As someone who has ran a marathon or two I know firsthand the pain that is training for and finishing 26.2 miles. With that, recently, I have had a few athletes at the gym run a marathon or half marathon so my curiosity too over. Can you train for a marathon solely using CrossFit training as the preparation parameter?
Traditional Model vs. CrossFit GPP
Before I dive into any of this, its important to understand what “traditional” means. This is what most runners model their training program off of which is call the “LSD” model, also known as Long, Slow, Distance training. It revolves primarily around volume. You are preparing to run a marathon by logging in miles at a lower, aerobic based attack (around 70% of your max heart rate). A sample of this is running 4 days a week slowly then adding volume each week, ultimately building to a total weekly mileage of 40+ miles. This emphasizes the development of the “long run” which helps build up to being able to run 20+ miles, unbroken.
Here is a sample:
Tuesday: 6 miles easy
Wednesday: Cross-training, i.e. elliptical training, cycling.
Thursday: 10 miles easy
Saturday: 4 miles easy
Sunday: 20 miles easy
Contrary to this model of just doing volume to gain endurance, CrossFit focuses on three main aspects. Constant variance, functional movements at a high intensity (CVFMHI). The idea is that when structured properly, anaerobic based workouts can be used to develop a significant amount of aerobic capacity while not letting your muscles waste away with high volume, aerobic work.
So instead of building to a 20 mile long run at an easy pace, your long run might top at 13 miles. It would be at a faster “race” pace and the focus would be on improving mechanics, being consistent and intense versus “volume, volume, volume”. This allows you to recover better and less injuries due to overuse from high mileage running.
Mechanics is the key!
For the sake of brevity, Ill keep this plain and simple and won’t go too deep into the weeds of different running techniques. The main takeaway to this is the adoption of a mid-foot landing versus heel strike.
When using the mid-foot landing technique, the joints and muscles act as a natural shock absorber. With the heel strike, all the impact is jarred through your joints and puts additional stress on your body, which creates nagging, crappy injuries. Imagine dropping into a new box and the WOD consists of running and squat cleans. If you were to start cleaning the bar with a rounded back, receiving the bar with elbows down and zero midline stability, any coach worth a shit is going to immediately step in and correct your form so that you don’t hurt myself. If your running form were equally as bad, how many coaches would step in and correct you? Not many.
Yes, running is a movement that comes naturally to humans so it’s kind of assumed that you know how to do it. An air squat also comes naturally to humans too, just watch any two year old squat and you’ll know what I mean, but like running, it gets lost as we age, sit and start buying ultra-cushioned sneakers. Long story short, we should be treating running as a skill just like cleans, squats or kipping pull-ups.
Using Constantly Varied, Functional Movements with High Intensity
Now that we know the differences between traditional and CVFMHI, how do we implement what for the next race? If you have a certain time goal or want to set a new record then there is no getting around the fact that you’ll be doing some race specific training. Yes, high intensity anaerobic training will improve your aerobic capacity to a degree. If your goal is to maintain an 7:00 minute mile, then in addition to high intensity intervals at faster than 7:00 mile you also need to train long runs at that pace.
Volume is essential to prepare your muscles to withstand the pounding of a long distance run. How much should you run in preparation for a race? It’s really up to you and your personal goals. As little as 5 miles is good if you simply want to finish. Race distance, current fitness level and goals will dictate how much you should run. The good news is, if you’re already following a balanced CrossFit programming 4-5 days a week then you only need to supplement with a few additional aerobic capacity specific workouts a week.
Here is a sample:
Monday: CrossFit WOD + Strength
Tuesday: AM: CrossFit WOD, PM: Aerobic Capacity work, with 1:1 rest intervals
Wednesday: CrossFit WOD
Thursday: Rest and Recovery
Friday: CrossFit WOD + Strength
Saturday: Aerobic Capacity work only
Sunday: Rest and Relax
As Greg Glassman said, “The needs of Olympic athletes and our grandparents differ by degree, not kind.” Volume against intensity is not the subject line here. When it comes to endurance training, I do feel that a lower volume CrossFit program is the best approach for recreational runners and something that all runners can benefit from by incorporating functional movements into their training. If you’re not sure how to correctly implement drills to improve your form I highly recommend talking to one of the coaches or me and we can program accordingly.