CrossFit as Ultramarathon Training

Yakima Skyline Rim 50K Ultramarathon

The Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is a trail ultramarathon in the high desert of Washington that traverses 31 miles and has ~9,500 feet of elevation gain. It was both my first ultramarathon and my first organized race of any distance. To be upfront about it, my complete lack of experience makes me wholly unqualified to offer advice on training, never mind training for an ultramarathon. That said running the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K was a transformative experience and I am going to share my atypical training experience none-the-less.

About six months ago I decided to train for the Leadville trail marathon. I started running consistently and built up enough endurance so that my long runs were in the high teens. Like so many novice runners I did too much, too soon and the end result was an inflamed posterior tibial tendon. Besides adding milage that my body wasn’t ready for I also purchased a pair of Merrell Road Gloves for my short runs. I really like the Merrell Road Gloves now that I have sufficient arch strength but at the time I had no business running in a minimalist type shoe for any distance.

My training ground to a halt because of my inflamed tendon. After a month of complete rest I started going on one and two mile runs. I slowly rehab’d my foot and about two months ago I was finally back to where I could run six miles pain free. At this point I wasn’t in good shape but I wasn’t in horrible shape either.

I started doing CrossFit because I was concerned that my foot wasn’t strong enough to handle the mileage of a traditional training program. The CrossFit gym I go to is CrossFit 206 in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. If you are looking to try CrossFit I would highly recommend CrossFit 206. Their workouts are fairly standard in that there is 15 minutes of mobility training, 30 minutes of strength training (deadlifts, squats, cleans, etc), and then the workout of the day (WOD). The WOD is an intense 5 – 15 minute workout that is nonstop and usually done as fast as possible.

The WODs leave you exhausted but it is only 15-ish minutes of exercise. Can that really be enough of a workout to adequately train for an ultramarathon? My full training program for the 50K was CrossFit three to four times a week and then going on one longish run, 6-10 miles, and a couple of short runs, 2-3 miles, after CrossFit sessions. Well, after only two months of going to CrossFit 206 I finished the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K with a semi-respectable time of 8:09. Surprisingly my body felt good and I was not zonked when I crossed the finish line. I’ll admit I was a little sore all over and my calves were acutely sore for the two days post-race but I have been more sore after some of the WODs. On a side note: the CEP compression socks I wore really helped control cramps and spasms in my calves as I climbed seemingly endless hills. Just look at the profile of the race and tell me that doesn’t look like a calf punishing day of fun.

Yakima Skyline Rim 50k Race Profile

I think the 15 minute CrossFit workouts were able to prepare me for an 8 hour run because for those 15 minutes the focus is solely on developing fundamental strength. By fundamental strength I mean strength developed by full-body exercises that engage all the primary muscles as well as the stabilizers that are so often neglected. The fundamental strength helped in a number of ways. While running on loose rock I noticed that I was more surefooted because of the stronger stabilizer muscles in my legs. While trudging up thousands of vertical feet of trail I was acutely aware of how much stronger my legs felt. Despite weightlifting being the antithesis of distance running, the squats, deadlifts, and cleans really paid off. While running down thousands of vertical feet of trail I noticed how much stronger my core was and how I could engage my core to control my descent and relieve my quads.

So is CrossFit good ultramarathon training? I’d say that it worked for me but I caveat that with the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is “only” 31 miles. Would CrossFit be enough for a 50 or 100 miler? I think it would be if your longish run was scaled appropriately. Now that I have the ultra-bug I am toying with the idea of a 50 miler and I am pretty sure I am going to continue the CrossFit + one long run training plan.

4 thoughts on “CrossFit as Ultramarathon Training

  1. Tonya Williamson

    Jon–you and Ben have been traveling parallel roads. He ran his first ultra in December and we just recently started CrossFit. We also changes to a paleo diet–and Ben is seeing real movement in his speed and endurance from the combination. 🙂

  2. Fran

    Great job, Jon! You’re quite an athlete. I’m glad we were able to help you get in shape for this accomplishment. The 20-30 mins of barbell training is a big part of why people get so much out of the WODs. You always show great focus during your lifts and this may be your secret weapon 🙂

  3. Pingback: Leadville Trail Marathon - 2013 | On The Sharp End

  4. Katy

    Thanks for posting this, Jon. I’m about to do the Big Bend 50k in January solely on CrossFit and CrossFit Endurance training, and I honestly think I’ll be fine. But, your post has also made me feel a bit better about it. 🙂

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