Coach’s Corner: Staying Mentally & Physically Healthy While Fitnessing

📷: Justin of CrossFit Dutch Kills

We’ve all seen the attention grabbing headlines. The ones that your friends, coworkers, and family will cite, mouth agape, when you tell them you’ve been doing CrossFit. At first they’re interested. “You look great! What have you been doing?” Then come the looks of concern. “That crazy stuff on the TV? I read on newyorktimeshufflepozfeedebel that you’re 100% likely to lose an arm and get Back Cancer if you do that stuff!”

If you’re like me, your first instinct might be to argue, but that won’t help. You might want to be sarcastic and ask Aunt Ginny “What’s more dangerous; your heart disease or my sore knees?” Instead you politely tell them the truth; what you do at your CrossFit gym isn’t exactly the stuff they saw on TV, that your coaches are top notch and teach you how to move safely, and that you’re feeling better than you’ve felt in a long time, possibly ever.

What about that other truth? That people do get injured while doing CrossFit? If you’ve been around for a bit you’ll have seen this, maybe even experienced it. I’ve personally dealt with back spasms, a bone spur, some bouts of tendinitis, and your garden variety muscle soreness. It would be silly to think that people would never incur injuries while swinging below and above gymnastics rings and throwing barbells that weigh more than they do overhead.

CrossFit may have not specifically caused these injuries, but that’s not really the point. I for one will gladly assume the risk of a soft tissue injury as a trade off whereby I dramatically decrease my risk of developing the diseases that plague most of developed world AND WILL DEFINITELY KILL YOU. I have yet to hear of someone falling over dead due to a strained rotator cuff.

The thing is, while those scare articles aren’t telling the whole truth and may even be outright false at times, they’re not 100% wrong. So how can you change people’s minds about the perceived risks of CrossFit? By being the example. By employing good training habits. By practicing the things under your control that will reduce your risk of injury. Then, when the office clown asks (with a snicker of anticipation, almost hoping you’ve had a backeotomy since you last spoke), “You still doing that CrossFit stuff?” you can share your success story.

Practice Moving with Virtuosity

This should be an easy sell, but surprisingly sometimes it isn’t. CrossFit is hard! That fact alone is why lots of folks slight it, won’t try it, or just don’t stick with it… but that’s another article. We do lots of difficult stuff in the gym.

As one of my favorite bro-ey CrossFit shirts proudly exclaims “We don’t use machines… We build them.” It’s true! We don’t use chest and leg press machines, which have a very fast learning curve. We perform functional movements at intensity sufficient enough to elicit a training response, not because they’re difficult but because they work better than machines.

Generally speaking It takes more time to develop the skills necessary to properly execute these movements. The snatch, even just a power snatch with just an empty bar, can take weeks or months to get “right” enough to add weight. I know it may feel like a slow process. Be okay with that. You can move crappy and you’ll get stronger, I’ve seen it. However, you will get strong & good at moving crappy, and nobody wants that. Considering your long term health and fitness, it makes sense to front-load your patience and effort so you don’t have to unlearn a bunch of shitty movement post-injury. Practice moving as well as possible (for you) now and you’ll save yourself from lots of aches and time off from training down the road.

Practice Humility and Maintain Perspective

The competitive environment that most CrossFit gyms contain can be a blessing and a curse. There’s a certain vibe that wills people into doing just a little more work than they might otherwise. Those extra reps, rounds, and pounds all add up over time and help contribute to a key element of the CrossFit equation: High Intensity. We don’t coast, we lay on the throttle. We seek out that feeling of working to just shy of failure. We almost relish “Fran Cough”.

Everyone has a little competitive drive and CrossFit can bring that out beautifully. On the other side of that though is your ego. Remember your “why”. Why are you doing this? For 99.9% of people I meet, it’s to be generally fitter. They want to gain some weight, lose some weight, increase their flexibility, or chase after their kids/spouse/bus without being out of breath. Maybe they want to look a little better naked.

I’ve only met one person who thought they would compete at the CrossFit Games and he was crazy. Not that competing for the title of “Fittest On Earth” is an objectively bad thing, it’s just extremely unlikely that you signed up for that reason. Sometimes however, someone gets a few months in and realizes they can “do some stuff”, and their thinking changes. They become motivated not just by being better, but by being better than the next person. It’s easy for it to happen and happens to the best of us. If you go out too hard on the first 400m of Helen because the person in front of you did (you know… the gal who is always finishing a few seconds or reps better than you), you might pay for it by heaving before the next round. Humble pie. If you try to back squat 50 lbs over your personal best because the person you’re sharing a rack with just casually made your PR look easy, you might just pay for it with some spinal fluid, which is a lot harder to recover from. Sure it’s good to reach every now and then, but running your race most of the time will serve to keep you within your limits and reduce your risk of injury. Sometimes you’re better served by slowing down. Be humble. Enjoy the process and maintain a healthy perspective on why you’re here in the first place.

Practice Smart Recovery

This is a point worth harping on. The 5-10 minute aerobic cool down is time well spent and will leave you less sore (and if you go legs only on the Echo Bike you’ll free your hands to update social media while you do it 😉)

The cool down is great since you’re already in the gym, but you might also benefit from separate recovery sessions once or twice during any normal training week. These workouts should feel easy. You should feel refreshed after them. Getting your blood and lymph pumping brings nutrients to your muscles and carries away metabolic waste. Move around a bit and work up a light sweat for 20-60 minutes. This generally means keeping your heart rate down and staying aerobic. You don’t need a heart rate monitor, just pay attention to your breathing. Maintaining an effort that allows you to breathe comfortably through your nose just about the whole time will do the trick. The key is to not turn this into another hard training day. Or, for something totally different, take a hike! You’ll receive bonus mental health benefits if you can get your recovery work out in nature.

Practice, practice, practice.

For many of us, learning how to move well and how to listen to our bodies and not our egos is a challenge. Good thing you don’t have a fitness deadline to meet! Spend time, care, and thoughtfulness on these things. Enough talking about it, now go practice.

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