by Khaled Allen
In the book Born to Run, the author, Christopher McDougall, refers to the world’s greatest ultra-runners, the Mexican Indian tribe known as the Tarahumara, as great athletes–not as great runners. Far from simply being good at covering ground, the Tarahumara are described as agile, strong, and well-coordinated. They manage to be all these things while still maintaining the ability to run hundreds of miles non-stop. Basically, they have the superhuman endurance of running specialists, without incurring the usual penalties of doing so.
As a CrossFitter and a follower of Mark’s Daily Apple, I have, for a long time, believed that extreme distance running was detrimental to one’s health, particularly if practiced regularly. CrossFit maintains that long, slow distance (or LSD as we refer to it) leads to decreases in muscle mass and contributes nothing to anaerobic capacity. Mark Sisson of Mark’s Daily Apple and creator of the Primal Blueprint health and fitness program claims that distance running actually contributes to cancer, systemic inflammation, carbohydrate dependency, and a range of other problems. As a former triathlete, he should know.
I have a dirty secret though. I started my athletic career as a cross country runner. I would head out the door every day for my running fix. If I didn’t run, I felt miserable. I was addicted.
When I started CrossFit, I stopped running. I also stopped feeling that sense of wonder in movement that I used to gain from running through the woods at twilight. Fitness went from being a nifty side effect of exploration to a goal in its own right. Instead of letting my whims carry me wherever I wanted to go, I had to go to the gym, and the workout of the day was set up for me.
I did miss running, however. Not just sprints and intervals, but long runs where I would lose track of time and just wander down whatever roads caught my fancy. I felt that this sort of running was good for the soul, even if it wasn’t great for the body, but I was caught up in the CrossFit club mentality and wanted to be strong and viscously powerful. So I held off.
But the stories didn’t always add up. Mikko Salo, the winner of the 2009 CrossFit Games, goes for a thirty-minute run every morning. There were ultra-runners out there who could certainly kick my butt in any CrossFit WOD. Running didn’t always seem to go hand in hand with skeletal frames and zero power.
Maybe the problems with LSD were exaggerated. Done to the exclusion of everything else, perhaps it would lead to problems, but the same could be said of any other form of exercise. And there had to be something to that little voice in my head crying out to whip through the forests like a wild animal on the hunt. No amount of CrossFit could satisfy that urge. For me, fitness had always been about granting the ability to move through the world, and what was more in tune with that desire than running for miles down empty roads and dark trails?
I started in secret, going out for short ten to twenty minute jogs before CrossFit. I didn’t tell anyone I was ‘jogging’ because I was actually a little ashamed. I felt like I was an addict regressing after so many years on the mend. Pretty soon, the short jogs turned into legitimate runs in which I’d bound through the forest for as long as I could, panting my way up hills and barreling down steep ravines. Twenty minutes turned into thirty, then forty, and before I knew it, I was out running for an hour at a time.
I told myself it wasn’t really serious if I wasn’t racing. I was just out for fun, for my mental health. And then I ran a local 5k. There was no more denying that I was a distance runner again. I was returning to my old ways, and while it definitely felt good to be running again, a small part of me couldn’t help but point out that I had been a very scrawny kid when I was running cross country.
Despite all the warnings, I wasn’t getting worse at CrossFit. In fact, I was feeling stronger. My wind was much more consistent, and my mind was in the right place for the first time in a long time. Some of the old injuries I’d picked up from repetitive weightlifting have started to disappear as well.
Like I said, nothing made sense. Running only seemed to work when I was in it for the joy of movement, darting from one challenge to the next, in search of a hill or a rocky patch to navigate. When I ran for the sake of fitness, I would crash. Running was supposed to bring with it knee injuries and hip problems, but now it seemed to be curing me of back pain caused by weightlifting. I wasn’t getting less flexible, and I wasn’t getting weaker.
I don’t know if CrossFit is wrong about LSD, or if Mark’s Daily Apple missed something important. I can’t believe that these great authorities don’t know what they’re talking about. But perhaps they were looking at running from the wrong angle. Maybe they were looking at it as a means to achieve all-around fitness, and only observed the kind of running most people do: self-torture on miles of hard asphalt in over-engineered foot-coffins (to borrow a term for shoes from the barefoot running world).
Chris McDougall’s Tarahumara certainly didn’t run like that. They ran on winding trails, requiring constant attention and changes of direction. Their running required incredible strength, agility, and coordination, as well as power and sheer speed. They ran in light sandals and they didn’t run for the sake of getting in shape. They ran for the love of running. Running for them was a communion with the tribe and with the earth, so they drew their strength from one another and from the trails.
The Spartan Race definitely requires more than just endurance to complete successfully. Those who compete don’t fit the standard definition of a distance runner. They have to be well-rounded athletes, which can still include the ability to run for hours. In addition to that, however, they are strong, powerful, coordinated, have more upper body strength that is strictly necessary to cover ground, and are a little crazy. They find strength in the camaraderie of doing something insane with a group of equally crazy people.
I don’t know if I can call myself a CrossFitter if I love long, slow distance running (slow being a relative term in this case). I don’t know if I can call myself a runner if I love moving weights powerfully and doing gymnastics. I don’t think separating athletes by what they specialize in really makes sense anyway. The Spartans had to be good at everything. They had to run miles to get to a battle and once there, they had to have the strength and ferocity to win anyway.
I think we should expect ourselves to be good at everything as well. We should be able to go for miles, do plenty of pullups, a few back flips, and lift a few hundred pounds off the ground. It’s not about being good at one thing or another, but instead about achieving your full potential as an athlete and unlocking the full spectrum of human physical prowess.