How CrossFit Made Me A Better Runner

By Jess Mullen When I walked into Level 4 CrossFit Seattle, I was unmotivated and frustrated with everything.  My running performance was in the toilet, my energy was low, and my body did not look the way I thought it should for all the hours I put in.  I was running 60-90 miles per week plus the occasional day in the gym that yielded zero results.  CrossFit had been mentioned to me by a friend who thought I would enjoy its style of workouts.  I knew nothing about CrossFit but was open to trying something new and different.

I had no idea of what the problem was.  No idea of how weak I was.  No idea of how over-trained I was.  No idea how my eating habits were working against me.  I was always of the mindset that ‘more is better’ and if I felt like crap, I just needed to push through it.

I remember an annual summer race that occurred shortly before I started CrossFit.  It’s called the White River 50 Mile Endurance Run.  It takes place on Crystal Mountain and has spectacular views with tons of wildflowers blooming.  I love this course; it’s one of my favorites.  That year I hated every step.  All I could think about was how slow I was moving – how much slower from the year before, how heavy my legs felt and most importantly, that it was not fun.  And to add a little background - I run because I love to run and challenge myself.  There’s no big money being made here.  I run because it brings great joy to my life and races are a way to test/challenge myself mentally and physically.   During this race I realized I had lost the joy and was extremely frustrated with my performance.  I dropped from the race at about the halfway point feeling completely demoralized.

Fast forward to my first day at CrossFit.  I was taught the basics of how to squat and deadlift.  Then I did 3 intervals of: 500 meters on the C2 erg, followed by 12 deadlifts and then 21 box jumps.  I felt like my lungs were going to burst through my chest after each interval.  I couldn’t remember the last time I felt that way.  I had forgotten that feeling even existed.

I was hooked – not only did I like the way it made me feel but also I liked the idea of learning new exercises and new ways to workout.  It was nice to just show up and have someone else tell me what to do, rather than try and plan for myself.  The class concept appealed to me because I quickly learned that I tried harder when there were others around me doing the same thing.  The majority of the classes I took incorporated some strength or technique work followed by a met-con (metabolic conditioning workout).

Learning how to balance my running schedule and CrossFit without always feeling beat up took some time.  I learned in order to improve my strength and speed at CrossFit, I needed to run less.  I didn’t think that CrossFit would translate into faster running but I could quickly see objective improvements in class, such as how much weight I could deadlift or how fast I could complete a workout.  Any improvement with running was harder to see.  It took a very long time for my body to rebound from the years of overtraining.  But finally my legs started to feel light and have some spring in each step.  My legs adjusted to the demand of CrossFit and felt stronger (especially climbs in the mountains) and recovered quicker.  The only time my legs felt weak was after a long weekend run.

My first opportunity to see how this new type of training would affect my performance was at the San Diego 100 Mile Endurance Run in 2009.  It was in June of 2009, so a solid 8 months after starting CrossFit.  I had hoped to improve my time from the year before.  But I set no specific goal in regards to time and just focused on paying attention to my breathing and to the strain on my legs (the goal was not to feel like I was tiring them out in the first half, especially on the climbs).  I ran the first 50 miles an hour faster than the year before.  This kind of freaked me out.  I checked in with myself – my breathing was under control at all times, my legs felt fresh - but I was still nervous that I might have gone out too fast and would pay for it in the second half.  I continued to run strong in the second half, and ended up with a 2 hour faster time than the year before.  I was amazed.

CrossFit continues to improve my running economy, speed and endurance.  My tendons and ligaments are thick and strong from the strength work.  My upper body and core have strong muscular endurance to hold a good position late in the race.  My mileage is lower, resulting in less wear and tear.  The “short and hard” metabolic conditioning workouts keep my body from only knowing how to move slowly.  CrossFit has also given me a new mental edge.  From pushing through hard workouts I think are going to kill me, I’ve learned my body can always dig deeper and perform at a higher level than my mind thought.  It helps me at the end of a race when my mind is telling me I’m tired.  And to think I had no idea that CrossFit would be the answer to improving my running performance!