Alaska Winters are Funny / Still Not Crossfitting

Two weeks ago, I was running in -20F weather. Last night, I ran home and it was 32F. For fellow Humanities majors, that’s a temperature variation of 52 degrees, and a serious concern for all of us living in igloos (seriously, how dumb do you have to be to think Alaskans live in igloos?). Last week, it got up to 47F. Dude, that’s shorts running weather. Anyway, I love it. This state keeps you guessing, on your toes, and engaged.

So, what else is up?

Before I left, I wrote a bit about Heavy Weight Training (HWT) Protocols for endurance. While downrange, I decided to run a little experiment on myself: Run a fraction of the volume I was doing at home (80M/wk down to about 25M/week), and replace that volume with HWT strength work. See what happens. If you recall, my idea about HWT is that it is the preferred strength training regimen for endurance athletes, as it leads to strength gains without associated weight gain (hypertrophy). There are secondary questions as to whether it benefits endurance through neuromuscular adaptation and recruitment, but I would view that as a distant second to the benefit of getting strong without getting big. So, here’s what I did:

Every other day, as my schedule allowed, I executed the following workout:

1) 4-6 sets of 4-6 x half squat @ 80-90% 1RM

2) 4-6 sets of 4-6 x bench @ 80-90% 1RM

3) 4-6 sets of 4-6 dead lift @ 80-90% 1RM

4) 4-6 sets of weighted pullups @ 80-90% 1RM

After three months of this, I saw no increase in weight. My Squat numbers went from 315lbs t0 365lbs. Bench went from 225 to 240. Dead lift went from 315 to 405. Not bad, considering I achieved all this by simply making better use of the muscle I have, as opposed to adding mass I don’t need. Scientific? Hardly. Trial and error? Absolutely. This confirmed to me that what I see as the primary benefit of HWT is indeed valid, even when I dropped 90% of the cardiovascular work I was doing and substituted strength. At the very least, it blew the idea that strength means mass, absolutely and firmly out of the water.

Also interesting – I found that when I came home and started bumping up the running to previous distances, I didn’t get the usual oh-my-legs soreness I normally get the first few weeks back into normal training rhythms. I’m not sure what’s going on there – anytime I’ve looked at HWT and endurance, nothing has covered secondary aspects like recovery aid, which might be exactly what I experienced.

So, in light of all this, I won’t be doing Crossfit anytime soon. I think it has utility as a bridge program to take traditionally weak endurance athletes and add some functional strength. But I see HWT as a “next level” of strength for those who are truly looking to make themselves elite endurance athletes. The biggest problem with Crossfit (besides how cultish it’s grown) is that it bills itself as a hypertrophic regimen, meaning it promises mass gain. Look at the athletes of the Crossfit Games – how many of those guys do you think are capable of running sub -3:00 for a marathon? Riding a 1:00 40k cycling time trial?  But they sure are good at crushing 12 minute workouts, which I suppose is their point. If you want to be good at something, be good at it, whether it’s checkers or seeing how quickly you can do 40 x power cleans. My point is that if you’re trying to PR in a marathon, win a trail stage race, cycle fast, summit Denali, then Crossfit is not the most efficient use of your time.

But feel free to prove me wrong, of course…

5 responses

  1. Thanks for sharing your little experiment. I’m very interested to see how your next few months of running go. Why half squats instead of full? Why don’t you live in an igloo?

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    • I have terrible hip and ankle mobility, so that limits my squat ROM. Common with most runners – my half squats were something less than 90 but greater than 70-80 degrees. I just slid a bench underneath me and squatted until my butt barely touched the bench, then stood back up. Full squat ROM depends on the eye of the beholder, but some would say you need to be able to put your butt on the ground, any way you cut it, the lower you go, the more important ankle, hip, thoracic, and shoulder mobility become.

      I don’t live in an igloo because they’re too cold…duh!

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  2. Awesome post, Matt!! I have the hardest time making myself do the HWT, but I am inspired once again!! Thank you for being a guinea pig for the rest of us endurance athletes who are too scared to make dramatic changes to their training . Can’t wait to hear how it all unfolds in your racing.

    Are you marathon or 5k training this season?!

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