Why Squats Are Good For Runners

Two examples of how CrossFit Endurance can produce runners who are into high-performance and injury resistance: Valerie Hunt (left) and Jennifer Yeargain Fisher.

Two examples of how CrossFit Endurance can produce runners who are into high-performance and injury resistance: Valerie Hunt (left) and Jennifer Yeargain Fisher, both from Austin, Texas.

Last year, Runner’s World put forward the following questions to explore:

Is CrossFit a good supplement to running? A replacement for running? A small study conducted in Alabama provides some useful real-world information on what happens physiologically during a CrossFit workout.

In the article, Scott Douglas discusses an ACSM study conducted with nine subjects performing a CrossFit workout known as “Cindy”: It’s a 20-minute AMRAP—As Many Rounds As Possible—of the following circuit: 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 bodyweight squats (also called air squats).

It’s a quick read—378 words—and comes to the following conclusions:

This study suggests that this CrossFit workout gives reasonably fit adults who are accustomed to that mode of training a decent 20-minute workout. That’s not the same, however, as saying that it’s equivalent to a steady 20-minute run. If you’re training to run faster, the specificity of your workouts becomes more important than for people aiming for general fitness. If you’re one such runner, consider workouts like the above CrossFit session more a supplement to your running than a replacement.

And this:

You might burn more calories doing 20 minutes of intense CrossFit work than in running easily for 20 minutes, but you can probably burn more total calories from easy running, simply because you can sustain the activity for longer.

What this analysis reveals, first of all, is a common misunderstanding of why a workout like Cindy would appear in a Brian MacKenzie/CrossFit Endurance training program—like the schedules published in Unbreakable Runner.

The first misunderstanding, or assumption, is that MacKenzie’s number one purpose having a runner perform Cindy is to exact a training effect on the energy systems (Douglass hinges his analysis on the VO2max measure of intensity collected by the researchers). Another misunderstanding, or what I believe is a black-and-white mistake, is the assumption that a workout comprised of pull-ups, push-ups and squats is not specific to running.

The reason that a CrossFit workout like Cindy is part of a CFE program is, in fact, directly related to improving running performance.  Here’s a basic review of how:

For one thing, it directly helps improve running mechanics and your ability to use good mechanics for a long stretch of time. To understand how, let’s say you’re performing Cindy at a gym and you’re either being coached by the likes of Brian MacKenzie, whose training programs are described and presented in Unbreakable Runner, or Kelly Starrett, whose mobility standards for runners are presented in the book, Ready to Run. As anyone else who either has been in a seminar or class conducted by either of the these two guys, you vividly know the following: You won’t be allowed to get far into the workout unless you’re performing the pull-ups, push-ups and squats with extremely good form and attention to core-to-extremity flow of power. If you think it’s about going as as hard as possible to crank up your heart rate at the expense of form, you’ll be pulled aside for a discussion. In other words, you will be hounded to start each movement with an engaged, stable posture, with the core muscles fired to support your spine and also enable the best possible flow of power from the large muscles surrounding/supporting the trunk to the limbs, and to keep the movement quality up throughout the workout. 

Hence, a classic calisthenic like a push-up is not just some way to build up your arms and pecs—rather, when performed correctly, each push-up is small step toward improving your capacity to perform work while maintaining an ideal position. If you’re seen doing a pushup with you midline positioning “broken,” as MacKenzie and Starrett would say, you will be stopped and given a stepping-stone target that will get you on the royal road to doing a push-up unbroken. Each repetition of each push-up, pull-up and squat then becomes a form of skill practice—First and foremost, establishing and maintaining a good, braced spine, and second, setting a groove for good patterns of movement. In the squat, for example, in each repetition, you want your feet correctly placed and your knees following ideal paths—not reaching out over the toes or caving inward, and learning how to use your hamstrings and glutes to do the work. This is where things become specific: In this 20 minutes of a workout that includes multiple sets of 15 air squats, sure, there’s a cardiovascular/stamina workout involved, but more valuable is that you will have practiced good mechanics, good, health, powerful patterns of movement, improving the coordination, strength and power that these patterns of movement can bring to your running. Key value? When you run, you will be better able to access the posterior chain into your running, which means more power, more endurance, more aptitude in running with good form, more performance and less strain on the joints.

Starrett considers it so critical for a runner to be able to perform a squat well, and show stamina in performing good squats, that it is one of his 12 prerequisites in being full prepared to run the way your body was designed to run.

Although historically doctors have cautioned athletes against the use of squats in training, suggesting they have adverse effects on the knees, research indicates that if you perform squats well—as MacKenzie and Starrett insist you do—that squats reduce the chances of injury.

With that in mind, how does Cindy compare to an easy 20-30 minute run? The virtues of Cindy become more apparent when you set it side-b-side to someone executing an easy run with sloppy, knee-dissolving mechanics. Rather than pounding away your connective tissues with another dose of mileage, you are giving yourself a break from that pounding. Also, rather than practicing another 20 minutes of junky running style—further ingraining bad movement habits—you are building a foundation for better running mechanics.

And finally, I’d just like to mention that anyone who has spent some time learning how to do CrossFit-style movements well and then has went on to advancing the amount of intensity they can apply: it’s an extremely valid workout.  Before any writer or editor spurns the idea, I would recommend trying it so that you really know what you’re talking about. The  training impact of a workout like Cindy goes beyond “calories burned.” It can be a bloody long, challenging 20 minutes. The reason CrossFit workouts are short in length and high on intensity is that this mixture enables a high-spectrum metabolic wallop that has favorable adaptations going beyond simply improving the oxidative energy system. Adaptations including increases in natural testosterone and human growth hormone production, increases in bone density and improved fat burning efficiency (and, as it follows, body composition).

This leads me back to a key assertion made by Douglass:

If you’re training to run faster, the specificity of your workouts becomes more important than for people aiming for general fitness.

Here’s where I have a deep disagreement with Douglas. The notion that pursuing optimal health is somehow at odds with pursuing performance. While hard training can and should be exhausting, a smart, disciplined runner does what he or she can to seek and maintain good health—through diet, hydration, sleep, mobility work and improving running skill.

So why should a runner supplant a junk-mileage run with a workout like Cindy? Because rather than pounding out more miles  on the sidewalk and slowly grinding away toward yet another injury, you’re choosing to train effectively, without the excess pounding, and in a way that builds skill and a body that is going to be more resilient for your running workouts.

And the injured runner and oft-injured runner is going nowhere in terms of their training or performance. Overall health is foundational to fast running.

Unbreakable Runner: Unleash the Power of Strength & Conditioning for a Lifetime of Running Strong
T.J. Murphy and Brian MacKenzie
Foreword by Dean Karnazes
Paperback with tables and illustrations throughout.
6″ x 9″, 224 pp., $18.95, 9781937715144
CrossFit™ is a trademark of CrossFit, Inc.

Brian MacKenzie is a strength and conditioning coach and the creator of CrossFit Endurance™, which specializes in movement with an emphasis in running, cycling, and swimming mechanics. MacKenzie and his program have been featured in Competitor, Runner’s World, Triathlete, Men’s Journal, ESPN Rise, The Economist, Outside, and Tim Ferriss’s best seller The 4-Hour Body. He has consulted with several athletic teams, including the 2012 Western Athletic Conference Champions San Jose State Women’s Swim Team. Learn more at www.crossfitendurance.com.

T.J. Murphy is a veteran journalist, endurance athlete, and CrossFitter. He is digital editorial director of LAVAMagazine.com and former editorial director of Triathlete, Inside Triathlon, and Competitor magazines. He is author of Inside the Box: How CrossFit® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body. His writing has also appeared in Outside magazine and Runner’s World. He is a five-time Ironman® finisher and a 2:38 marathoner. Learn more at www.tjmurphy.net.

Unbreakable Runner: CrossFit for RunnersIn their 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!

Find Unbreakable Runner in your local bookstore, CrossFit gym, or from these online retailers: VeloPress, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Chapters/Indigo, your local bookstore

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4 thoughts on “Why Squats Are Good For Runners

  1. Cool post TJ. It’s a tough idea to get across to “track people” – as I like to call them – that they can save some mileage on their legs and replicate the key running positions and principles by practicing movements like squats, pistols, and handstand balancing and walking.

    If I may piggy-back on your post a bit, I actually think the weight room is not only a good place to practice the things you mentioned, but the BEST place. I don’t think it’s a great idea to think about foot position, or shoulder placement, or midline stability while running. Those are best addressed in things like box jumps, push-ups, and kipping pull-ups. In running, Pose, Fall, Pull should take up a majority of your thoughts. But during CrossFit workouts (or whatever workouts you do), you can spend a lot of time emphasizing a positional fault that occurs in running. I actually wrote a mini post on this back in the summer. Check it out if you get a chance.

    http://championsclub.squarespace.com/home/2014/7/14/movement-shapes-pt-12-connected.html

  2. Pingback: 10 – 16 Nov | WOD Words

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