Just 19 years old and a freshman in college, Elena Luna owned a pair of running shoes but her attempts to put them to use over the years had failed to stick. Luna had grown up in Odessa, Texas, in a family where being overweight was common.
“The majority of my life, I’ve been obese,” she says.
Once obese, Elana Luna used the CFE approach to become a runner and athlete.
She has bright, brown eyes and expresses herself with a boundless sense of enthusiasm. But Luna’s weight was teetering near 225 pounds. She wore size 18 pants. and XL tops. Not unlike a growing percentage of Americans, her weight dominated her existence. This is not just a matter of appearance, but health. For Elena and others struggling to shake free from the grip of obesity, a life as a Type 2 Diabetic lay in wait. The excess fat complicates the insulin system of the human body, and sugar from meals ultimately pools in the blood, unable to enter cells because of hyperinsulinemia. The prospects for Type 2 diabetics are grim: Elena would face problems with fatigue, and infections that would linger because of a compromised immune system. That’s just the beginning of a long decline in health with the most serious potential consequences being in the realm of chronic disease. Some 26 million Americans have diabetes in the USA, and nearly 80 million—according to the American Diabetes Association—are pre-diabetic.
For a young woman like Luna, the success of a first run can potentially be a lifesaver. Since the running boom of the 1970s, the simplicity and accessibility of running has offered an escape route for those in the ruins of poor health, be it from smoking, stress, depression, a poor diet or being a couch potato. Of, as is often the case, some combination of the above.
Luna was attending college in Austin, TX, a town populated with sinewy endurance athletes—runners, cyclists, mountain bikers. “It’s just a super-athletic town,” she says. “I craved being a part of that so much.”
The gulf between her reality and her craving seemed beyond reach. Elena, a Christian, was rushing a sorority when things hit bottom. At a chapter meeting of the sorority, a discussion centered on gluttony being a sin. The conflict within her peaked.
She stood up, walked out, and resolved to change. She went back to her dorm room and dug out her running shoes. She stood outside of the dormitory, two miles to the Congress Avenue bridge, and resolved that no matter what, she would run to the bridge.
Consider the possibilities from this point on: Elena could go a quarter-mile, absolutely hate it, give up and walk back. This is not an improbable outcome considering she was going it completely alone and had no virtually no athletic background from which to draw. Her weight—224 pounds–complicated the mission in several ways. Most critically, her brain react with a grave surprise: the new sort of effort and accompanying distress would send all sorts of internal alarm bells off. The pounding heart and gasping for air could be so unsettling that would she would stop and that would be the end of it. Speaking of shock, one of the problems facing the aspiring runner with a weight problem is that the stress on the joints, in particular the knees, is enormous. The ligaments and tendons of the sedentary are not in any way adapted to impact stress that running produces. So, even if Luna makes it through this run, if she goes on to try and burn off her excess weight through running alone, her risk of injury would be inordinately high.
Perhaps Elena Luna evades an initial injury and through running, over time, burns down her weight to a less threatening level. She becomes an American runner. Maybe she decides to sign up for a Team In Training marathon program or something of the like, a fairly common on ramp into half marathons, marathons and triathlons these days, where she is coached to be able to walk/run a marathon in 12 weeks. Or maybe she joins a running group in Austin. Or goes it alone, her running a solitary activity she keeps to herself.
The number of marathon finishers in the country is an illuminating measure of how running has grown in popularity over the years. According to data accumulated by Running USA, in 1976 there were 25,000 marathon finishers in the U.S. By 1980, the number had grown to 143,000. Since then, the number of those crossing a marathon finish line in one year has grown to a peak of more than half a million, recorded in 2011. The expansion of marathon runners and marathon fields have come with the proviso of marathon courses being open longer and therefore more inclusive.
But there is an ironic and unfortunate potential twist to this story. If Luna did go on to the running life, maybe jumping into a marathon, she could face a new likelihood of health troubles. Survey studies indicate that three out of four runners on average sustain at least one injury per year. A 2013 Journal of Strength and Conditioning study found that the most common reason long distance runners quit running altogether is because of the ongoing thicket of injuries.
Spend a few months working at a running shoe store, like I did in the summer of 2013, and conduct your own survey. It’s astonishing how many runners are now former runners, reduced to walking or yoga classes because their knees have given out. As was reported thoroughly in the bestselling book, Born to Run, running shoes are not the panacea they have long been claimed to be. Be in monstrous amounts of cushioning or fantastic creations of stability technologies, there has never been any good science that has shown running shoes protect someone like Elena Luna from injury.
In an ironic twist, famed running coach and exercise physiologist, Dr. Jack Daniels, who has studying runners since the 1960s, recently conducted a survey of the first generation of runners he first took notes on. What did Daniels find?
“Those that are the healthiest and fittest today,” he says, “are the ones who missed the most days of running over the past decades.” In other words, those most dedicated to the daily run are the ones least likely to be running now. The idea that being a runner was a ticket to lifelong health and vigor is in question.
So just 19 years old, a nursing student at the University of Austin was poised to take her first steps into an activity with the potential to both enable as well as derail. She would be in trouble if she abandoned the run and her new attempt to lose weight, but she might be equally damned if the run goes great and she gets hooked.
The unfortunate truth is that most people who get into running end up having a love/hate relationship with it. More than 47,000 people run in the 2011 NYC Marathon, and they did so for more than just the weight loss and cardiac health benefits running generates. They love the challenge, the community of it and exhilaration of doing it. What sucks is the injuries. And despite the latest stretching routine or cross-training program that comes along, the injuries usually don’t stop until the runner stops running.
Injuries are so common in distance running that it’s not regarded a matter of if but when. It’s simply been accepted as part of the bargain. I remember in my first years as a marathoner, being at a dinner party where I was introduced to a physical therapist in San Francisco. I was introduced as a running fanatic. The PT took a drink from a glass of wine, smiled and said, “I make a lot of money off you guys.”
There were multiple layers of discomforting information in his remark.
Injuries have been part of the bargain for a long time, even as running and marathoning have become hugely inclusive, with programs such as Team-In-Training providing a large welcome mat to those who have never logged a mile in their lives. Yet despite this high rate of injury, most running programs on the market are similar to the approaches offered decades ago. The standard marathon training principles usually include:
- Starting slowly and steadily building a base.
- As you adapt to running, adding more mileage to your program.
- Stretching often
- Buying new running shoes every 500 miles. Ideally less.
- Build to long run of 20 or more miles by upping your mileage every week or two.
These guidelines seem smart, almost safe. Yet why is it that injury rates, particularly among beginners, are so ridiculously high? As a 2013 Danish study published in the Orthopaedic Journal of Sports Medicine reported, beginning runners—especially those with extra weight or older—have an especially high risk of injury.
As what might have been the case for Elena. As She began running consistently, and even adding some cross-training to help her get over the hump of being new to an endurance sport, she too began to slide the way of injury. “Shin splints,” she says. “I started to get really bad shin splints.”
A significant barrier for entry into the running world is excess weight. If with each footstrike we land with 3x the force of our bodyweight, the plan to burn off the pounds by through a running-only program is fraught with joint-related-injury peril.
Elena went an alternate route. First, she experimented with different types of exercise. This led her to a CrossFit gym in Odessa while on winter break from school.
“I fell in love with CrossFit,” she says. “I loved the feeling of driving the weight against gravity.” She also loved the community. Her interest in running eventually led to an introduction to Valerie Hunt, a CrossFit Endurance coach in Austin, operating out of a gym called Fit and Fearless CrossFit. Hunt is known as a running and running technique coach—a Master Pose Technique coach taught and trained by Dr. Nicholas Romanov. She also one of the leaders of a new generation of endurance coaches that has rebelled against the assumption that being a runner also means being in the throes of chronic injury. Using an aggressive formula of running form drills, high-intensity CrossFit training and weightlifting along with a lower-volume, higher-quality menu of run training, Hunt and coaches like her have been unleashing a new kind of age-group runner, one who has the strength, mobility and technique to perform well but also fight back against the common injury patterns and ruts that drive most runners insane.
The program was a lifesaver for Luna. Running several times a week, Crossfittting two times per week, cleaning up her diet and learning a new way to run, she noticed first that her shin splints vanished.
“The shin splints went away, and so did the blisters I was getting,” she says. For this, she credits the Pose Technique that is a pillar within CrossFit Endurance. “I had no idea there was any sort of technique to running,” she says. “The CrossFit workouts helped my strength and my posture. I was getting stronger all over. After runs, I was recovering more quickly.”
With excitement, she adds: “I also got faster.”
Luna also got lighter. When she lined up at the start line of the 2013 San Antonio Rock and Roll Marathon, she had lost 75 pounds since that first 2-mile jog across campus. It wasn’t just a matter of fat loss, but of body composition change: The new Elena Luna looked more like a buff female pole vaulter than the super-skinny image that the mention of distance running usually conjures up. At the time of this writing Luna—formerly the severely obese nursing student suffering in shame at the University of Texas—can now perform the following:
A deadlift of 175 pounds. A bench press of 145 pounds. A back squat of 200 pounds, and with the exceptionally challenging overhead squat, where core strength is required to keep a loaded barbell and weight locked out overhead as the athlete performs a full squat, she can do 110 pounds.
And she’s also a marathoner.
In his new book, Unbreakable Runner, CrossFit Endurance founder Brian MacKenzie tears down old-fashioned run training traditions to reveal the new rules for fast, powerful running.
Unbreakable Runner includes CrossFit-based training programs for the most popular running race distances from 5K to ultra marathon.
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