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…

Foundations: Strength for Endurance, Part 1

Sorry for how long it’s taken to put this out. When I first thought about writing on strength, I thought I’d share some general ideas and the like. However, I’ve ended up going down the rabbit hole a bit, reading the results of studies, and consulting some big brains for ideas. Anyway, I remembered I’m a Humanities major, not a Physiologist, and I’m supposed to write about stuff. So, let’s get it on…

What is “strength?” What does it mean to be “strong?”

If I have one frustration with the idea of strength as it relates to endurance, it’s how arbitrarily we bandy the term about. If someone “looks strong” in a race, we don’t generally say it unless that someone raced well. In all reality, the dude may be a 130lb weakling who couldn’t do a “girl” pushup with a gun up to his head, yet we have no problem calling him “strong.” What’s the deal with that? By the same token, I’ve had people look at me and based on my musculature, tell me I’m “strong as a G-D ox” and I have no need for further weight training. At the time, I was training to break 1:20 for the half-marathon, and I could barely run 7 miles without having to stop and stretch out my lower back due to core instability issues. I would posit that at that given point, I was “all show, no go,” as one of my former troops put it. It means I may have looked pretty, but it wasn’t doing much for me.

Are you starting to understand what I’m getting at here? The baseline, our approach and mindset on strength is all jacked up. It’s informed by a lifetime of crappy cultural inputs (movie stars with chiseled bods who can sprint for miles without breaking a sweat), cultish phenomenon (Crossfit as religion, anyone?),  and poor instruction. Finally, the truth is that there isn’t a big push within the sport to figure out the strength side. As I’ve done some research over the past couple of weeks, I’ve found out there is a reasonable amount of academic literature covering the effects of strength on endurance. But in twenty years of running and reading everything about running, I’ve never seen one of the studies I’ve been reading mentioned in an article, or even a book. What I find in all the training books are blips on “cross-training” that generally reflect strength training methods that went out of vogue sometime during the height of the Cold War.

So, it’s clear our old approaches to strength are generally broke. If strength is not a state of appearance or an indication of fitness, moving forward, here’s how we need to think of strength to effectively integrate it into endurance-related activities:

1) Strength is first and foremost a state of conditioning which enables endurance training to occur while minimizing, controlling, or eliminating injury. Look, the fact is that even 50 years ago, Americans were far less sedentary. People generally had far more active lifestyles and weren’t tied to cubicle and computer. They grew up chucking hay bales, working as mechanics, and *pushing* their lawnmowers (gasp!). They did things outside of running that kept them healthy as runners. These days, we’re what Mobility WOD refers to as “office athletes.” And of course, the sloppiness that goes along with hunching over a keyboard all day bleeds over into running. So, unless you’re reading this from somewhere in eastern Africa, chances are really good you should be doing strength to keep you running healthy.

2) Strength is the ability to generate force, enabled by mobility, over a period of time that matches your pursuit. Whether you run 5ks, ultras, surf epic sessions in Southern California for hours on end, or run big backcountry lines in Alaska; you need to be able to generate the force required to complete those activities successfully in the time allotted. It’s all about fueling your passion, to borrow some sorry corporate jingo. Strength is not the end, rather the means to the end. And it’s not about what someone else tells you should be able to do. If I have to hear one more Crossfitter talk trash about an elite marathoner’s alleged lack of overhead squat capability, I’m going to slap someone with their compression sleeves.

Subjective enough for you?

I hope so, because if it seems a bit vague, then you’re beginning to deconstruct a traditional mindset on strength and search for a new paradigm. Look: strength and endurance are incredibly complex issues, and we’re really just going to scratch the surface with this series. But I think in treating complexity, falling back on general principles gives us the ability to adapt as we learn more, and that is ideal in the face of uncertainty. Soooo, moving forward, here’s what you can expect. Over the next couple of posts, I’m going to cover methodologies, sport-specific approaches, and what I’ve been up to so you can learn from my mistakes and occasional success. Thanks to Kev, Eric, and Megs for leaving some comments requesting some topic coverage – guys, I hope I answer your questions. But feel free to call me out!

Strength for Endurance

Minions of the Interwebz,

Greetings. I am about to kick off a series on strength for runners. But before I regale you with my particular ideas, I was curious if there is anything you would like me to cover. Right now, it will be a two or three post series, broken into general approaches, specific schools of thought I find useful, and a sample of my own training.

If you are interested in anything specific, please leave it in the comments below. Ideas might include the utility of Crossfit, or maybe specific exercises useful in treating lingering injuries. Whatever it might be, I am interested in giving you whatcha want.

Hulking out,

Matty K