CFE Tested in Outside Magazine

In the the January issue of Outside Magazine, freelance contributor Chris Solomon writes about the experience of trying out Brian MacKenzie’s CrossFit Endurance program to prepare for a marathon. Solomon mixes in reporting on the various controversies surrounding CFE as well as a basic description of what it is, how it’s meant to work and what it’s like to do it.

Brian MacKenzie, creator of CrossFit Endurance.

Brian MacKenzie, creator of CrossFit Endurance, coaching an evening class at San Francisco CrossFit.

It’s a magazine article, so there’s a problem in terms of concision. You can’t get into everything when it comes to a 3000 word article. In the Outside piece there’s very little time spent on the skill and mechanics aspects of CFE, which, if you have picked up a copy of MacKenzie’s book, “Power Speed Endurance,” skill is at the forefront of what MacKenzie teaches. More time is spent on how the CFE model includes high-intensity conditioning and running workouts, does away with easy running (aka junk miles) and shortens the classic long run into a long time trial.

The reporting hinges on Solomon’s own CFE experiment, in which he takes on a 12-week training plan to go for a PR in the marathon. He aimed to take off 25 minutes—to go from a PR in the 3:45 range to a 3:20 clocking. He went into the rather aggressive program (slicing 25 minutes off of marathon PR with only 3 months of specific training is not a conservative plan) after years in which he’d struggled with illiotibial band problems that had him resigned to the possibility he’d never run long again.

As he is quoted later on in the story, MacKenzie has become somewhat used to the vitriol that comes his way from the depths of forums on Letsrun and Slowtwitch. The forum road-rage maybe worthy of noting but it shouldn’t stop the discussion and exploration of alternative ways to train for a running race. (I mean, at the end of the day it’s just exercise. Calling someone the “Antichrist” in the discussion about running is a bit much).

MacKenzie coaching a clinic at the CrossFit Games.

MacKenzie coaching a clinic at the CrossFit Games.

Why? Well, for one thing, the traditional route isn’t universal in terms of efficacy. Solomon’s injury woes are not uncommon. In a recent issue of Triathlete Magazine, a new survey study is cited that reports 3 out of 4 triathletes suffer a running injury every year. This is triathlon—the place where overwrought runners tend to seek refuge from chronic injury problems.

In other words, something is missing or not working or both. At least for some of us (if not a lot of us). It’s unfortunate that ideas that are in conflict with Lydiard-style high-milage periodization plans are instantly deemed sacrilege. The discussion on CFE often ends with a quote like the one from running coach, Jay Johnson, who told Solomon, “Here’s the deal: No Kenyan has ever even seen a kettlebell.”

That’s the part that I find unhelpful. So elite 19-year-old Kenyan 10,000-meter runners aren’t doing met-cons. What does that prove? Perhaps no Kenyan has ever seen a kettlebell, but how many American runners grow up barefoot living at high-altitude and run back and forth to school every day on red dirt? And when we talk about elite Kenyans and Ethiopians (most in their late teens and early 20s) and sub 2:04 marathons, how much does that apply to what the bulk of American age-groupers are trying to do in running in their 30s and beyond? Is this really a discussion ender?

I think the biggest problem for the millions of Americans who run and road race for fun and fitness is the fact that almost none of us approach running as a skill, which again is at the forefront of what MacKenzie’s trying to teach and talk about. Posture, position, movement patterns, fixing the feet—whether you’re running low mileage or high mileage the two things that MacKenzie emphasizes are these: if you’re not running with good mechanics, you’re losing out on power and you’re quite possibly grinding away joint tissues with each and every foot strike. Maybe it doesn’t seem like a big deal in your first couple of years as a runner but the wear and tear adds up.

Ultimately, Solomon doesn’t reach his goal time. For one thing, the course was hillier than he’d expected and he also felt he didn’t have the juice to hold the goal race pace. He finished the marathon in 3:39. Which as a five-minute PR. But Solomon’s personal conclusion about CFE was that he likes most of it but if he trains for another marathon he’ll include more “big runs,” which I take to mean as 20-milers.

This is the main area of CFE that Solomon’s reporting shakes its head at–coaches and physiologists who point to the “law” of specificity when it comes to distance running and training for the marathon. Overall volume and long training runs.

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In a new book by Luke Humphrey, Keith Hanson and Kevin Hanson, called the “Hansons Marathon Method,” — dubbed as a “renegade path to your fastest marathon,” the necessity of a race-specific long runs as part of training is discussed. In their beginner program for the marathon, for example, long runs top out at the 16-mile mark–ten miles short of 26.2. The key physiological benefit that is required to race the marathon, the authors say, can be claimed with long runs less than 20 miles. By doing long runs significantly less than 20 or 20-miles-plus, as is often standard, the runner recovers faster and is less likely to be injured.

So this is sort of contrary to the law of specificity which loosely states that you need to train what you’re going to race. It’s fair to assume that this is why there exist marathon programs that include runs of up to 26 miles in training. And at the elite level, runners consuming 140 miles per week have been known to do two 20+ mile runs per week, and/or with a 30-mile or so run.

If you have trouble with getting injured in the first place, it’s sort of a no brainer that long runs that are 20 to 30 miles in length–on a regular basis–are probably going to make sure you watch the goal marathon from the sidelines. And this even more obvious for the older runner. Consider what the great Bill Rodgers has to say on the matter:

“I’ve tried to adapt as I get older. Because the main thing is to avoid injury. The first goal is to get to the starting line. The second goal is to finish. And the first goal is the hardest.”

The point of all this is to say that the length of the long training run for marathon training is a hot topic. If you want to make the Olympic team they may be necessary evils. American great Bob Kempainen used to crank out around 140 miles per week along with long runs in the 30-mile range. Which helped him run a 2:08 marathon (Boston 1994). But also may have had a lot to do with why an injury shut him down in the preparation for the 1996 Olympics, when a couple of months out from the event he not only couldn’t run he couldn’t as much aqua jog, and on race day he managed a 2:18 for 31st place.

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Hence, exploring other methods to prepare for a distance running race–at least those of us who are just trying to enjoy the sport–are in order. And this is why I’ve been a fan of MacKenzie since I first came across CFE: he got into endurance athletics and noticed how destroyed high-milage and long runs left him, and set out to see if there was a different way to go about it.

MacKenzie’s book, “Power Speed Endurance,” is not so much a training plan but rather a huge tool box. I think there’s some sort of assumption that MacKenzie has a “my way or the highway” attitude in regards to what he advocates for training. I haven’t witnessed that. At a CFE seminar, a CrossFit coach asked MacKenzie what she should do in working with new clients that were coming from a running background and were resistant to fully transitioning to the pure CFE program. MacKenzie shrugged and advised her put together a program that was a digestible step toward CFE rather than the whole cart and horse. “If he starts seeing the benefits of doing some of the program he’ll start wanting more.”

This is the way CFE coach and master Pose running instructor, Valerie Hunt, at Fit and Fearless CrossFit in Austin, Tex., often introduces incoming runners to the program. “One of the first things I do is assure them I’m not going to take the joy out of running for them,” she says. In teaching them the mechanics and skill drills that are at the foundation of the Pose Method and CFE, she might just have them do the drills as little as once a week to start with and allow the form and posture work to seep into their running. “For two or three weeks we’ll just integrate one day of skill per week so you don’t feel like you’re missing out on something.” It begins a conversation in which she allows the steady improvement prompt deeper interest in CrossFit, the Pose Method and the overall CFE program.

One of Valerie Hunt's CFE athletes who she reports is getting both stronger and faster--not your typical skinny runner.

One of Valerie Hunt’s CFE athletes who she reports is getting both stronger and faster.

While Solomon didn’t achieve his marathon race goal, the story he tells in trying out CFE reveals that there’s something there to be explored and gained. Here was a guy who had virtually given up on running another marathon and with just 3 months of training he not only finished a marathon but got a PR. Furthermore, in the process he went out for a 10-mile time trial–per MacKenzie’s training protocol. “I cranked out the swiftest run of my life,” he writes, “dropping nearly 8 minutes from my personal best.”

Marathon PR or no PR, that alone sounds pretty good to me.

5 thoughts on “CFE Tested in Outside Magazine

  1. Most people totally misinterpret Lydiard–not necessarily a surprise, given that the man himself struggled to communicate his methods effectively at times. If they think it means “do a lot of kinda hard runs,” they’re missing the point. It’s also worth noting that luminaries such as Percy Cerutty, who coached his share of fantastic runners (Herb Elliott the most famous), advocated nutty things like deadlifting twice your bodyweight, bench pressing, and doing snatches. The thinking behind most of CFE is sound. If you want to win marathons or big-time middle distance events, yeah, you’ll need to put in more volume at the right intensity…but pretty much anyone will benefit from getting stronger, moving properly, eating smarter, and recovering fully.

    I’ve always found it telling that in the triathlon world, you see the same names making the podium over and over again, especially at the IM distance (and perhaps for UM?). I wonder why this is–could it be that they’re the eggs who survived the throw against the wall, to paraphrase Jack Daniels?

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  5. The guy in this article already had an endurance base to start from. My concern is that you’re average Cross-Fitter is going to think that s/he can just do this and then post a fabulous time in a marathon. Good luck with that. You’ll finish but it won’t be a pleasant experience. Although I agree that most people can’t put in the 65-100 miles a week that elites do you can get by with 35-40 a week and do a respectable time. But you still need to pound the pavement and put in the miles. There’s no way around it.

    I do believe that cross-training helps a lot with running. I just don’t think it needs to be a the extreme levels that you find in a Cross-Fit session.

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