Can you prepare for a marathon in 12 weeks, get stronger and add muscle… all at the same time? The experts at CrossFit Endurance believe you can. MF’s UK correspondent, Joel Snape, thought it was worth a try.

Photography Naki Kouyioumtzis

At 9.30am on April 10, I’m standing on the start line of the Brighton Marathon alongside 8000 other runners, retying my shoelaces for the fourth time and reminding myself not to do anything stupid in the first 10km.

I’m nervous: it’s my first marathon, and before I signed up, my running schedule was limited to the 5km from my house to work whenever the train drivers went on strike. I’ve been training seriously for only 12 weeks, and I’ve only ever done one run longer than a half marathon. Most weeks, I’ve barely touched that distance in total, emphasising short sprints and kettlebell swings instead. On the plus side, at least I know that, halfway around the course, nobody’s going to suddenly force me to flip a 500kg tractor tyre.

Running a marathon has always been on my to-do list. It’s up there near the top,  right next to learning to cook Vietnamese food and fighting a shark. It’s just that there have always been one or two minor problems getting in the way: I don’t have much spare time, I don’t want to undo all the hard work I’ve already put in at the gym… and, well, let’s be honest, I find running incredibly boring. In my experience, most marathoners lose a lot of upper-body muscle while training, constantly juggle injuries and spend months dragging themselves out of bed every morning to plod through the local park. Not appealing.

But then I started to hear rumours about another way. Disciples of CrossFit (crossfit.com), the wildly popular workout that prescribes a mixture of intensive intervals, Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics, told me they were running marathons without any specific training at all and clocking respectable times. Googling further, I found CrossFit Endurance (CFE), an offshoot of the main site dedicated to improving endurance via sprints, short runs and heavy lifting, invented by a former triathlete called Brian MacKenzie.

Intrigued, I put messages up on Facebook and Twitter asking if any serious runners had any experience with the program. Within an hour, a guy called Stephen Weston replied: “I do CF Endurance, typically do no more than 25km a week of intervals, tempo and time trials, and I run ultra marathons. Came 34th out of 300 in this year’s Lakeland 50 [an 80km run in the Lake District in the north of England]. Long training runs are a thing of the past!” The next day, I got in touch with MacKenzie.

Marathon man

Brian MacKenzie — B-Mac to his friends — started out as a short-course swimmer, rarely training or racing over 100 metres. In 2000, he was talked into trying a sprint triathlon. The day after he finished it, he signed up for his first Ironman. He did well in subsequent events,

but was spending between 24 and 30 hours a week training. His body and relationships were starting to suffer, and he started to question the logic of so much aerobic training. Now, he thinks it’s insane.

“There are guys who are running or cycling hundreds of kilometres a week, but because they do so much distance, they have to do most of it at such low intensity that they’re not seeing any improvement,” he says. “We’re not telling anybody to stop doing what they love to do, but we are saying that it comes at the cost of faster recovery. We’re getting rid of what’s unnecessary.”

Taking this to its natural conclusion, MacKenzie stripped back his training, concentrating on heavy squats and deadlifts and simply running faster. He measured his heart rate and lactic acid, and ran 400m repeats until he was sick. He experimented with “treadmill tabatas” — 20 seconds of work and 10 seconds’ rest on a 15 percent incline at 16km/h. He got thrown off the treadmill a couple of times, but this sort of training let him run the Western States, a 160km ultra-distance race, in just over 26 hours, never putting in more than 30km in one go to prepare. I told him my 5km time (24 minutes and 32 seconds on a treadmill) and he seemed confident that I could run a marathon in 12 weeks. “Your hard days are going to get harder,” he admitted. “But you’ll get stronger, and recover faster.”

He put me onto Jonathan Shelby, a veteran running coach who’d been including CrossFit-style elements in his own programs before reading about CFE and slotting the last few pieces into place. I asked Shelby if he honestly thought he could prepare me to run a marathon in three months — not just to complete the course, but to run a respectable time. Shelby gave me a smile I can only describe as evil. “It’s going to be a stretch,” he said. “And the workouts are going to be hard.” Fine, I told him. I could handle hard for 12 weeks. Hard’s better than boring.

One Small Step

And that’s how I ended up doing laps around CrossFit Central London’s railway-arch base, wearing a flashing, beeping metronome on my collar like a character from the dystopian Japanese film Battle Royale. This was part one of Shelby’s plan: refine my running technique with a dash of Pose, the super-efficient running style popularised by Dr Nicholas Romanov.

The theory of Pose is simple. Running in overly padded shoes has conditioned many runners to take over-long strides and land on their heels. This not only slows them down — landing with your feet ahead of your body, in front of your centre of gravity, is like constantly tapping the brakes while you drive a car — but also increases the risk of injury, since the human leg isn’t designed to withstand that kind of impact.

Pose brings you closer to the style of running you’d employ if you weren’t wearing shoes, but CF Endurance isn’t entirely married to the barefoot-running movement. As MacKenzie explains, “Barefoot is good, but it makes your hip flexors dominant. We’re bringing your glutes into play.”

Instead of simply throwing away my runners, then, Shelby wanted me to wear super-light, shoes with minimal padding and take shorter, faster steps. I’d also lean forward more, essentially just “pulling” my feet off the ground and letting gravity do the rest as I “fell” into each step. After drilling various aspects of the technique enough times for it to stop feeling completely unnatural, he clipped a red flashing metronome to my shirt and told me to aim to land on my right foot every time it beeped. This would give me a stride rate of 186 steps a minute, way over the 150 I’d normally do.

I jogged around the block with some other endurance newbies, legs whirling and feet light. After a couple of practice runs, I was averaging 1min 24sec for each lap — not terribly fast, but crucially, it felt incredibly easy. This, I decided, was going to be fine.

Fast and Furious

Part two of the masterplan was much, much less pleasant. The main problem with running a marathon is that after about 20km, the glycogen that your body uses to fuel moderately intense exercise simply runs out. You can prepare for this in the days before the race (by stuffing yourself with carbs) or try to stave it off during the event (by guzzling Powerade and jelly babies) but once the tanks are empty, you hit the dreaded “wall” — a wave of extreme fatigue that makes it difficult to move, let alone run.

CrossFit’s solution to this is simple: use a different fuel source. Your body also burns fat as a source of energy, and fat is much easier to come by than glycogen. While even the most carb-loaded athlete will have trouble storing more than 1500 calories of glycogen, half a kilo of body fat equates to 4000, which is roughly the entire energy demand of a marathon.

The problem is, the body needs oxygen to make the fat-burning process work. In effect, the more out of breath you get, the more glycogen and less fat you’re going to use. On the flipside, if you get more efficient, then your body can go back to burning fat, even at marathon pace. Or to put it another way: if you can run 1km in 3min 50sec, doing 40 five-minute kilometres should be child’s play, with your body happily chugging along on its plentiful reserves of fat. The tricky part? Running a 3min 50sec kilometre in the first place.

Hitting the Gas

To get me up to speed in just three months, Shelby plotted out a vicious blend of 5km runs, 400m runs, hill intervals and all-out 100m sprints. Total distance usually added up to well under 20km a week, but the intensity was high. I’d either try to keep pace with the club’s regular runners or constantly aim to better my times in each distance.

Every couple of weeks, I’d do a longer “time trial” to let me get used to running longer distances and tinker with my pacing and refueling strategy. And on my regular Tuesday nights at CrossFit Central London, I’d join the endurance class for a blend of kettlebell moves, rope climbs, Olympic lifts and medicine-ball throwing designed to allow me to hold the Pose shape, counter muscle imbalances, prevent injuries and get me used to “working intensely”.

This last part was the worst. One session mixed hurdle jumps, tractor-tyre flips and Turkish get-ups with a 24kg kettlebell, a frankly terrifying weight to balance above my head while I was gasping for breath. Another included one-legged squats and bunny hops interspersed with sprints done on increasingly wobbly legs. There were even ring dips and bench presses — astonishingly, I think my chest actually got bigger during the race training.

Every workout was hard, but there was enough time between them and variety in them to ensure I never overtrained.

I occasionally felt niggles from the longer runs — a strained adductor, a painful knee, one of the little bones in the top of my foot hurting — but since it would typically be a fortnight until my next long run, I never ended up hammering an injury and making it worse. And I never got bored. Because each run was a different distance, I could go full steam ahead every time.

Taking the Sprain

Having never been a runner, I looked at other marathon training plans absolutely mystified — anything clocking in at 80km a week looked like a long, slow plod towards overtraining and crippling shin splints.

Meanwhile, my 5km time dropped to 21min 49sec and I was starting to outpace CFE’s slower regulars. With six weeks to go, I managed a 1hr 44min half marathon around London before work, running on an apple and a bottle of water. I was curious: if this was working so well for me, could higher-level athletes use it to get even better? When MacKenzie came over to London for a talk on CFE philosophy, I asked him.

“I’ve actually got a lot of guys competing in high-level cycling right now,” he said. “They’ve been quicker to embrace it than runners. One of our guys, Guy Petruzzelli, recently won the Midwest Indoor Duathlon Championships on CFE programming.”

MacKenzie says that if the likes of Aussie Craig Alexander, three-time Ironman world champion, asked him for training, it would take years for their methods to sync. But he’s adamant that CFE will produce more and more champions as athletes embrace the movement. “All programs are leading to this kind of training, because they’re finally seeing the benefit of it,” he says. “They may not be doing CFE, but they will eventually get to something very similar.”

Meanwhile, I was getting faster and faster — until injury struck. I was still doing judo, my other favourite sport, alongside my marathon training. Shelby told me to stop with a month to go, but I carried on sneaking in the odd practice session, convinced that the extra training wouldn’t do my times any harm. And it didn’t — right up until a 90kg bloke fell on my ankle and left me unable to run for two weeks.

If I’d been doing a conventional training plan, this might have been disastrous, but after a few days off, I felt well enough to get back to non-running training. Anything without an impact or a twist was fine, so I stuck to bodyweight squats, crunches and rowing to stay strong and keep my cardio at a decent level.

To the Very Last Kay

Race day arrives. I go out according to plan and run easy 5min 30sec kilometres for the first half of the marathon. I don’t even get out of breath on the hills, and it feels like everything’s going to be fine. After 20km, I step up to 5min kilometres for a while. It’s at about 27km that missing those final three weeks of training finally catches up with me.

Without that final two-hour run that marathon runners swear by, my legs just aren’t conditioned enough and I start to hit the wall a good 5km ahead of schedule. I slow down drastically, and come in at 4hr 27min. It’s almost half an hour more than the time I’d hoped for, but still borderline respectable — and I’ve done it on well under 20km of training a week, in little more than nine weeks of training.

Would I recommend the CFE plan to everyone? Well, it takes a certain mindset, but CFE did everything I wanted of it: it kept me strong, interested and  dramatically sped up my times at every distance. If I were to do another marathon, I’d stick with the CFE plan.

And though my squat one-rep max is down slightly, the next week, I have a visible six-pack for the first time ever.

I’m sold.