By T.J. Murphy
When I started digging around to understand what CrossFit was, and then came across CrossFit Endurance, I had set of assumptions that, at first anyway, clouded my initial understanding and appraisal of what it was.
I had never heard of CrossFit, so it was like renting a car in some foreign city where you don’t know the language, the traffic rules or street names. I had to let go of my bias so that I could navigate well enough to understand the difference between CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance. CrossFit, for example, is a general conditioning program. CrossFit Endurance is a sport-specific program that alternates between running sessions (with a heavy emphasis on running technique) and customized CrossFit-like workouts.
After I opened my mind enough to at least listen to what MacKenzie was saying, things became more clear, and as I’ve written about many times now, I went in to trying CFE with the attitude that I would do it 100% so that I could test it in a valid way and prove that it was wrong for me. A month later and I was ticked off at myself for not having found it sooner: It was not only helpful in shaking me free of the old patterns that buried me with injury, it was fun. Hard work, for sure, but fun because it revitalized an athleticism that I thought I had lost forever.
Since then, I’ve read a number of criticisms of CFE by coaches and experts that remind me of the early assumptions and bias I had when I first came into contact with it. This past summer, for example, in July I read this quote in an Outside interview from coach/expert Ben Greenfield, after he was asked to describe the difference between his program—Ancestral Fitness—with MacKenzie’s work.
CrossFit Endurance tends to do a lot more weightlifting. It also tends to combine a lot of weights with actual endurance training. This method reinforces improper biomechanics because you are forced to continue while heavily fatigued. It also relies upon building metabolic endurance with weights, whereas I think you should focus on the actual metabolic endurance, or HIIT training, while actually engaged in the activity you want to get better at. Use the weight room to build power, not endurance.
It’s a single quote, and perhaps edited down from a longer response that Greenfield may have given, but I think it would be unfortunate if a runner of triathlete who may actually benefit from CFE or a CFE-like program would read this interview and draw conclusions without a more thorough investigation. Because from this quote, it sounds like Greenfield believes that in CFE all of the running is intertwined within CrossFit met-cons. But as anyone who has followed a CFE program can tell you, that’s not the case. The typical CFE running schedule includes at least three workouts that are pure running workouts. You might warm up with some bodyweight functional fitness stuff, but then you move on to do your running drills and then your running workout—like a running interval workout or a long tempo run or a running time trial. In reading Greenfield’s quote, you might be tempted to think that your 5 x 1000 meter workout at the track would include stopping for sets of kettlebell swings each lap. As I mentioned, that’s not the case with the run-specific workouts. As far as the CrossFit workouts that do include running (like “Helen”: 3 rounds of 400-meter runs, kettlebell swings and pull-ups)—the doctrine of virtuosity in CrossFit requires that good form comes first. And whether it’s a run-specific interval workout on the track or a CrossFit class performing Helen, you typically have coaches howling at you from start to finish about using good form. In my many years of being a traditional runner, I have no memory of a coach every giving me coaching cues in regards to form. Only about pace. In CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance, coaching cues on form are constant and never-ending. Are their poor CrossFit coaches out there? Sure. The antidote is to make it your mission to find the best one around.
To that end, Greenfield’s quote suggests that MacKenzie’s program lacks an emphasis on good mechanics. Go to a CFE cert or work with a CFE coach, or talk to MacKenzie, and prepare to be hammered over the head with attention to good mechanics. Jumping on a plyometrics box is, within the CFE world, is first-and-foremost an opportunity to build good mechanics. Power? Sure. But mechanics come first. Mechanics are the number one priority in the CFE program. A primary reason that CrossFit-style workouts are part of the overall CFE schedule is so that you can sustain good mechanics into the deepest stretches of a race, where many runners and triathletes—even the best ones—tend to fall apart. The goal is to build good mechanics and then support the good mechanics with stamina.
I believe this assumption-problem is at the root of most of the negative media coverage on CrossFit. I think it’s fair to criticize CrossFit if you like. But what’s annoying is when you read a report or op-ed and it becomes vividly clear that the journalist or the ‘expert’ being interviewed has never spent five minutes in a CrossFit box. The comments and opinions offered apparently based on what they’ve heard or read on in other stories. There’s this weird echo chamber involved, and the truth about what CrossFit is or isn’t, and what CrossFit Endurance is or isn’t, gets obscured by a din of ranting that isn’t based on any quality reporting. My advice to journalists who have been assigned to write about how dangerous CrossFit is, or what CrossFit Endurance is or isn’t, is to spend time at least watching athletes do the workouts, or better yet try it out for a month. This is much more valuable and valid then calling up an exercise scientist to ask for an opinion—unless the expert has actually tested the program.
In the mainstream you don’t seem to ever read about the 85-year-old woman at CrossFit Santa Cruz Central who goes to her workout and then afterwards departs to go to her dance lesson. I’ve met her—she’s a walking, dancing billboard that says, “NO EXCUSES.” Or the story about a woman who is 400-pounds and can barely walk around the block who joins a CrossFit gym in San Diego and a year and a half later has lost more than 150 pounds and competes in every functional fitness competition she can get to. And you rarely (if ever) read about the fact that most people at neighborhood CrossFit gyms are really friendly, down to earth people.
Over the past couple of years I’ve been motivated to write about what I’ve seen and experienced in CrossFit boxes to at least offer a counter-narrative to the mainstream reports I’ve been seeing.
And this is the same impulse that led to my wanting to work with Brian MacKenzie on a book that accurately describes what CrossFit Endurance is and how it compares to traditional training programs. The goal was to give the program a historical, philosophical and scientific context so those interested can get a good look and a detailed plan to give it a try.
It’s written to offer guidance into a training plan both for traditional runners who have never been near a CrossFit gym and for CrossFitters who are interested in running in a distance race and need some sport-specific work to get there.
The CFE training plans are included are designed for distances ranging from the 5K to the ultra-marathon.
So that’s it. As the title suggests, a chief purpose of the book is to offer an alternate route into distance racing for traditional runners (like myself) who have become exhausted battling injuries. But it also a path for the busy professional who wants to squeeze as much performance out of the limited amount of time he or she has to train.
And finally the book is meant to help clarify just what CFE is.
In his new book, Unbreakable Runner, CrossFit Endurance™ founder Brian MacKenzie and journalist T.J. Murphy examine long-held beliefs about how to train, tearing down those traditions to reveal new principles for a lifetime of healthy, powerful running.
Unbreakable Runner includes CrossFit-based training programs for the most popular running race distances from 5K to ultramarathon.
Now available! Autographed copies of Unbreakable Runner from Brian MacKenzie!