Everyone knows that the cornerstone of any marathon training program, and especially any ultramarathon plan, is the long run.
Well, guess what? It turns out everyone might be wrong.
Eliminating the sacred long run
Brian Mackenzie and the people at CrossFit Endurance are training their athletes to run 100-mile ultramarathons on less than 30 miles per week. Even more incredible is that they do this without running more than a half marathon in training.
For those who somehow avoided the lesson on the two systems in gym class, here’s the two-line version:
- Your aerobic system is what’s working when you do low-intensity exercise, like the long, slow distance (LSD) that gets us all up early on weekend mornings when we’re training for a marathon or half.
- Anaerobic exercise, on the other hand, involves shorter, higher-intensity workouts. Weightlifting, speed training, etc. You know, the stuff that hurts.
What Mackenzie and others are saying is that it’s easy to develop your aerobic system. If you can run a strong 10K pretty comfortably, then you’re pretty much set for a marathon or 50K, at least as far as the aerobic system goes. While you can improve it with long, slow distance, the additional gains to be had from adaptation to this type of exercise are minimal.
What they’ve found is that you can get these benefits to your aerobic system, along with a host of others, with far less volume of training if you focus on anaerobic exercise. For them, this means speed sessions of only about a mile (say 4 x 400 meters or 2 x 800 meters) and tempo runs of 5 or 6 miles at high intensity.
The downsides of running long
In addition to the obvious time commitment, the CrossFit page cites as by-products of the increased cardiovascular function that comes with running long:
- decreased muscle mass
- decreased strength
- decreased power
- decreased speed
- decreased anaerobic capacity
- decreased testosterone levels
(There are no links to supporting references here, unfortunately.)
On the other hand, anaerobic training is credited with increasing muscle mass, decreasing body fat, and increasing speed, power, and strength, all in addition to the improved cardiovascular function you’d get if you just did aerobic training. In short, running long is not only a waste of time, it’s mostly bad for you.
To many devout runners, this is blasphemy. To me, it’s Christmas.
I’ve always viewed long runs as a necessary evil. I’d much rather work hard for 30 minutes than have to take three hours out of my day to run 20 miles, even if it’s at a comfortable pace. So the idea that you might still be able to run long races and set PR’s, without spending three or four hours out on the roads or trails at a time, is a very seductive one indeed.
But there’s a catch
So far, this looks like a shortcut to running marathons and ultras without really doing much. It’s not.
The catch is that you’ve got to work really, really hard. Those training 10Ks and half marathons aren’t your leisurely jog where you relax and chat with a buddy; they’re gut-busters. And by the way, there’s also an intense resistance training workout to do four a five days a week. CrossFit is no joke.
As Matt from Natural Digestive Healing said in a recent comment he left here, “You have to do it all the way though, or you’ll DNF.” (That’s “Did Not Finish.”)
This is cool, but it’s a bit much. Honestly, I don’t know that I want to work as hard as those CrossFit guys and girls do every day, often twice a day. Not to mention the risk of training for an ultra this way, only to find out when you bonk 13.1 miles in that it didn’t work as planned.
Thankfully, there’s an in-between. Another commenter directed me to a less-extreme version of what you might call “minimalist” marathon training. This one is by two guys called the Hanson brothers, who have been helping elite runners qualify for the U.S. Olympic trials.
Their marathon training plan is more traditional than the CrossFit approach, in that they still have you running a long run of 10 or more miles most weeks. But that long run never exceeds 16 miles, a full 10 miles less than what you’ll have to run on race day. The Hanson plan also includes speed and tempo (strength) workouts, much like CrossFit, but throws in several easy runs each week as well, a decidedly non-CrossFit addition.
Do you buy it?
I’m tempted. I’m ever-intrigued by anything resembling a “hack” that will save time, or which has the potential for unprecedented results. And twice in the (distant) past I’ve run marathons with 16 miles as my longest run, both the result of injury limiting my options. Once it worked great; once it sucked bigtime.
But as I said above, this approach is appealing to me for more reasons than just looking for a shortcut. I like the way I feel when I’m hitting the track hard — and I’ve noticed an interesting phenomenon that I first learned about from Brendan Brazier, which is that even your upper body becomes more muscular as your running intensity increases.
Compare this to times when I’ve put in lots of miles but with little speedwork, like when I’ve trained for 50-milers, and I feel more like I’m withering away.
It feels good to work out hard, and it’s a big departure from what I’ve done for the past two years since I shifted to a more relaxed approach after qualifying for Boston. For me right now, this new approach, with shorter but harder workouts, feels like exactly what I need.
I’ve been doing lots of speedwork for the past few weeks, ever since running the Boston Marathon motivated me to start training hard again. That marathon was also my last run of anything more than 7 miles, and it very well may be my only long run in preparation for my next 50K, which is on June 11.
That 50K will be the first feedback I get about how this new approach is working for me. If it goes well, I’ll be willing to dive into this less-mileage, higher-intensity plan to train for the Vermont 50-miler in the fall, followed by an attempt to requalify for Boston in Philadelphia several weeks later.
And if the 50K doesn’t go well? Well, then I guess it’s back to good old LSD.
Ok, I’ve braced myself for an earful from the traditionalists out there… what do you think?