If your idea of a workout consists, as mine did, of a pleasant run and a few sit-ups, your first CrossFit session isn’t just a shock—it’s like being tased.
When the hell did this become marathon training?
For the past few minutes, I’ve been running 60-second gassers up Seattle’s Queen Anne Avenue, a stripe of urban asphalt so tilted that skiers often schuss down it on snow days. I’m testing a controversial endurance theory pushed by triathlete and trainer Brian MacKenzie, and by the second wind sprint I know I’m in trouble. By the third, I’m biting back the pre-barf taste of oysters and copper pennies. After the fourth, I crumple to the rush-hour sidewalk, splayed beneath Seattle’s pigeon-colored skies. Women walking home from work literally step over my heaving body. And to think that I’m supposed to do eight of these.
Sprints aren’t my only oddball activity. These things, too, count as marathon training: box jumps, shuttle runs, push-ups, burpees, squats, sumo deadlifts, medicine-ball tosses, back extensions, and a pile of pain I’d rather not remember called Fight Gone Bad—five tough exercises done in rapid rotation. I’ve swung a 50-pound kettlebell over my head (a dangerous, exhilarating feeling, like firing your first handgun) and done more pull-ups than I have since sixth grade, when I flunked that part of the presidential fitness test. I’ve also run lots and lots of wind sprints.
What I haven’t done is run very far. Just two months away from the starting gun for the third 26.2-mile race of my life, I’ve yet to do more than a single 10-miler.
I’m dubious that this regimen can work, but MacKenzie says my skimpy mileage sounds just about right. A 38-year-old skateboarding powerlifter turned Ironman competitor, he insists that most of us can train more efficiently for punishing distance sports—triathlons, marathons, even the Ironman—by doing less, but doing it much harder. MacKenzie wants you to stop slogging through all those long, low-wattage runs and century rides, replacing them with the brief, burning workouts he prescribes.
His plan, a sanctioned spin-off of the CrossFit boom called CrossFit Endurance, has been gaining popularity with everyone from Navy SEALs to amateur marathoners to stroller-rolling fitness moms, with more than 130 CFE groups popping up in cities worldwide since the program was devised five years ago. It’s also drawn criticism, often from distance pros who blast the San Rafael, California-based MacKenzie on discussion boards like LetsRun.com, where he’s been called an uncredentialed “clown” who pushes dubious ideas. MacKenzie, unfazed, fires back that long-and-slow training comes with problems of its own (including injuries, boredom, and wasted time) and that people who get beat up by long-slog programs—a fortysomething dad, say, grinding out a 16-mile run on knees creaky with fraying cartilage—need and deserve “another way up the mountain.”
But do MacKenzie’s tantalizing ideas deliver? As a 41-year-old, lifelong, injury-plagued runner, I wanted to know, and there was only one way to find out. I would read up on the science while serving as my own lab rat—a rat running inside a wheel that’s moving very, very fast.
IT’S EIGHT ON A Saturday morning in downtown Boulder, Colorado. People on Pearl Street are still rubbing Friday night from their eyes as more than 30 of us take our seats on folding chairs inside a CrossFit gym. Rubber mats carpet the floor. The faint sweaty-sock funk of old exertion is in the air. I’ve come to the nation’s endurance capital to attend one of MacKenzie’s weekend-long seminars on CFE and running technique.