Confusing What “Can” Work with What Works Best: Revisiting Crossfit Endurance

Last week I posted an article that shows why CrossFit Endurance is not an effective training program for runners.

If you haven’t read it yet then you should before reading this post.CrossFit

I received a lot of criticism and negative comments (which I expected). You can also read this rebuttal article from 2:38 marathoner and author T.J. Murphy.

Today I want to respond to the main arguments from the comments of the first post and from the rebuttal piece by Murphy.

“It worked for me!” and “It worked for ______.”

This argument is completely irrelevant because it confuses “what can work” with “what works best.”

What works best is what elites are doing today and what average runners like you and me should model (scaled back of course). More on this later.

I can take a month off from running and run a 5:00 mile. Does that mean my training program of taking a month off “works?” Of course not.

This entire debate boils down to a physiology lesson. If I want a desired adaptation (say, the ability to run a fast marathon), how do I design training that elicits that adaptation? You train like a runner, not like a CrossFit Endurance athlete.

Consider that the “endurance” that CFE builds is through HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) and Tabata Sprints. But unfortunately, these methods only boost VO2 Max, which does not translate to improvements in performance. They are completely different.

I’ll quote directly from Vollaard et al (2009):

Moreover, we demonstrate that VO2max and aerobic performance associate with distinct and separate physiological and biochemical endpoints, suggesting that proposed models for the determinants of endurance performance may need to be revisited (pg. 1483).

“You have no injury rate data” and “CrossFit doesn’t hurt people – people hurt people!”

This is another irrelevant argument. If you look at the structure of CFE workouts, they are inherently dangerous. They are poorly designed and disregard the proper structuring of workouts according to accepted training design principles.

So yes, CrossFit does hurt people. That’s because bad workouts hurt people and CF includes a host of bad workouts.

Power exercises like the clean, snatch, dead lift, or squat (and any other Olympic lift) should never be done in a timed environment. They should never be included in an AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) workout because form and technique are paramount to injury prevention.

You’ll never see an Olympic weight lifter performing these lifts for speed because it’s irresponsible and downright dangerous. You’ll see this only in CF workouts (and every strength coach thinks it’s dangerous – see page 5 here).

When I see high reps of a power exercise, I’m not only concerned for other’s safety, but I’m confused. Why use an explosive exercise that focuses on power development in a way that trains endurance? That’s the wrong way to get strong.

There are much safer and effective ways to do this (back to the what works best argument!).

“You don’t understand the CFE program” and “CFE workouts are scalable.”

The program is public on the CFE website and I spent more time than I care to remember looking at the CFE workouts. I was flabbergasted because they clearly violate the basic principles of training design for endurance runners.

They do not include high volume running. Here is the specificity argument again (which curiously was not addressed in the rebuttal piece linked to above – and is the most important criticism).

There is no logical sequence of workouts (general to specific, volume to intensity, and simple to complex). You can see that plainly in this plan. Again, this is training theory 101.

There is no shift in themes that dominate the primary focus of the training. It’s all intensity, all the time.

Don’t forget that the scalability argument is irrelevant. If poor workouts are scalable they’re still poor workouts.

Finally, while pure CrossFit is different than CrossFit Endurance, look at this gem of a quote by Greg Glassman, the founder of CF:

“We’re asked for workouts for baseball, karate, swimming, dance, boxing, but they all get the same thing: CrossFit.”

See the full article. But CFE is different you might say! Of course it is – it’s for runners.

So once you start doing CFE and you have a marathon coming up, you do the WOD (Workout of the Day) on their website. But so does the 5k runner. And the half marathoner.

There’s no customization based on the event. And adding some time to a workout is not scalability for longer events…

“Average runners can’t train like elites.”

This argument makes me laugh because it assumes that Joe or Jane Jogger (like me) has to train exactly like an elite runner. That’s not the case (though most of us can come pretty damn close). T.J. Murphy, says:

The world-class distance runner runs 2-3 times per day, doesn’t have a day job, gets a massage as often as possible, isn’t in it for health and fitness but either for glory and/or for money. Elite mileage levels can get in the range of 140 miles per week. In some cases more. And time in the gym is part of it, too. The ones who can afford it have coaches, chiropractors and massage therapists.

Pro runners have resources that you and I don’t like an entire team of coaches, physical trainers, and other medical staff to help them achieve their best.

Even though CFE has you train twice a day, I won’t get into that. This isn’t a time or resources argument.

Again, we come back to science, physiology, and sound training design. Elite runners train a particular way because it’s the most effective at eliciting the specific fitness adaptations they’re looking for: the ability to run fast over 5k – ultramarathon.

And average runners like me and you can absolutely model their training. And we should – because it’s what works. If you have a time goal, then you have to specialize.

Just see the training outlined in the books of great coaches:

I’m no elite runner. But I ran in high school and college and I know how many schools, colleges, and universities train their distance runners. None use CFE.

Murphy is again confusing what “can” work with what works best.

If you have no time to train and want to do CFE then go for it. But just understand it’s not what decades of research into the training of distance runners has said is ideal.

And keep in mind that every daily CFE workout I’ve looked at includes two workouts. You’re doing double sessions every day – so much for time-saving!

Brian Mackenzie, Founder of CFE

Let’s use one fun case study to wrap up. Let’s talk about the man himself: Brian Mackenzie.

Mackenzie is the creator of CrossFit Endurance. And he has quite the history with using CFE in endurance sports:

  • April, 2008: Mackenzie declares that he will attempt to finish in the top 10 at the Badwater Ultramarathon and CF Games that same year.
  • July, 2008: Mackenzie DNF’s (Did Not Finish) the CrossFit Games.
  • April, 2009: The “100 Mile Movie” project, which documents Mackenzie’s attempt to complete 100 mile races using CFE ends in failure. Mackenzie does not complete any 100 mile races.
  • June, 2009: Mackenzie refuses to complete a qualifying race for the Western States 100. He asks permission to skip the qualifier and is denied.
  • November, 2009: Mackenzie DNF’s the Quad Dipsea (a 28.4 mile ultra)
  • July, 2010: Mackenzie fails to complete a 41-mile run through Badwater.
  • June, 2011: Competitor Magazine claims Mackenzie has completed the Badwater Ultra. No record of Mackenzie exist on the Badwater website.
  • July, 2011: Mackenzie writes an article claiming that peaking for an athletic event is a waste of time. This goes contrary to all exercise science.

For more information on this wacky world, see the CrossFit White Pages

The background on Mackenzie further illustrates periodization and how training design works. Before he developed CrossFit Endurance, he was a triathlete. And not just any triathlete: an Ironman triathlete (though to be honest, he wasn’t very fast).

So what happens when an athlete builds a base over years of cycling, swimming, and running and then focuses on the intense work like CFE? They get faster!

He had a good year in 2006, finishing two ultramarathons. Mackenzie uses his finishes at the ’06 Western States and one another ultra (I forget offhand) as proof that CFE works. But then look at his progress after 2006…

This is a long-term example of a taper. But you can’t taper forever. And Mackenzie’s history of DNFing at endurance events is indicative of just how successful CFE can be for runners.

So What Should You Do?

Again, I can’t recommend Steve Magness’ article enough on the fallacy of CFE. As an admitted science geek with a Master’s in Exercise Science, he can geek out on the real science more than I. Most of your objections – if you still have any – will be answered there. I’ve pulled several concepts from him in both of my CFE articles and can’t thank him enough.

The bottom line is that runners need to train like runners because it’s the most effective way to train. This is a science debate and CFE has no studies that indicate it’s superior – or even on par – with current training methods.

If you want to train for a race using CFE  I can’t agree that it’s the best training for you. But if that’s the only way you’ll train, then do it. I’d rather see more people running than not running at all.

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