Alex Viada on CrossFit and Mixing Ultramarathons With Powerlifting

Alex Viada is a little like Big Foot: seen by many, but most disbelieve his existence. (He also spends a lot of time running in the woods.)

He’s well-known for doing what a lot of old school coaches don’t think is possible, like deadlifting 700 pounds within a week of running a 50-mile ultramarathon. He’s elite as both a powerlifter and an endurance athlete, but that’s just one example of the kind of fitness his company Complete Human Performance is able to engineer. He specializes making his clients not just good, but awesome across multiple fitness modalities. (It’s why his biggest client base is military personnel, followed closely by CrossFit® athletes.)

Basically, he makes a living shattering fitness myths on a daily basis. We needed to talk.

BarBend: OK, you’re an extraordinarily strong powerlifter with the endurance of a team of sled dogs. As a coach, do you specialize in combining those two areas of fitness or would you argue that you can build an athlete who is powerful and a great sprinter and has great endurance and has an awesome snatch?

Alex Viada: You know, the underpinning methodology is really just about how to combine different training stimuli, different stresses. The whole idea of strength and endurance is really just an example — a pretty extreme example — of how we approach training.

We look at it as stimulus first, we don’t really talk about resistance training or cardio specifically. We talk more about what the body, what different kinds of stresses do to the body and we organize training like that, not just, “Here’s your cardio and here’s your lifting.”

By doing that we can combine pretty much anything you can train for any combination of sports as long as you’re taking into account what you’re doing with your body with each workout. Strength and endurance is just one subset of our athlete population. The whole idea is being able to develop every dimension of athleticism kind of simultaneously.

Image via Complete Human Performance on Facebook.

So, what limits do you put on your athletes? What’s an example of someone who has come to you with a suite of requests that you had to say weren’t possible?

You mean like if someone said, “I want to go to the Olympics for three different sports”? (laughs) The first limit we put on people is we ask, “What is your body type?” The place where your body type is at dictates a lot of your peak performance and what you can really expect.

For example, I’m 230 pounds. I know I’m not going to be the fastest ultrarunner in existence ever. And if I let myself lose 100 pounds, I wouldn’t be anywhere near as strong as I am now.

So the first thing we tell people is, “Where you are right now, what you’re willing to do, and where you end up on the physical spectrum is going to determine a lot of your peak capabilities.”

The other thing is realistic training targets and when you want to hit them. We train for everything concurrently, but obviously you can’t peak out on anything at once. We look at how far everyone is away from any one of their goals – like what is a reasonable runway for this goal given their history.

And, they need to understand these things may take 50 percent longer to get to, if they, say, have a target of a 500-pound squat and at the same time they want to run their first marathon. We understand they may need to prioritize one or the other. So helping them prioritize and determine which is the most immediate training goal, focus on that, and then we kind of work toward the potential in the others.

BarBend: How can an athlete tell if they’re better equipped for hybrid training? Are there some athletes that this style of training just doesn’t work for? 

AV: You know, the funny thing is that before it was called hybrid training, it was called called exercise. Being in shape.

The whole idea of having no predisposition towards a degree of aerobic endurance and strength and coordination and everything like that, every individual is capable of it unless you have multiple physical restrictions.

There’s really no such thing as a non-responder, pretty much everybody has a great ability to improve across the board, especially in the areas they’re not currently training. We have people who haven’t run in 30 years, 300-plus pound strongmen out there doing 10ks. Obviously they’re not going to be fast, this individual isn’t going to suddenly become a gazelle, but he’s certainly capable of doing significantly more than he thought he had the predisposition for. So I think elements of this training are useful to any athlete, because it benefits everything.

BarBend: OK, let’s say I’m a powerlifter. I have a 700 pound squat, I haven’t done traditional cardio in years, I’ve long since accepted that I can only be strong and not a marathon runner. I come across Alex Viada, and I’m like, “I can be an endurance athlete too without losing strength? Great!” 

Where do I start. Probably by really increasing the amount of hours I train per week, right?

AV: No, not even necessarily. The biggest mistake everyone makes when they make that decision is to do a lot of heavy intervals. They think it’ll increase their sprint speed and everything else.

That’s borderline useless. If you have a 700-pound squat, you’re gonna burn through energy stores and shred your legs pretty quickly if you do sprints. (But) it’s not going to make you significantly better aerobically, and all it’s gonna do is hurt your squatting.

So the important thing to tell people to do is start slow, start easy, and slowly accumulate hours. And really determine where that zone 2 low intensity threshold is for you. I tell some people to get a heart rate monitor and go see what their speed is at 70 percent of their max heart rate, and that should be where they’re doing their training initially.

For many powerlifters, that might just be a walk to start. In that case, the best thing they can do is start walking more, you’ll get better eventually.

BarBend: So eventually, would they find themselves training a lot more or would you find ways to fit both training into the same timeframe?

AV: It really depends on what the goal is. If the individual wants to do a marathon it’s going to require extra hours. But if this person just wants to get in and improve their recovery and aerobic base a little, even just walking to and from the gym is going to make a big difference.

We can find economies. You see a lot of people doing “powerlifter cardio” where they start pushing sleds around. We can chuck that out and do stuff that’s a bit more productive. For a lot of people, 20 minutes of sled training will really just result in 5 big pushes because the ladder is so taxing.

So long story short yes, we may be talking about 10 to 15 percent more training minutes. But one of the biggest things we find is that a general increase in background activity level really does the trick for a lot of people, it doesn’t need a lot of time.

BarBend: What about the opposite, when someone’s a marathon runner and they want to get significantly stronger? They’re probably running every day or every other day. Do you find it’s more difficult to get a runner and make them strong than get a strong person and make them run?

AV: Yeah I think for a lot of powerlifters, it’s tough for them psychologically but if they just start walking regularly you see an improvement in their recovery, and I think that comes relatively quickly. You’ll have people who have been doing cardio for two weeks and they’ll say, “My God, I’m recovering in my training sessions so much faster, I’ve got in six working sets of squats in the time it used to take me to do three, it’s awesome, I’m gonna keep doing it.” It’s easy for them to see improvements and results.

On the other side of things, getting a lifelong runner in the weight room can be tough, especially because the benefits are more preventative. We worked with one of our coaches who is an ultrarunner, and he does multiple hundred-mile races and wins most of them. So getting him to think seriously about strength training was challenging because he was like, “I’m winning them anyway, what’s the point?”

But he saw the value and took it upon himself to devote a solid portion of his training hours toward progress in the weight room, and after a couple of months he was saying after the race how much better his recovery was, how much better his quads felt on the downhill, how much less beat up he felt.

So for serious runners, out of fifteen hours of training a week let’s just take an hour and a half from your running and put them toward strength training. This is gonna help you return from races faster and hopefully prevent injuries, so even though we’re taking ten percent of your time, hopefully we’re going to keep your injury- and fatigue-related off days to a minimum because of this. It takes a little more of a leap of faith, but it always pans out.

BarBend: What are some of the biggest mistakes you made as you developed your approach to hybrid training?

AV: The biggest challenge I ever found was trying to keep my slow work as slow as possible and not get the urge to get carried away with it. It is always tempting to up the intensity and to turn a training run into an interval run, and I think I had to throw away a lot of stuff I was reading in other endurance programs because so many of them have work built into them to build power and speed. But those were things the lifting was giving.

So I would have taken a more critical eye to some of the running programs I was using and removing things that I flat out did not need because of all the lifting.

BarBend: What’s the biggest difference in your approach to training now versus ten years ago?

AV: I used to take the approach that every other training system was dumb and it had to prove it was quality. These days, I assume everything has some quality and I try to figure out what that is before dismissing the rest of it. I think that’s come from having such a big varied team of coaches like we’ve got at Complete Human Performance.

It s given me a lot of interesting things to incorporate into training and nutrition that I never would have considered. By seeing quality first, you’re not throwing the baby out with the bathwater. You’re seeing little good tidbits of information from sources that you may never have expected. So being that open minded, I think, is the single best thing that’s happened to my training and coaching in the last decade.

BarBend: I read CrossFit athletes are your second largest client base after the military – what’s some of the most common advice you find yourself giving those athletes who want to be more well-rounded?

AV: Two pieces of advice. The first is periodize your training, which means have a season where you work on fundamentals and your base. Don’t just be doing the same workouts all year round and expect to get any better. You need to have an off season to work on your fundamentals, you need to progress toward any kind of competition season. Even if you’re just a casual fan of functional fitness.

If you do everything randomly year round, sometimes you’ll be completely over reached and other times you’re gonna go four days without a certain training stimulus, it just makes no sense. So randomness is good for competition and some training but generally, training needs to be progressive. This is an activity that has so many skills and disciplines you need to spend the time solely working on the fundamentals. So that’s one of them.

The other thing is to actually learn how to run and how to move and how to row. So many of these individuals, even at the Games level, are horrendous, horrendous runners. And the ones who have actually taken running and rowing and everything else seriously, they use those portions of competition to just relax and really blow away everyone else out there who is competing.

So, take the conditioning side of things as serious as the lifting side of things when it comes to form and efficiency and you will be a much much much better athlete.

BarBend: Are there any aspects of diet that you feel a lot of hybrid athletes miss out on? 

AV: The biggest thing I would say is don’t be too monotonous with your diet. I know meal prep culture has created a legion of people who eat the same thing every single day for months at a time, all packaged in Tupperware.

I think that with this kind of training, there’s so many different, well, insults to your body (laughs) that you need a good range of foods, a good range of micronutrients, and a slightly varied range of macronutrients, that’s so important.

If people try to second guess their physiology too much and restrict their diet and stick to four or five basic foods, any sort of deficiency that they’re introducing will be magnified.

My biggest diet tip is, whatever your diet is, maximize the variety of food. And you’re not gonna gain weight if you’re doing (our training) properly because you’re doing so much work. (laughs) So don’t worry about that.

BarBend: You talk a lot about mental recovery as the most important component of training, what do you mean by that?

AV: Any time somebody hits a wall in their training, you can get through the physical side of things. But if you get to a period in your training or your competition season where you’ve had some bad workouts, you’ve had a bad race, you’re questioning everything else because you just feel slow, you feel weak, if you’re engaged in the process and you’re in a problem solving mode you’ll get through it.

But if you’re mentally burned out, if you’ve been pushing yourself too hard too long, no part of you can get you through that training period. You have to take time off, you have to go do something else. And it can get really bad, some people just never rediscover their love for their training.

Mental recovery is as much about learning how to take everything down a notch — the competitive streak, or the high intensity, the “I’m gonna go rip the head off off a chicken” craziness you get when you lift. It’s about taking all of that down a notch and saying, “Let’s focus as much as possible on basically being able to relax, being able to unplug, being able to stay focused on your goals.

The techniques are really varied. Some people we work with like yoga, some people like meditation, some like long walks in the woods. Everything with mental recovery is about being able to get away from your training as it is normally. Do something different and do something that puts you in a much different mindset.

I think it’s so important. It’s like with lifting recovery you can have active recovery, you get out you do some different for your body, your’e still moving it, you’re still working it, but you’re giving it something else to do that isn’t to do with training. And it’s the same thing with your mind.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Editor’s Note: Runner, blogger, and BarBend reader Chantalle Gauthier has this reaction after reading our interview with Alex:

“As athletes we sometimes push ourselves to exhaustion, however sometimes this exhaustion is mental. Our mind rules the body. It can be our greatest asset or our worst enemy and it requires rest just like the body.

This training encompasses two extremes. These two types of athletes typically have opposite physiques and I have thus never thought of combining them.

As a runner, I see the importance of strength training as having a strong body allows me to run stronger. Being fit does not fit into one discipline. Our body is a complex machine. Our workouts should be as well.”

Featured image via Complete Human Performance on Facebook.