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Is it possible to do CrossFit and endurance running without burning out? (Part 1)

Posted on 18 January 2016

Sounds like an impossible challenge, and if done incorrectly it is (I learnt the hard way!). However, through my own trial and error programming for the last few years, I found a formula which balances all aspects of fitness. It was a challenge I undertook a few years ago while running almost every day, and entering every weekend running event available to me (from road, cross country, trail to ultra). To my own detriment, I was also attempting to fit five Crossfit sessions in a week. Sounds like an impossible challenge, and it kind of was. I wanted to share my personal account of understanding recovery, managing injuries, triumphs and disappointments, until finally finding a happy medium.  

My Story:

Ever since I was young I have had a love for all things fitness. I remember the first time my parents bought me my very own mini home fitness set, (which had a bench press, barbell, 2 x dumbbell and 60kg of weight). For the next 12 months it was benchpress, bicep curls and the "occasional squats"; I was a repeat offender when it came to skipping leg day! My passion for lifting weights meant getting a gym membership, and for the next few years I would do what most other male teenagers did, and attempt to get stronger and bigger. While I enjoyed that phase of my fitness life, it eventually got stale, boring and repetitive. So, looking for that new challenge or just something different - I decided to enter the Brisbane 10km Fun Run (with absolutely zero training). Although it was the hardest, most physically punishing 50 mins of my life, I wanted more. I wanted an even bigger challenge – so I entered into a half marathon (21.1km). All of a sudden, I was starting to enjoy this whole running thing. Similar to my weight training days, I started to methodically program my training week so I was ready for my upcoming race.  This time around it was a 70 minute enjoyable, and 30 minute unbearable run. Which to this day I have never experienced before; a feeling as though your entire body has shut down - but you stubbornly choose to keep going. Fast forward  4 weeks and I completed the Gold Coast Marathon (42.2km) and fast forward to today (7 years later and 29 years old) I have been fortunate enough to have participated in a long list of running races, trail runs, mountain runs, marathons, ultras and cross country. I have still got the running bug.

A few years ago, I had my first "true" introduction to Crossfit. It was actually my partner Monique, who was the first one to sign up at our local Crossfit box (Crossfit Lift). She absolutely loved it from Day 1 - and she was constantly telling me how much she was enjoying it and how Crossfit would be perfect for me. As a Personal Trainer I was already aware of the "new" type of functional fitness training called Crossfit, a combination of strength training, cardio and gymnastics all in one.  After a few months of my partner raving about Crossfit; I decided to join.

Not surprisingly - I was hooked. For me it was the fact there were so many varied fitness disciplines – and I loved the fact Crossfit had Benchmark workouts which I could complete, and compare my time (or score), against everyone else around the world. Being such a competitive person - that drove me to want to improve my Crossfit and give it 100%; to see the gains and improvements like other people were experiencing. So, as I was doing with my running program - I gave Crossfit 100%. Within months I saw noticeable strength gains and was definitely getting fitter. It was the ideal scenario at the time; but I hadn’t realised that the body is not made to sustain that level of training long term. I was still managing to squeeze in 5-6 runs a week, racing in long distance events (in some cases marathons) every few weeks, and Crossfit 5-6 times a week. Initially, I got away with the heavy workload, but after a few more months everything caught up with me, and my body started to show signs of fatigue. My running progressively got worse; I got slower. My improvements in Crossfit were getting less noticeable each week and I noticed I was getting fatigued very quickly during WODs. I knew something had to give – but I wanted to be the best possible runner I could be and the best Crossfitter I could be. So being the stubborn and competitive person I am, for the next year I started experimenting with my training trying to balance my love for each sport. I was confused about what my main goals were and how I should approach training considering there were so many different disciplines. So for several months I focussed 100% of my attention on Crossfit while backing off on running a bit (75% of my normal training program) – maybe unsurprisingly to you this was unsuccessful.  I couldn’t face having to run after completing a leg session. The other alternative, 100% focus on running mixed in with Crossfit @75% worked better - but I was still suffering fatigue after long runs (which in turn meant more and more days away from the Crossfit Box).

After a year of yo-yo-ing, it dawned on me that I was getting it all wrong. I needed to stop trying to find the magic solution and realise that an endurance athlete training 6 days a week is never going to be able to manage a full time Crossfit program and expect the same results as someone devoting all their time to the one sport. To speak the language of science; if you’re doing a complete Crossfit program and combining it with a complete endurance training program, there is absolutely no way that you are giving your testosterone to cortisol ratios, or inflammatory response to exercise, an adequate amount of time to recover. This results in a lowered immune system, increased risk of soft tissue injury and the most common injury - overtraining syndrome. 

(Part 2 to follow Thursday 21st January 2016)

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