How to Get Better at Running for the CrossFit Athlete

Straight-up and unabashed Coach Paul answers the tough questions about running for the CrossFit athlete. Questions like: whether you really need to run to do well in CrossFit. Or, why CrossFit will help you run better with fewer injuries. Plus, Paul shares some of his best videos and tips on mobility for running and running technique, including his top 18 Stretches and Mobility Drills for Running.

Comprehensive and filled to the brim with useful content, this article provides tips and training methodology for getting better at running and run-based WODS for the CrossFit Athlete.

Reasons CrossFitters Don’t Like Running

The CrossFit community has been split about running for a long time. Just take a look at the various comments about running in this reddit post. Some people like running and some people hate running. There are four primary reasons people say they don’t like it:

  1. It’s too hard for them
  2. It causes them pain
  3. I’m more of a “strength” athlete
  4. Running isn’t a Part of CrossFit

Running is Too Hard for Me

Running will be hard, just like any other activity, when you don’t do it often. Think back to the very first CrossFit class you ever took. How hard was that? If you want to get better at running, you need to run more frequently. So, stop cherry picking around the running WODS in your box. You will continue to “suck at running” if you avoid it.

Running is a Skill

If you want to improve your Olympic lifts, you need to practice. If you want to improve your handstand walk, you need to practice. And yes, if you want to improve your running, you need to practice. All great runners practice running.

Most people cannot do double unders without a lot of practice, yet some people are naturals. Running is just like that. If you aren’t a natural runner, you can still get better if you practice.

How Often do I Need to Run if I am doing CrossFit?

I recommend you run twice a week. One run should be an interval-based run, like what you might do in a class. For example:

5 Rounds for Time

  • 400M Run
  • 15 Overhead Squats

Does that workout look familiar? It should, it’s the CrossFit Girl Nancy.

The second run should be a long run. Something between 1-2 hours. Running twice a week will be sufficient for most people to improve your CrossFit engine. Plus, running twice a week consistently is enough to improve at running. Yes, three time a week would improve your running more quickly, but there are some many things to practice at running.

When Should I do my Run?

If you CrossFit 5 days a week, like I do, it’s hard to fit it in. Avoid running the day after you do any strength training workout as running can blunt the recovery cycle. I run on Saturdays after my CrossFit WOD. I do mobility and recovery on Sundays.

Running Causes them Pain

Pain in your feet, ankles, knees, etc. are all signs that you:

  1. Do not know how to run properly or you can’t execute proper running technique
  2. Do not have the right running sneakers for your running style or body-type
  3. You are not doing the proper mobility work for your feet and calves

You should not be in pain when you run. If you are in pain, find a CrossFit coach that specializes in running and mobility. He or she will be able to pinpoint the reasons you are in pain, and help you get better.

Running Technique

There are many articles and videos on running technique. As a starting place, please check out these articles on Running Pain and Running Technique.

Personally, I teach and use the Pose Method of Running. I also follow Brian Mackenzie’s techniques (which borrow very heavily from the Pose method). Here are some great videos Brian filmed many years ago. And while they are incredibly low budget videos, the information Brian Mackenzie is very accurate, and still true to this day.

Mobility for Runners

Here’s a video that I put together on the Top 18 Stretches for Ankle and Calf Mobility.

YouTube video

In addition to dedicated Calf and Ankle Mobility, I also recommend you take yoga class or stretch classes such as our FireFlow Yoga or Beyond Stretch.

YouTube video
YouTube video

If you are in Mobility debt (e.g0,. not been doing your mobility work for a while), you’ll need to take a few personal training sessions or private yoga sessions to jump start your mobility training.

I’m more of a “strength” athlete

So what? Just because you are better naturally at some things than others, doesn’t mean you can’t improve. I’m more of strength athlete too (Bench 315, Squat 425, Deadlift 415) and I enjoy running. You can too.

Impact of Being Overweight

I hate to say it, but a lot of “strength” athletes are overweight. Not everyone, but a good portion of them. Running like most bodyweight based exercises (pullups, jump rope, pushups, etc.) is much more difficult if you are overweight. You would be surprised at just how much 10 pounds matters. Buy yourself a 20 pound weight vest (I recommend TacTec or Hyperwear Elite) and add 20 pounds and try some running, pullups, and pushups. It’s much harder. So if you are 20-40 pounds overweight, maybe it’s not that you are bad runner, maybe you need to focus on your nutrition a little more?

Look at any race from professional ones to recreational ones. The winners of all these races are slender people.  It takes more work to move a great mass. It’s just physics and it makes a bigger difference than you might expect.

Integrating Running and CrossFit

Running has been an integral part of CrossFit since 2001 (e.g. from the very beginning). If you look at Greg Glassman’s earliest WODS, they incorporated running all the time. From the Broomstick Mile to the early Girl WODS like Nancy above, running has always been and will always be a part of CrossFit.

Running is in the CrossFit Games

Running and sprinting has always been a part of the CrossFit games. Below, I linked some examples of competitions including running.

YouTube video
YouTube video

Here’s a running WOD in the 2015 CrossFit Games

YouTube video

Pro CrossFit Athletes Are Very Fast Runners

As you can see from the times posted in the Capitol WOD in 2022, many CrossFit athletes can run a sub six-minute mile. With the exception of dedicated runners, a sub six minute mile is very fast by all measures. I’d love to run under a 7 minute mile personally. The women’s times are similarly impressive. The same rings true for our masters athletes as well.

Running has Always Been a Part of CrossFit

Running is a part of CrossFit, and if you aren’t running, you aren’t doing CrossFit right. But don’t feel bad about that. I didn’t run for a long time because of the reasons above. Any you know what, when I read the empirical evidence behind why athletes should run when they do CrossFit, and I learned how to stretch and mobilize my soft tissue properly, I got better at running and I got better at CrossFit.

If your CrossFit box doesn’t teach and program running and/or doesn’t have a running program… maybe it’s time you looked around for a better box.

How Does Running Make you Better at CrossFit?

  • Improve oxygen usage in the muscles
  • Increase heart’s mass and volume
  • Improve ventilation in the lungs
  • Reduce systolic and diastolic blood pressure
  • Improves recovery and helps prevent overtraining

Running builds your engine. If you want to dominate any of the endurance wods in a competition or your class, you need to run and row. Simple as that. Notice, I said run and row. Rowing is not a replacement for running.

How Does CrossFit Make you Better at Running?

Running requires a balance between posterior strength, good mobility, strong core stretch, and good hip strength. People get injured running all the time, because of poor mobility and lack of strength in these areas. CrossFit improve the function of these key areas, so that you can run better with less pain.

I ran long before starting CrossFit, and I’d always get injured because of the aforementioned reasons. I could never run more than 2 months without getting a hamstring pull, foot pain, etc. I gave up running and move to CrossFit, because I wasn’t a good runner. Two years ago, I decided I’d give running another shot. Armed with all the knowledge and strength CrossFit has given me, I’m happy to say that I’ve been running consistently for 20 months, and I haven’t had one injury running. Not even a little one. I haven’t had any injuries from CrossFit either. When done correctly Running and CrossFit form a perfect pair.

Does CrossFit Build Your Running Base?

CrossFit Workouts also build your engine. CrossFit published a study showing the average heart rate of people doing Cindy vs just running.

The graph says it all, CrossFit workouts increase heart rate more than running.

Does CrossFit Alone Make You Better at Running?

CrossFit improves all things needed to run better. Power, strength, endurance, speed, balance and coordination. The International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance analyzed the improvement of dedicated runners vs. runners that split their time between running and CrossFit. All athletes ran at least 10 miles a week.

The study compared changes in running performance (5-km time trial) and fitness (maximal oxygen uptake [VO2max] and body composition [BC]) between polarized training and CrossFit Endurance (CFE) in recreational runners. 21 participants completed 12 wk of CFE or polarized endurance training (POL). Both groups trained 5 day a week. POL ran 5 days a week, whereas CFE ran 3 days a week and performed CrossFit 3 days a week. Intensity was classified as low, moderate, or high (zone 1, 2, or 3) according to ventilatory thresholds. POL was prescribed greater volume, distributed as 85%/5%/10% in Z1/Z2/Z3. CFE emphasized a lower volume (110 [18] min·wk−1) distribution of 48%/8%/44%. 

Results: POL ran 283 (75.9) min·wk−1 and 47.3 (11.6) km·wk−1, both exceeding the 117 (32.2) min·wk−1 and 19.3 (7.17) km·wk−1 in CFE (P < .001). The POL distribution (74%/11%/15%) had greater total and percentage Z1 (P < .001) than CFE (46%/15%/39%), which featured higher percentage Z3 (P < .001). Time trial improved −93.8 (40.4) s (−6.21% {2.16%}) in POL (P < .001) and −84.2 (65.7) s (−5.49% {3.56%}) in CFE (P = .001). BC improved by −2.45% (2.59%) fat in POL (P = .02) and −2.62% (2.53%) in CFE (P = .04).

The magnitude of improvement was not different between groups for time trial (P = .79) or BC (P = .88). Both groups increased VO2max (P ≤ .01), but with larger magnitude (P = .04, d = 0.85) in POL (4.3 {3.6} mL·kg·min−1) than CFE (1.78 {1.9} mL·kg·min−1). Conclusions: Recreational runners achieved similar improvement in 5-km performance and BC through polarized training or CFE, but POL yielded a greater increase in VO2max.

International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance

In Plain English

CrossFit will make you better at running. Running on its own will help you improve a little bit faster than doing a combination of running and CrossFit, but not by much. Runners World Magazine is in Accord. Marathon Handbook is in Accord.

Does CrossFit Make You Better at Marathons?

Yes, but it’s not optimized to make you better at marathons. CrossFit is not optimized to make you better at soccer, Olympic lifting, Powerlifting, back flips, or anything else. CrossFit is optimized to make you better at most things, but the best at any single thing. If all you care about is running marathons, CrossFit can help you stay healthy. But certainly, you’ll need to supplement your training.

Most CrossFit workouts feature 200-800 runs in them. For this reason, the additional practice afforded by CrossFit in this middle distance improves performance in this range. Just like a sprinter doesn’t run marathons to get faster at sprinting.

Running for Masters CrossFit Athletes

Changing the Paradigm

In 2016, CrossFit surveyed 10 athletes in the community who had trained CrossFit continuously for longer than 10 years and are now masters. The ages ranged from 40-58 years, and all but one train four to five sessions a week. Seven of the 10 report that they are still getting strength PRs (the other three said strength varied with frequency of training), and all had dramatically improved Fran times. All said that they expected to do CrossFit for the rest of their life, and only one of the 10 thought he had peaked as an athlete (90 percent thought they hadn’t hit their peak!). Six of the 10 had achieved a PR for both a strength and a benchmark workout in the last 12 months, whereas nine out of 10 had achieved either a strength or a benchmark PR in the last 12 months.

That is significant. Sixty percent had recently improved in both strength and conditioning, and 90 percent had recently improved in either strength or conditioning. Five out of 10 said they were confident they could complete a marathon in less than four and a half hours without any extra specific training, and another four said they weren’t sure but they would give it a go. Only one wouldn’t attempt a marathon for fear of injury. This data is inspiring. It would be an impressive sample even if the average age was 20, but this is a group with an average age of 46. Interestingly, 80 percent said that their primary motivator was wellness. conclusions because the data is anecdotal and the sample size small, but it does highlight the positive outcomes that sustained training can produce for the aging athlete. CrossFit is as effective for the aging athlete as it is for the younger athlete.

Coaching the Aging Athlete by CrossFit Education

Why Did you Start CrossFit?

If you are like me, you started CrossFit to get healthy, look better, make friends, and improve your strength and conditioning. CrossFit does that. I’m telling you that to get the most out of CrossFit you also need to run. Fortunately, CrossFit includes running in their workouts. So, stop skipping the running wods. If you are in pain, talk to your CrossFit coach, he or she can help you.

How Much Running is there in CrossFit?

CrossFit structures its workouts around MGW. This has been the foundation of CrossFit Programming since the beginning.

  • Monostructural: running, jump rope, echo bike, ski erg, rowing, etc.
  • Gymnastics: box jumps, pull-ups, lunges, etc.
  • Weight lifting: snatches, squats, kettlebell swings, thruster, etc.

Workouts feature single effort workouts like a max effort back squat, 30 muscle-ups for time, or a 5K run. Some workouts feature couplets: one weightlifting exercise and rowing. Others feature three elements or more elements.

So, in any given week, we’ll do 2-3 workouts that incorporate monostructural. One or two of those workouts will generally involve running.

Final Thoughts on Running & CrossFit

My advice to you is embrace running. Learn as much as you can. In the beginning, like most things, it’ll be challenges. But patience and persistence will pay off. Learn from your friends at your CrossFit box, and talk to your coach if you are having trouble. This above all else, keep showing up. You can’t get better if you don’t try.

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