Monday, April 05, 2010

Putting CrossFit to the Test: Tammy's First Ultra

By Greg Perkins

Earlier, I shared what CrossFit is about and that Tammy and I had decided to give it a try. Eight months in, I'm happy to report that we're still having a blast with it! The feeling of adventure is still there, with no burnout or boredom, no noticeable wear-n-tear on my mid-40's body, lots more physical capacity, and new friendships formed through a little joyful shared-strife bonding. Very cool.

Recall that the goal with CrossFit training is not to be elite at anything in particular, but rather to perform well at everything in general. CrossFit's founder thinks this is possible, and that the CrossFit methodology is a great way to pull it off. Doesn't that just beg to be put to the test? We think so.

Tammy loves to run. When I met her, she'd finished a bunch of races including a couple of marathons, and she had trained for several more. But her tight focus on the endurance thing meant that she simply hadn't developed (and had maybe even untrained!) the kind of core strength needed to sustain her in those sorts of efforts. That's why she ran so many fewer marathons than she trained for. She spent lots of time just grinding out long miles on her legs, totally avoiding interval and strength training. And it didn't help that she'd spent decades eating a lowfat vegetarian version of the typical distance-runners' carb-heavy diet filled with lots of grains and legumes. This was not exactly a sustainable recipe for robust fitness and health.

After jumping into CrossFit we got wind of CrossFit Endurance, which purports to let endurance athletes avoid those "chronic cardio" workouts while providing the sport-specific conditioning necessary to go out and supposedly crush ultramarathons and triathlons and such. CrossFit Endurance basically turns the conventional approach to endurance training on its head: their prescription is first to do the same CrossFit training that every CrossFitter does, and to then supplement that with run-biased workouts a few times a week. But these additional workouts are not long chronic-cardio sessions: they're relatively short interval and intensity work, skills work, some tempo work and specific conditioning for body parts that will need to withstand the stress of an actual endurance event.

Tammy hasn't raced for several years, and had never attempted anything as ambitious as a 50-mile ultrarun. But she was intrigued by the idea that she might be able to complete one -- and with a dramatically smaller training investment that also avoided the chronic-cardio thing. So this January, about five months into our general CrossFit adventure (and long after we were both eating paleo), she signed up for the 12/24 Hours of Utah ultra in Moab. To gear up for it, she added two or three CrossFit Endurance style workouts per week (varying tempo runs, tabata interval runs, etc.), coordinated with our usual four-day-a-week random CrossFit regimen to not step on recovery days. Oh, and she also started using our normal CrossFit warmup periods for a little additional conditioning of her core and legs.

It would be an understatement to say this was counterintuitive for Tammy. These super-long running events are no joke, and she wasn't out there getting ready by running! Imagine training for your first marathon by doing mostly weights, some sprints, and no running over, say, an occasional 5K. This was leaving her with a lot of questions, doubts, and insecurity... Was she just setting herself up for failure, even injury? What if the CrossFit Endurance poster-children she'd read about were simply elites in the first place who would do great whether or not they flouted everything the experts said? Or what if they were more normal but had previously established a huge capacity the standard way and were now just maintaining it with CrossFit Endurance? On and on. It left her uncertain enough that she even panicked a bit and tried to slide a bunch of standard-issue miles in near the end of her training window, over a few weekends last month. Of course those miles were insignificant compared to the volume that the traditional approach would counsel.

After three short months of this training, we packed the car and headed to Moab to put it to the test! Sensing a little adventure in the making, I borrowed a video camera to stick in her face all along the way. She absolutely loved that! (Um, NOT. But stressing her out with all that camera time really was for a worthy documentary cause. ;^) Here's how it all went down:

Woo! Mission accomplished!! She ended up placing 3rd (just one minute shy of 2nd place) in the Solo Female 12-Hour category, an unexpected bit of fun. And with no limping around for a week afterwards like with earlier marathon efforts: though a bit depleted, she was right back in the gym for our usual Monday-morning random CrossFit beatdown.

Most interesting was what she learned from actually doing it and watching other runners do it -- in contrast to imagining doing it and reading lots of runners' online descriptions and hints for doing it. The bottom line? CrossFit Endurance was vindicated! Her doubts and insecurities around it are now gone: even with the weird IT band/knee thing that progressively diminished her pace and forced her into walking a few laps in the middle, she ended up doing better than average. And [I'm] pretty sure that without that hip issue, and with some obvious, easy improvements like a little discipline on her pit stops, she would have outperformed all of the female solo runners and all but a couple of the males as well! Sure, that sounds awfully bold for a newbie. Here's the deal, though: she found so many ultrarunners talking online about their "walk strategies" and how only the elite didn't walk that she went there fully expecting walking to be a necessity -- and sure enough, we saw a lot of walking at the event. But Tammy's training left her feeling just fine motoring up all the hills, etc. If it weren't for the weird IT band/knee thing, she would not have needed to walk at all. She would have simply run the entire thing at her "easy" pace of around 10 or 10.5 minutes/mile.

I expect she'll want to verify that by going and running every step of it next year, so we'll see!

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