Going Long Distance and CrossFit

By Coach Mike Flanagan 12/6/2020
In ancient times before CrossFit, I was a runner, and in recent years, I’ve picked the sport up again, and have been mixing my workouts to try to find the ideal balance between both sports.  I’m still convinced that if you have time for only one workout, you should choose CrossFit, since its unique mix of variation, strength, intensity, and mobility work is the closest you can come to the “perfect exercise.”   But I’m also convinced that most athletes will benefit from making time one day a week for a workout that is the ideal complement to CrossFit: the “long run.”   Hate running?  Don’t give up yet!  Here’s my case for “going long”:
  • It doesn’t need to be a “run.”  Any form of low-intensity aerobic exercise will do.  If you hate to run, you can bike, swim, row, or hike.  If you like the idea of running, but you are new to it, you can start with long walks and gradually “mix” in running via a run/walk program like this one.
  • It shouldn’t “hurt”!  When we’re programming metcons for class, our goal is almost always “high intensity”—we want athletes to push themselves hard and try to find their cardiovascular “red zone” of maximum effort relative to the time span of the workout.  The lesson of a well-paced WOD is that it’s ok to occasionally be uncomfortable, and that you’re probably capable of more than you might think. The goal of the long run is the opposite: you want to find a level of effort that is sustainable for extended periods of time, and by so doing, to realize that you can actually be comfortable even when you’re exercising.  The simple test here is “conversational pace”: if you’re breathing too hard to chat comfortably with a friend, you need to dial it back.
  • “Long” is relative.  For more seasoned runners, the “Long Run” is a specific “block” in a weekly training cycle—the idea that at least one run per week should comprise at least 20-25% of one’s weekly mileage.  But unless you’re specifically training for long distance races (say, 10K or more), you can start with something as short as 20-30 minutes, and gradually build/add from there.  With that said, you’ll start to see maximum benefits once you hit the 60 minute mark, if for no other reason than additional gains start to feel comparatively easy.   Some of this is just math–going from 2 miles to 3 is a 50% jump, but going from 6 to 7 is only 17%–but it’s also about perception: once you’ve been moving for an hour or more, what’s another 5-10 minutes?
  • Sometimes it’s good to be bored.   If your experience was anything like mine, your first CrossFit class was a blur of constant activity—from the opening warmup, to the instruction, to the WOD, and then cool down, every minute was accounted for—and it was also really interesting: all kinds of new terminology, equipment, and movements to learn.  But when you make a habit of the long run, sometimes it’s just you and your thoughts, and that’s ok.  Good coaches tell athletes to “listen to their body,” but it can be hard to listen if everything around you is motion and noise—sometimes a bit of slow repetitive motion can be the metronome you need to get in sync with your body and mind alike.
  • Making gains?  Think “saw blade,” not “ski slope.”  If, by chance, you wind up enjoying LSD (“long slow distance”) as much as I hope you do, your first impulse might be to start adding volume. That’s great, but make sure you use the same best practices we use when building strength training plans, and build in time for occasional “de-load weeks.”  This isn’t complicated: it just means that every 4th week, you should dial the time/distance back from 30-50% of your peak to give yourself time to recover.   If you’re charting the length of your runs over time, the pattern should look correspondingly “jagged”, like a saw blade. If it’s too smooth—like a “ski slope”—that means you’re not introducing enough rest, and that unrelenting climb could be putting you at risk of over-use injuries.
Again, the benefit of finding time to “go long” once a week isn’t to replace CrossFit, but to complement it, with a long-form, single movement, low-intensity effort.  And if you do find yourself making a habit of it, it’s nice to know that when our world returns to 5K races in our hometowns and someone invites you to join one, you’ll be able to say “yes,” and perhaps even think: “eh—that’s not that long.”

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