Monday, April 4, 2011

CrossFit & Endurance Training - Liquid's Perspective

This one's been a long time coming, but with the number of articles and forum posts, fB status updates, as well as some recent race results that I can actually pin numbers to, it's time to answer if/how/has CrossFit helped my triathlon training.

The Backstory

Elizabeth and I first went to see Coach Dave in January 2010. My (now) wife wanted to be fit for our wedding in July, and several of her staff had seen great results through CrossFit programs.

I still remember the first "assessment" day and how the Tabata squat set left me crippled for the rest of the weekend. 4 minutes of exercise did to me what normally takes about 3 hours of racing.

Since that first day, we have been doing our daily WODs (that's Workout of the Day) at Pure Athletics / CrossFit North Vancouver. I can do 40 Kipping Pullups before failure, can deadlift over 300 pounds, and am oh-so-close to lifting my bodyweight over my head.

Since then I have been called a running maniac, Ironman, liquid, and stupid

How CrossFit has helped my triathlon training

I am allowed to make every second year an 'Ironman' year. 2007, my first time at IMC. 2009, I raced IM Coeur d'Alene and IM Canada. 2011 Ironman Canada (and the New York Marathon). 2013 Ironman Canada will fall on my 30th Birthday.

This rule exists for a couple of reasons, but mostly because my wife would like to see me every once in a while. And that is the hardest part about Ironman training, especially when one partner can train and race, and the other does not. The time commitment of endurance training can easily take its toll on any relationship (and we all know people for whom this has been the case).

Elizabeth and I cannot go for a run together. I quite literally run twice as fast as her. But at CrossFit North Vancouver, we can share a workout. Yes, she hates to get up for a 7 am class, and yes, I could probably fit in a 2-hour workout in the time it takes to drive to the box, do the WOD, and drive home.

But if 5 hours per week of travel and Crossfitting gives me leave to do my long rides and runs, I'll take it.

If you didn't read my riveting post on the 30-day Paleo Diet Challenge, here's a link.

I'll be honest, I like bread, I like cookies, and I haven't finished reading the copy of The Paleo Solution that I won from the challenge.

But I no longer need cream and sugar to enjoy my coffee.

And I'm drinking as much water every day as I can. And I take a container of homemade trail mix every day to work (Save-On-Foods has an awesome bulk section). Mostly nuts and dried fruit, but there are also some butterscotch chips in there.

Being in an environment that at least gets me thinking about my nutrition on a day-to-day basis helps me make better choices when I'm rushed, exhausted, or just plain lazy.

Technique and Stability

Correct form is an important focus in all my athletic endeavors. I have re-trained my running stride around the principles of evolution/natural running. I took Pilates for 2 years to improve my knee tracking. I've done repeats going down Spanish Banks to improve my descending and corning skills.

When we first started at CFNV, the coaches stressed the importance of proper technique in all the movements, be they Olympic lifts or gymnastics. For some workouts, the best technique is the quickest way to complete the movement, for others, it is not.

It's not that I wasn't strong, but muscling through a movement, I was told, would lead to minimal improvement. Doing a workout at a light weight, with perfect technique, is the only way to eventually improve over the long-term.

You've got to be able to run slowly efficiently in order to run fast. You've got to be able to hold a line at 10 kph before descending safely at 60 kph.

And you've got to be able to deadlift a wooden dowel before lifting 300 lbs.

For the past year, I haven't had to contend with injury or excessive fatigue. I no longer have pain in my hip or knee after a long run. All I need is the occasional icepack and nap, and I'm fine. I don't attribute this entirely to strength training of course. But, my CrossFit coaches and fellow athletes, like my friends in the triathlon community, stress the importance of recovery and understand that consistent quality workouts trump needless volume (define this one as you will - Ironman training still requires a lot of volume!)

But has it made me faster?

Ah, the critical question, and the one that has plagued the internet ever since CrossFit and triathlon met.

Does high intensity anaerobic training actually make an endurance athlete faster? Can one train for an Ironman (and to compete, not just complete) on under 10 hours of training a week? Or would that athlete be better off spending his or her time focusing on more swimming, biking, and running?

Here are my thoughts
I try to run four times a week, bike three, and swim three. Sometimes more, often less. And I'm pretty happy with the duration of each workout (I'll rebel if my coach ever prescribes a 2-hour track workout). For me, I am finding a way to fit in CrossFit workouts around and in addition to my S, B, R responsibilities, and for the time being I'm happy with the balance.

Can an athlete compete at the Ironman distance on the 10 hours / week that is espoused on the net? I don't think so, but if you sponsor an Ironman training year for me I'll sure as hell try. While I'm paying the cash for my races, though, I'll stick to the tried-and-true method of combining endurance and intensity in my training. How many runners have you seen with 10 kilometers to go in a marathon, slowing down because their brain quit before their body did?

All that said, I do actually have 2 data points that I can compare from the April Fool's Half-Marathon, 2010 and 2011.

2010 - Finishing time of 1:22:54. Had been going to CFNV for 3 months; in the middle of training for the BMO Marathon. Purposefully took the second half of the race 'lighter' so as to train my marathon pace of 4:05 per km.

2011 - Finishing time of 1:17:10. Over 5 minutes faster. Raced everything I had, and knew the course. Found that I was well prepared to give a bit of extra gas on the flats and downhills, and recover just below my threshold afterwords. The uphills were not so fast, but they didn't leave me shattered or gassed-out either.

I am truly grateful to the team at Pure Athletics for the part they play in my lead up to Ironman Canada 2011, and for letting me kick some ass whenever there's a run as part of the WOD.

I could easily imagine a CrossFit environment where this couldn't happen, where it was all about the Workout Of the Day and triathletes and other "fringe" athletes were not as "fit" as they thought they were.

I have yet to encounter any fringe athletes at Pure Athletics. Although if they pass me a 20 lb medicine ball at the finishing cute of Ironman Canada (as has been suggested by a few), I will (not so politely) decline.

So, I'll continue to swim, I'll ride long, and I'll run far. And I'll do my wall balls, clean & jerks, and KB swings. I'll let you know how it goes at the end of August.

~ liquid

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