There is No Shortcut to Long Distance Endurance

By t. | In Articles, Training | on December 18, 2013

sprinter_vs_distanceThere is so much misinformation floating around on fitness and nutrition it is not difficult to see why so many people are conned into diets and exercise programs that do not work.  In contrast, there is also so much good information available, there is almost no reason to get pulled into programs that do not work and diets that do not get results.  Sometimes it only takes a small bit of research to find out what works and what does not.

So what if someone told you could do CrossFit, run a few sprints each week, and you develop an endurance base and be able run races as fast as those “silly” runners who run all those meaningless miles?  That would great, wouldn’t it?  It would mean you would almost be getting something for nothing.  A quick and easy shortcut to establishing a solid endurance base would be awesome.  If it were true, every CrossFitter you know with a 3 minute Fran and a sub six minute mile would be a world class runner.  So why are they are not? I will explain why in depth, but a big part of it is is they too fell for the hype and promise of a shortcut to endurance.  Nothing is free kids…

tI have used the high intensity / low volume running training in my programming for years.  Sprints were a major part of my training while in the military and their benefits I knew well.  CrossFit Wilmington hosted the CrossFit Endurance cert for the first time in 2008 and like all the seminars I attend, I take the applicable information and apply it appropriately.  Since, I have attended it twice more.  Each time I learned something, but the first, taught by Brian McKenzie, was by far the best.  I give him credit for changing my mind about whether or not I would be able to run again after fracturing my vertebrae.  I was still limping and in a lot of pain then, but the short distance and POSE running made it possible for me to ease back into running and manage the pain.

There are three things the CF Endurance style training potentially does well; develops speed in the short distance, increases VO2 Max, and helps maintain an already established endurance base.  Also note, that in well trained endurance athletes whose training lacks speed work, it can improve their endurance.  That is because their training lacks the short work and their long work gets a boost, at least initially, from adding a new stimulus, but not because sprints increase endurance specifically.  So ovbiously, if you practice sprints, you will most likely get better at sprinting.  Secondly, speed work does increase VO2 Max and increasing your VO2 Max will aid in improving your aerobic, but there is ceiling.  VO2 Max is genetically dictated and is less of a factor, per individual, than other factors…  like training stimuli and diet. The third thing, and the thing CrossFit and strength coaches need to understand, is the CFE style training can do a good job of maintaining an already established endurance base…  especially during a Metcon laden CrossFit program.

I have, in certain training cycles, personally been able to maintain my already established endurance base with the CFW template.  But it took careful planning and programming.  I have done quite a few endurance events while following an high intensity / low volume program including a half distance IronMan that I only trained three weeks for.  Read about that experience here.  I have not been able to expand or improve my, or any other athlete’s, endurance with the short distance template.   If just does not work that way.

Before I go any further, I think we should define endurance.  Most CrossFitters think a 5k or even a 2 mile run is endurance activity.  Let’s not be so silly…  those are both lactate threshold runs.  In fact, endurance athletes consider a 5k a sprint or even a warm up.

Webster’s definition of endurance is: noun \in-ˈdu̇r-ən(t)s, -ˈdyu̇r-, en-\
: the ability to do something difficult for a long time
: the ability to deal with pain or suffering that continues for a long time
: the quality of continuing for a long time

Long time, long time, long time… all three include that term.  But of course,  a long time is relative.  A nine year old with ADHD might say 5 minutes is long time.  There are many forty year old husbands that would argue ten minutes is a long time…  their wives probably do not share their that belief.  We CrossFitters think 15 minutes is long time (lots of hard reps and done in 8, hell yeah!).  Track athletes think a half marathons take a long time and Marathoners think Ultras take a long time.  Some of us think endurance is measured in days, not hours.  Again, it is relative.

Endurance Fig

So what is the definition of an endurance activity? Weightlifting defines the standards of the lifts (though it does seem many in CrossFit do not know you cannot press out), so in like fashion we should look to the endurance sports community for their definition…

Most in the endurance community agree that endurance events are at least ninety minutes long.  That means a half distance marathon, International or Olympic distance triathlon, or half century cycle are the basic starting points for legitimate endurance tests.  But why?

It has more to do with physiology than the distance.  A “fully carbed” adult can store roughly 500 grams (2000kcal) of glycogen…  400 grams in muscle cells and 100g in the liver. There is typically another 20-30 grams in the blood.  It is generally between sixty and ninety minutes when most conditioned* endurance athletes can deplete all of this.  So the general thought is, going beyond the body’s limits of glycogen stores is endurance.  A example…  the “Sprint Triathlon”.  They last about an hour for most folks…  they are called a sprint by the endurance community.  Make sense?TAYLOR PARK, Colo. -- Soldiers from A Co., 3rd Battalion, 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne), conduct their culmination exercise here, Jan. 22. The Green Berets from Fort Carson spent two days in the woods of the Gunnison National Forest performing team movements. (Photo by Staff Sgt. Michael R. Noggle)

The only people I have witnessed performing well at endurance events while following the minimalist / CF Endurance approach are those who have solid endurance bases.  The reason they (myself included) do OK with this type of training is their bodies and, more importantly, their minds, remember their previous endurance base.

When a new athletes attempt to develop endurance with a CF Endurance template are training their bodies to fail at endurance. Stimuli elicits adaptation.  So the when we run sprints we elicit adaptations, both physiological and bio-mechanical, to sprinting.  Going beyond the kindergarten level argument short, fast work improves technique (improving technique improves technique… distance notwithstanding) and looking at the physiology of sprints we can easily identify why it does not work.

When we do high intensity exercise in the glycolytic energy system, which includes most CrossFit metcons and sprint work, our bodies quickly learn to burn glycogen at the rate needed for high intensity work.  In other words, WE BURN OUR GLYCOGEN STORES UP VERY QUICKLY to match the intensity.  To be proficient at endurance, our bodies have to be efficient at burning glycogen and NOT burn it all up in less than 2 miles.  The only way to train the body to be efficient in the oxidative (aerobic) energy system is to train in it.  That is why CrossFitters and CrossFit Endurance followers’ can do 400 meter repeats at 1:05 but only complete 5Ks in 25 minutes and walking-slow paced five and a half hour Marathons.Tom_WithoutLimits

So how can you do it better?  First, look to the professionals.  If I want to squat more, I ask a Pro lifter for help.  So if you want to get better at endurance, ask someone who has a sub 3:30 marathon, 10 hour IronMan, or at least someone with a sub 17 minute 5k.  They obviously know something about their sport.  Better yet, find a coach who has more than 10 athletes that fit at least one of the above billets… preferably the one you would like to excell at.

If doing CrossFit and strength work while attempting to developing your endurance base, you need to follow a program that is designed to support that goal.  Following the “any asshole” (workouts any asshole can make up) workouts most CrossFit gyms put up and haphazardly follow CrossFit Endurance’s daily WODs or worse, “any asshole’s” CF Endurance styled WODs then you are asking for trouble.  Overtraining can/will occur and not only will you not improve your endurance base, but you will also degrade your overall work capacity and strength.

It may seem like I am picking on the CrossFit Endurance program a bit.  I am…  but only because they have not done a very good job explaining how to scale their program up for longer distances.  Most CrossFit coaches that use their template have mistakenly interpreted the short course work as a blanket template for endurance work.  There is formula for increasing the CFW program distances to meet the long course and the ultra distance races.  CrossFit coaches seem to conveniently overlook or ignore it…  at the detriment of their athletes.


I don’t have an “Endurance Program” at CrossFit Wilmington.  I have a concurrent program that is carefully designed to match stimuli with recovery.  We post an endurance supplement to our program three times a week that is specifically and carefully designed to match our programming cycle.  We post the short course work, but I tell my members and athletes, if they are training for an event longer than 5k, they need to meet with me to get the long course variation.In other words, I train my endurance athletes specifically to their race date and their race distance.  What do not do, is use a bastardized, scaled version of OPT, Invictus, Outlaw, or other outsourced programming and throw some sprints on top for “fun”.  That isn’t training, it is irresponsible and dangerous to your members.

If you understand the physiology, endurance training is not that difficult and if you understand physiology beyond ninth grade biology level, you know sprints will never develop legitimate endurance.  The bottom line is experience trumps theory.  There are too many folks out there teaching and preaching a theory that does not work.  If it did, why in hell are the top endurance athletes doing it?  I know it doesn’t because I actually have that exact experience under my belt and… I think more of my members and athletes to waste their time on theory.

3 Comments to "There is No Shortcut to Long Distance Endurance"

  • Monty says:

    December 18, 2013 at 9:32 pm -

    Good article Tony. Training definitely has to conform to the SAID principle. If you want better endurance you have to apply specific training for all of the enzymatic, mitochondrial and cardiovascular adaptations to occur.
    No matter what your goal there are specific physiological principle that are law.
    I think some of the misinformation has come from assumptions and gurus getting in the way of truth

  • t. says:

    December 19, 2013 at 12:36 pm -

    No doubt Monty. In the the case of endurance, I think the CrossFit community wants badly to believe in the short / intense work, but it just doesn’t work that way.

    1. Tim says:

      January 14, 2014 at 3:47 am -

      Great article Tony, I’ve followed CFE and found success up to 1.5-2hr events (such as half marathon, which is ironically when glycogen is used up) but anything above this, I feel as though the CFE programming needs some ‘altering’ which I’ve never known how to do (despite doing the cert) or no one has any idea how to do….until now
      I also read your ‘incorporating endurance into crossfit’ article (which was great) and was wondering if you had any recommendations on altering the CFE weekly training program (or even the program you proposed) for tri-athletes when going above this 1.5-2hr limit?