps getting stronger. In the past six months, LaRosa has added 25 pounds to her back-squat max, 20 pounds to her clean, 15 pounds to her press and more than 35 pounds to her deadlift.
CFE for Me
Once an athlete’s strength and skill is established, here’s what one perfect week of CrossFit Endurance training might look like. Every athlete is different, so weights and distances should be scaled or changed based on ability and how the body responds to the program.
Back Squat: Do 5 rounds of 2 repetitions each. (Rest as needed between rounds.)
Rest 10 minutes, then do 9-6-3-rep rounds for time:
Push-Jerks (185 pounds for men, 125 pounds for women)
Morning Run: Do between 4×400 and 10×400 meter intervals. Rest 1:30 between each repeat. Hold all repeats within 3 to 5 seconds.
Three-plus hours later, do As Many Rounds as Possible (AMRAP) in 5 minutes:
5 Squat Clean and Jerks (135 pounds for men, 95 pounds for women)
10 Ring Dips
Rest 3 minutes, then do AMRAP in 5 minutes:
10 Deadlifts (135 pounds for men, 95 pounds for women)
50-40-30-20-10 repetition rounds for time:
Max-Effort Back Squat: Work up to a 3-rep max or 1-rep max.
Rest 10 minutes, then, on the minute for 12 minutes, do 2 deadlifts at 70 percent of 1RM and 7 burpees.
Three-plus hours later, covering as much distance as possible, run 1 minute, rest one minute; run 2 minutes, rest 2 minutes; run 3 minutes, rest 3 minutes; run 4 minutes, rest 4 minutes; run 5 minutes, finish.
5K Time Trial