The CrossFitting Runner: Interview with Ultrarunner Christian Griffith

From Crossfit.com’s article “What Is CrossFit?

“Our program delivers a fitness that is, by design, broad, general, and inclusive. Our specialty is not specializing. Combat, survival, many sports, and life reward this kind of fitness and, on average, punish the specialist.”

I’ve been a regular CrossFitter since an affiliate opened near my home in the Summer of 2008.  I was in training for a November marathon at the time, so the problem of getting the two to play nicely together quickly became a reality for me.  I think you can get by with CrossFit and minimal weekly running and easily complete (but not necessarily PR) a 5K or 10K.  That is not really the case when it comes to a half-marathon or longer distance.  At that point, you do need to “specialize” somewhat if you want to be able to walk the next day!  I feel this is especially important if you aren’t a long-time runner who has years of distance runner under your belt.

CrossFit has a program for this: CrossFit Endurance founded by Brian MacKenzie.  This training is geared towards the swimmer, cyclist or runner who wants to do both races and CrossFit and have a life at the same time.  It features sport-specific workouts training in addition CrossFit strength workouts.  CFE is a minimalist program as far as mileage is concerned.  It is hard to find exact information on how to follow the program as it relates to specific running distances races (e.g. an official CFE marathon training plan) IMO.  This is probably because they want you to pay $1000 for the certification course (can’t knock their hustle!).   However from the various blogs, forums etc that I read, the claim is that you can run an ultramarathon with as little as little as a 13 mile long run under your belt.  Granted, it will probably be the most miserably hard 13 miles of your life, but that is the claim.

Now that I’ve given a little background, I thought I’d get the perspective of an actual ultrarunner who just happens to be a CrossFitter.  Christian Griffith documented his journey to his first 100 miler on his blog “Run 100 Miles.”  He has since conquered that distance several times over and he still maintains sweet marathon and half-marathon times as well.  I was reading one his race reports and he made the following statement:  “For the first time since I started running ultramarathons, I actually trained like a runner.  Not a weightlifter. Not a Crossfitter.  Not a less-is-more, pathetic rationalizer; but, a real runner.  Someone who actually runs.  A lot.  And low and behold, it works.”

As an aspiring ultrarunner who wants to continue CrossFitting, that statement naturally intrigued me.  I was very curious about how he approached doing CrossFit while putting in serious mileage.  Christian was kind enough to answer my questions.  Look out for a follow-up post where I discuss my own experience doing both and how I’m prioritizing things now that I’m training for an ultramarathon.

How long have you been doing CrossFit?

Since 2008

How long have you been running?  What type of weekly mileage do you typically average?

Since 2006. My weekly mileage is all over the board, but I’m currently training for UTMB in the Alps and therefore my training mileage is currently up to about 60 miles a week, and may reach 100 before I begin my taper in August.

What is your opinion of CrossFit Endurance?  Have you ever implemented a CrossFit Endurance style training plan for any of your races?

I tried really hard to get on board. I took the certification from Bmac and Carl when they first started doing them.  Learning POSE changed my running completely and helped me run faster, longer. That is the biggest take-away for me.

I also agree with CFE that becoming a stronger athlete makes a better runner; and while my training makes it difficult to follow WODs to RX right now, my gym staples are still CF type movements (pull-ups, push-ups, squats, overhead squats, wall ball, etc….)

However, when it comes to the limited amount of prescribed running, and the belief that “no more 13 miles is necessary for 100-mile training”, I just can’t subscribe to that. I strongly believe that time-on-the-feet is key in ultrarunning.

[Ed Note: BMac = CrossFit Endurance Founder Brian MacKenzie.  Also, the POSE method is a style of running that encourages a "ball of foot footstrike with heel slightly off the ground" to reduce injury and produce more efficient running.]

How do you personally combine CrossFit workouts and running workouts?

On “core” days, my coach allows me to fit in CrossFit, so currently, only once or twice a week, but I’ll do Fran, or a sort hybrid, made-up WOD that has me moving quickly, powerfully, and with functional movements that are closely related to what will help me during difficult mountain trail ultras. Thrusters, Overhead Squats, Burpees, Pull-ups…

Do you feel that CrossFit metcon type workouts help improve your running performance at certain distances?  For example, can embracing the pain and intensity of “Fran” help you deal with the pain and intensity experienced when gunning for a fast 5K?

Yes.  I think all kinds of suffering, and overcoming, create a frame of reference from which to pull from during a difficult event. 5Ks can be worse than ultras because of the all-out pace for 3.1 miles

[Ed Note: Fran is a CrossFit benchmark workout consisting of 21-15-9 reps of Thrusters and Pullups. The CrossFit superstars do this whole workout in 2 minutes or less. It takes me less than 6 minutes to complete but I have to scale down. Scaled or not, it is the worst 6 minutes of life - no matter how easy it sounds on paper. ]

How do you deal with DOMS from CrossFit workouts and running?  Do you avoid doing certain moves prior to certain runs to head off potential soreness?  Or do you feel running through DOMS is potentially good “dead legs” training?

I’m on the fence. Sometimes when my legs are dead from squats, I end up having a good run. I think the perception is that short, mincy steps running up a mountain still feels easier than driving up 135# and then finishing overhead (thruster), or 95 lb OH squats.

What sorts of strength training moves/lifts do you feel are most valuable for runners?  Do you think being able to put up a good back squat or deadlift translates to being able to handle the rigors of trail or hilly running?

I believe most of the CF movements are good because they are functional and make a better all-around athlete. It’s really a matter of managing the intensity for me so as to not overtrain. My favorite CF movements as they relate to running mountains are:

- Thrusters
- Burpees
- Overhead Squats
- Oly Lifts (Deadlifts, Cleans)
- Hanging knees to elbows
- Glute/Ham work
- Wall Balls
- Box Jumps

to name just a few staples…

Many thanks to Christian for taking the time to answer my questions from a “been there done that” perspective!  If you are a CrossFitter who is serious about long-distance running as well, I hope you learned something useful.  I know I did!

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3 Responses to The CrossFitting Runner: Interview with Ultrarunner Christian Griffith

  1. claire says:

    I always wondered about how you fit in both Crossfit and running long distances. This is really good information, and a great interview. Good work!

  2. nashley says:

    thanks for this info! I’ve definitely been trying to figure out how to manage both!

  3. Christian says:

    Wow. You are a really great writer.

    Thank you for the sharing my experiences with your group and I appreciate the opportunity to talk more about Crossfit and how it can fit for ultrarunners. When I first mentioned Crossfit in the running arena, people thought it was just another ‘fad’, but the rapid growth of adoption coupled with a huge collection of fit athletes has definitely made the endurance community take notice.

    Thanks again and good luck with your training and racing.


    Christian Griffith
    http://run100miles.com

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