This morning I was sitting in the waiting room at the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine waiting to meet with one of the exercise physiologists on staff to gather information for an article I’m writing for Competitor Online about high-altitude endurance training. There was a print copy of the June issue handy, so I grabbed it and was immediately struck by the cover, which features the words “Run Less, Get Strong, Go Faster” alongside a photo of a grave-looking, heavily muscled guy who was apparently the mind behind this breakthrough. No longer quite as anxious to get into the performance lab, I flipped to the story, knowing I was about to be walloped with a load of bunk but curious as to whether it would be novel bunk. It wasn’t, but it pushed the limits of credulity all the same, at least as much on account of what it didn’t say as what it did.
The article, “Super Running,” describes the training philosophy — and I use that word very lightly here — of someone named Brian MacKenzie, a man of unstated age whose background is chiefly in powerlifting and skateboarding. MacKenzie is the founder of Crossfit Endurance, through which he propounds the idea that powerlifting, gymnastics movements, and 20-minute all-out “met-con” (metabolic conditioning) workouts are superior to classic high-mileage endurance training for many if not most people. He enjoys fighting with various interlocutors on the Internet about this using his iPhone. He’s described as someone who has finished ultramarathons, but that’s the extent of the detail provided about his running background, other than the fact that he once “did the volume stuff” and “doing big miles” to prepare for an Ironman triathlon, then hurt his plantar fascia and knee and became “a broken down runner” — the impetus for returning to the fanatical lifting of his youth.
Like numerous cranks and entrepreneurs before him (including, amusingly, longtime anti-mileage agitator Richard Gibbens, who is quoted liberally and whose name is misspelled throughout the piece) Mackenzie quizzically yet emphatically insists that just because the best runners in the world all train the same general way doesn’t necessarily mean that this is the best way for everyone. He claims that for some people, high mileage is, in the author’s words, “a one-way ticket to injury, plateaus, poor health, burnout and knee replacements.” Like a creationist who thinks that overturning evolution makes Christianity true by default, MacKenzie reckons that people who can’t run “high mileage” (and these cranks never specify what this means, for good reason) should instead focus on kettlebells, clean-and-jerk workouts, deadlifts, and wind sprints. It’s a bait-and-switch aimed at especially daft and deluded runners, the same types who believe in the benefits of magnetic bracelets and breathing strips.
There are a number of problems, big ones, with MacKenzie’s logic (another word I use very liberally here). For one thing, he, like everyone in his demented camp, views high-mileage training vs. low-mileage, high-intensity training as a dichotomy. As any experienced runner knows, this is spurious. When I was running well over 100 miles a week in preparation for my fastest marathons, I wasn’t just blindly pounding out those miles. I did fast, regular workouts — repeat 200s and 400s, indoor 3,000-meter races for the training stimulus, long intervals, tempo runs — that were supported by the endurance base all of those mileage has provided. Run a lot — whatever that means for you — and you’ll become stronger overall and better able to tolerate and take advantage of the faster running you do. Elite and midpack runners have posted their training logs all over the Web, and they all tell the same basic tale: Run more — within sane limits, of course — and get faster. Work cut-back weeks into your program (the MacKenzie types seem to view higher-mileage runners as single-minded, unsophisticated volume machines incapable of finesse), taper when you should, and you’ll thrive.
The running portion of Mackenzie’s 12-week triathlon program (and when I first looked at this I snickered out loud in a crowded waiting room) includes very little besides high-intensity intervals. It’s a prescription for learning to run intervals and virtually nothing else. No one going into such a program with an established fitness base will improve their times at 5K, to say nothing of ultras, for very long or at all on such a regimen. Were this possible, someone besides Mr. MacKenzie would have figured it out long ago. Contrary to what he and Richard Gibbens seem to believe, the low-mileage, high-intensity idea is no more revolutionary than it is visionary, or useful. (This is good for an eyebrow workout, too. balance beam, here we come!)
MacKenzie’s approach is predicated on the belief that technique and raw strength can compensate for mileage in runners who can’t handle much mileage. This is a category error. If someone is physically limited to running an amount of mileage that fails to maximally develop his aerobic capacity, this does not mean that he is optimally trained at that mileage. It does not mean that he can assemble those 40 or so miles in such a way as to compensate for this. It simply means that he breaks down and won’t ever be the runner he otherwise would be if he didn’t. A much better approach for such a specimen than trying to run a high proportion of his miles balls-out would be to hop on an elliptical trainer for a few hours a week. I’ve worked with older marathon runners with histories of multiple stress fractures who have done this and they have improved their performances.
The article mentions that there is scientific support for the idea that long, slow distance isn’t the only way to stimulate cellular adaptations, and that short intervals can increase aerobic capacity. This is a straw man in the extreme — a very weak attempt to bolster MacKenzie’s cred — and I need not explain why. No one has ever argued that easy distance runs are all that is needed to improve. Okay, so I did explain why, but only a little.
MacKenzie, like Gibbens, is clearly not an accomplished runner. But that’s not what damns the article. It’s that the article does not mention a single example of someone who has trained using MacKenzie’s methods and gotten good results. In fact, it doesn’t mention anyone besides Mackenzie himself who has trained this way, period. The article is merely a litany of his wrongheaded ideas, appended to the claim that these will one day be widely embraced. The last sentences in the article consist of a quote: “I really believe it’s the future. It may not be exactly what I’m teaching, but in one form or another, I think we’re going to see a change in how the elites train to be great.” Yes, and the world’s going to end on May 22, 2011. Mackenzie thinks that eventually, 2:10 marathoners will adopt his training scheme (or use it to get to 2:10). I don’t know why these cranks can’t see that if this were possible, there would already be at least a smattering of elite marathoners running 35 miles a week, all of it in short intervals and sprints. Marathons have been around for a while. If there were a better way to prepare for a long race than by running a long way as often as possible while recovering more often than breaking down, someone would have discovered it.
The author of the article, T.J. Murphy, is the editor of the magazine. A former 2:38 marathoner, Murphy admits in his June editor’s note to recoiling instinctively at the idea that low-to-absent mileage combined with explosive, powerlifting-style exercises and lots of sprinting could produce a better runner than a traditional program. He decided to open his mind, he says, more or less for the sake of being opened-minded, and because he has spent the last decade frustrated by injuries while trying to train in his usual, traditional way. While a program such as Crossfit might prevent certain overuse running injuries, this in no way implies that it will result in a fitter, faster runner. Getting to the starting line is obviously necessary in order to compete, but no one should delude himself into believing that making concessions to chronic injury translates into achieving equivalent quality in training. I probably couldn’t handle the 120- to 140-mile weeks I was running ten years ago, but I don’t pretend that whatever I can manage instead — no matter how many squats and dynamic powerlifts and lunges I knock out — is going to have me running like I did when I was training to my physical potential.
On the whole, this appears to be a case of an editor wanting to present an opposing viewpoint out of an understandable, but in this case misguided, sense of fairness. Sometimes, there aren’t two sides to a story. A quote from Carl Sagan is appropriate here: “They laughed at Columbus, they laughed at Fulton, they laughed at the Wright Brothers. But they also laughed at Bozo the Clown.”