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Courtesy of Elle Metz/MEDILL

The Chicago Area Runners Association's annual marathon super clinic offers runners training tips.

Chicago Marathon starts now - Choose your training regimen

by Elle Metz
Jun 4, 2014

CrossFit Endurance 1

Courtesy of Elle Metz/MEDILL

CrossFit Endurance coach Dan Hollingsworth demonstrates proper running form - pulling your foot up using your hamstring rather than pushing off the ground

CrossFit Endurance 2

Courtesy of Elle Metz/MEDILL

CrossFit Endurance athletes training for a marathon run two-three days a week, but stress weight lifting. The runs include speed intervals and tempo runs.

CrossFit Endurance 3

Courtesy of Elle Metz/MEDILL

CrossFit athletes do a combination of Olympic lifting, gymnastic exercises and explosive movements, like burpees.

 “We’re not here to tell you that they’re wrong,” Dan Hollingsworth says. “We’re just here to tell you that there’s another way.”

In fact there are many other ways to train for a marathon. But the ‘we’ in this case refers to CrossFit Endurance – an offshoot of popular weight-training phenomenon CrossFit – and ‘they’ encompasses a variety of traditional long-distance running programs.

Over the past few years, everyone from shoe manufacturers to nutritionists offered tips to prevent running injuries and enhance race performance. One new method is CrossFit Endurance, which has spawned hundreds of teams across the world, and flips traditional race training on its head. Runners should focus on weight training rather than increasingly long runs, supplementing with only a few mid-length runs a week, CrossFit trainers say. With Chicago Marathon training about to begin, what is the best way to ensure a top performance?

At a garage-turned-CrossFit-gym on the outskirts of Naperville, Hollingsworth, a CrossFit Endurance coach, is teaching a weekend seminar on the program’s training philosophy and techniques. The attendees range from a former college football player who has never run more than a mile at once to a multi-time Ironman. All are CrossFitters and all are looking to improve their performance for various races.  

CrossFit Endurance programs focus on three aspects of training, Hollingsworth says. In order of importance, they are technique, intensity and volume. When training for a marathon, the program emphasizes good running form and recommends four to six days of CrossFit workouts and only two to three days of running per week. Traditional running programs focus more on running volume, with most plans increasing mileage every week.

Runner’s World’s intermediate marathon plan, for example, has an average of 26-51 miles per week. While popular coach Hal Higdon’s novice program has four days of running each week, including a long run. His intermediate and advance programs increase from there: “We go from four to five days a week running to six days a week running,” Higdon says. “I've probably had about a half million people train for the marathon using my program."

Over the past 15 years, the total number of U.S. marathon finishers has grown by an average of 2.5 percent every year, according to Running U.S.A.’s 2013 Annual Marathon Report. This number reached an all-time high in 2011 with 518,000 Americans completing a marathon. Consistently one of the largest races, last year’s Chicago Marathon had more than 39,000 participants. And yet, 70 percent of runners will experience an injury at some point, according to the American Academy of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation.

CrossFit has been criticized for causing injuries of its own, related to the rigorous weight-lifting. “CrossFit & CrossFit Endurance are both programs with a foundation in proper movement mechanics. Proper, efficient movement is typically the best way to prevent injuries,” says CrossFit Endurance Director of Training PJ Newton. “The research actually shows that over 85 percent of runners and endurance athletes following a traditional 'long, slow, distance' volume-based training plan report an injury each year.”

CrossFit Endurance seeks to reduce this injury rate and enhance performance. Hollingsworth – who has a bachelor’s degree in exercise science and a master’s degree in physical therapy – is a multisport athlete. “If it was in the endurance community, I kind of dabbled in it,” he says. At first, he was skeptical about CrossFit Endurance too.

“It’s not swimming, biking and running so how’s it going to help me?” he recalls thinking when he first heard about the approach to triathlon training.

So he decided to put the program to the test by using it to train for a 50-mile race. During training, his longest run was 12.5 miles. Hollingsworth says the race was “honestly the most painful thing I’ve done in my life.”

He finished in the top 25 percent, though, and was back in the CrossFit gym two days later. Hollingsworth was hooked. Not everyone is convinced though. “To become a better runner, the best way to get faster,” says Chicago triathlon and running coach Nick Larsen, “is to run more." He recommends running between 40 and 80 miles a week when training for a marathon.

Twenty-seven-year-old Brandon Mull of Chicago runs weekly distances that would take him from Chicago's South Side all the way to Milwaukee. He placed 23rd in last year’s Chicago Marathon, completing the 26.2 miles in 2:18:14 – a blistering 5:17 per mile pace. Mull follows a traditional high-volume training program. For 16-17 weeks before a marathon, he runs at least 50 miles per week. “At my peak, I will hit 110 miles” in a week, Mull says. “By and large, a good volume base is really important.”

However, CrossFit Endurance’s training plan, Hollingsworth says, decreases unnecessary mileage and time spent exercising. Instead of pounding out multiple long runs, CrossFit Endurance athletes weight lift and do explosive strength exercises like burpees. When they do run, they do speed work or a tempo run and never run more than two hours in one week. Many runners will spend at least four hours completing one marathon though, which is why this low-volume approach is difficult to understand.

Higdon has been working with the Chicago Area Runners Association for decades and has been recommending the same basic “18-week program that still using today,” he says. “So it's really been a fool-proof program.” Most serious marathoners that Mull encounters “are running at least 90 miles a week at the peak,” he says. And some run as many as 120-130.

Mull has a much more relaxed approach when it comes to strength training and does core exercises two to three times a week. “Just general fitness is the key,” Mull says. Maintaining an ideal weight for running a marathon is also important, he says. When you’re running for 26.2 miles, every extra pound could slow you down.

At the CrossFit Endurance seminar, one attendee – a former Ironman – brings up the weight issue. He says he’s put on a few extra pounds since his racing days and asks how that will affect his performance. This is one main difference between running and CrossFit – runners are associated with a slim frame while CrossFitters pack on muscle for a more solid figure. Intuitively, you wouldn’t expect a heavier frame – even one of solid muscle – to run faster.

“You can still be a pretty darn fast efficient runner even when you’ve put on mass,” Hollingsworth says.

There is a difference between fast and efficient though. “Too much cross training is gonna weigh you down,” Larsen says. “You start to build up upper body too much.” This extra muscle can actually hinder runners, he says, but CrossFit Endurance says its workouts add power and explosive speed – two endurance essentials.

So what is the optimal level of cross and strength training for marathoners? The answers vary. But runners often neglect strength exercises in favor of running more miles, and this can contribute to injury. “You’re running 100 miles a week, you’re gonna have some issues,” – like hamstring tightness and lower-back pain – “these are issues that I had before I started doing my strength training program and learning more strength-based workouts so it could supplement my running,” Larsen says.

His runners do exercises using their own body weight and cardio-based cross training, such as swimming. CrossFit Endurance athletes, on the other hand, are in the gym four to six days a week, lifting hundreds of pounds at a time.

In addition to running too many miles, CrossFit Endurance says many runners experience injury because of poor running form. At the seminar, Hollingsworth teaches attendees proper form through different exercises – this “pose” running form is a big part of CrossFit Endurance’s philosophy. The basic idea is to “use gravity to our benefit,” he says, “we want you to embrace falling.”

He demonstrates how to strike a “figure four” position with one leg bent and the other striking the ground directly beneath him. Then he leans forward and falls slightly, switching legs and returning to the figure four position. “If we focus on pose, fall, pull, we’ll fix 80 percent of the problems we see,” Hollingsworth says.

Larsen too teaches correct running form, and his technique is very similar to Hollingsworth’s – a combination of good posture, leaning forward slightly from the ankles and landing on the forefoot.

CrossFit Endurance’s website shows more areas of overlap between its program and traditional training – videos on hill running and cadence, for example. When it comes to the difference between CrossFit’s and typical marathon programs, as Hollingsworth noted at the beginning of his seminar, Endurance is simply another way to train.

One hundred and twenty miles a week or two hours, “it’s finding what works for you,” Mull says.