Strength and Endurance: Can We Have Both?

CrossFit, Running — By on November 15, 2011 8:40 am

Fashletics Sarah Wilson

No one ever told me I could be strong.  From an early age I was told I had “the body of a runner.”  Translation: you are tall and skinny and should probably stay away from sports that involve physical contact with another human being or heavy objects.

So I became a runner because that is what I thought I was “supposed” to be.  For a long time, I let my body type direct my athletic destiny.  From one perspective you could say it worked out well.  I joined the track and cross-country teams in high school, came to love the discipline of training, and enjoyed the camaraderie that came with being a part of a team.

I left for college, still a runner at heart but without a team to be a part of.  I wasn’t nearly fast enough for the University of Michigan track team, so I just laced up my shoes and hit the pavement on my own.  I wasn’t sure what I was training for, all I knew was that I couldn’t stop competing whether I was asked to be on a team or not.

Training for nothing got old pretty fast so I registered for the Chicago Marathon.  I found a training program online that I followed religiously during my junior year of college.  It was a typical “long slow distance” (LSD) training calendar that would increase my mileage weekly, my longest runs always falling on a Saturday.  The calendar worked me up to two 20-mile runs that I was to complete roughly 6 and 4 weeks before the marathon.

I ran the Chicago Marathon in October of 2001 and finished in a time of 3 hours 51 minutes.  I was so pumped after this experience that I immediately signed up for the San Diego Marathon which would take place the following June.  I followed the same training program and finished the San Diego Marathon in… wait for it… 3 hours 52 minutes.  That is zero improvement. It’s actually a little worse than zero improvement, but let’s not split hairs.

After that race I sort of felt like “Well, that’s my marathon time.  I guess I’m done with that. On to the next.”  I began looking for a new challenge and at some point got it in my head that I wanted to do a triathlon.  Three years ago when I moved to Miami I signed up for my first Olympic distance tri.  I didn’t own a bike and I hadn’t swam more than 200m since high school gym class.  Details details…

The training program that I followed was the same structure as the marathon program only with three disciplines instead of one.  A few weeks before my race I was visiting my brother in Michigan and he came along on one of my bike/run workouts.  After a 25-mile bike ride we headed out on our run and chatted about the upcoming race.  My brother seemed impressed with the sheer volume in my training program and said, “Wow! You must just feel SO strong!”

I will never forget that moment.  I was struggling to keep up and could feel my skinny body collapsing in on itself as we trotted towards his house.

“NO! I feel so weak!”  As someone who is not a fan of expressing weakness, this is something I probably would not have admitted had I not felt so physically broken down at that moment.  I just blurted it out.  He was surprised.  I think I was surprised.  It felt more like a plea for help than an answer to a question.  This was the first time I realized that being able to run forever did not necessarily mean that I was fit and it definitely did not mean that I was strong.  Even if I was destined to be a runner, I was going about it in the wrong way.

Things changed when my coach in Florida saw exactly what I was feeling.  A verbal plea for help was not necessary, my broken down body told the whole story.  I remember crossing a finish line, body hunched over because I was unable to support my own weight.  I didn’t care how fast I was or how long I could run for, I knew something was very, very wrong.  I am not strong.  How do I get strong?  Before I had the chance to catch my breath and articulate my concern, my coach approached and said: “You’re gonna do CrossFit.”

A couple of us started meeting in a garage where instead of heading out for long runs, we lifted weights.  I had never done a deadlift or a clean and my coach could not comprehend the fact that I could not do a single pull up.  One day he said, “Okay, we’re going to do 90 pull ups and 90 dips.”  My response?  “Um, do you mean 9?”

In 2009 I was 5’9”, 120lbs and had a 130# deadlift.  I could run a 6:20 mile but had no Fran time because I couldn’t thruster 65#’s or do pull ups.  Today after following a combination of CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance programing I am 138lbs, have a 285# deadlift, a 5:45 mile, and a 4:45 Fran.  During my first year of CrossFit Endurance (CFE) I also knocked 22 minutes off of my Olympic Triathlon time and qualified for the Duathlon World Championships.  In my second year of CFE I qualified for Worlds again.  Six months after Worlds, I completed the 2011 CrossFit Sectionals Open and qualified as part as my Affiliate Team for Regionals where we took 11th place.

So am I an endurance athlete or am I a CrossFitter?  I am an athlete. Period.  And as an athlete I am always looking for the best way to prepare for a competition.  However, if a training program compromises my overall strength and fitness the way that LSD did, count me out.  I plan on being on this earth for a while and I plan on doing a hell of a lot more with my life than racing and lifting.  So if my training program is doing nothing more than putting me on a podium, well, that’s just not enough.

As CrossFit Endurance training has evolved and as I became more informed (via certifications, stalking the CFE main site, etc) I realized that I actually can “have my cake and eat it too.”  Paleo cake of course.  From my perspective, CrossFit Endurance is still CrossFit.  When I am training specifically for an endurance event I can trust that not only will CrossFit Endurance prepare me for this event in the best way possible, it will do so without compromising my strength and my Fran time.  In fact, while training for endurance events I still see gains in CrossFit workouts and lifts as long as my recovery and nutrition is also on point.

When I made the transition from LSD to CFE, I swore to myself that even if I did not become a better endurance athlete, I would never go back to the LSD training that was ruining my body.  Luckily, I became a better endurance athlete and I never had to give LSD training a second look.

As I started becoming more competitive at CrossFit, I made another deal with myself.  I would not compromise my newfound strength to be a better endurance athlete.  Again, this proved to be a non-issue due to the fact that though it is sport specific, the CrossFit Endurance training program is primarily focused on power and  speed, not on volume.

As I sit here typing this I am wearing a T-shirt that says TRIATHLETE on the front and SQUAT CLEAN SNATCH on the back. Total coincidence, I swear.  I am grateful that my quest to become a better endurance athlete led me to CrossFit, a sport that I have come to love in its own right.  I absolutely love competing.  I also love getting better.  When I ran that second marathon back in college, I realized how lifeless a sport becomes if there is no growth or improvement. CrossFit Endurance breathed new life into endurance sports for me.  I believe it saved me from things like osteoporosis, wrecked joints, and carbo-loading.  But best of all, it told me something that no one had ever told me before:

You can be strong.

Editor’s Note:  In addition to being an incredible athlete, Sarah is also an accomplished jewelry maker.  Her company, Fashletics, creates handmade jewelry that is inspired by a passion for fitness – each piece of jewelry serves a badge of honor and an expression of strength.

Related Posts:  

Christmas Abbott – Finding Her Purpose with CrossFit

CrossFit Training – Getting Fit for Life

Quotes by Steve Prefontaine


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Sarah Wilson is a certified CrossFit trainer at South Florida CrossFit Endurance and a nationally ranked endurance athlete who competes for Team USA in the sport of Duathlon. Sarah is also an established jewelry designer and has been working as a metalsmith for nearly 10 years. Her company, Fashletics, produces handmade jewelry inspired by a passion for fitness, competition, and a strong desire to empower others who have made a commitment to a fit and healthy lifestyle.

Latest posts by Sarah Wilson (see all)

  • Becca /

    Love your story, Sarah! Thanks for sharing it. I have been doing CrossFit for almost 7 years, but always with other sports – martial arts, rowing, and now powerlifting. It’s a fantastic base for other sports and can help you excel, as you described. Love it!

    • Sarah Wilson

      Thanks so much Becca! I’m glad to hear that you are also finding success through CrossFit and applying to other sports that you love. A woman after my own heart! Keep it up!

  • Barrie

    Great article. You’re on a lovely journey. All the best.

    • Sarah Wilson

      Thanks Barrie! All the best to you too!

  • Mrslavecchio

    You are awesome!! Great read too!!

    • Sarah Wilson

      You are too kind :)

  • Aaron B.

    Haha love the shirt you described. Such a great article. Sounds like I need to start up with CrossFit Endurance again. I’ll use this article as inspiration.

    • Sarah Wilson

      Go for it Aaron!

  • Anonymous

    4.45 Fran… wow! I´m a guy who´s been training for years (30 y old now) – both endurance and some CF last 2 years. And my best fran is 5.26 (recently made – my next goal is 5.00)
    285 deadleift is sooo cool! thats 128 kg!!
    and at the same time making awesome times on bike and run – awesome! Keep it up :)

    • Sarah Wilson

      Thanks so much! And the best part is… I’m enjoying the journey, not just the rewards. Hope you are too! P.S. Your next Fran WILL BE a sub-5!

      • Anonymous

        I totally agree, the goal is nothing without the journey. That is the attitude that I try to pass on to my clients as a personal trainer. check out if you like: PS. Thanks for the pep-talk, I´ll let you know when I´ve done it! :)

        • Sarah Wilson

          I’ll definitely check out your blog!

          • Anonymous

            Did my first muscleup last week – awesome experience!

  • Jenny Passey Grothe

    Sarah, I loved this article. :) I didn’t even realize it was you til I got to the end. I had no idea we had so much in common – granted you are worlds ahead of me – but the fact that you too struggled with endurance and weight training. I love you even more now. :) Posted it on my page. xoxoox

    • Sarah Wilson

      Hi Jenny :) Thanks for commenting and thanks for sharing the article. Love you too girl!

  • Savannah

    Sarah, I am a 5′ 9″ 125 lb. marathon runner {have been thinking about triathalons though I haven’t done any yet} and have recently gotten my feet wet in cross fit…this makes me want to jump all of the way in! I would love to have some paleo cake and eat it too…What a great success story. Thanks for sharing and way to go for you!

    • Sarah Wilson

      Go for it Savannah! The paleo cake is delicious :)

  • Tricia

    “You are only as fit as your weakest link”. Love this article and your story! So glad you’ve found a balanced training regimen that meets all your needs and goals.

    • Sarah Wilson

      And boy did I have a majorly weak link… I should say many weak links! Thank you Tricia!

  • Anonymous

    Thank you so much for writing this, it truly hit home for me. I was always told because of my body type that I would make a great runner. While I ran for a team in college, I was too weak to reach my goals and felt like I was not a real contributor to the team. I found crossfit a year ago and during that time had a huge PR on my half marathon and will soon be training for my first full. I will be using the Furman FIRST training plan (aka less is more plan), because I’m still on the fence about CFE,though my cross training will be all crossfit. I’m so happy that I found your blog, I can’t wait to learn more from you!

    • Sarah Wilson

      Congratulations Meg! Glad you are also finding your strength. If you ever have any questions about CFE please feel free to contact me. Good luck with the marathon training!

      • Anonymous

        Thank you so much! I will definitely take you up on your offer, I want dig deeper and find out more before I ask you many questions, I feel like I have a lot of them!

        • Sarah Wilson

          Just keep digging! I promise you won’t be sorry :) This program delivers… great training and so much more.

  • Jessica

    Great read Sarah! Thanks for sharing. We have many members who are endurance athletes as well. Hope you will “like” us on FB. Facebook/crossfitrehoboth

    • Sarah Wilson

      Thank you Jessica! I will definitely check out your FB page!

  • Brendonmahoney

    Very well written. Thank you, Sarah!

    • Sarah Wilson

      Thanks so much!

  • DStephens

    Yes Sarah, this was great. I am actually the opposite. I always played sports like football and basketball, fast and explosive. I detested long distance running and believed I wasn’t meant to run long distance. Then I run an article in Sports Illustrated that explicitly said humans are meant to run long distance! I’ve been doing Sealfit to get the total approach, but same concept. Body will achieve what the mind will believe!

    • Sarah Wilson

      Amazing! Sealfit is hardcore!! Good for you!!

  • tdhurst

    Love the story here. While I’m nowhere near as accomplished, my own running achievements increased a ton after I placed weight lifting/CrossFit as equal to my long-distance workouts.

    • Sarah Wilson

      Thanks so much! Congrats on your success! Self improvement, that’s what counts! Keep at it!

  • John Knox

    I finished an Ironman and couldn’t do 5 pull ups. I started CF and all my running buddies thought I was nuts until I qualified for and ran Boston 2x by dropping 13 mins off my 3:30 marathon. I still PR my 5k’s and lift 3x a week in prep for my next endurance adventure.

    • Tim Huntley

      Nice job John.

    • Sarah Wilson

      And what do all of your running buddies think now John? :)

  • Marco

    Thanks for your inspiring words Sarah. As a crossfitter for about 8 months now, I’ve competed in a aquathon and in 5 weeks I’m doing a 90km cross country ski race. Today was my first day on skis but because of crossfit and soon to be CFE I’ll be prepared and can concentrate on my skiing technique while CF takes care of my overall fitness.
    Best of luck in future competitions!

  • Tanya

    So glad I found this article though judging by the date of these comments I am a bit late…oops! I started as a crossfitter. Then a year ago I pushed a wheelbarrow 144km for charity as part of a team, six months ago I completed my first half marathon, and two weeks ago I completed my first half Ironman tri. I have been eating (mostly) paleo for a year. I love how all my training sessions compliment each other – since training for tris I hit so many crossfit PRs I lost count – I think it was the swimming but even if it wasn’t you won’t see me stopping any time soon. Sarah you have a new fan!

  • Ben Franke

    I take a supplement called “Shroom Tech Sport” for daily energy, endurance, and fast recovery when working out. It utilizes the cordyceps mushroom as well as other nutrients to bring you clean cellular energy through the production of ATP…. rather than stimulant-based energy like caffeine. It also helps regulate the way your body utilizes oxygen so you can keep pushing yourself longer. Check it out at this link.

  • Kat

    Great article, Sarah!
    I’ve been a runner for the past 12 years and supplemented my running training with swimming and biking – hoping to look towards triathlons soon! I’ve been lifting for a couple years and just started crossfit about 8 months ago. Love it all, but sometimes I struggle to figure out how to balance them. When I’m doing all at once, I feel like I see very little improvements across the board — especially in my lifting/crossfit. I’ve found that I have to compromise one section of training (endurance/cardio or crossfit/lifting) to see major improvements in the other. And that bums me out! I love doing all of them! And I want to consistently improve in all activities, without compromising! I want to have it all! (Oh geez, I’ve been watching too much 30 rock…)

    How do you organize your training schedule to maximize your performances?