Skill And Capacity for Runners

Pick up your pitchforks, runners: I’m going to start with the heresy again.
Here I sit, a guy who’s never finished a marathon; who’s never ‘raced’ at a local event; whose subscription to Runner’s World ran out in 1992 (the articles are all still the same, anyway.) Who the heck am I – Coach Coop to a mere few hundred people locally – to tell YOU anything about running?
To paraphrase an old cliche about art, I don’t know much about runnin‘, but I know what I like. And what I like is work capacity. In fact, I like it so much, I develop it in people for a living.
Work – let’s just call it Capacity, okay? – is your ability to do something tough for a given timeframe. That tough thing may be running; it may be lifting weights; it may be calisthenics or gymnastics or Jiu-Jitsu or even holding your breath. These activities look very different from the outside.
Your heart, though, doesn’t know the difference. It knows “rest easy”; it knows, “go a bit faster”; it knows “attack speed”; and it knows “Hit the M1 button on the phone! Now! Listen for sirens!”  The response is common to – and can be triggered by – any of the above, when delivered in the correct dose.
This big bubble of Capacity can be stretched, of course. It can be lengthened; it can be pulled up from the top. The dose determines its shape AND its size. But while the Capacity bubble is pretty awesome, it’s not magical.
Will running for 30 minutes improve your Capacity to run for 30 minutes? Yep.  So will ANY activity that creates a higher heart rate than normal over that same timespan. Doesn’t matter how the heart rate goes up – any stress-inducing stimulus will do it. What’s important is that your heart rate and metabolism rise above your current comfort level. That’s true whether you’re running to improve your running, or hitting a CrossFit WOD. Running below that level will not force improvement, and neither will doing a million reps on the leg press.
Skill, though, is specific to the sport. Harder running won’t make you a better gymnast or Olympic Lifter. Your “cardio” workouts on the elliptical trainer don’t make you a better striker, sadly. We believe the POSE method is best for runners; others disagree; some aren’t even in the conversation. What’s important, though, is that you’re spending a large portion of your training time working to improve your technique.
In other sports – tennis, volleyball, weightlifting, car racing, CrossFit – technique forms the basis of practice from the earliest introduction through the pro ranks. When it’s time to start running, though….most just, um, like….go running? I was a part of this overwhelming majority for years, and it’s myself I’m ridiculing here. It’s taken for granted that because we walk a lot, we must be good at that OTHER foot thing, because, like, running is just FAST walking, right? Right?
Not quite. Running is a skill. We work to develop that skill in our Enduro groups. We build a runner the way we build a lifter, or a gymnast: learn the technique, practice in a fun way, and refine. Many others make a career talking about this stuff, but NO expert suggests that practicing running technique is a BAD idea. We’re certified by CrossFit Endurance, who are leading the anaerobic charge in many ways.
And now, of course, the elephant in the room: how does a 10-minute CrossFit workout improve my running time in a 10k race?
Remember that bubble, and how we said it could be pulled up from the top? As it turns out, elevating your heart rate above its ‘average’ level – that’s ‘average while running,’ not resting – also helps it operate for longer at a LOWER, slower rate. But hey, don’t take our word for it: there’s a TON of science to back me up on this stuff:
Explosive-strength training improves 5-km running time by improving running economy and muscle power. J Appl Physiol. 1999 May;86(5):1527-33.
 Burgomaster KA, Hughes SC, Heigenhauser GJ, Bradwell SN, Gibala MJ. Six sessions of sprint interval training increases muscle oxidative potential and cycle endurance capacity in humans. J Appl Physiol. 2005 Jun;98(6):1985-90.
Burgomaster KA, Heigenhauser GJ, Gibala MJ. Effect of short-term sprint interval training on human skeletal muscle carbohydrate metabolism during exercise and time-trial performance. J Appl Physiol. 2006 Jun;100(6):2041-7.
Gibala MJ, Little JP, van Essen M, Wilkin GP, Burgomaster KA, Safdar A, Raha S, Tarnopolsky MA. Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol. 2006 Sep 15;575(Pt 3):901-11.
Esfarjani F, Laursen PB. Manipulating high-intensity interval training: effects on VO2max, the lactate threshold and 3000 m running performance in moderately trained males. J Sci Med Sport. 2007 Feb;10(1):27-35.
Burgomaster KA, Howarth KR, Phillips SM, Rakobowchuk M, Macdonald MJ, McGee SL, Gibala MJ. Similar metabolic adaptations during exercise after low volume sprint interval and traditional endurance training in humans. J Physiol. 2008 Jan 1;586(1):151-60.
McNicol AJ, O’Brien BJ, Paton CD, Knez WL. The effects of increased absolute training intensity on adaptations to endurance exercise training. J Sci Med Sport. 2008 Aug 30.
Iaia FM, Hellsten Y, Nielsen JJ, Fernström M, Sahlin K, Bangsbo J. Four weeks of speed endurance training reduces energy expenditure during exercise and maintains muscle oxidative capacity despite a reduction in training volume. J Appl Physiol. 2009 Jan;106(1):73-80.
To demonstrate this opinion, a few us are running a marathon on July 1. Using only CrossFit-style training – and NO “long runs,” or ANY runs longer than our Midnight 5k Fundraiser this weekend – we’re going to try to demonstrate that we’ve got the capacity to do 26.2, with or without the skill.
The best part? CrossFit and running aren’t exclusionary, but complementary. You don’t HAVE to run four times per week to get better at running; you can do some fun stuff instead. You can build some muscle. You can learn things that are vastly more interesting. You can lose more fat.
5638390415_4dcdc4b011_z By now, you may be asking: “If this stuff is so great…if it actually DOES work…why have I never read about it in a Running magazine?” Well….it doesn’t sell shoes, does it? Here’s one, at least, that’s in the conversation.
Just flat-out LIKE running? That’s awesome. We do a little program to help runners become better runners, called Enduro. It starts again tomorrow night.
Hate running? I’m with you. My ADHD brain wriggles and yawns on every step. I sure like how I feel afterward, though, so I do it. Enduro has helped make it less painful for me, too.
There’s always another way.  This is ours.

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