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Beating the Boston Marathon by Dr. Doug Harmon, Janine Marcoux, Lori Gallon - CrossFit Journal

Beating the Boston Marathon

By Dr. Doug Harmon, Janine Marcoux, Lori Gallon

In Running, Videos

May 27, 2010

Video Article

The secret isn’t a secret anymore: you don’t have to run a lot of miles to train for a marathon.

More and more endurance athletes are realizing that old training methods are outdated and inefficient, and intense CrossFit Endurance sessions are now helping athletes accomplish their goals without the endless training miles that punish the body.

Offering more proof, three athletes from RAW Training in Pennsylvania talk about their experience in the 2010 Boston Marathon.

“We jokingly say in our marathon group that no matter what mile we’re on, no matter how hard it gets in the race, there’s no mile that will be harder than a treadmill or speedwork Tabata,” Dr. Harmon says. “And even today in a ridiculously hard course, that was still the case.”

Video by Again Faster.

10min 24sec

Additional audio: CrossFit Radio Episode 96, aired Dec. 2, 2009.

Free Download


17 Comments on “Beating the Boston Marathon”


wrote …

I am an enthusiastic Crossfit athlete and a former collegiate distance runner. I enjoy Crossfit and I think the program has a lot to offer, but I think that this article is misleading and the claims being made are basically wrong. I am not a scientist and I am not the best person to engage in a physiological debate about why these ideas are wrong. I just want to point out some basic things:
1. My personal experience does not support this. I train regularly at an affiliate and do a small amount (10-20 miles per week) of additional running on my own. I cannot run nearly as fast for meaningful distance (one mile plus) as I could when I ran 60-80 miles per week. I am a lot stronger in many different ways. I might even be a better sprinter. But I am a slower distance runner.
2. This video is purely anecdotal. When these people say their old training programs of “lots of slow miles” were ineffective, it is not at all clear what they were doing. They may have been executing these programs very poorly. I could execute Crossfit WODs with poor form and low intensity and then say that Crossfit was a bad idea, but that would be more of a reflection on my personal deficiency than on the program.
3. The reality is that virtually 100% of elite marathoners have training programs that consist of high mileage and little else. These people make their living from prize money and endorsements and have every incentive to adopt a training program that maximizes performance. If this was really a more effective protocol, then someone would be using it at the elite level and winning.
4. One science point: These people keep mentioning VO2 max in the context of marathon preparation. Unless you are completely untrained, your VO2 max is basically a function of genetics and training it is not especially relevant to training for multi-hour event performed at relatively low heart rates. The basic physiological idea behind endurance training is to improve your lactate threshold, which is effectively the percentage of your VO2 max that you can work at for extended periods of time. The fact that these people seem confused about this simple point makes me think that their trainers are also confused, and that this program is not especially well supported by even the most basic science.
5. It sounds like all of these people had trouble near the end of the race and missed their goal times. While this can obviously happen with any training program, it is not exactly a ringing endorsement of this method. Based on the above and my general experience, it is also exactly what I would expect to happen to an athlete competing in a long event who hadn’t done much long training.


wrote …

Well said, Ben. Yes, you probably don't have to log a lot of slow miles to finish a marathon. However, there comes a point for each runner where the mileage and the intensity has to increase to make incremental gains. My unscientific guesstimate is down around 7 minute pace the training needs to be more and more specific. It would take a special athlete to bang out a sub 3 hour race without dedicating a fair amount time to actually running and acclimating the body to running fast. Unless you're a genetic freak, excelling at anything requires hard work - including running 26.2 miles.


wrote …

I always hear that elite endurance athletes train 4-5 hours daily to become world class, and that the volume they put in is a big component of that. Objectively speaking, does anyone have any research or facts that can shed some light on what physiological changes occur when more volume is added (ie,why doe more volume make you faster;does it increase lactic threshold, does it cause the neurological system to adapt to longer bouts of exercise etc.). I agree with the above statement that everything we here is completely anecdotal, n of 1. For every person who has preached the benefits of CFE, I guarantee there just as many people who find it doesn't work, these people just aren't as outspoken about it. I know I am playing devils advocate here (full disclosure, I follow CFE), but I want facts, not "nice" stories of success.


wrote …


Back in the mid 90s when I raced in the 2:40s, I got most of my technical training information from a publication called Running Research News ( It provided thoughtful independent research about distance running training methods without the influence of shoe company advertising. With the growth of endurance competitions (ultras, triathlons, etc), I've got to believe there are other similar sources out there these days for the athlete who is seeking to take it to the next level.


wrote …


Daily, are you following CFE & Crossfit affiliate workouts?
How many days a week did you run leading up to Boston?
Did you swim, cycle or row as well?

Were you wearing Newton's? Did you train in them as well? How do you like them and how many miles can you put on them?

Great story, thank you.


wrote …

I think I'm taking something different from this. In any marathon there are thousands of people running. How many of those thousands are elite or professional runners? The point I take from this video (and the many other similar videos/articles) is that if John Doe decides he would like to run a marathon, he doesn't have to train like one of the elite. He can follow CrossFit/CFE, spend a lot less time training, put in a lot less mileage, and still be able to acheive his goal of running a marathon. And let's not forget he'll have a much more well rounded fitness in general. This is the application that is likely to revolutionize endurance training for all those THOUSANDS of participants who are not making a living off it.


wrote …

I do think CFE won't get much credibility until there is a big enough group testing it at different levels of experience in running. Until it is tested and proven with people from novice to elite runners I think the battle for credibility will be uphill.

For elite runners I think it would be hard to change their training program to one that follows the CFE protocol strictly, if it is substantially different from their normal training program that has worked for them. There is a big paradigm shift that would have to occur for an elite athlete in distance running to trust a CFE-type program.

One thing that CFE does seem to accomplish is preparing people for their event in significantly less training time and by preparing I mean being able to finish the race. No one in the video meet their goal time, but Doug in the video PR'd by 5 minutes.

I'm not an experienced marathoner as I've only run a half-marathon in 1:43 last year. I ran a couple 10km races last year using a training program that included long runs and usually one tempo run per week. My best time last year was 47:59. This year I've been CrossFitting since Feb. 5 and got in a few CFE WODs (~10) before a 10km race on May 1 which I finished in 46:16. So with a lot less mileage I was able to run faster over the same distance, but a different course. I'll be running a 10km this Monday which I ran last year in 49:01. I'm shooting for sub 45 this time. I think there is something to the idea of train short and hard to run long, but my experience is only with a short distance of 10km (6.25 miles). I think it is also important to consider one's athletic background when comparing different training programs. I ran the 400m during high school and part of college. My best time was 49.75 in the open 400m run. My training mainly consisted of interval type training (8x200m with a goal time). I actually prefer the interval training than slower long runs, but that isn't surprising coming from a 400m specialist.

As has been brought up, it is important to consider what the earlier training consisted of before lumping it all together as LSD to compare against CFE. I think a lot of people are getting on the HIIT (High Intensity Interval Training) bandwagon as the answer to getting fit without having to spend hours training. Also, CrossFit has presented this idea of specializing without specializing and with this I wonder if people are looking at CFE as the specialization piece to going long (run, bike, swim, row). I also wonder if CFE is meant to be a program for people to achieve elite performance in this arena or just a way for people who want to CrossFit and be able to get in a marathon every once in a while.

I think most elite distance running programs include at least some tempo and interval training sessions, but also include plenty of long runs and accumulate a lot of weekly miles (>50). I think the big question here with CFE is if it will work as it excludes the long runs and high mileage to focus on intervals and tempo training sessions as the total workload. I don't think people can really question the merit or credibility of tempo runs and interval workouts, but can you exclude the long runs and drop the weekly mileage and compete at an elite level?


wrote …

Isn't CF about being well-rounded? CF is about not being tunnel visioned in one aspect, but being able to do everything that comes out of the "hopper". If the "hopper" says, "run a marathon", an individual that has been truly working out the CF way will be able to run a marathon. Whereas an elite marathon runner will not be able to accomplish much that comes from the "hopper". This is my take on this video, and it DOES prove its point exactly as the title states.

These individuals did not specifically train for a marathon but were still able to complete it. How many athletes who solely lift weights, or solely play tennis, etc can accomplish a marathon? I'd say a very small percentage compared to the percentage that have been training with CF.


wrote …

Crossfit makes you fit. They have never claimed that it will make you the fastest runner over long distances.

When you get into skill specific sports we all can agree that you need to spend extra effort on that skill if you want to win. That's why they're branches like Crossfit Endurance and Crossfit Football.

To me I can relate to the video. When I training for my marathon I ran a ton; 5 days on, one rest and a cross-training day. And boy did it kill me. I lost a ton of weight even though I was always eating, constantly tired, and really really sore! The last week before the race I could run for hours without getting winded but I was ready to get this race over with.

After finishing the race they bused us back to the starting line and someone on there asked me if I was ecstatic about finishing my first marathon. I flat out said, "No, I feel horrible! I'm a toothpick, every joint from the waist down hurts, and I just want to go to bed for a week." That was the last day I've ever ran over 10k.

Talking to elite marathon runners I was surprised by the same first question they always ask when I tell them I ran a marathon, "Did you finish?" Apparently the elite don't finish races a lot of the time. Their body routinely shuts down on them during the race or they get injured. To me this is too much suffering, my love for running isn't that strong.

If I could get a program that will keep me injury-free, not negatively affect my life outside of running, and be relatively competitive (quality for Boston) .... HELL get my shoes out of the basement!


replied to comment from Allan Jackman

I personnaly think Allan has hit the nail on the head. Crossfit is not designed as a way of training anyone to be an "elite" athlete in any one sport. Rather from what "Coach" has said it is a training system to ensure well rounded athletes.

Following CFE will not get you an "elite" marathon time, that much is true, but you will be able to complete a marathon with a respectable time, probably similar to an amateur or club runner who has put in many more miles endurance running per week. But ask one of these other marathon runners or even an "elite" runner to do "Fran" for example and what will the result be? Even ask one of the "elite" marathon runners to do and WOD and there is a high likelihood that they will either fail due to lack of specific endurance or be incapable of doing the WOD due to lack of strength or ability.


wrote …

I have run many marathons, most recently I ran a 3:56 to qualify for Boston in 2008, I joined CF, continued my running program and ran a PR of 3:40 in 2009 a remarkable improvement for me, a 45 year old woman. I am now experimenting with doing CF and CFE only and have dropped my regular running program. I will be repeating the marathon I ran 3:40 at, it will be interesting to see how the times compare. I am concerned that only training to 13 miles is poor prep for 26.2 miles. I am willing go give it a try.


wrote …

Getting 3:34 on a marathon instead of a goal of 3:30 is not a negative. The lady did fantastic. Do you realize how hard a 3:34 is. I'm not sure of her name, but she deserves major props. Especially coming back from that rotator cuff injury and doing less training.

All of those people in the video did flat out amazing. These dudes qualified for Boston!!! And we're critizing them for not finishing at the top? To even qualify is a feat. Way to go!

Penelope: A very fast 13.1 will equate to a solid marathon. Sounds odd, but it works. Brian Mackenzie could always tell your maraton time within minutes if he knew what you were running a treadmill tabata at. If he knew your incline and your speed he could pinpoint where you'd finish. Try that treadmill tabata you guys.... everything else in CrossFit will seem easy and yet it only takes 3 minutes 40 seconds. Why do some of us still hang on to those old traditions? I dare any of you to ask the guys at CFE how to become an elite runner.. they'll get you there.


wrote …

Some more anecdotal 'evidence' that Crossfit is an adequate marathon training regime

Previously posted to CrossFit Discussion Board > Community > Testimonials as "THANK YOU - Finished First Marathon"

Hello Crossfit Community,

On Sunday 25-April-2010, the wife & I ran the Big Sur 2010 Marathon (26.2-miles), our first marathon.

My only training was:

(a) since August 2009 - the posted WODs at as I prepped for the Big Sur 2009 Half-Marathon (13.1-miles)
(b) since December 2009 - the posted aerobic WODs at

I thought my November 2009 half-marathon time (~ 2:27) would have been better had I been doing BOTH crossfit mainsite WODs and crossfit endurance WODs.

After running the Big Sur Marathon, I think my time did improve based on the April 2010 full-marathon time (~ 4:55) HOWEVER it is _NOT_ an apples-to-apples comparison:

:: The half-marathon was flat-terrain that I ran
:: The full-marathon was hilly terrain (~2100-feet of elevation gain, ~2400-feet of elevation loss). One uphill portion (Hurricane or "Hurri-pain" Point) in particular was a WALKING uphill. I planned to walk up this hill from the start.

As Brendon (SF Crossfit) said, I "let the intenisty find me"

In other words, making an apples-to-oranges comparison, even though I walked some portions of the hilly-terrain full-marathon, I still maintained my flat-terrain half-marathon pace. The implication is that had the full-marathon been flat-terrain I might have easily broken 4:00 (knock on a bumper plate).

I did both the mainsite & endurance WODs, less frequently scaled now, back-to-back, without the > 3-hour gap between them, best I could at 24Hr Fitness (one rower, too many treadmills, fair assortment of free weights, dumbbells, barbells, no rings) having done an on-ramp class at Planet Granite Sunnyvale (the local climbing gym) back in August 2009. It took some getting used to to figure out the Crossfit Endurance WOD lingo (SC, LC, U, and this means what exactly, still not clear, should I have been an LC or a U?)

[28-MAY-2010: BTW, my WODs are not done with 'intensity', I don't keep time due to kludgy time piece issues]

Post-marathon race I had no pain, no injury, no cramping, and three trivial toe blood blisters. The next morning I did air-squats and went up & down three flights of stairs 2-steps at a time, several times. Later that evening it was four flights of stairs at SJSU Parking Garage & Engineering Bldg. No pain, maybe a little tightness. Tuesday evening I was back in the gym, Brendon's "Desire to Train"

My wife is in pain & exhausted, having only done LSD treadmill runs at 24Hr fitness.

Diet Regime? None. Week before the marathon I was doing Sausage Egg McMuffins with hash browns for breakfast. Otherwise avoided 'processed' food (e.g. donuts, most breads, etc).

FWIW, the Crossfit Journal QuadDipsea videos were an awesome inspiration for the Big Sur Marathon. THANK YOU Team Unscared!!! Unanswered question from those videos - Why is Dave Castro frightened of pink?


Some more details:
DIET - although the week before I was eating Breakfast McMuffins with Hash Browns, I was also taking three fish oil pills each morning & evening, beer & red wine on the weekends, maybe a year from now I'll be Paleo Zone man but not today

ACTUAL MARATHON - although every 1.5-miles there was an aid station with water, Gatorade, fruit/Gu/etc; I still ran with a Nathan HPL 2-liter hydration vest, with the front pockets filled with Gu energy packs & a camera. Instead of water in the hydration pack, I had one envelope of CytoMax electrolyte replenishment mixed with 2-liters of regular hotel tap water.

I did zero stretching. Life happens. Doubt I'll have time to stretch when something happens so why start now?

Pacing. I did not wear a sport watch to pace myself. At some point I found a team doing a 5:00 marathon finish pace, where they would periodically walk to insure that they would not cross the finish line before 5:00. Guessing most marathons have some pace crews.

YOUR MARATHON - it is _YOUR_ marathon not mine, your choice whether you want to follow my lead or not or pick what you like. If you don't like Gu then use something else. If you don't like CytoMax then use something else, etc etc etc.

MENTAL PREP - Watch the Crossfit SF Quad Dipsea videos. Absolutely Awesome!!! ... watch the four-part video several times, ponder what the Quad Dipsea is, think about both the distance and the elevation gain/loss, note what they are saying, how many finished, diet, visible physical condition as they crossed the finish line, etc. If they can do the Quad Dipsea with so little actual training runs then any Crossfitter can finish a marathon.

WIFE PREP - this is all a "cult" so we had to run an unnecessary practice half-marathon six-weeks or more before. It was the Mt Diablo Half (cross country - psych) Marathon. Steep uphills, stream crossings, steep downhills, mud mud mud. We both finished, but again she was a sore and in pain and exhausted and I was fine. Since Jan 1st, we maybe did four 'couple-time' runs that were maybe six-miles in length. Otherwise she ran many many many miles on the treadmill.

YASSO 800s - discovered this by accident, the concept is that your time running 800-meters during training will be your time to finish the marathon. If I didn't like the Crossfit Endurance workout (e.g. run 10km) then I would just do the Yasso 800s. My goal was a 5:00 marathon time, so I set the treadmill to 5:00 min/km when running ten-sets of Yasso 800s. Viola, I finished the marathon at ~ 4:55.

Closing thoughts? Your mileage may vary. I am not an expert, maybe I got lucky. Consult a physician before commencing an exercise regime, blah blah blah.
Still unanswered question from the Quad Dipsea videos ... "Why is Dave Castro frightened of pink?" (grin)

I would like to add that after the Big Sur Marathon, I did air squats at the finish line (zero pain, plenty of stares ... WTF is he doing?), I felt perfectly fine - not sore at all, zero need to sit down, zero need to lie down, zero cramping.


wrote …

"CF - Jack of all trades, master of none"

All of the athletes in the clip have a firm endurance base and previous experience of running a marathon. Changing to CFE training might helped them to find the peak. And if you're fit otherwise (CF) your odds to run a marathon in a decent time are propably better than a man who isn't fit.

CF is made for modern soldiers who carry heavy loads and do intensive/short operations from their APC's and head back to their base at the evening to eat and sleep. Or a urban man who drives (with a car) from his/her home to CF Affiliate to train and drive back home.

Strenght is the key thing in most of the wods. CF is a good, quick and easy way to improve your overall fitness, but the base needed in long endurance events is almost forgotten. Even I feel bad when I see a pumped up athlete running his/her 10k hill run in the CF Games.

Most of the people haven't got the time or the will (and patience) to train for years to increase their base.

CF/CFE training has a little to do with endurance training. How many normal(or even elite) runners, cross country skiers, biathletes, triathletes train with CFE- methods?


wrote …

Who wants to train me?

I mix up CFE and CF WODs during the week, but I need to have some more clear structure. I have done 4 marathons using LSD training, and each one was slower than the first. So I know traditional training methods are not working for me as a I get older.

Now I am ready to start training again for a marathon.

It would be great to have someone with endurance experience plot out a program for me.

Any takers?


Damon Stewart wrote …

On a personal level I've been curious to try some of the claims made by CFE so I've signed up for a marathon this fall. In 6 years of Crossfitting I've never run more than 5K and have done zero supplementary running training. My "program" is to run 4 x 400 on Tues, 4 x 800 on Fri, and 8 weeks out I'll start doing some longer Saturday runs to condition my joints. Pose running drills are done daily as part of my warmup. My total training mileage will be less than 75 miles. I'm sure I won't run a sub 3 but am sure I will run a sub 4. I'm interested to black box this and see how I feel/perform/recover.


wrote …

Without further information, this video raises a serious question about CF/CFE training. Out of three athletes we have two with injuries : rotator cuff requiring surgery,and a fractured fibia.

Karl Crane

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