Ari talks with Brian MacKenzie, creator of Crossfit Endurance and author of Power Speed ENDURANCE: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance Training. MacKenzie seeks to optimize endurance training by strengthening an athletes body using Crossfit exercises and focusing on specific technique. For Brian, the goal is to get an athlete moving as efficiently as possible by exploiting weakness in an athletes movement and fixing the weakness through crossfit style strength training.
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ARI: Now I’m speaking with Brian MacKenzie, who is the creator of CrossFit Endurance and also the author of Power Speed Endurance, which is more or less what I would say a Bible that I keep on my desk. Brian, thank you for taking the time to talk to me.
BRIAN: Appreciate it. No problem.
ARI: I had an interesting introduction to CrossFit Endurance. It was between doing a half Iron Man and training for an Iron Man, and I have to say, I wish that I had known about it when I was training for the half Iron Man, because it’s such a more efficient way to train. First of all, can you give everybody a very quick overview of what CrossFit Endurance is?
BRIAN: High skill, high intensity, lower volume more or less training. Only in the fact that we would be looking at the volume in terms of sport-specific work, meaning time on feet, time in bike, or time in the water. But in reality, the high skill portion of it kind of adds more to the entire game, which doesn’t necessarily equate it as a lower volume program in terms of time. But that’s how it’s been interpreted.
ARI: Well, I have to say, it worked out that way for me. There is this idea, I guess, that the human body is sort of already –
BRIAN: As it should.
ARI: Yeah. So there’s this idea of the human body already tuned to be an endurance animal in some ways. It’s like sort of what we were born to do in some ways. That idea of really training the skill is really interesting to me, and I want to come back to the mental side of it in a little bit. Let’s talk about that. There’s a lot of intervals, there’s a lot of tempo training; how does that stuff interplay, and how does that make you better?
BRIAN: The irony in harder work or intervals or more intensity is the fact that you will always, from the get-go, move in a better position or a more efficient position when applying intensity. It’s the fatigue factor that kicks in. Inevitably, we start to lose where our best position would be. By that, I mean if you were to take a look at a cheetah or a lion or an elephant, for that matter, or a buffalo or whatever, none of these animals run differently from any other animal in their gene line. If you were to watch a bunch of cheetahs run in the same day, they’d all run the same way.
Now when we start to play with human beings, we’ve seen a very large difference has occurred, and I think largely exercise science’s answer to this is a lot like the medical community’s, where it’s like, “Yeah, well, people aren’t going to want to change, so we’re just going to give them tools in order to help them move in these more or less crippled states.” And that’s largely what we’ve seen with the endurance world, and I agree with you wholeheartedly that we actually are designed to be long distance beings, or people who are built for endurance. We are not fast and we are not strong, comparatively speaking, to other species on this planet, but we could go all day long and run an animal down.
ARI: Right, and that’s – the whole born to run thing was fascinating to me when I read that. One of the things that you focus on a lot, or it seems like at least, is running and running position, right?
ARI: I love, actually, in the trailer for Tim Ferriss’s book, you’re the guy running barefoot. The transition to barefoot running, what does it really take to run properly, and why is it that people don’t run properly, for the most part?
BRIAN: Well, I’m not necessarily a barefoot running advocate. I mean, I do think it should be used as a tool. I think you’ll always run faster in shoes, but because of our environment and the environment we’ve created, mostly out of concrete jungle, we’re not really truly designed to run barefoot anymore, although you can, and most people that I do know who are barefoot advocates had incredibly good-looking feet, they have strong, healthy feet, their hips work properly. It’s a large change.
I think for the large part that skill training has to come a part of this, and removing your shoes allows you to understand very quickly what changes need to apply in the short term. In the long term, we have to understand what running actually is, and when running stops, it then becomes this thing that was called “jogging,” and I think that’s where a lot of the gross misinterpretation of what running is has fallen into.
Because if we just take a look back on marathon times, looking back at the ’80s, where the average time was 3:30, and now we’re looking at well over 4:30 finishing time for a marathon, which now becomes just a participant sport versus something where people are actually running – a 3:30 marathon or less actually requires you to run. A 4 hour and beyond doesn’t necessarily require a run; it requires a jog, a walk, whatever you want to call it. And I’m somebody who was involved in ultrarunning and did a lot of ultrarunning for the time that I did it, and a lot of that becomes jogging or walking too. But it’s I think largely the ability to recognize what running is and what running isn’t.
ARI: That’s interesting. I have to say, it’s amazing to me when I started training for a triathlon that I thought that I knew how to swim and I thought I knew how to run and I thought I knew how to ride a bike, but I really didn’t, it turns out. The running thing is interesting to me. Running is my least favorite sport; it still is, it always has been, but whatever, you get through it. But I did find that improving my running really improved my cycling, which is my favorite sport.
BRIAN: Yeah. Well, there should be crossover with stuff like that.
ARI: The high cadence and the stepping and the motion, it just seemed like it felt better. It felt more natural. What about swimming? Swimming is sort of like that animal for everybody that they just want to get through it. What is your overall idea with improving swimming, if you can even explain that?
BRIAN: Unfortunately, everything is exactly like everything else. It’s just the ability to understand how that works. Swimming is about position as well. For instance, if we were to take a dolphin and look at a dolphin and how a dolphin swims and what they do and how effortless that is, and it’s like they’ve got this big fin on the back, but the fact is they’re not really pumping that fin a whole lot; it’s all about creating a longer, bigger environment wherever your position of stability is and where your point of support is.
Being in that position – a lot of people want to believe that it’s pulling through the water, and you don’t actually pull through the water. You actually get yourself up to come up in the water and allow yourself to fall and change position to the next stroke and get long. That’s really hard for a lot of people to grasp, but in spending enough time and actually being a swimmer – from the age of 4 till about 20, I had to wrap my head around all this stuff, because it was ingrained in me that I was pulling through the water, pulling through the water, and you’re not actually pulling through the water when you really look at it.
When you start to look at swimmers like Michael Phelps over and over and over and over again, and you see these elite level swimmers, you start to really understand what it is they’re doing differently, and the ability to come up out of the water and drop down and glide and create horizontal glide is all about how they’re vertically placing themselves and gliding through that water. And that position comes from when we’re out in front, here, and the ability to get up high.
ARI: That’s really interesting. What I love about this, too, is I feel like this is like the bio-hacking version of sport and getting better at sport. It really is. It’s not so much the shortcuts, but it’s really the most efficient routes, and I like that that, at least for me, that’s what the skill-based approach says to me. For me, total immersion swimming was like a game-changer for me, and it’s totally opposite, again, to everything that I’d ever known in my entire life. Suddenly I was able to swim for a mile or two or more, and it’s really eye-opening.
The strength portion of CrossFit Endurance, though, basically it’s much lighter compared to what you see in a conditional CrossFit workout, for instance. Is that more about just supporting and stretching and opening, and you’re really trying to train that specific skill? Or what’s the goal there?
BRIAN: The goal is to get – we’re not trying to create cross-fit athletes inside of an endurance program, and that’s one thing that we’ve had to, in the last couple of years, address with some of these athletes that we worked with for a long time, or that come into the program and they want to do both sometimes. There is an understanding that we have to get through to people that we’ve tried this many, many ways and arrived at the conclusion that we have. There is sport-specific work that has to be addressed far more than what you’re doing with CrossFit.
But utilizing CrossFit, the way CrossFit is designed in treating weaknesses, I don’t believe – I’ve yet to still come in contact with anything that can expose an athlete’s weakness greater than CrossFit can. And by doing that, that’s more or less the principle or the foundation that we want to lay for an athlete. We don’t need them to do more unnecessary CrossFit work that’ll be detrimental to sport-specific work.
So it’s really finding that congruence with everything to where it really works together. And we get positive results within the sport-specific work, and we’re still seeing positive returns within the CrossFit work. But more or less, the objective is the sport-specific work, whether that be triathlon, whether that be running, whether that be cycling; it doesn’t matter. We still want to see those returns.
Unfortunately, for most athletes that come into a program from an endurance background, the first few weeks will probably be riddled with non-positive results in the sport-specific world, but given a month, we see nothing but positive returns with the adjustment into that.
ARI: Sure. Using it as a tool – and you publish [inaudible 00:11:55] every day and the sport-specific ones, and it’s great with all the drills, and I’ve used it exclusively to train for things before, not just with myself, but with clients. Could you say to someone, “Look, you want to train for a marathon? Just follow the program online. You want to train for a half Iron Man? Just follow the program online.” Can they do that?
BRIAN: They can do that. For the general public, that’s why that workout’s out there. For somebody who’s a little more serious or wants more, wants a better understanding, Athlete Cell, athletecell.com is our coaching platform, where we actually will do hands-on, one-on-one coaching where we offer I believe three different tiers of coaching, where there’s a basic package, an intermediate, and an advanced, where you’ve either got constant feedback coming back at you, or once a week you’ve got feedback coming at you, and you’ve got review of things, so you have a coach that has an eye on you and what you’re doing. All of that.
And that’s been the most difficult part and why it’s taken so long for us to do that, is we needed a platform in order to have the ability to see somebody move and what they were doing, so that we understood exactly what was wrong with that athlete, whether that’s them not being able to overhead squat or something’s going on on the bike. The fact is, one relates to the other, and us being able to address that allows us to improve that sport.
ARI: Of course. Of course, we’re going to link to all of this in the show notes, the Athlete Cell and everything else. I didn’t expect to ask you this, actually, but what’s some of the technology that you’re able to use for that? I’m really curious. Like Coach’s Eye, or is there anything?
BRIAN: Yeah, we use Coach’s Eye, but I’ve used video for so long, and I’ve stared at so many thousands of videos for the most part, and the coaches that we’ve worked with – you just give me a video and I can look at it and know what’s wrong. I’m more or less – and I’m not necessarily judging, but I’m watching. I mean, I watch somebody walk into the room, and I’m like, “Okay, their foot’s turned out, they’re externally rotated; something’s going on there. How often does that show up? The moment they start working out, where does that pop up? What’s going on with their shoulders?”
You learn to really just start looking at things, and you pick up on things immediately. Like this morning, we had a few rowers over here, and one of the girls, we picked up immediately about her ankles not being flexible. Typically somebody else would need to probably look at that quite awhile, where we can see that immediately. Coach’s Eye is a great tool, though.
ARI: Yeah, sure, and I use that myself. That’s such an interesting thing to me. I’m assuming you know Joshua Newman from CrossFit, the Black Box, right?
BRIAN: What was that?
ARI: You know Josh Newman from the Black Box of New York City? Sorry, is the sound breaking up?
BRIAN: Oh, okay, okay, yeah. Yeah, there we go.
ARI: Right, he has that turned in thing too, and I was with him once in person, but it was like one minute we were sitting together, and he’s like “What’s going on with your left shoulder?” I was like, “What do you mean?” It was that same kind of thing, like I was sitting or something and he saw it. So it’s really always amazing to me interact with people who can see that kind of thing.
The last thing that I really want to get into with you is the mental side of it, because for me, a big part of what I do and what I work on, not specifically with athletes or anything, but it’s really that idea of creating stress and getting stronger from it and overcoming adversity. One of the things that I struggled with with Iron Man training was that the 4- and 5-hour sessions on a bike trainer was really about training your mind to just get through the boredom and the pain. CrossFit definitely helps do that, but it tends to be a shorter thing. How do you feel about that, about what you can do to train your mind?
BRIAN: Two of the easiest things to do – one is racing more frequently. Understanding a race schedule. If you’re doing an Iron Man, there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing a half Iron Man leading into that, and there’s no reason why you shouldn’t be doing some sprint races either, or even some Olympic distance in there.
The other one is just testing along the way. If you’re not confident in the fact that you can go out and handle an Iron Man, well, go put yourself out on a 20-mile run and an 80-mile bike ride, and just understand that it’s going to require a whole lot more recovery out of you than what you were typically doing, so take the time. Set that up to where you can handle it and you can have the recoverability from it. Getting that mental edge and understanding that.
But paying attention when you’re doing these things. It’s not just to go out to do it. It’s “What’s happening at certain points where I know I’m breaking down?” or “What am I doing mentally that’s making this more difficult for me? Why am I not staying in a positive mind frame versus why am I going into a negative mind frame? Sure, I’m experiencing some pain, but I’ve dealt with pain before; what is that?” Making notes of these things along the way will allow you for more or less a bulletproof setup.
ARI: Okay, I like that. Then you mentioned something that I have to ask about too, which is the recovery. What’s your best strategies for recovery?
BRIAN: Nutrition, one. Two, understanding how quickly you recover from your workouts, so where you can intersperse those in. Unfortunately, for most of us, we work for a living, and so understanding if you’ve got to train twice a day, what’s got to happen throughout the day? If you’re in meetings all day long and you’re running around all day long, that’s probably not the best thing to do, so how can you make up for something like that? What are you doing nutritionally? How are you sleeping at night? What are you deficient in?
What does your blood work tell you? And if you’re not getting your blood work done every few months or every six months, you should be so that you understand exactly the markers you’re missing and things you need to implement in order to have those changes, so that you’re functioning optimally.
ARI: That’s great. I think those are very good recommendations. I like that you threw in the blood testing one. Okay, the last question that I always like to ask people on these podcasts is what are your top 3 tips for being more effective? It doesn’t have to be CrossFit Endurance. It can be anything, but just what are the top 3 things that make you more effective?
BRIAN: Being passionate about what you’re doing, one. Being connected to what you’re doing. And being surrounded by people of the same type of set, whether you’re – I mean, if you’re training for triathlons, obviously you want to be training with triathletes. You don’t want to be somebody who’s – and I’ve experienced this on both ends, where it’s like you’ve got a crew of people that you train with or you’re training solo.
You should have times where you are training by yourself and getting through things alone, so that you understand that race environment on race day. Because largely, you will be alone on race day. It’s not going to be a conversation you’re going to be having with your buddies. But having people there within your workout structure, or even setting up to where you have a group to train with, that makes training more like racing. That makes training more positive for what it is you’re doing. Having a family that supports what you’re doing makes it all the better. So having a crew of people, whether that be family, whether that be friends, surrounding that would be probably one of those.
ARI: I love that. Passion, connection, and community. That’s great. Okay, where is the best place for people to find out more about you and the book and everything?
BRIAN: We’ve got three websites. Actually, I’ve got four. But crossfitendurance.com, we’ve got athletecell.com. My name, brianmackenzie.com. I post random things on there. It’s just a small little blog feed off Tumblr. And then my Twitter handle – if you’re somebody who’s got a question and you’re not a troll, you’ll get answered. I typically answer everything off of Twitter. So @iamunscared is my Twitter handle, and then Facebook I don’t really use a whole lot. I’ve never really gotten into that medium. I’m kind of stuck with Twitter. 160 characters or less is my ideal.
ARI: I’m glad that you shared Twitter, because you have the most badass Twitter handle there is, so thank you for opening that up for everybody.
BRIAN: Appreciate that.
ARI: Brian, thank you so much for taking the talk to me. I really appreciate it. I love CrossFit Endurance, and I do it regularly.
BRIAN: Thanks, Ari. Appreciate it.