Real Talk Time
CrossFit is fun. There, I said it, now the secret is out. Folks will find fun and meaning from different aspects of CrossFit- mastering new skills, connecting with a community, progressing toward a goal chief among them. CrossFit is so broad and tests so many different skills and dimensions of fitness that sometimes it can seem daunting to make progress. You want that first muscle-up and to squat more, to PR your mile time and your “DT” time- and you’re not alone. Still, in pursuit of a fitness that is “broad, general, and inclusive” sometimes athletes’ training plans can spiral out of control. A little double under practice before class becomes three days a week of gymnastic work, track workouts in the morning, and pre or post class mini WODs, all while trying to run out a Smolov squat cycle during Open Gym. More frustrating still- you aren’t getting any better! For coaches it’s one of the biggest challenges- how to focus well-intentioned athletes who are often doing exactly the opposite of what they need to get better. Read on, and ask yourself: “Am I getting better, or am I just doing more work?”
It’s All About Intention
Very often, athletes try and load more and more training on their plate and give very little thought to what that training looks like. Remember, practice doesn’t make perfect- perfect practice makes perfect. The following considerations are all about modifying the concept of what you’re trying to achieve with your training, not simply doing more for more’s sake. Intention, a word often used in yoga practice, is very applicable to CrossFit. First, identify what your weakness, lack, or area of improvement is. Next, dispassionately consider the steps you should take to improve. Finally, approach your training with those thoughts in your head- keep your intention centered on getting better, not just doing more.
Quality and Range of Movement
One of the most common things I see is people neglecting the quality of their movement or full range of movement (ROM) as they add more and more on their plate. Often it’s simple confusion about what the underlying “problem” is. For example, an athlete wants to squat more weight, so they squat more often, ignoring the fact that their ankle mobility is subpar and they can’t hit consistent depth while squatting. This is like driving your sports car with the parking brake on- your solution might be to stomp harder on the gas but you really just need to let your wheels spin easier. Unless you’re sure you are moving damn near perfectly, your first consideration should be how virtuous you are at the movement- and getting better is usually a case of more intentional “practice”- submaximal efforts that you can control, tweak, and learn from- as opposed to going harder, heavier, or faster. Baseball players take batting practice at 70 MPH- a speed they can easily hit, so they can focus on refining their swing. If they took BP at game speeds (90 MPH+) they’d be so focused on just making contact that they’d never learn anything.
“Be impressed with intensity, not volume.” Greg Glassman said that almost 15 years ago, far back in the early days of CrossFit, and it still holds up. Generally when someone gets it wrong it is a problem of good intentions and bad interpretation.
Many athletes fall into the volume trap in one of two ways. Some are like people at a buffet- they pile a little bit of this on their plate, and a little bit of that, and before they know it their plate is a mountain of 50 different foods. These people want to get better and are overwhelmed by how many different aspects of the CrossFit game there are, so they try to do everything, every day.
The second group makes the mistake of trying to train “like the best.” They want to get good, so they look at Games athletes and see them doing 3 a days and squatting 50 sets of 500 and doing track work at 3AM and they say- “that must be the secret.” They fail to realize that most Games athletes are extremely adapted and must train that hard/often to push further adaptation, that Games athletes are likely genetically inclined towards volume, recovery, etc., and that most Games athletes’ lifestyles are perfect- perfect diet, perfect sleep, perfect recovery, etc.
So keep in mind that attacking your workout with intensity is more important than doing a thousand different pieces or multiple workouts a day. By narrowing your focus and really draining your tank you will drive greater development than if you parcel out your attention and energy. Pat Sherwood’s CrossFit Linchpin training does a great job of keeping the focus on simple, effective pieces that value intensity of effort and focus above all else- check it out!
CrossFit is a game of pacing. The best athletes tend to be the best pacers- Rich Froning made a career of sitting back at the start of events (and Games weekends) and slowly but surely overcoming the pack. Pacing doesn’t mean “sandbagging” or “dogging it”- it’s the development of an exceptional internal “clock” that allows you to match your level of speed, effort, and intensity with the load, time domain, and other facets of the task in front of you.
Inexperienced athletes tend to “fly and die.” The clock starts, they hit the gas as hard as they can, and within about 3-5 minutes they slow down immensely as their body fights to re-calibrate and get them through the next 17 minutes of their workout. Some do this intentionally, thinking that “going hard” is the only way to improve- they are simply wrong. Some try and start slow, but they have not developed their internal clock enough to know what slow feels like.
Hopefully your coach already programs stuff like this, but if not, try some workouts where you approach three rounds at different paces, building from 80% (should feel stupid easy) in the first round to 95% by the third round (should feel like everything you’ve got.) The goal is to keep your splits exactly the same or to slightly improve them. Do that for a while and you will gain a better idea at what your first round of a workout should feel like. In fact, it’s helpful in general (if possible) to not only pay attention to your total time but to the splits of each round with the goal to be consistent in pace throughout.
Rest and Recovery
Finally, a byproduct of all of the things I’ve already mentioned is that very often people neglect or mishandle their rest. Rest is essential, and progress without sufficient rest and recovery is nearly impossible. When you pile on volume and intensity, when your gym sessions balloon from an hour to two 2.5 hour sessions, and when you neglect positions and ROM in pursuit of “wins”, you have to sacrifice somewhere. Too often the sacrificial lamb is your rest day, time spent mobilizing or doing accessory work, or simply time spent relaxing and de-stressing. This is especially true if you are trying to lose body fat- cortisol, the hormone related to stress, will absolutely interfere with fat loss.
The classic CrossFit model is 3 days on, 1 day off, which translates to 1.5 rest days a week (1 on some weeks, two on others.) I view that as the maximum a “normal” person should be training, and many need less. Especially as you age (LET ME TELL YOU) you may find that more rest days (2 on, 1 off, or even simple 1 on/off) let you perform better. These don’t necessarily have to be days of no activity- go on a hike, play with your dog for an hour, even do an easy row or assault bike piece- but keep things chill.
So what I’m really trying to say is chill out. Remember that at the end of the day, all of this stuff is supposed to be fun, gratifying, and positive. Find some new challenges- commit to practicing better positions, fuller ROM, play with your pace, and make your rest days as nourishing and preparatory as possible. Be a little zen and embrace a “less is more” aesthetic and see if some nagging aches and pains don’t vanish and you incredibly find yourself with a little more energy to really smash that benchmark. Be kind to yourselves people, ‘cause you’re likely already doing awesome.