CrossFit Endurance – Who is it for, anyway?

PSE cover CrossFit Endurance   Who is it for, anyway?

Power, Speed, Endurance – the reference for CrossFit Endurance athletes.

I’ve previously touched on my self-experiment with CrossFit Endurance, the pros and cons of CrossFit Endurance (CFE), a review of the CFE “bible” – Power, Speed, Endurance by Brian MacKenzie – and a few other CrossFit-specific topics in these pages. I’ve withheld anything really subjective on what I think about CFE thus far, instead focusing on tangible results both good and bad. Today, at the risk of coming off a bit pretentious, I’m going full-on blogger and giving my opinions.

If you want to run faster, you have to run faster.

A quick background disclaimer about me: I’ve been an endurance athlete far longer than I’ve been a CrossFitter. I did CrossFit (CF) on my own long before joining a box, and my experience with CF doesn’t include competition, and only about two years of formal coaching, including one season racing triathlons under a CFE program both coached and self-tailored using the principles discussed in Power, Speed, Endurance. Nothing I say from here should be construed as discouraging anyone from trying CF or CFE – I’m not a hater… quite the contrary. CF has a place in my training regimen. I really enjoy the social aspects and miss my friends from my box now that I’m no longer actively “CrossFitting” in-season.

That out of the way…

Who can benefit from CFE?

I think CFE benefits people who don’t have much background in endurance training and endurance-specific strength training. Let’s face it: the average runner out at your local Rock ‘N Roll half marathon probably started running as a sport as an adult. They didn’t receive any coaching as a runner in school (where many of us learn our sports), and likely don’t invest in any kind of coaching or clinics as adults. Running is a relatively inexpensive and extremely accessible sport: buy a pair of shoes and you’re pretty much set. That explains the majority of runners you see on the road who are heel-strikers and probably never give it a second thought.

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Coach Marc will be proud – I’m a poster boy for Pose running.

Enter CFE – the program focuses on form and technique whether you’re talking about stretching, lifting, gymnastics, or running. A certified CFE running coach is likely a Pose disciple. While I’m not a huge Pose acolyte, for the average runner, Pose is a giant leap forward. It teaches proper running mechanics that are very efficient and energy conservative, including a fore-/mid-foot strike, proper head and arm positions, and posture. The stories of CFE/Pose advocates shaving tens of minutes off their ultra-distance event times are out there and speak for themselves. (More on Pose in a minute…)

But CFE doesn’t just improve technique: it builds strength. A core assumption of the CFE program is that most endurance athletes lack strength, and core strength in particular. This is probably a safe assumption for the majority of recreational athletes out there. The guys you just beat in that Gran Fondo have probably never done a deadlift in their lives, and every remotely serious cyclist everywhere should deadlift and squat as part of their offseason strength work, at a minimum!

So, if you’re the guy that played high school football and just started running or riding bikes on a whim as an adult, yeah, CFE is going to help you without a doubt. Tailor your program to allow for adequate rest, particularly as you close on your goal event. Preferably, find a good CFE coach at your local CF box, and discuss your goals and get on a program. I have no doubt that incorporating functional strength, core strengthening, mobility, technique, and high-intensity interval training into your plan will pay big dividends.

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The mullet’s going to leave weird tan lines, bro.

CFE can also really work for the CrossFitter who wants to run a marathon or similar event. The strength is already there, mobility’s probably not an issue, but chances are (especially if you’re a competitive CrossFitter) you run like a dump truck (you can generate tons of torque, but your “gas mileage” sucks). Your CFE coach can teach better technique and make it easier to finish the distance by building off of the skills and strength you already have.

CFE works for people looking to get fit, but not build a ton of mass. Simply put, by focusing more on endurance sport intervals – both short and long – you’re going to burn more calories and reap less anabolic benefit than from focusing on lifts and strength. This is counterproductive when it comes to building mass. So, if you’re looking for a way to strip more fat without building a ton of muscle (but still maintaining strength), look into the CFE program at your box and leave the strength class for the “Sun’s Out! Guns Out!” crowd (who would all beat me into a pulp… if they can catch me!)!

Just about every endurance athlete can benefit from CrossFit in the offseason. And by “offseason,” I don’t mean “early season base building.” I mean “no formal training plan in place, do whatever the heck you want” time. For me, that’s November, December, and early January. I’ll even do some functional strength and CF work into February and March to build strength, but that’s about it. When it comes time to run, ride, and swim with effort, the CrossFit stops.

Finally, CFE is great for the modestly- or non-competitive endurance athlete seeking a social fitness outlet. If winning your competitive category isn’t your goal, CFE is worthwhile if for nothing else than the social aspects of the CF community. Some CrossFitters are over the top and talk about little else. Most are average folks passionate about fitness and seeking out their best effort on box jumps that day. Find those people, embrace them, and hang out with them. Don’t let the stereotypes scare you away.

Who shouldn’t consider CFE?

Competitive age group (or “category”), sub-elite, or elite endurance athletes. In short: if you’ve got something on the line – money, sponsorships, titles, side bets or bragging rights, personal pride – CFE probably isn’t the training program for you.

You’re already indoctrinated in training programs and have trained for several years. You understand the principles of periodization; your idea of the offseason has little to do with sitting on the couch; you know what your threshold heart rate or power is; and you know how much time you spent in Zone 2 last week; you already train to strengthen your core, do some functional strength training, and understand that recovery involves more than an afternoon nap. CFE probably isn’t going to help you, and it’s probably going to retard your progress.

Yes, I know Brian MacKenzie says it works if you’re a beginner or an elite, but I think he’s wrong (and he is trying to sell you something!).

There’s too much emphasis on strength training, and little to no acknowledgement of periodizing training based on race events and goals in his book. Left to their own devices, the average high-level age grouper or uncoached sub-elite is going to overtrain and could end up injured in a CFE program. While emphasizing recovery, there’s little discussion of how to actually do so in the book other than mobility and “take a few days off.”

Yeah, but when?

Most athletes tend to train too much. The answer to “how much should I train?” is almost always “More” for the Type A competitor. Trusting that type of recovery to the athlete usually ends in overtraining before you incorporate the intensity demanded by a CFE program. Coupled with that, most athletes don’t understand the physiological effects of their CF WOD as it pertains to how they’re going to run later that day. Deadlifting 225 for 50 reps along with box jumps is going to destroy your run or ride later that day. And when it comes down to it, which is more important: the physical adaptation in response to your fast run, or that from the deadlift?

The old adage holds true: if you want to run faster, you have to run faster.

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Competing at a high level in a Sprint tri involves running right up to “red line” for an hour or more.

CFE puts too much emphasis on strength, and that emphasis on strength takes too much out of your legs to run or ride at your body’s capacity. I struggled with this; only when I cut CFE functional strength training out of my regimen towards the end of last year did my lasting speed return. Even though I was deadlifting almost 2.5x and squatting twice my bodyweight, running a sub-six-minute mile was more difficult than it should’ve been based on pace vs. heart rate and perceived effort.

Endurance sports are largely aerobic. A “sprint” triathlon still lasts an hour. A 5K run, the shortest easily accessible endurance event out there, is roughly twenty minutes long. In order to excel at endurance events, you must train the physical systems that your body uses in them. Competitive sprint triathletes and short-distance endurance athletes run right at threshold (and occasionally superthreshold) for anywhere from 20 minutes to two hours or more (much more at the elite level). The best way to raise that threshold so you can go faster for longer periods is to train just below it. CF and CFE don’t emphasize that; ultimately you spend a lot of time training above your threshold, which can lead to breakdown and overtraining, and just isn’t as effective at training your aerobic and sub-threshold capacity.

Yes, high-intensity intervals (HII) are necessary to compete a high levels, but they should not be the foundation of your endurance training as CFE and other HII programs advocate. They just don’t work well over the long haul and subject you to more injury risk than the benefits are worth to the higher-level endurance athlete. They should be left for the one- or two-month “finishing” or “build” periods, where you’re building race speed and fitness before important events.

One more quick word on Pose technique: I believe it is very effective at teaching efficient running. Efficient running is fast running for ultra events, but I’ve found it more difficult to run with “proper” Pose technique when I have to press my pace (say, anything under a 6:15/mile pace). It may just be that I’m not very tall for a runner at 5’10” (ish), and thus lack a terribly long natural stride, but strict Pose isn’t fast enough for my needs. It may work better for taller runners, and it is definitely a step up for your average heel-striker as the principles are not flawed, in my opinion, just a little bit limiting.

Simply put, as with investing and anything, there’s no shortcut to competitive fitness. The benefits earned through CFE are achievable through traditional endurance training and likely with less risk of injury or burnout. Working with a traditional endurance coach or coached group can give you the benefits of a challenging program as well as a focus on other aspects of fitness such as technique, strength, and mobility as well.

Again: I’m a CrossFit fan. I’ll be back in a box during the offseason visiting friends, throwing down, working on a new deadlift PR, and seeing if I can still string together muscle-ups after most of a year spent away from the rings. But after years in training, a year spent trying something new, and now back into traditional methods, I see the negative impact CFE had on my training and racing last season and don’t believe it has a place in my in-season training in the future.

As with all things, your mileage may vary.

Share your CFE experiences below!

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