Another CFE Attack

Brian MacKenzie CrossFit Games ITB

In a rather tempestuous post by running coach, Jason Fitzgerald, in which he flames CrossFit Endurance and Brian MacKenzie, I was motivated to respond at length in the following post. Within his rant against CFE,  he makes a series of assumptions that portray the method in an inaccurate way.

MacKenzie coaching a clinic at the CrossFit Games.
MacKenzie coaching a clinic at the CrossFit Games.

Let’s first talk about the primary thrust of his piece. Fitzgerald writes:

“I want to share my thoughts on CrossFit (CF) so you have a framework for evaluating any new training program. It would be easy for me to record a short video listing the reasons why I dislike CF, but I want to do deeper. It’s become increasingly popular among runners as a way to cross-train and increase strength. Before it’s proven itself as an effective training protocol, flocks of runners have tried to use it to become better runners, prevent injuries, or get stronger.And that leaves the question: does CrossFit help runners? And is CrossFit Endurance an effective way to train runners? I say no to both. Here’s why.

By all means read the entire post if you like, but here are several of the “strikes” he casts against CFE:

Specificity!” Fitzgerald declares that CFE violates the “law of specificity.” “Throwing long runs and marathon-specific workouts in the trash in favor of nonsensical endurance workouts that favor upper body lifting and intervals run until “form deteriorates” is insane.”

“Proven ‘fundamentals’ of sports science?!” In this entry Fitzgerald defines CrossFit in the context of an AMRAP and accuses MacKenzie of mixing CrossFit with Tabata sprints. “Combine high-intensity lifting with high-intensity running and what do you get? Probably an over-trained or injured runner!” Actually, MacKenzie’s program separates run-specific workouts, CrossFit-style workouts and strength training into separate sessions. This discussion should be a post in itself because of the blogs I’ve read ripping CFE, I haven’t read one where it was clear to me the author really looked at the program. In fact, a critical blog would be more valuable if they not only looked at the program but tried it or at least interviewed people that were teaching it or using it. I imagine those exist, I just haven’t seen them yet.

With the risk of oversimplifying things, one of the things CrossFit Endurance does is allow a runner to cut out junk miles from a program. Why is that valuable? Because a high-injury rate is a consequence of high mileage levels. There’s no doubt you can get fit running a lot of miles. The problem is that very few can get away with it without an injury or injuries that force the runner into the deep end of the pool for aqua-jogging.

Running drills with a jumprope being taught at San Francisco CrossFit.
Running drills with a jumprope being taught at San Francisco CrossFit.

I don’t feel like I need to make the case that a lot of runners get injured (the working number from the ASCM is around 75% of runners get injured every year). But to help me seal that point, consider some of the most popular posts on Fitzgerald’s blog:

The ITB Rehab Routine – Video Demonstration

Achilles Tendonitis Doesn’t Exist (But Here’s How to Treat it Anyway)

Anatomy of a 6 Month IT Band Injury – Post-Injury Analysis and Lessons Learned

Fitzgerald builds his position (you see it throughout the post) that the best way to train is to train like elite runners train. Train like the Kenyans, in other ways.

The world-class distance runner runs 2-3 times per day, doesn’t have a day job, gets a massage as often as possible, isn’t in it for health and fitness but either for glory and/or for money. Elite mileage levels can get in the range of 140 miles per week. In some cases more. And time in the gym is part of it, too. The ones who can afford it have coaches, chiropractors and massage therapists. They are professional runners. Health is not the goal. Money and glory are the goals.

Which is all fantastic. I love it. But of the 14 million finishers annually in the American road racing scene, how many are trying to make the Olympic team? Most are people with jobs, spouses, kids, other interests, with restricted talent and biomechanics, and their age might be a problem, too. Of the bulk of these 14 million people, how many would ever be able to train like an elite runner? How many would have the time? How many would break into pieces? Most, I would guess, run because they love running. Most want to be able to do it for as long as they can. Sure, they might want to break a 3:30 marathon, or 40-minute 10k or whatever. But not at the expense of losing their job and their family.

Fitzgerald writes: “Ultimately, CFE ignores the history of training. See, we’ve already tried the interval-only approach. It was how Roger Bannister trained when he became the first person in history to run a mile in less than four minutes.But it’s not optimal for long-term success and there are more effective ways to train (which is why the Mile world record is now a staggering 3:43:13).”

The Roger Bannister story actually helps make a great case for CFE. He was a medical student that only had lunchtime to train. He’d go to the track and zap through a session of intervals and be done with it. And he ran a sub 4-minute mile. I don’t know about you, but I’d sure as hell take a sub-4. I bet Fitzgerald would too.

Fitzgerald apparently believes that the validation of a training program is that a world-class athlete has used it. But where’s the logic that all runners should train like world class athletes? Also, it should be said that there have been world-class athletes that have had elements in their programs similar to the elements in MacKenzie’s. Seb Coe (circuit training, speed endurance, low volume), Herb Elliot (gymnastics, weights), Prefontaine (strength work, running fast every run).

MacKenzie’s program subtracts junk miles and super long runs and leans on a wider portfolio of workouts: speed endurance work, mobility work, optimal form training, power work, CrossFit, nutrition, so that you’re overall training time can be decreased and you can run well off of less mileage, surely lowering your injury risk and probably lengthening your career.

I want to take a moment here to mention one of my favorite writers, Scott Douglas. I’ve been a fan of Douglas since his days in the 1990s when he was editor of Running Times. I was also a subscriber to the newsletter, “Running, Ranting and Racing” that he put out. He’s author of the new book, “The Runner’s World Complete Guide to Minimalism and Barefoot Running.” Douglas is a lifer when it comes to running, no doubt. I recall that he was a guy who religiously logged around 80-miles per week.

On April 8, Douglas reported this: “Later this afternoon I’m going to have surgery to repair my right peroneus brevis tendon. I had hoped to avoid ever being cut open for running-related reasons, but oh well. Once every 34 years and 100,000 miles seems acceptable.”

On the 10th, he wrote: “So, uh, things were worse in there than suspected. Both peroneal tendons were torn. The peroneus brevis was only about 20 percent intact, while the peroneus longus was 40 percent intact.”

I can commiserate with Scott because two years ago I was breaking down in a way that I wasn’t sure I would ever be able to run again. I hope Douglas will be able to get back on the roads. My years of high mileage helped me run a 2:38 marathon, but also engendered dozens of injuries over the years. To the point I was rarely a runner and mostly broken. Core strength training, chiropractic and most every remedy sent my way got me nowhere. Fitzgerald clearly has disdain for CrossFit, but I know for a fact that it saved me from the operating table and has allowed me to run again and feel like an athlete again.

What concerns me about a blog post like Fitzgerald’s is that it doesn’t really study the program MacKenzie offers. Nor does he talk the athletes that have used CFE. I have. This is what they say in an alarmingly similar pattern: ‘My injuries have gone and I just PR’d.’ One athlete told me that after using CFE for a few months, she went to visit her longtime physical therapist. “She said, ‘I can’t believe how much more mobility you have in the hips and legs. Whatever it is you’re doing, keep doing it.” This same athlete recorded her best Ironman times without using traditional 20-mile runs and 100-mile bike rides.

So there’s a there there for at least some people.  To trash a method that might be of value to someone out there frustrated and unable to enjoy running…well, I don’t get it. Why would you do that?

“Who needs well-rounded athleticism?” This is Fitzgerald’s 3rd “strike” against CFE. It’s in this particular point that I would encourage him to actually contact MacKenzie or a CrossFit Endurance coach, or athlete, so a clear understanding of what’s in the program can be gained.

He writes: “There are five fitness traits that define athleticism: Strength, Speed, Endurance, Flexibility, and Coordination according to Tudor Bompa, the ‘father of periodization theory,’ an Olympic rower, coach of multiple Olympic and World Championship medalists, and Professor Emeritus at York University.

“Unfortunately, CrossFit Endurance only prioritizes speed and power (and misunderstands that power is simply the combination of strength and speed).”

Incorrect. CrossFit workouts are designed to benefit areas ten “general physical skills.” They use olympic lifts, gymnastics, rowing, running, powerlifting to improve the following: cardiovascular/respiratory, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance and accuracy. Do CrossFit for three weeks and it’s likely that you’ll agree. MacKenzie’s training is angled more for endurance sports, but it incorporates this foundational approach. Along with diet as well.

Fitzgerald writes, “Every aspect of athleticism – or biomotor abilities – must be present in a good distance runner. This concept of ‘multi-lateral training’ focuses on the development of every component of fitness in planned balance. That’s why Dathan Ritzenhein skips, runs, and does power cleans.”

Uh. Yes. That’s what a CrossFit Endurance athlete does.

At any rate, there’s a Strike 4, Strike 5 and Strike 6. Hopefully I’ve made my point because this seems endless.

In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.