My Marathon Experiment – More Intensity, Less Volume 2017-05-10T09:40:50+00:00

I was a runner first (very average), then a running coach and PT and now a CrossFitter. When I work with athletes I like to come from a position of experience and be able talk to my clients about things I really understand because I have tried them for myself or at least researched in depth. I ran my first marathon in 2003 at the age of 30 in a definitely below average time of 4 hours and 44 mins. But that was ok, it was my first marathon, I wasn’t really a runner and although I joined a running club I knew very little about training methodologies, I just followed a basic plan from Runners World that focused on the usual long slow run approach building up to a longest run of 20 miles and a 3 week taper. After finishing that first marathon I thought I was done with running, the marathon ticked off my bucket list, but I guess I was in denial and ultimately with the timely invention of parkrun the following year I became hooked on running for both the fitness and social benefits.

Over the next few years I ran a few more marathons and other distance events but always using the long slow run approach – every Sunday involved a long run of some sort. I was enjoying running, my times were improving (I was still relatively young) so I did my UK Athletics coaching qualifications so I could help with coaching at my running club. In 2008 I was made redundant from my city job and decided to do something completely different so trained to become a PT and then spent 2 and a half years based in a gym – learning my trade so to speak, working with some great PTs that I learned a lot from. I really enjoyed the strength and conditioning training I started to do and found it beneficial to my own training especially as by now I had taken up triathlon and was doing Ironman – I was running faster, but with a lot less run training. However, when it came to marathon season the long slow runs came back and Sundays were given up to long runs usually after having given up Saturdays to even longer bike rides.

Niggles and injuries came and went especially when I decided to have a go at some ultra-marathons. Knees became painful, then it was my back – it seemed an endless roller coaster of get injured, recover, get fit again, enter an event, get injured, recover and so on. However, I did manage to put together a stint of reasonably consistent training and set a marathon PB of 3.29 in 2013 at the age of 40. I had set up my coaching business by then – Run with Karen, and was working with athletes of all different abilities but like myself the main topic of conversation was their latest injury and how to manage it. Most programmes I put together for clients followed the long slow distance approach with one interval session and possibly one tempo type session as I had been taught that no more than 5% of volume should be done at high intensity. It was also around this time that I found CrossFit. My personal strength and conditioning sessions had gradually gone by the wayside as my time was being taken up with trying to fit in swim, bike and run training but I missed the strength element so was looking for something that would incorporate that.

Now I am very aware that CrossFit is like marmite – you love it or you hate it, however I have found that haters generally have never tried it. They usually cite ‘injury risk’ as the main reason or describe it as a ‘cult’ where we’ve all drunk the ‘CrossFit Kool-aid’. And you can get injured, I myself will admit to being injured a few times, most recently with an episode of golfers elbow. But that is not CrossFit’s fault, it is mine – my ego took over and I pushed myself to do too many pull ups, once my grip had gone and to the point of exhaustion. And when I speak to most other athletes it’s a similar story – overuse injuries, they pushed beyond what they should have done. But hey, doesn’t that sound familiar? Runners getting injuries – whether it be Achilles tendonitis, runners knee, shin splints – these are usually caused by doing too much too soon. Muscles, tendons and ligaments simply not sufficiently conditioned to deal with the volume, or worked too hard and insufficient recovery time making them vulnerable to breaking down. Or here’s another thought – maybe it’s the fact that we spend 90% of our waking hours sat down or slumped over a desk? So when it comes to those short periods of activity – the body can’t cope with the stresses of the movements because muscles have become shortened or deactivated as most of the time they’re not required to do anything. So don’t blame CrossFit any more than you would blame any other form of sport or exercise.

I can agree however, that people might get injured due to poor form but that is simply down to the quality of the coaching at any given CrossFit affiliate – just like you get good and bad PTs, good and bad running coaches, good and bad anything – if someone is offering you a service and it’s not very good then walk away. I have been fortunate enough to have found good CrossFit boxes, in fact brilliant ones where form is drilled by excellent coaches and weight only permitted once you are competent at a movement. Yes, you are pushed to work hard, but the coaches take the time to get to know you and your capabilities – and yes, if they are good, it can be done in a class situation. I learned my CrossFit at Blitz in Twickenham and can still hear Jamie’s coaching queues in my head whenever I attempt an Olympic lift and Tristan has transformed my gymnastics. When we moved away from SW London I was worried about leaving my beloved CrossFIt but after moving to the Peak District I’ve found two more excellent coaches in Adam and Shaun at CrossFit Buxton and I’m getting stronger and faster. And it was because I still had CrossFit in my life that I decided to experiment with a new approach to my 2017 London Marathon training.

Sorry it’s taken me a while to get to the actual point of this article but I feel it is important that you understand the journey I have been on so you know what I am going to describe didn’t happen on a whim. When I first started at Blitz CrossFit because they knew of my endurance background and that I was training for an Ironman, one of the coaches introduced me to the concept of CrossFit Endurance which is a protocol that turns traditional endurance training on its head. The focus is on drilling skills and then high intensity, low volume sport specific sessions in conjunction with the usual strength and conditioning ‘WOD’ style CrossFit sessions. I liked the concept but was not yet ready to properly try it due to the usual injury or just general life and timing issues – and my ‘A’ race (Ironman Canada) was too close to mess with my training. But I did continue to research the idea and the more I read and understood the more it made sense and seemed like something I should try. To cut a long story short as 2016 was coming to a close, I knew I had a deferred ‘good for age’ place in the 2017 London marathon. I hadn’t been doing much running as the past year had involved packing up and moving our lives north, refurbishing our new house and getting established in a new part of the country, so running had just dropped down the list of priorities. I had however kept up my CrossFit habit and was doing 3-4 sessions a week at CrossFit Buxton so was feeling relatively fit and uninjured! This – not doing loads of running, seemed to coincide with me being injury free for a decent amount of time, so that convinced me to try a different approach to the 2017 season.

23rd April 2017 – I ran the London marathon after a 16 week build up. I ran it in 3 hours 40 minutes and 15 seconds. Nothing particularly astounding about that. But I was chuffed with the time, bearing in mind I hadn’t run a marathon for 2 years and it was just over 4 years since my marathon PB of 3.29. 4 years older and only just over 10 mins slower – I’ll take that.

What is astounding though is that over my 16 week build up I averaged between 12 and 15 miles in total per week. Whaaaat! – no long runs, no 16, 18, 20 milers?! Yep that is correct. I will admit to one long 21 mile trail race that took me over 4 hours to complete, with loads of climbing it was very definitely a run/walk effort – so you could class it as a long slow run. It was in early March (6 weeks before marathon day) I also ran a hilly, road half marathon 3 weeks before marathon day. I suddenly realised I had not done any long road runs and had no idea what road shoes to wear so thought I’d better test some out. Otherwise a typical week looked like this:

Monday – CrossFit

Tuesday – Social run with club – 5-6 miles at conversational pace or rest day – (if I was feeling tired then this was the run session that I dropped)

Wednesday – CrossFit am plus short track intervals pm (usually less than a mile worth of effort plus warm up/cool down) or hill session

Thursday – CrossFit

Friday – CrossFit

Saturday – parkrun (5km fast)

Sunday – Tempo or TT run – usually 10km-ish, occasionally an 8 or 9 miler.

Interestingly I also only tapered for 1 week – but lets face it I had nothing really to taper from! And I ran my only other longish build up event, a 10 mile road race 9 days before marathon day.

But perhaps the biggest revelation was the lack of muscle soreness after and even over the next few days – sure I felt a bit tight in places but nothing that impacted my movement ability – no walking down stairs backwards, no groaning as I lifted myself out of a chair (or off the train on the way home the afternoon after the race). I felt the best I’ve ever felt on immediately crossing the finish line, usually your whole body just seizes up and everything hurts, you wonder how even 10 seconds ago you were running. But I felt none of that this time. We made our way, on foot to the Tube station and then to St Pancras for a train heading north – and I felt fine the whole time.

I make a point of telling my clients to make sure they rest and recover properly after any kind of race so I was very aware that I should listen to my body and not do anything it didn’t want to. But the following morning I woke up and felt I just needed to move so hesitantly I went to my usual 9.30am CrossFit class. Choosing light weights was essential but warming up, completing the WOD and then doing lots of mobility and stretching was exactly what I needed. I know there is still underlyng fatigue and I am being careful about doing anything heavy or very intense but just two weeks on I am pretty much back to my usual training schedule.

So what do I take from this experiment? For me personally this has confirmed that I can still run marathons if I want and I don’t need to kill myself with long build ups and lots of volume. I am also convinced that with CrossFit and a couple of runs a week I can keep myself in a condition that I can comfortably complete events up to a half marathon whenever the urge arises. This is important to me as I do enjoy running and don’t just want to run for training’s sake – but for social reasons and to be out in the great outdoors too. But I also really enjoy CrossFit and whereas my running performances are plateauing as I am getting older, I am still improving at CrossFit and will be for the foreseeable future too – there is just so much to work on.

For my clients, this gives me the confidence to modify traditional training programmes to include more high intensity work and less long slow runs. This is especially useful for those over 40 or holding down full-time sedentary jobs who are at a high risk of injury from the excessive volume that comes with traditional marathon training.

Where I still have questions is how effective this approach would be for non-runners, i.e. CrossFitters who fancy a crack at a marathon or half marathon. I’d be keen to see how well this works. Knowing they don’t need to do loads of long runs might tempt a few to give running a go. And as a running coach I know people like to run for reasons other than just putting in a good race performance. Some would really struggle mentally if they hadn’t put in weeks of long runs in their marathon build up. Equally there are a lot of runners that I would never convince to spend 4 hours a week in a gym, so its not an approach for everyone. But it works for me and if I have clients that are open to a different approach to their training, or are frustrated due to endless injuries then I can share my experience and confidence in using CrossFit as an alternative training methodology.