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Marathon Endurance: All in the long run?

  • 4 min read

CrossFit Endurance and Strength & Conditioning Coach Stretch Rayner is here to address one of the cornerstone principles of marathon training: The Long Run.

Marathon running is a physiological and a psychological challenge for athletes of all abilities. The cornerstone of marathon training is the long slow distance (LSD) running session and volume-based periodisation.

The late Arthur Lydiard's high mileage training protocol produced a number of marathon champions in the 1960’s. Ever since, the sport has been fixated on high mileage training.  There is no arguing that LSD volume training can produce results at all levels. It is, however, not the only way to train for an endurance event.


There are two fundamentally different kinds of endurance - muscular and cardiovascular:

1. Muscular endurance is the ability of the muscle to contract over and over during exercise and to recruit the maximum number of motor units and muscle fibres to perform a chosen exercise/sport as efficiently as possible.  For example, while running/cycling/swimming the body typically recruit a small number of motor units and muscle fibres to support body weight. However, while performing heavy squats - two times body weight for example - the body needs to recruit a larger number of motor units and muscle fibres to lift the load. The more active motor unit and muscle fibres the easier it becomes to move an object.

2. Cardiovascular (CV) endurance is the ability of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system to deliver oxygen to the muscles to fuel further exercise and to carry away waste products (such as lactic acid)

While these aspects of endurance are distinct, they are also strongly connected.  What good is having a well-developed CV capacity if the muscles you are fuelling can’t keep up the demand of the pace (fast rate repetitive contractions)? How well can you perform if your muscles have tremendous endurance ability but your CV system can’t maintain the oxygen demand? Training for strength and endurance at the same time is a delicate balance, but doing it properly will improve athletic performance.

So, the long runs work, but what are the other options?

Increasing aerobic training will not increase muscle endurance. In fact it has the opposite effect as it has the potential to destroy muscle tissue. More and more endurance athletes are eschewing traditional LSD-based training in favour of lower volume, High Intensity Interval Training (HIIT) and strength-based training.  CrossFit Endurance (CFE) is a training protocol that combines HIIT sport specific training with HIIT strength and conditioning circuits to deliver the fitness required to compete in endurance events. The zone5endurance website references many of the latest studies to support the CFE style of training.

A typical weekly CFE marathon-training programme includes:

  • 3 strength sessions - a combination of maximum effort (ME) and dynamic effort (DE) lifts.  (Force = Mass x Accelerations) To increase F an athlete must either increase the total weight lifted (ME focuses on the mass) or increase the speed of the lift (DE focuses on the speed (acceleration) of the lift).  Heavy load strength training can improve performance by reducing body fat and building type II muscle fibre strength.  Endurance athletes often try to train muscle endurance with light loads and high repetitions, which has little to no benefit on performance.

  • 3-5 CrossFit sessions - HIIT and conditioning with functional movement patterns to improve cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, coordination, agility, balance, and accuracy.  All general physical skills required by high performing athletes

  • 2 HIIT sport specific sessions - for marathon runners this would be interval-running sessions between 50m and 1M repeats 

  • 1 Stamina sport-specific sessions - for marathon runners this would be a combination of tempo and time trial running sessions between 5-21km

The total volume of training can range between 10 -15 hours of training per week, and the overall intensity of session is high to maximise quality over quantity.   The CFE training protocol improves:

  1. CV endurance - is rapidly developed by the combination of HIIT running session and CrossFit conditioning session.  You heart and longs have never work so hard.

  2. Muscular endurance - is a major factor of the strength training designed to improve body composition, structural balance and injury prevention.  CrossFit workouts require athletes to shift large loads over long distances in the shortest time domains possible (work = force x distance)

  3. Improved immune function and longevity - high-volume training leads to immune suppression, putting endurance athletes at greater risk for illness.  HIIT training does not have the same effect as the body can recovery faster and is placed under stress for shorter periods of time.  Excessive endurance exercise has been shown to have detrimental health effects. 

  4. Injury prevention is achieved by strength and conditioning training aimed at improving posture, strengthening weak muscles, structural balance, improving skills, teaching movement patterns, and builds neuromuscular strength and greater motor unit recruitment.

  5. Quality over quantity for health and balance - low volume HIIT training saves time, delivers CV fitness, minimises recovery time, and dramatically improved our hormones balance.  Endurance athletes often have high cortisol levels (Elevated cortisol concentration in endurance athletes) compared to that of sprinter.   Endurance athletes who follow a high-volume training protocol have lower androgen hormones (testosterone (T) and insulin-like growth factor (IGF1)), which cause a decrease in reproductive size and function.  Strength-based training releases anabolic hormones, which counterbalance cortisol and other oxidative stress factors.

  6. The ability to face your fears and stop following the easy path.  Endurance athletes are typically only good at aerobic activities and therefore lack in power, speed and muscle endurance.  A well-rounded athlete has the potential to be more efficient at their chosen sport and remain injury free for longer.

With CrossFit opt for an “intensity approach” that favours training for speed and strength over marathon-like repetition.  CrossFit Endurance is not about doing long circuit workouts, your aerobic training comes from you sport specific work, CrossFit is used to strengthen and balance the endurance athletes body.

What are the best exercises for endurance athletes?  Come and visit CrossFit Hackney and find out.

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