A few years ago, just over 5 to be more specific, I ran my first, and prior to this year, only ultramarathon. My reasons for doing so were the same as a lot of peoples’; to prove to myself that I could. It was a 40 mile run through the Lake District, from Keswick to Barrow-in-Furness. It tested me mentally, and physically, but it didn’t break me. This was an accomplishment, no doubt, but actually, when I examine the build up in a more objective manner, it was only the realisation of a period of semi-specific training.
At the time, I was training CrossFit, a lot, BUT I was running even more. I ran 5 or more times every week, with quite a rigid plan, using CrossFit as a supplement to my running. I weighed considerably less than I do now, and my strength and gymnastic abilities were much lower. I was still very proud of my achievement, but on reflection, the success was, barring any freak injury or illness etcetera, predictable.
Fast forward four and a half years, and I’ve spent the time since that run changing my training and lifestyle to be less endurance focused, and more concentrated on a well rounded fitness, closer to the ideal espoused by CrossFit, and subsequently drilling this ideal into my clients, both on classes, and those I train one to one.
Well rounded Fitness.
I have become increasingly confident of the fact a solid, well rounded base in fitness can prepare you to perform at the extremes, whereas too specific a regime can lead you to fail just the other side of average from what you are training for. Think Mo Farrah competing in a powerlifting contest, or perhaps Eddie Hall in a 10k run? Enough theory and conjecture, regardless of how well founded the thinking was. It was time to put this to the test. As of last November, when I received the generous gift of a season pass to a company that runs endurance events, I committed to test myself against my own teachings, and the theories of those who I read and ingested on a regular basis.
The first event I was registered to race was the Ultra Tour of Arran in April. This was a two day event, with each day consisting of approximately 30 miles of mixed terrain running, and the second day in particular boasting some gnarly climbs. This could be described as jumping in at the deep end! I decided to stick with strength training, but to build a long distance base for this first event, and then to rely on that base throughout the year, with no more specific long distance training. For this first event, I built up my long distance runs to 24 miles, running 2 or 3 times per week in total. I focused heavily on hill work and technique, seeking to refine my cadence and gait. I kept my strength right up, barely losing any throughout the process. This was in direct contrast to my approach almost 5 years before, when my strength had almost completely vanished. I did sacrifice the mixed modal and skill portions of my training, and inevitably lost ground in these areas. This year’s CrossFit Games Open was testament to that! That said, I crossed the start line on day 1 at a hefty 93kg, and trotted my way off around Arran. I held my own, and managed to waddle my way to the start line again ready to take on day 2. I was sore, there’s no hiding from that, but I got through the second, much tougher, day, and had begun to prove to myself that I was capable of holding my own in the endurance community, without the specialised training.
Rat Race’s Dirty Weekend
Skip a month into the future, and I’m on the start line of Rat Race’s Dirty Weekend. Unlike the majority of the 7000 racers that day though, I’d signed up to to 2 laps. That meant 40 miles, and over 400 obstacles. This would be the first time I’d run that distance since Keswick to Barrow 5 years previous. Despite the extremely demanding course, and the myriad of physically and psychologically demanding obstacles, and the sheer distance, I crossed the finish line in one piece. Prior to this race, my training had consisted of one long ‘maintenance’ run of 13 miles, and standard CrossFit classes at my gym. For those slightly less familiar with CrossFit as a training methodology, this varies from short, heavy, intense workouts lasting a few minutes, to those much lighter, much longer workouts over 20 minutes, and everything in between. There is also a good dose of technique and skill work thrown in for good measure. So far, so good. I’d maintained that base, even with no dedicated distance work, and that body weight strength work, particularly under fatigue, had stood me in good stead on some of the more physically challenging obstacles!
Man vs Coast & Man vs Lakes
Next up was a close double header. First was Man vs Coast in early July, closely followed by Man vs Lakes 2 weeks later. These were billed as 23+ and 28+ miles respectively, but turned out to be nearer 25 and 31. With one almost marathon, and one short ultramarathon, both over tough terrain, this would indeed be a test of my resilience and recovery. The first race went well. I pushed a little hard, a little too early, on what was an exceptionally hot day, but I crossed the line feeling strong, if a little warm. The second race went very differently, with me hitting the wall under 4 miles in, and changing my tactics from striving for my own best, to just finishing the event. I did finish, but was deflated slightly by what I considered to be a sub-par performance.
I reflected on what I considered to be a poor showing, and decided that my nutrition, with a lack of sleep thrown in for good measure, to be the main contributor to my result. I therefore made these two things much more of a focus heading into my final individual race of the season; Man vs Mountain. A near marathon that summits Mount Snowdon, with some leg-cramping climbs along the route. With a well fueled, well rested body heading in, I felt good at the start, and great the whole way round. This was, on feel alone, my most successful run of the year. My running through these last 3 races has been down to once every 7-14 days, outside of CrossFit classes. None of these runs has exceeded 10 miles in distance.
Having run all of these events, varying between 22 and 40 miles, with over 5000ft climbed in some of them, the one thing I can confidently look back on and say is I recovered better than most of the ‘runners’ who completed the events. Ok, so me saying most is actually just conjecture, but most of those I see, or keep up with on social media. There’s an overriding consensus that 5-7 days rest is required in order to start training with meaning again. It is my assertion that this is a result of the training programmes these athletes follow and NOT the events in which they race. It is my belief that the increased strength training, consistently moving through a full range of motion, and often at high intensity, is largely responsible for the faster than average recovery times I experience. Whilst I cannot fully assess the recovery of those I mention, and I certainly don’t expect anyone to take this as irrefutable evidence, I have been able to confidently assess my own ability to recover. After each of the aforementioned events, I have taken one rest day, during which I have performed some sort of active recovery, for example a walk, and then resumed my normal training schedule the day after. On every occasion, I have lifted at, or usually well above, 90% of my maximum in a large, compound, lower body dominated lift. The only exception to this is today, 4 days after I completed Man vs Mountain. I have taken 3 full days off, because I was ill (suspected food poisoning) and unable to work. Today is my first day back, and I equalled my all time best push jerk. Admittedly, this is not lower body dominated, but I’d contest it still shows more than adequate recovery, especially with a rather nasty illness taken into account.
So what point am I trying to make? Am I claiming supernatural recovery powers? No. Maybe I have superior athletic ability? No. (You can look me up on the CrossFit Games Open leaderboard for the past few years to confirm my average status). Do I know some nutritional superfoods that as yet are secret to the rest of you? No. The claim I am making is simple; training constantly varied, high intensity, functional movements, whilst eating meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar, most of the time, will make you able to hold your own at one extreme of the fitness spectrum - the endurance end. I am NOT claiming that you’ll be able to achieve dominance here with this approach, far from it. I acknowledge and admire the work that the world’s leading endurance athletes put in to push the boundaries of human endurance. But if you want to take part in, and enjoy some of these events occasionally, without having to sacrifice endless hours to pounding the pavement, and do so with a lower chance of injury, then it is fully achievable. You can absolutely maintain a well rounded health and fitness level that is far above average, and will exceed that of the endurance community, whilst still being able to show up and take part in their events, with confidence.
2018 was one of self-experimentation, with a definite theme of putting my money where my mouth is. This year I plan on doing exactly the same, in the complete opposite direction. I plan on entering powerlifting, weightlifting and strongman competitions without training specifically for them. There are no secrets here, I will build a base, just as I did with endurance this year, by programming a strength dominated cycle for 2-3 months to begin with, at the expense of some conditioning work. Once that is complete though, I will revert to training only CrossFit classes, supplemented by some technique work on the lifts required. I make no promises, and enter this phase with no expectations. I am though, very excited to see the results of my experiment and find out if I can truly hold my own in the strength community, with a CrossFit based programme.
Brief analysis and results
As the tables below illustrate, I did indeed get it wrong for Man vs Lakes. I’m willing to consider this an anomaly, maybe through ego, but at least in part because I knew it wasn’t a great event for me far before the results were visible. That aside, it’s worth noting that Rat Race’s events are as inclusive as endurance events can be, and so this measurement is most definitely against a broad selection of participants, and not a competitive endurance community, though clearly that community has some representation. Also worthy of note, is that the statistics for the Dirty Weekend are based on my first lap finish times, when I had another to run, and that the total number of participants is based on the pre-event estimates made by the organisers, as the results were unavailable at the time of writing. This would reflect my predictions, being that I would fare best in an event that tested some physical attributes outside of just running. I would suggest my placing by percentile at Man vs Lakes was commensurate with my perception of my performance. I would suggest Man vs Mountain was probably the most competitive field of all of them BUT this is only a gut feel, and I have no hard evidence to back this up with. I think the second table might explain where that feeling comes from though.
Ultra Tour of Arran Place: 25th Percentile: 9th
Dirty Weekend Place: 112th Percentile: 2nd
Man vs Coast Place: 59th Percentile: 9th
Man vs Lakes Place: 93rd Percentile: 19th
Man vs Mountain Place: 108th Percentile: 11th
My performances as compared to the top athletes:
Ultra Tour of Arran Winner: 10:27:21 Me: 14:29:21 My time as %: 139%
Dirty Weekend ---RESULTS NOT AVAILABLE AT TIME OF WRITING---
Man vs Coast Winner: 4:31:11 Me: 5:45:21 My time as %: 127%
Man vs Lakes Winner: 4:50:26 Me: 6:49:26 My time as %: 141%
Man vs Mountain Winner: 3:55:00 Me: 5:04:21 My time as %: 129%