Toward the end of 2015, Columbus police officer Richard Howell was not where he wanted to be physically. He had been dealing with a lot of stress, even taking up smoking again, and was just stuck in an overall rut.
For someone who had generally prided himself on staying in good shape, that was unacceptable. So Howell presented himself with a challenge — run a half-marathon in Indianapolis in May, then tackle the full Mill Race Marathon in September.
By January, he had quit smoking and started working out six days a week. On three of those days, he would run. On the other three, he would do some basic strength or cardio workouts at home.
Following that routine, Howell was able to maintain roughly a 10-minute mile pace.
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Then, he heard co-workers talking about CrossFit, an intense workout program that combines high-intensity interval training with weights and kettlebells, plyometrics, gymnastics and more. Three months later, Howell was under eight minutes a mile.
He had originally been hoping to run the half-marathon in about two and a half hours. Howell finished in 1:58:48.
“It was amazing how much — from where I was at in January to where I’m at now, even when I did the mini in May, it was remarkable,” he said.
CrossFit, as well as other sorts of interval and strength training, have been growing in popularity among people who want to run a marathon but don’t have the time or inclination to log as many miles as a traditional running-based training program requires.
By building more strength and power, and by increasing both aerobic and anaerobic fitness, runners are often able to make even greater gains than they were by focusing on just logging more and more mileage.
Jase Robinson, the owner of CrossFit Retaliation in Columbus, knows a thing or two about logging miles — the native of Darlington, England is an Ironman triathlete and certified USA Triathlon coach.
When Robinson started doing triathlons, he was training almost 40 hours per week — 10 miles in the water, 100 miles running and up to 400 miles on a bike. That, he concluded, was not an efficient use of his time.
By doing CrossFit workouts, an athlete can improve performance far more quickly. The goals in that sense aren’t so much focused on running as on general athletic preparedness — but by focusing on the latter, the results will naturally improve in the former.
“Instead of taking 20 hours a week in volume and run,” Robinson said, “you can do an hour a day five days a week and two hours on the weekend, and you’re done. That’s seven hours.
“In fact, last year we put a guy through Ironman in Louisville in seven and a half hours a week. So there’s no need to put in that much time.”
Robinson also tailors programs to each individual based on their abilities coming in and what their end goals are. Writing up the same program for everyone, he said, is no less absurd than the idea of a doctor writing the same prescription for every patient.
After establishing a starting point and an endpoint, Robinson said, the goal is make the process of reaching that end as efficient as possible. Running for hours and hours each week was not the answer.
“Optimization, for most humans, sounds like — and every college student understands this — ‘What is the absolute minimum amount of work that I have to do in order to complete the task?’” Robinson said. “And yet runners will go out and do mile after mile after mile, and they get it in their head that they need to run.”
By just running, an athlete might be able to improve his or her stamina, but the gains in strength will be minimal, if any — and strength, Robinson said, is arguably of greater importance.
He offered up the comparison of a mother and a toddler walking through a store together. After enough time, the toddler will get tired and want to be picked up, and fatigue in the legs, not the lungs, is the reason.
“If you stand at the finish line at a marathon, only the elite runners are out of breath,” Robinson noted. “The rest of them, it’s just a fight to put one foot in front of the other.”
Having approached his training both ways, first primarily with running and then incorporating more strength and interval training, Howell noticed a clear difference between the two.
“I feel so much stronger,” he said. “I’ve ran in the past, two or three days a week, and just doing that I didn’t see the amount of physical improvement as far as my fitness level. I didn’t see that it was improving much at all, really.”
Howell now does his workouts at the police station during the week, but he’s continuing to incorporate many of the exercises he learned while doing CrossFit.
When he does run now, Howell feels much more powerful and more confident, which should come in handy in September when he’s staring at the Mill Race course.
“There’s still a doubt, because 26 is a big difference from 13,” he said. “But I’m still optimistic and motivated.”
There are more than 13,000 CrossFit affiliate gyms around the country, including a handful of local options:
Where: 1428 10th St., Suite 5A
Owner: Jase Robinson
Where: 1240 12th St.
Owner: Nicole Holcomb