Training for a Race by NOT Running: A Case Study

EDIT: updated with link to a CNN article about the runners and heart conditions

With the weather getting nicer on the East coast, more people are out doing the most common form of exercise: running. Some of these folks will do races ranging from your local town 5k to ultramarathons out west. On August 26, 2009, I decided to turn myself into a guinea pig. I decided to run a half marathon that was scheduled less than a month away. Not only that, but I decided that I would not run, unless the run came up in a workout at CrossFit King of Prussia. The day before the half marathon I totaled up the previous 30 days’ worth of running: less than 6 miles. The next day I was supposed to run 13.1 miles non-stop?? What was I thinking? Not only did I finish, but I set a PR and was back to working out the next day, setting two more PRs in the gym. Here is a breakdown of what I did to prepare, how the race went, and what the days were like after. 

TRAINING

The point of CrossFit is to prepare you for the unknown and unknowable. You should be ready for anything. When I read Greg Amundson’s account of attempting to run 100 miles solely on CrossFit WODs, I was inspired. I wasn’t so inspired to run 100 miles, but I decided to sign up for a half marathon and do NO supplemental running. Now, to be fair, I had run a few races before, but all included running as preparation. Here is a list of all races I had done prior to the half marathon and my results:

5/4/08 Broad Street 10 miler – 1:38:10

8/2/08 Sea Isle City 10 miler – 1:21:34

11/23/09 Philadelphia Half Marathon – 1:36:56

5/3/09 Broad Street 10 miler – 1:09:16

6/19/09 Media 5 miler -33:34

8/1/09 On Your Marc 5k – 19:49

For the month before the Half Marathon, here are my workouts and the movements involved. Any sort of running is highlighted in red and totaled at the bottom:

8/20/09 – “Rowing Kelly” (row, box jump, wall ball)

8/22/09 – walking lunges, pullups, situps

8/23/09 – hang power clean, weighted pushup

8/25/09 – run: 1600m, 800m, 400m, 200m

8/26/09 – thrusters, hpc’s, sdlhp’s

8/28/09 – row, deadlifts, box jumps

8/29/09 – Team chipper with run: 1 mile

8/30/09 – Overhead squats, pullups, press

9/1/09 – Tabata burpees, squats, hang power snatch

9/2/09 – “The Bear Complex” (barbell lifting)

9/4/09 – “Karen” (wallballs) and split jerks

9/5/09 – “Michael” (situps, back extensions, run: 3 x 800m)

9/8/09 – “Angie” (pullups, pushups, situps, squats)

9/9/09 – clean and jerk, AMRAP burpee, squat, run: 5 x 200m

9/11/09 – bear crawls, step ups, SDLHP, buddy carry

9/14/09 – row, rope climb, hang power cleans, backsquats

9/15/09 – heavy deads, pullups, box jumps, sprints: 7 x 200m

9/16/09 – Push Press, Tabata pushups and row

9/19/09 – “Grace” (clean and jerks)

Total mileage: 5.875 miles

As you can see, total mileage is less than half of the distance I expected to run in the race. Also, most of my running came in the form of sprints or short intervals built into the workout. Only twice did I run 1 mile at a time. 

RACE DAY

pre-race picture with Ditty. Will the guinea pig survive or drown?!

I’m not going to lie, I was both nervous and excited to see if this experiment was going to work. It was my first time placing myself in a faster “corral” at the start, and when that gun went off, I got passed by a good number of folks. Usually I was the one passing others, but that’s because I usually started farther back. My first mile was my slowest (as always), and I had a rude encounter with an older man who pushed me. Needless to say, I was grumpy for another 2 miles until someone tapped me on the shoulder at mile 3. I turned, waiting for another rude look, but the guy asked, “CrossFit?” I was wearing my American flag CrossFit shirt and he was a CrossFitter from Ohio. We chatted for about a half mile before wishing each other luck and separating. I wish I could say he gave me some good CrossFit karma, but miles 4-7 were tough. I felt slower than I wanted to be, and my pace was just over my target. However, things started picking up along scenic Philadelphia and I felt a surge around mile 9. For most of the race I was with the same pack of folks, but over miles 10-13, I passed a good number of them (including the CrossFitter from Ohio) and finished in 1:31:37, or exactly a 7:00/mile pace. 

Chip time: 1:31:37

Pace: 7 min/mile

Place: 726 out of 12,379

Age grade: 64% (over 60% deemed “local class”)

Was my time spectacular? Definitely not. Ryan Hall became the first American to win that race in 23 years with a time of 1:01:52, or a half hour faster than me. But I beat my last half marathon time by 5 minutes and ran significantly less in training. And this is the cool part. I didn’t need to do a lot of running long slow distance (LSD). No 20-50 mile weeks, no long hours on the road, pounding the pavement. I worked out 19 times in 30 days and each workout took 10-30 minutes. About 10 hours of total work, not including things like warmups and cool downs. So not only did I save time to do other stuff, but here’s another cool thing: given any other task, your average CrossFitter would do better than your average runner. Why? Because what we do is contantly varied, functional movements done at high intensity. We do EVERYTHING. We might not be the best in a particular category (specialist) but we’re darn good at most things. I’m OK with not coming in first at the Distance Run because I can also deadlift 3x bodyweight, do 24 rounds of Cindy, and Grace in 4 minutes. (The scary thing is that these numbers are pretty average and even low for some firebreathers out there.)

Essentially, I think there are several factors that helped me finish the race quicker than I thought:

– having a good strength base from workouts

– running mostly POSE (deteriorated towards end)

– decent nutrition (we had been doing a nutrition challenge at the gym, so I was eating really clean up to the race)

– good hydration during the race

– a really good playlist

THE WEEK AFTER

WODing in my half marathon shirt

For a few days after the race, the bottoms of my feet hurt. They just weren’t used to running 13 miles at a clip. Besides that though, I felt absolutely fine. As you can see by my following workouts, I went to the box the day after the race and set a PR on my CF Total. A few days later we had the FGB IV fundraiser and I set another PR. A year ago I would have taken at least a few days off, not to mention I would have felt drained and aching. This time, my recovery time was hours. (with the exception of my soles)

9/21/09 – CrossFit Total (combined score of 1RM deadlift, press, backsquat) Score: 755 (pr)

9/22/09 – AMRAP in 20 minutes: 115# hang power clean, 12 ring dips, 21 situps. Score: 8 rounds

9/23/09 – 500 double unders, everytime you stop, do a round of Cindy. Score: 1500 single unders and 8 rounds (still didn’t have double unders yet!)

9/26/09– Fight Gone Bad, score: 303 (pr)

THE FUTURE

The idea of qualifying for the Boston Marathon piqued my interest about a year ago. The challenge of needing to meet a tough standard just to get INTO the race is what appeals to me,* not necessarily running 26.2 miles. I still haven’t decided if I’m going to try and qualify, but if I do, I would change some things around.

1. I actually would get a few longer runs just to get the feet used to the pounding and running longer than a mile at a clip.

2. I would follow CrossFit Endurance programming along with regular WODs. Lots of short interval work and some tempo runs. Very few long distances.

3. I would focus on strength training (which is built into both CF and CFE) with squats, deads, etc. to increase leg strength. I would also maintain upper body strength.

*you can also run Boston by raising money for charity. A ton of my friends have done this and have had amazing experiences.

In the end, I’m not putting down “runners” or lifting up “CrossFitters.” I’m not even telling you to stop running if you are training for a race! If running is your jam, go ahead and focus on that. (Hopefully you at least realize the whole “high carb, lots of pasta” is a joke and will ruin your health) As a specialist, I would expect Ryan Hall to do mostly running. However, I would also suspect doing supplemental CrossFit would jack up with strength and intensity and just make him faster.  As for me, I want to be good at everything and be prepared for anything that comes my way. I’m a generalist – a person that just wants to lead a healthy, useful life. I want to put in the least amount of time and get the most return. This experiment showed just a glimpse of what is possible.

Update: Here is a CNN article about marathon runners and the amount who have heart conditions or have even died during races. It’s tragic, but I believe the chronic cardio and the high carb diet (pasta, bread) lead these “active and fit” people to their deaths. What do you think?

-are you an endurance athlete still on the LSD kick? or one that has kicked the habit?

-are you a specialist who has used CrossFit to increase your performance at your sport/game?

-other thoughts/reactions?

Robb Wolf: Paleolithic Solution Seminar


Any Paleo person worth their salt knows who Robb Wolf is. For those of you who don’t, he’s the owner of NorCal Strength and Conditioning and the average CrossFitter’s authority on the Paleo Diet. He currently runs a blog and posts podcasts that offer great information. He also used to lead CrossFit’s nutrition certifications, but has since taken to the road for his own seminars. I’ve been following Robb’s work for about two years now, so when the opportunity came up to go to one of his seminars at CrossFit Hoboken, I jumped at the chance (along with four other members of CrossFit King of Prussia: Aimee, Evan, Laura, and Dave) Robb presented the 60 or so participants with a wealth of knowledge, both scientific and real case studies and we probably could have spent a week there just asking questions. While I’m not going to steal Robb’s presentation, I do want to point out two major topics that are uber important, plus a peek at what future posts will be covering.

INSULIN
Insulin management is huge. By controlling your insulin levels, you can basically maintain and lead a healthy lifestyle well into your 80s and 90s. Robb calls it the “master hormone.” It affects major systems and parts of your body that you probably don’t even realize. The first thing you probably think when you hear “insulin” is “diet” and this is certainly true. Controlling blood sugar levels by avoiding grains and sugar will help maintain your insulin levels, but there is a lot more involved. Sleep, activity level, and leptin issues can affect insulin sensitivity. At one very extreme of insulin resistance is Type II Diabetes. Some people say things like “Diabetes runs in my family” and while there is a genetic factor involved, there are also a lot of environmental factors as well. Robb gives the analogy of a sunburn. A fair skinned person will burn more easily in the sun than a dark skinned person. But what if the fair skinned person stayed indoors more? Or put on sunscreen? Some people may “tend” towards Diabetes, but there is a big difference between someone eating a ton of grains, drinking soda, and being a couch potato and someone who eats clean and stays fit. By eating clean and managing these other factors such as sleep, we can maintain proper insulin levels and avoid “fate.”

CORTISOL
Cortisol is a stress hormone that helps regulate energy levels. A little bit helps regulate blood sugar and acts as an anti-inflammatory, but too much is detrimental to your health. Normal cortisol levels are high in the morning (to get you awake and ready for the day) and low in the evening (to help you wind down and get ready for sleep.) Those who overtrain, have sleep disturbances, are emotionally stressed, or have diet problems will compromise their cortisol levels. I’m willing to bet more than a few of you have cortisol issues for one or many of these reasons. The possibility of reaching adrenal fatigue is high and dangerous. Robb gave a personal account of someone close to him reaching this breaking point and needing to go to the hospital for it.  If you find yourself exhausted, wired as you’re about to go to sleep, caffeinating heavily, or just “off,” see a doctor ASAP. If you want to manage your cortisol levels, be sure to get enough sleep (“as much as you can without ruining your love life or your job” – Robb), do some yoga/meditation, train smart, and watch your nutrition.

for anyone that is looking for a little less science and a little more practicality of implementing clean food in your life, check out Melissa and Dallas’ Whole9 workshop, currently traveling around the country. 

topics coming soon: Neolithic vs. Paleolithic foods, how to apply these principles to performance, and more…

Robb going over some case studies

Chasing the Rx – Why, How, and When to Scale in CrossFit

CrossFit prides itself on universal scalability – the ability to adapt any exercise to any person regardless of age, weight, disability, etc.  As a general physical preparedness (GPP) program, this is beneficial because it can assist anyone from an elite athlete looking to tweak their performance to an 80 year old looking to just get out of bed in the morning. Usually though, the very nature of timing workouts and recording scores will draw competitive people to CrossFit.  While this can be beneficial for us to push each other in a positive way, I believe it’s very easy to fall into the trap of focusing solely on doing a workout as prescribed (Rx’d). While it is a great accomplishment to get “Rx” next to your name, we need to look at how you got there and if it is appropriate. If you’re wondering why you’ve hit a plateau, or why you aren’t progressing as fast as you want, this post is for you.

NOVICE EFFECT
For most folks, CrossFit is the first time in their life they have really worked HARD (if not, it’s usually the first time since high school or college sports) This can lead to big results in the first few months of training: fat loss, strength gains, and overall better health. However, you should not fall into the trap that most people do and be content with that initial progress. Mark Rippetoe, a premier strength and conditioning coach, writes about the Novice Effect in the link below.

He basically says that simply by doing hard work, your body adapts and becomes stronger, but if you do not continue to train your body to become stronger, it will hit a sticking point. If you’re wondering why you don’t have a pull-up yet, or why your deadlift suddenly stays the same, you may have hit the Novice Effect. So how do you become stronger and therefore better? Linear progression. Keep moving the weights up in small increments and do not be content with your current performance. However, we need to first know HOW to move these weights before even thinking about adding on those plates.

Link: “Novice Effect” by Mark Rippetoe 

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WHY YOU SHOULD SCALE

MECHANICS
How many of you have power cleaned before CrossFit? Or even deadlifted? Chances are, not many. Elite athletes take YEARS to learn these movements and in large part, this is all they do. Olympic lifters will do cleans and snatches every other day. We may have cleans once a week, usually once every 2 weeks. We need to focus on the MECHANICS of movements first, using light weight. Fundamentals classes cover the nine foundational movements (squat, front squat, overhead squat, press, push press, push jerk, deadlift, sumo deadlift, medball clean) but this is not enough. You should be practicing at a light weight in wods and if you have the time/money, get some private sessions in. As you learn more, you realize just how much MORE there is to learn!

CONSISTENCY
Once you have the mechanics down, be CONSISTENT. You should be able to walk in any day and be able to get the basic movement down, especially for Olympic lifts. Repetition is key. Only then can you move up in INTENSITY.

INTENSITY = THE GOOD STUFF
In CrossFit world, the name of the game is intensity. You become better, faster, stronger because of INTENSITY. Your body will adapt quicker and get stronger if you go at workouts with intensity. And in CrossFit, intensity = power. If POWER = [(FORCE x DISTANCE)/TIME], then you can raise your intensity by increasing your weight, increasing your distance, or lowering your time. But there needs to be a careful balance so that if you increase your weight or distance a little bit, you don’t take forever to complete the wod. This is the careful balance of scaling.

CrossFit.com workouts are intended for elite athletes. We don’t expect you to come in and do wods Rx’d right away. Or even in a few months. Or maybe even in your first year. Depending on your athletic background, it might be years before you do something Rx’d. That’s ok! I would rather you scale and be INTENSE on a workout that is supposed to take 10 minutes than do Rx’d and take 50 minutes. Remember, Intensity = The Good Stuff. But you can only be Intense by Preserving the Stimulus.

Let’s take Fran for example: 21-15-9 of thrusters (65#/95#) and pullups. The firebreathers of CrossFit can do this in under 3 minutes. Their arms and lungs are on fire and they can’t move for 10 minutes after the workout.  If a guy walks in the gym and wants to do this as Rx’d but takes 25 minutes to do Fran, he’s lost the stimulus. He’s lost the point of the workout. We don’t expect you to do Fran in 3 minutes, but you should scale it to get the work done quickly, maybe around 5-10 minutes. You can scale the weight of thrusters, you can use a band for pullups, you can do a rep scheme of 12-9-6.  By preserving the stimulus, you get all of that Good Stuff and will become stronger and faster QUICKER over time than you would by doing a 25 minute Fran.

Using a power calculator from Catalyst Athletics, we can make up a character who is 6ft. 190lbs and does a 95# Fran in 15 minutes.  Their power output is 63 watts. If you drop that weight to 65# and he gets the work done in 9 minutes, his power just jumped to 92 watts. He upped his intensity. The physical and neurological benefits he receives from a higher power output will do better for him than struggling through a Rx’d Fran. In other words, by dropping the weight, his body will ADAPT more quickly and therefore become stronger and faster.

WHEN SHOULD I SCALE?

 MOVEMENT
If you are unfamiliar with clean and jerks, you should scale the weight to get the mechanics and consistency down. Same goes for things like double unders. Scale the reps down to half so you can get the double under practice or scale them up and do double the amount of single unders. If you are injured and have a broken arm, do one-armed jumping pullups or dumbbell thrusters with one arm. Make it work for the intent of the WOD.

WEIGHT
Sometimes you are familiar with a movement, but heavy weight sacrifices form. For instance, “Diane” calls for 225# deadlifts. You might know how to deadlift, but if it means rounding your back, scale the weight. With that said, if the intent of the WOD is to do heavy deads, then DO heavy deads, but relative to you.

CARDIORESPIRATORY ENDURANCE
Sometimes you can handle the movement, and even the weight, but you are gassed after one round. A workout like “Kelly” is 5 rounds of running 400m, 30 box jumps, and 30 wallballs. You probably can do all of these movements, but if it takes you 2 hours, you’ve lost the point. Scale the reps to 15 each, or do 3 rounds, or a combo of those. Keep the intensity, I don’t want to see “Rx – 85 minutes” on the board. 

EQUIPMENT
Not as much of a problem for those who belong to a box, but for those at a Globo gym or home gym, you can scale equipment. For instance, if you don’t have rings, scale a muscle up to 3 pullups, 3 dips. You still preserve that stimulus of pulling your bodyweight up and pushing your bodyweight up.

Screen Shot 2015-01-30 at 10.36.47 AM

if you’re Jason Khalipa, you don’t need to scale – but he DID when he started CrossFit

WHEN SHOULD I NOT SCALE?

FORM
If you can maintain form, go for the heavier weight. It will make you stronger. Just make sure your time domain doesn’t go out the window.

TO BE FIRST
If you are simply trying to get the fastest time in the box, don’t. Challenge yourself and be honest if you can do the work. Maybe you won’t be the fastest, but you need to do what is best for you and your adaptation to get stronger and faster.

LAZINESS
Don’t ask to do 2 rounds of a 5 rounder just because you don’t feel like doing the rest. (Wo)man up and do it.

CASE STUDY – FRAN

When I first started CrossFit, I would scale EVERYTHING: Weight, reps, rounds, movements. I had to teach myself what a “clean” was, I didn’t have the strength to move anything remotely heavy, and I didn’t have the cardiorespiratory endurance to do most WODs fully. As an example, check out my Fran times and the weights used for thrusters:

3/31/08 – 5:20 @ 45# – two months after starting CrossFit
7/24/08 – 5:15 @ 65# – bump up in weight but maintaining low time (more power output)
August – took about a month off, so only sporadic wod’s
9/15/08 – 6:16 @ 65# – the time off shows in a slower time (less power output)
2/13/09 – 5:06 @ 65# – still somewhat sporadic with training, joined CF KoP over the summer and trained consistently
10/10/09 – 4:24 @ 95# (Rx’d) – consistent with training, esp. strength training

Two points I want you to take away from this. One is that unless you already come from a strength/high intensity background, EVERYONE will scale something. For me, while I could do pullups, the thruster weight was too much. Second, you don’t need to do the actual workout to get better at it. It was 8 months between Frans and I not only bumped up to Rx’d, but I dropped time by 30 seconds. Pushing the intensity is how I progressed and how a lot of people (especially firebreathers) progress. I also focused more on strength training and doing heavy, slow lifts. It’s amazing what deadlifting, squatting, and pressing can do.

HOW DO I SCALE?

You can scale a lot of different elements in a workout. Weight. Reps. Rounds. Type of movement. Range of motion. How do you know what to scale? If you belong to a box, ask your coaches. You can have a discussion and based on different criteria (past performance, 1 rep max, how you’re feeling that day, injuries, etc) you can decide what is best to scale. If you don’t, I recommend going to BrandX. Each day they post several levels of scaling for the mainpage WOD. I followed this for 1.5 years before I joined KoP and it helped immensely.

FEW ODDS AND ENDS

While I recommend scaling to keep the intensity, you should also not use it as a crutch. Figure out what your weaknesses are and work on them. For most walking through these doors, it’s absolute strength and skills. So what should you do? Supplement the WODs with strength training and skill sessions! By getting stronger (doing deadlifts, power cleans, heavy squats, etc.) and cognitively learning skills (double unders, olympic lifts, etc.) you will have that Rx next to your name even quicker. This is especially true for those of you who can’t do kipping pullups yet. While the band is great during workouts, you should be supplementing with static holds, a few negative pullups (only a few since high reps may lead to unpleasant things like rhabdo), and other strength work to build up that arm strength. Challenge yourself by using thinner bands. It may take awhile but it will be worth the effort!!

This article is not intended for all of you to suddenly go out and ask to drop weight/reps/rounds for no reason. Instead, it’s my hope that you’ll realize the benefits of scaling and be ok when a coach asks you to drop weight from a heavy barbell. You should look at the bigger picture and see value in INTENSITY. Even if you do not scale, remember that you can still strength train, do skill sessions, and reduce your rests during WODs, all to increase that intensity. So while the Rx is nice to get and a great goal to have, don’t sacrifice long term progress for short term success. The fact that you finished a workout does not matter as much as HOW you got there.

To give you some perspective, Jason Khalipa, winner of the 2008 CrossFit Games, had to scale his very first CrossFit workout: Fran. He did jumping pullups x2 and completed it in 12 minutes.

What are your thoughts on scaling? Do you chase that Rx? What are some things you need to work on to get that Rx?