Running in CrossFit
Do you crush the occasional 2k Row that comes up in your programming but develop a tick when your coach mentions a mile run Time Trial?
Congrats, you’re in the majority of CrossFit athletes that has a love-hate relationship (mostly hate) with running.
Likely, the only time you run is when it shows up in your daily programming in the middle of a MetCon that involves other movements. Your heart rate is already sky high from the other movements and now you are simply trying to survive the run.
It makes sense that your running form, or lack thereof, is extremely inefficient during these times.
Mobility – Strength – Skill
To maximize your potential, capacity and efficiency for running you must master its specific mobility, strength and skill demands: the three-headed monster that every athlete must conquer. Let’s take on the monster one “head” at a time.
There are two key joints requiring mobility while running:
The hip is arguably the most important joint in the body while running. The hip must be able to express full extension and flexion, or fully open and fully close.
Without the ability to claim full extension (often due to hip flexors being tight or short) the back swing of the stride is cut short. This can result in a number of problems from simply lacking efficiency to pain in the anterior (front) of the hip.
It is also possible one or both legs swings out to the side to compensate with adductor (groin) flexibility if there is a lack of hip flexor flexibility. At flexion, the glute is the main structure being stretched.
If an athlete lacks flexion due to tight or short glute muscles or weak hip flexors or hamstrings, the athlete will struggle to drive their knees up as they run or sprint.
The knee, like the hip, needs to be able to express its full range of motion for a person to run efficiently.
To express the prerequisite knee flexion (bending) an athlete should be able to sit on their heels with the weight of the torso and be able to relax in that position.
An inability to claim this position might be the real cause for tired quads and hip flexors while running because the athlete will struggle to effectively engage their hamstrings.
The more mobile and supple the quads are the more the hamstring are able to express their strength. This is no exclusive to running.
The other position for the knee is terminal extension. This means that when unloaded an athlete should be able to slightly hyperextend the knee. While running, the knee should never fully extend or hyperextend, but if an athlete is experiencing pain in the soft tissues around the knee and they are lacking terminal extension, the lack of mobility could easily be the cause.
The first several videos in this series focus on mobilizations of the tissues surrounding the ankles, knees and hips.
In order to run safely and effectively the following strength baselines are suggested:
1) Single Leg Jump to 12” Box: This test will reveal weaknesses in a large segment of the population, even people actively participating in Functional Fitness or those who consider themselves to be runners. The single leg jump to the box requires a great deal of hip and core strength and elasticity. A lack of core and hip strength often reveals itself in the form of a knee caving in or the arch of the foot collapsing. Neither of these are acceptable, and for both the solution is working to develop strong, mobile hips.
Running is the most fundamental of all human movement. Yet it takes time to master the skill of running efficiently.
If you do not have all the Mobility and Strength requirements, time spent learning skill will be much less productive. Build the basics, then layer on top. The unique thing about running is that it is one of the few skills in CrossFit that nearly everyone has done since they were a child. And they did so with relative ease relative to skills learned as an adult.
For many people, the childhood memories of enjoying running around are a distant memory. Let’s face it … it has been many moons since you were a child. Since you were school age you have been conditioned to sit still and do a task for long periods of time. Likely you stopped moving much as a whole, let alone running frequently. Many of us have gained weight and lost fitness, making the demands of running much tougher.
As a result, the we have lost our capacity to run. In America, due to many factors like sedentary lifestyle and cushioned shoes, heel striking while running emerges around second or third grade. For most of us, we have not ran efficiently ever since.
In order to get our running capacity back up, we must learn to run efficiently once again. After all, efficiency and capacity for running is tied closely with technique.
What I mean is… You cannot run quickly and slowly with the same technique. Just like walking and running look relatively similar but have some fundamental differences, the same is true for running at different speeds.
In order to master running at any speed, you must be able to understand what efficient running looks like at a given speed.
The basic idea is that for certain skills, like running and even weightlifting, the intensity of the movement will change its motor pattern.
This is why it is so important to develop your ability to run at different speeds. It’s what Chris Hinshaw calls “Developing Gears.”
The bottom line is that you must practice. Practicing running fast and running slow, running short and running long. Do drills and calisthenics, but most all… just run. We recommend running two days per week (if you do other workout modalities) as a minimum effective dose. As you begin running as an adult once again, we recommend you focus on a few things as you practice…
Focal Points for Running
1) Lower Body Action
As I mentioned before, running at different speeds requires a different motor pattern. Just like a squat clean at 95 or 65 lbs can’t look exactly like your one rep max, a slow jog can’t and won’t look and feel like a sprint.
• A slow jog will result in the trail foot sweeping low past the shin.
• A moderate run will result in the trail foot being pulled so the ankle passes by the knee.
• A sprint will result in the trail foot being pulled in so hard towards the body it passes above the knee, occasionally hitting the athlete’s butt (per the Usian Bolt video below).
Simply put: The faster you run the closer to closer your heel needs to come to your body.
Think about how a spinning figure skater turns slowly when they have their arms outstretched, but when they bring their arms tight to their body they begin to spin rapidly.
The closer the foot travels to the body 1) the less energy is needed to execute the movement and 2) the faster the turnover (cadence) can become.
Don’t know where to start? This illustration shows an appropriate starting place (foot relative to opposite leg) for an average pace middle distance run, which I consider to be 800m to a 5k. Here the foot passes by the knee of the opposite leg, creating a figure 4.
2) More Hamstrings, Less Hip Flexors
In the same vein as the lower body action is the muscle recruitment that allows it to occur. Hip flexors and hamstrings work together while running to gain elevation for the trail foot.
However, many athletes make the mistake of actively pulling with their hip flexors instead of allow the stretch reflex from the leg moving backward to activate the anterior hip muscles.
When an athlete actively thinks about pulling the knee up using the hip flexor they end up 1) pulling the foot too far in front of their center of mass resulting in heel striking and 2) since hip flexion and knee extension are linked via the rectus femoris quad activation increases significantly.
Rectifying this issue of a runner getting a quad pump can be complicated, but basically it comes down to a slight increase in input from the hamstrings, while simultaneously decreasing input from the hip flexors (and quads as a result.)
The result is more efficient running due to simply physics and less interference from antagonistic muscle groups.
Want more? Listen to Running & CrossFit on The Fitness Movement.
3) Mass Matters
Not every advantage you can glean to become a better runner starts in the gym. For those athletes looking to become more proficient in running, one of the first places to look to be your waistline. Any male above 12% and female above 20% bodyfat (roughly speaking) can lose bodyfat without having to worry about it negatively affecting anabolic hormone levels.
The bottom line is extra fat is like a weight vest: its dead weight. Anyone who has ever run in a weight vest knows how much more inefficient and exhausting it is to run with an extra 14 or 20 pounds. Not only is it taxing to the hearts, respiratory muscles and prime movers, but it is also much more taxing on joints and connective tissue.
Many people would stop there, but it’s important that remember the body is complicated and inefficiencies aren’t always obvious like the heart or muscles.
Even evaporational cooling is muted when a person gains weight. While surface area of the skin increases linearly, body mass increases exponentially. The result is heavier people must work harder to cool their bodies, which is especially taxing to the cardiovascular system. Top marathon times wane as temperatures soar.
The reality is most people in America, CrossFit athletes being no exception, would be better runners if they lost some weight.
Even CrossFit Competitors who are lean and very muscular would be better runners if they lost weight. One simply way this is true by allowing the elastic qualities of their tissues would be more responsive.
The question then moves from, “Would losing weight make me a better runner?” to, “Is losing weight to become a better runner worth the trade off for possibly being worse at something else in the sport?”
4) Form-Focused Intervals
Historically, great distance runners have spent most of their time developing endurance. Many people see the mileage log of advanced runners and they immediately want to start putting in lots of miles.
Stop for a moment and think if this is the best line of attack. We all know a person at the gym who does hard MetCons every day and never gets any faster. If being healthy and happy is the only goal then maybe this is an acceptable approach, but chances are you also want to perform at your best level.
The basic idea here is that if you want to hold a faster pace in your running or MetCons, you need to develop that pace. As a male, if you can only clean and jerk 185 pounds, doing Rx “Grace” (30 Clean & Jerks for time at 135 pounds) is going to take a long time. However, if you can clean and jerk 315 pounds, you are going to be able to fly through those reps at 135.
The same is true for running. If you want to run faster, you need to run faster. (duh!) Yet when I see people training, they don’t execute on this. Often they run slower and longer and wonder why they only get good at long, slow running. Remember, a 10:00 mile pace and a 5:00 mile pace aren’t the same motor pattern and therefore they aren’t the same skill.
Running in CrossFit is rarely more than a mile and most often 400m at a time. A smarter protocol would be holding a hard pace for 200-400m, taking very short rest and repeat it in many intervals. Eventually, you will be able to hold the pace you want to for a mile or longer because you’ve taken the time to develop that “gear.”
The basic idea for this is the best quality running happens at the beginning of each interval, so you should create opportunities to have more ‘beginnings.’ It is the same reason why 30 Reps of squats are not equal when done in 10×3 versus 3×10. There is a place for both protocols, but in terms of developing technique, the former is superior.
When referring to intervals as speed work, it’s important to know I’m not talking about sprinting as speed. I mean you are running at or above your current threshold for a given period of time, recovering and repeating. Speed work for marathon training could easily be running mile repeats or even a 5k. The idea is you must first develop the gears you need and then spend time in that specific gear.
A final note: Many high-performing CrossFit Competitors have the gears they need and should focus on generating “Repeatability then Sustainability.” Basically, intervals should be trained at higher frequency earlier in a training cycle, moving towards longer, more sustainable effort later in the cycle.
For more on this style of programming, I highly recommend Brian Mackenzie’s book Power, Speed, Endurance. The book is a great resource for swimming, biking and running and I highly recommend it, especially if you are looking for more skill-based drills.]
5) The Heel Kiss
Another common problem that was brought to light about a decade ago was the prevalence of the now infamous “heel striking.” Since Chris McDougnall’s 2009 book Born to Run cushioned shoes have been demonized.
While wearing trainers that make you feel as if you are trodding on puffy clouds, those over-cushioned sneakers are changing your technique for the worse. Highly-cushioned shoes promote landing on your heel.
This is an issue because it 1) makes your heel act as a brake and 2) places more strain on the connective tissue and cartilage of your knees instead of on the soft tissue of your calves.
I make this same point in my exercise experiment, What I learned from 15,000 Double Unders in 30 Days.
Basically, soft tissue (think calves) is highly vascularized so when it is damaged it recovers quickly because it has great blood supply to bring nutrients and remove wastes. On the other hand, connective tissue (like ligaments and cartilage) have very little blood supply so the recovery process takes a very long time.
Instead of a heel strike, think about a heel kiss. That is, your heel will just barely kiss the ground each step…not slam. This moves the pressure from the connective tissue around the knees to the soft tissue of the calves. In addition, it takes away the braking action.
It help promote this, think about dropping your foot underneath your body as you run rather than reaching it out in front. Any time your foot hits out in front of your body, you are slowing yourself down with each step.
6) Cadence & Stride Length
These are the only two factors you can change in order to run faster. You can take longer steps (increase stride length) and/or you can increase the frequency at which those steps occur (increase cadence). Stride length can be measured in distance, while cadence is measure with respect to time (steps per minute, SPM). Most people will fall into a comfortable combination of the two factors rather naturally. The same is true for a bike that possess gears; people find a range that is comfortable. However, with modalities like running and biking many people “naturally” move at a cadence that is too slow and creates inefficiencies. For running, anything under 80 spm will promote inefficiencies. Most accomplished distance runners hold above 90 spm.
Wondering about your cadence? Download a metronome app on your phone and play it loudly so you can hear it as you run. Set it to 180 beats per minute (90 spm) as a baseline. At first, it may feel awkwardly quick, but over time this will maximize efficiency.
7) CrossFitters Aren’t Runners
As a fitness athlete, you may run but are certainly not a runner. If you consider yourself a runner than you are probably not a high-level CrossFit athlete.
The same could be said for any number of activities within CrossFit (swimming, cycling, gymnastics, rowing), with perhaps the exception of Weightlifting (Tia Toomey won the Games and completed in the Rio Olympics in Weightlifting in the same year).
Athletes in the Sport of Fitness don’t complete Olympic gymnasts workouts (mainly because they couldn’t do the movements), yet there are Fitness Competitors who think they can download a running program from a top athlete and it will work for them.
The reality is most of the literature on running is written about runners, and most of the research test subjects are runners. Therefore, when you see running information out there, realize that it is probably written by runners for runners.
This can be said for any discipline within CrossFit that is its own sport (gymnastics, cycling, swimming, rowing, weightlifting, even kettlebell sport.) The takeaway here is when you see information about a discipline consider who the author is writing for and what content the information is given.
Breathing while Running
Breathing while running should fall into a sustainable pattern. The pattern will can be measured in a certain number of steps per breath.
Cyclical movements, like running, have the ability to be sped or slowed dramatically so there are lots of options for breath ratios. Breathing while running is not extremely complicated or intricate because there is low systemic tension and lots of breath ratio options.
Because of this running allow more athletes to express their full capacity, and anytime you express you…making them have a unique challenge to the breath.
When running, you always want to initiate a breath pivot (i.e. start an inhale or exhale) as a foot is making contact with the ground. Pivoting your breath mid stride will result in a loss of rhythm, efficiency and power.
You breath ratio will not always be the same. In fact, it should change based on your running speed, duration and fatigue entering your run. (Remember, we are talking about Functional Fitness here.)
Breath ratios for running range from 6:1 (meaning six right footed steps) for a single breath cycle (inhale + exhale) to 1:1 (meaning an exhale is initiated every time the right foot lands). These are the extremes. The average breath ratios for efficient, moderate paced running will be 3:1 or 2:1.
It is likely that at some point during your run you will have to transition to a different breath ratio. For example, I typically can hold a 3:1 breath ratio comfortably for an 8:00/mile on flat ground. When I begin to ascend an incline, I will typically have to shift to 2:1 to keep up with the metabolic demands. Once I crest the hill and begin to recover as I descend the other side, I will transition back to 3:1.
You’ll notice that odd breath ratios (like 3) require you either inhale or exhale longer, since three can be split evenly in whole numbers. I recommend elongated the exhale rather than the inhale because a longer exhale will increase activation of the vagus nerve, which increases parasympathetic nervous system activity. This means less stress, less recovery demands and more sustainable exercise.
In order to get the hang of breath ratios for running you have to practice them. The easiest way to implement breath ratios for breathing to actually running and focusing on your breathing. However, marching in place in front of your office computer or in the middle of your living room will work too.
Too embarrassed to get up? Visualize yourself running and snap your fingers each time you see your foot hit the ground. Then sync up your breathing so you always pivot your breath on a snap.
Listen: Nasal Breathing [The Fitness Movement podcast #004]
Read: Breathe & Move | The Dual Role of Respiratory Musculature
The Perfect Warm-Up
Get all the systems in the body humming so you are ready to train, especially the aerobic system. The goal is to take your body from a cold -likely stationary- state to being literally warmed-up. Muscles are able to produce more force and joints are more resilient to impacts and torque. Basically you complete this so you can be ready to mobilize and hit a movement-specific warm-up.
10-15 Minutes of easy “cardio.” Here is an approximate example for a Functional Fitness Competitor. The intention should be to move with better positions each round, rather than trying to increase the pace. This is NOT a workout.
4 Steady Rounds
-50 Single Unders
-16/12 Calorie Assault Bike
-8 Alternating Walking Lunges
Claim the fundamental positions you will need for the workout / movement to come. For running, per the mobility requirements above, we know we need to address almost all the tissues below the waist, especially those involved in hip flexion and extension and knee flexion. I recommend choosing a favorite mobilization technique for each of those target areas. I show you my two top picks below.
2 Rounds, 10s Each (per side) [Note: Holds are intentionally short before the workout.]
Calf: Calf Stair Stretch
Hip Flexion & Extension: Lizard Stretch
Hip Extension & Quads: Couch Stretch
C) Movement Prep
Movement prep needs to combine taking the joints dynamically through their full rang of motion, while added an element of movement specificity. In other words, we will start doing more and more calisthenics that have similar motions that are needed for running.
[My Athletes have this video bookmarked on their phone and move along to it during their track sessions.]
D) Run (or) Met-Con with Running
Congratulations! You are ready to hit your run workout!
Pose Running 101
Pose Running, according to its creator Nicholas Romanov, is simply a way to describe efficient running. Simply put, a person running is working against gravity. He or she is having to jump (or fall) from one leg to the other while moving to stay upright and stop themselves from falling. If you can learn to use gravity to your advantage, running will be much easier (more efficient).
Right now, bring a mental video of a person you know who is a great (efficient) runner to your mind’s eye. Now imagine this person as a fully inflated soccer ball rolling “effortlessly” down a grassy hill. The ball requires much less force to keep moving because it rolls easily.
Now think of yourself running mid-workout as a partly-deflated soccer ball rolling down the same hill. How much harder do you have to push the ball to keep it rolling?
The basic idea of pose running is you conform your technique to best take advantage of gravity. Think of pose running as a way of pumping up your soccer ball (improving technique) so you can express your fitness more easily.
If you are a fit person who “gases” when you run, your problem is not fitness but technique. The pose method can help you run more efficiently.
How do I Run More Efficiently?”
The biggest thing to improving efficiency is practice.
Now, before you storm off cursing, practice is best completed in a non-fatigued setting. Those drills… skips, accelerations and rehearsal rounds you (should) do are more important now than ever. It will help you develop your skill of running.
Let’s compare it to pull-ups. Before you do pull-ups in a workout you probably go through a series of drills (dead hang, scap pull-ups, kips, ring rows, etc.) and then eventually put it all together and actually do full pull-ups.
You should do the same thing with running. Break it down in pieces and practice (knee pulls, high knees, butt kicks, ankle poppers, leg swings, skipping variations, etc.). The bottom line is that you have to put in time learning to run.
The Assault Air Runner & TrueForm
Anyone who has spent time running on land knows their paces by heart. However, as soon as you jump on a curved runner, you realize the paces are much slower.
Differences in Pace
A recent study provided evidence to what many athletes have experienced anecdotally: curved runners are harder. The athletes in the study ran at paces 20-30% slower when on curved runners. They equated running on it’s surface to an 8% grade. Runner’s World talks about the study in this article.
The runners perceived they were working an average of 27 percent harder when they ran on the curved treadmill, and physiologically, their symptoms matched: They consumed an average of 32 percent more oxygen and had 16 percent higher heart rates, 2.5 percent higher running cadence, and 38 percent worse running economy than when they ran at equivalent speeds on the motorized treadmill.”Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport
What does this mean? It means don’t try to compare or match your landing running paces with your pace on curved runners. Treat them as two different metrics entirely.
Tips for Curved Runners
(1) Form First
The TrueForm and Assault Air Runners can be very awkward if you are not used to them. Pay attention to where your foot lands on the belt, the higher up the curve, the faster the belt will spin. It’s not uncommon to see people being to accelerate out of control when they first run on a curved runner, simply because it is an entirely unique skill to be mastered. My recommendation would be to increase you cadence and take slightly shorter strides initially until you feel confident and in control of the belt.
(2) You Are the Motor
Remember, both the TrueForm and Assault Air Runners do not have a motor like a typical treadmill; you power the machine. The implications of this are that you must subtly pull the tread to spin the belt. Typically, the average pace per mi or km is slower than on land. Therefore, you will be better served by pacing based on feel until you calibrate your mind around the new paces.
(3) Superior Posterior
As described already, Runners require you to subtly pull the tread to spin the belt. This pull, although very small, tends to engage the posterior (the back half of your body) significantly more. Athletes who are accustomed to running on the ground or a standard treadmill are often surprised by how quickly their hamstrings, glutes and calves tire. Often it is described as if you are running up a hill: the impact (ground reaction force) is less and the muscular requirement was more.
This makes motor-less treadmills a great options for athletes who experience joint irritation while running or those who want to simulate running on hills, but live in areas where the terrain is flat.
(4) Implications of “The Curve”
The most obvious difference between the ground and the Runners is that the Runners have a curved belt. The incline at the forepart of the Runner allows for most of the propulsion forces. Rather than reaching forward and “grabbing” the belt and pulling it back, focus on landing with your foot underneath your Center of Mass. Using this technique will preserve your hamstrings, posterior musculature and overall efficiency.
(5) Get Up to Speed ASAP
Air Runners are similar to rowing ergs (like the Concept 2) in the fact that when you start propelling them you want to get them up to speed as quickly as possible and then settle into your pace. On a rower, you want to give it about five strokes, each increasing in slide length, until you settle into your stroke rate and pace.
On motor-less Runners, you want to take smaller, choppy steps while pushing the belt and as it accelerates allow your form to gradually morph into your sustainable running form.
This will look like pushing off the front or side bars with your hands and leading forward slightly into the machine…almost like you are pushing a lightly-loaded prowler or pulling a sled. It’s really not very difficult if you know what it should look like.
A 12-Week Row, AirBike, Run Program
If you want to reach your potential in the Sport of Fitness, you must have elite fitness. In other words… conditioning.
That’s why this program focuses on the “3 Kings” of Cyclical Movement: Rowing, AirBike & Running.
Cyclical Supremacy is all about building your engine so you can express higher levels of performance in all types of workouts.
Are you ready to build a massive engine and reign as Cyclical Supremacy?
This might be one of the most beneficial post I’ve read in a while. We all seem to dread running, yet we all need to do it more than we do. I’ve just taken up running outside my box programming, on my own, twice per week. Honestly sucks. Today I went to the local track and I swear the 12-year-old kids had me ashamed. I thought a 6-minute mike was *ok* until I saw these teens in action. Thanks for sharing!