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?

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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

Food and Family

Even the Duggars might disagree on food and health
This past weekend a lot of families got together to celebrate Passover, Easter, spring break, or just nice weather. My family was no exception. My aunt just started CrossFit, so as we were talking about working out, the topic of food came up. Some of my family know about this blog, so they started asking questions on how to start eating healthy. Most of them do not CrossFit and are not familiar with words like “Paleo” or ideas like “grains are unhealthy.” Trying to explain the basics made me remember that people are going to be on all levels of understanding when it comes to nutrition, but it was a good reminder. 
As our gym is almost a week into our Zone/Paleo/Primal/Whole30 food challenge, some of you may be experiencing anything from fat loss to headaches. Remember that there is an adaptation period lasting anywhere from 1-4 weeks or even longer depending on how metabolically deranged you were going into the switch. Metabolically deranged? That refers to the whole high blood sugar/high insulin levels you will have if you consume a lot of grains and/or sugar. In other words, if your diet looks like “cereal, soda, coffee with sugar, ice cream, pasta, bread, etc.” then you are probably highly metabolically deranged. Blood sugar and insulin levels look like a roller coaster throughout the day.

For those just starting out, or who want to start changing their diet, just change one thing. One. Uno. 1. One single thing. This could be cutting out soda. This could be cutting out sugar from coffee. This could be cutting down half your coffee intake. Whatever it is, make it manageable. I would rather see you make small progressive steps than one huge progressive step and a fall back into old habits. Like we say at the box, “check your ego.” This goes for food too, don’t think you can do it all at once. If you are more advanced and have most of your nutrition dialed in, then yes, go for a strict lifestyle and see what tinkering you can play around with. Remember, at its core, this is a LIFESTYLE not a diet. One or two months over 30, 40, 50 years is nothing. 

If you are focusing on grains and sugar, remember that both act like crack to your body. Yes, crack. Your body will literally go through withdrawal when you don’t give it what it wants. Nicole Carroll writes about “Getting Off the Crack” in a CrossFit Journal article. Headaches, irritability, crankiness, and just plain feeling like crud are all normal because your body is craving that sugar (or grains that turn into sugar). I imagine a good amount of you are experiencing this about now. Or if you got your family involved, then they are at the point of wringing your neck now. I promise that after a few weeks you will get used to it and not feel like robbing someone for their hoagie. Just remember to stick with it and replace those things with lots of vegetables and fruit and a decent amount of fat like nuts, seeds, olive oil, avocado, etc. This will give you the carbohydrates to keep up your workout routine and the fat you need to burn for energy instead of using sugar.

So if you are starting a lifestyle change, make small steps and stick with it. You will adapt and change and realize how much you don’t need those grains and sugar. If you are trying to get others to change (like family, friends, loved ones) it might take them awhile to get used to these crazy ideas. Give it time and try not to force it (which will just turn them off even more.) Instead, let your results speak for themselves and when they see you rocking wods or not needing a “bikini crash diet,” then maybe they’ll ask you again about what you do. It’s in that window of opportunity that you can talk more freely. 

Is your family or friends curious about what you’re doing? How do you explain it to them? Same can go for co-workers.

What are you experiencing if you changed up your nutrition lifestyle? Any side effects for good or bad? Don’t forget to send your food logs to Aimee!

Check this out for tips on handling family: How to Win Friends and Influence Paleo by Melissa Urban