Strength and Endurance: Can We Have Both?

Fashletics Sarah Wilson

Author: 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.