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Two Hours Before the CrossFit Open…

In General, Training on February 27, 2014 at 6:32 pm

Dear Self:

For the CrossFit Open 2014, I will not:

– Ask you to do anything you are not physically prepared to do

– Expect of you things you are not physically prepared to do

– Punish you for not being able to achieve the things you are not physically prepared to do.

– Overthink, overanalyze, or regret

I will:

– Ask that you be present and give all that you have for those 7-18 minutes or whatever that Castro conjures in his twisted little mind

– Support every member of our gym– whether they’re aspiring to make regionals, just to finish the workout, or whether they’ve chosen to abstain altogether

– Enjoy this community and the people

– Forget all the little things.

Every year when the CrossFit Open approaches, I spend a long time deliberating about whether or not to sign up. I have no large competitive ambitions. I obviously will not make regionals. It’d be a PR for me to finish Rx’d this year. From the “CrossFit community” standpoint, I think it would be fun to go to a local throwdown, meet real people, compete for a day or two and go home. Something about the prolonged agony of the Open annoys me– five weeks of a disrupted training schedule. From a coaching perspective, it means that we can’t predict Friday or Saturday’s workouts for our athletes for the next five weeks. It means most of us will be in there more hours than usual for judging. It means we have to quell our usual instinct to emphasize quality over quantity and let some form and some technique slide knowing that (for five weeks), these members are essentially “competing.”

But I get into the hype too. I love watching the bigshots compete with the announcement of each workout. I’m also curious what HQ will come up with, and how it will shape the future of CrossFit. I love how it brings people together.

However, from a personal standpoint, the prolonged duration of the Open doesn’t work so well with my neuroses. As veteran readers of this blog will know, I have a history of getting down on myself when I simply can’t achieve the things I want to achieve. When the chasm between desire and actual physical capacity is so great that I can’t fathom it, and instead blame it on my own personal shortcomings. As if my inability to get five more reps on this or that workout were any indicator of ethical goodness. The Open means nothing. It’s just another five workouts– admittedly, an annoying five that I have to perform at a different time of day and that I have to shuffle my training around– but… I’m always afraid I’ll get swept up in the hype and start kicking myself again for not doing things that I’ve never been able to do. Things I’m working to be able to do but just haven’t gotten there yet. But I’ve worked hard to earn my peace with my capabilities and inabilities. And, as with every year, when it got closer to the Open, I felt like I was letting my community down if I did not throw down alongside them and experience this with them– for good or bad, whatever insiduousness Castro has in mind.

But this year is different. I’ve achieved everything I wanted out of CrossFit. I’m a coach, and honestly, this blog has faded in the past months because… I’ve been busy and fulfilled. Coaching is a blast, and I get to work with and engage with fascinating, wonderful people that are not just great athletes, but just fantastic humans. Younger Jo– asthmatic, unfit, never-touched-a-barbell Jo — would’ve never believed that the thing I’d want to do most at the end of a long day is go to a gym and hang out with a bunch of people around bumper plates and pull-up bars. But I make it through my longest days by looking forward to the class or two I get to coach at the end of it. I love seeing concepts click with a beginning athlete– when someone strings together her first kips, when she lands a good snatch by keeping the barbell close, when she realizes she just deadlifted over 200lbs. It’s a blessing to be a part of these moments– people discovering their strength and their confidence.

Sure, I still have personal fitness-y goals. A year after my first muscle-up, I’m still chasing that damned unicorn. More importantly, I want a 1.5 x bodyweight clean and a bodyweight snatch. Perhaps a sub-4:00 Fran. But these goals no longer haunt me the way my physical weakness absolutely tormented me for the first year of CrossFit. I’m happy just going to the gym each day (other than rest days!), putting the work in, and enjoying the journey. Eventually, I hope, I’ll get there. If not, I’ve had fun and I really don’t lose anything by not being able to lift precisely this amount of weight off the ground.

So, I’m going to do the Open to enjoy the ride, to leave everything on the gym floor but not overthink what I could’ve/should’ve done to be one rep better. Best of luck to everyone– but more importantly, have fun, and after these five weeks we’ll get back to that more serious training ;).

Of Superhumans and Humanity…

In General, Training on December 21, 2013 at 9:00 pm

I want to share my past few days with you, but honestly… no words would suffice. I’ve been in Northern California from Monday – Thursday, working with Coach and getting to know the CSA CrossFit family. Honestly, it’s been one of the best parts of my year. But the reason for this is not at all CrossFit related. I mean—yes, I had some fantastic CrossFit moments. It took a few tactile cues (and a few friendly racial epithets) from PowerWod for me to finally understand the feeling of “knees out” because mine still always cave in on my squats. I learned to put myself in a stable, freestanding headstand. I finally understood what Coach wants me to do with the rings when working on my muscle-up kips. I got to work out alongside legends… Regionals and Games athletes—a child among superheroes.

But what I’m going to remember most about this trip has much less to do with the fitness and much more to do with the people.

Let’s back up a bit more. I know my posts have lagged a bit in the past few months. To be entirely honest, I’ve been struggling. The dreariness of winter always gets to me. The monotony of sunless days—the perpetual cold. But it’s been worse this year. I haven’t been home for a year, and I haven’t spent more than a few days out of State College in that time.

I’m not complaining. I’m lucky. I know I am. I could be in far worse places, in far worse situations. But sometimes I (we?) get so trapped in the everyday that it becomes suffocating. We forget about the humans around us—and the fact that we, too, are people—not just cogs in machines, students producing papers, teachers writing lesson plans, athletes working for that next one rep max. We’re complicated, and needy, and full of magnificent, heartrending feeling.

I think I needed to leave State College to get my head out of my ass work and really appreciate everything around me. I think it’s a struggle sometimes because we (as a species) tend to become fixated on our goals and productivity. Students expect instant feedback. Teachers can’t understand why their classes aren’t picking up concepts. Athletes are impatient for progress. Coaches want their clients to translate words into physicality sometimes in a body that just doesn’t respond to those cues. I’ve had days in State College when I feel like only a convenient step to someone’s objective—or worse, an impediment to that objective—days when I’m either a tool or an obstacle, but definitely not a person. And I know I’m probably oversensitive, so, take that for what it is.

But visiting NorCal was different. Because I was out of my environment, and a definite imposition on everyone’s lives, we all had to respond to and accommodate that. We had no choice but to break routine, to see beyond our tunnel vision. And what I saw was so overwhelming.

I can’t say enough good things about the generosity and humility of all of CSA CrossFit. Something I’ve loved about being a member of the CrossFit community is that it makes me feel a little less homeless everywhere I go. If you can find a box, you can find people that share a language with you—and a work ethic, and a slightly twisted sense of masochism. The thing about CSA… this is a gym that actually produces monsters. Its MMA gym—where it all began—boasts an array of world-class trainers and fighters. It has a powerlifting sector overseen by one of the best lifting coaches in the country—a man who’s totaled elite in 6 weight classes. The CrossFit gym sends a team to regionals every year and houses two major NorCal individual competitors. But that’s not a thing you think about when you’re in there. You’re too busy laughing at their jokes, talking to them about their day jobs away from the gym, or their past careers as figure skaters or gymnasts or volleyball players.

There’s something comfortingly familiar about the way CrossFitters construct a community—a reassuring universality I’ve found that soothes the Jo far from home: the way the coach dances along to the warm-up music while you’re still trying to stretch the reluctance from your limbs at an odd hour of the morning. Or, the way athletes joke and stall and whine between sets when things get heavy. The way everyone cheers loudest for the last athlete to finish—counting reps, calling cues, understanding exactly how much pain you’re in and willing you through.

I appreciated so much how CSA treated me as one of their own—no belittling explanations, no overwrought introductions. I was just expected to make myself at home. And so, it felt like home. I love friendships and relationships that seem to begin in medias res. You’re already immersed, the journey is well on its way, just go with it.

Beyond the awesomeness of CSA, though, it was also a fantastic week for just… people in Jo’s life. I got to catch up with some former State College-ites who’ve built an admirable life for themselves out in California. I’m entirely grateful for old friends willing to drive out of their way and remove themselves from their daily responsibilities for a Jo visit—though who knows, they probably just wanted to come watch the Supple Leopard himself move serious weight at Supertraining.

The next day, I caught up with another old friend—this time, a girl I’d grown up with in Arizona. We went to elementary, middle, and high school together. We’ve known each other since the age of eight and in that time, we’ve been best friends and bitter “enemies” (in that teenage, melodramatic sense of the word) and all sorts of messy in-between. These days, even though we don’t talk nearly as often as we live on opposite sides of the country, we’re still people who really care about each other… people who’ve been through a lot of shit together and put each other through even more shit. The funny thing was—what we were discussing at dinner—I don’t have the mental or emotional space to hold grudges or to really… resent, anymore. I can’t believe the amount of energy we wasted feuding with each other—when at the end of the day we actually just cared a fucking lot and didn’t know how to deal with the ways we worried about each other.

I’m back in Arizona now—it’s good yet strange to be back in the city where I grew up. I intend to spend the next few weeks getting back to work and finding my place amid all the reading I need to do for comps. But I also intend to give plenty of attention to the friends and family I get to see only once a year nowadays. Perhaps I’m late to this realization, or perhaps we all need a bit of reminder sometimes—people are incredible things. Embrace them.

This is CrossFit

In General on November 11, 2013 at 10:14 pm

I’ve been an English teacher for most of my life– in large and small capacities, for formal students and family members. I love language– its nuance and intricacies, its dynamism. I live for stories– the way they make worlds, and rend them apart. I will always be a writer. It’s not a job or a hobby. It’s a way of being, of thinking, of interpreting the world. I think I’ll always be an English teacher too. I’ve experienced very little in this world more rewarding than witnessing a student become more of herself through language. Watching a student discover that she has something to say…  and then seeing her develop the confidence to pitch that voice into the world– it’s magic. But there are days when my job exhausts me. When it takes everything I have.

Coordinating and teaching for the graduate writing center this year has been more demanding than I expected. Beyond the 15 hours of actual in-office teaching, I didn’t account for the sheer emotional labor. I should’ve expected it. The stakes for my students are high. They come with dissertation chapters, grant proposals, and job applications for tenure track positions. They’re not English composition students trying to please their first semester teacher. They’re adults trying to build careers. They’re full of anxiety and self-doubt and stress and frustration. Sometimes, they cry. Often, I feel limited. I feel frustrated by how little I can do in single hourlong sessions. I feel angry at the institutions that don’t offer enough to support a lot of these students. And sometimes, I feel entirely trampled over. Understandably, these individuals have a lot of their own concerns. They’re overrun by their present situations. Sometimes, they get angry at me if I try to turn a session more into a “pedagogical” moment. They want to hear what’s “right” or “wrong.” They want me to “fix” things instead of discussing the principles behind why we need to reorganize one section or another. It’s not their fault. It’s the way we’ve constructed language as if it’s a science. As if it can be right or wrong. But after enough of these sessions, I feel less like a person. I feel like the copyediting device they visit week after week… this thing that sits behind a door and reads page after page and spouts “corrections” because my students feel so pressed for time they can’t slow down for a conversation.

It doesn’t happen too often. I promise my days are more enjoyable than not. But today was definitely one of the worst. And I went home… with nothing left. I couldn’t read or apply myself to my own work. I couldn’t find enough space in head to think or feel much beyond the stress of others that I’d been hearing about all day– uncompromising advisers and professors… the pressures of the job market, the terrors of being unable to find one’s place, the loneliness of being so far from home– fears and stresses and terrors very applicable to my own life as well.

… but then I get to coach CrossFit.

I get to walk into the box where friends greet me with enthusiasm and ask about my day and listen. I get to talk to them about their days and their lives and their interests… the insignificant little minutiae that seem to mean nothing but really make up who we are. We talk not because we have to– not because business or study or social advancement puts us together. But because it’s enjoyable. We work slowly through the warm up and methodically through the lifts. When I count down and start the metcon, the athletes work their asses off. Heels skid on wood and rubber. Sweat spatters and pools. The air is a concert of burning lungs and steel ropes. And when it ends… it ends in laughter. In more conversation. In shared relief.

This is CrossFit.

When you look across the top CrossFit athletes, you will find every possible configuration of training programs and diet protocols. Rich Froning does whatever the shit he feels like that day while Talayna Fortunato diligently logs every workout programmed by her coach. Katie Hogan eats strictly low-carb, high-fat while Kris Clever chases her four-a-day WODs with post-workout beers. Like the principles of CrossFit, its athletes are highly varied. However, the one common thread I can find in nearly all successful CrossFitters is community. To much notoriety, Dan Bailey camped out at Rich Froning’s house and became his semi-permanent training partner. Before he opened his own box, Ben Smith gathered his friends and WODed in their neighborhood streets. For a significant while, Valley CrossFit housed Katie Hogan, Becca Voigt, Kristan Clever, Lindsay Valenzuela, and a wealth of regionals-level competitors. It’s no coincidence now that NorCal CrossFit boasts Jason Khalipa, Miranda Oldroyd, Pat Barber, and Molly Biss. Don’t get me wrong– the sheer adrenaline rush of thrusters and burpees does have its own appeal, but it’s a hell of a lot better in the company of good friends.

I have my reservations about CrossFit. I don’t like how certain manifestations sacrifice safety or technique for the sake of ego. I don’t like the lack of standards or regulation across the board. I love its inclusiveness. I love the way that it has made fitness social and thus more appealing and accessible to a broader population. People ask me why I would rather go to the gym than the bar after work. Because it just feels like playtime with my friends. Because there amid the clatter of iron and steel, amid the laughter between gasped breaths, amid the conversations before and after the 3-2-1 go… I get to feel human again.

Past, Present, and Future

In General, WOD on October 13, 2013 at 8:14 pm

This is a post that I’ve wanted to write for a while, but I’ve never found the “perfect” time to post it. So, keeping in mind that I am a work-in-progress, that I have learned a lot but have much still to learn, here goes nothing.

We will start, as we usually do, with a story.

I was a little nervous about today’s workout. I would start by finding a new one rep max for my split jerk, then follow that with some higher-volume repetition work at 80%, then 3 rounds of 10 power cleans @ 90lbs + 400m run. Afterwards, I also planned to row 500m x 3.*

*Caveat: I hesitate to describe my workouts in detail here because they’re part of a larger plan written and monitored by a knowledgeable coach, and I don’t want them taken out of context– so let’s keep that in mind 😉 

For reference, 90lbs is twice what my 1 rep max clean was when I started CrossFit. I hate rowing, and I generally fret before finding new one rep maxes because I’m a basketcase and am scared of discovering that I haven’t “made progress.” So, I was anxious. Fortunately, it was a good day. I PR’d my split jerk by 10lbs, I didn’t miss a clean, and somehow, afterwards, I rowed all three sets of 500m at my PR pace (with 3 min rest between efforts).

Afterwards, I slid off the rower, sat down, breathless, on the floor of an empty gym, and I felt… spectacular.

CrossFit jokes a lot about “embracing the suck.” In fitness, we talk a lot about how much it’s supposed to hurt (“no pain, no gain,” etc.) And to a degree, that’s true. We push ourselves to our limits. We find new limits. We break those limits. But I’ve discovered there’s a huge difference between healthy, productive “pain,” and the self-destructive-awfulness that I’d put myself through for my first months– maybe even full year– of CrossFit.

I’m a little embarrassed of these, but let’s go to some pictures… visual aids are helpful, yes?

Jo circa 2009

Jo circa 2010

present-day Jo: a work in progress

That first photo is Jo before she cared about fitness, before she thought about health, before she thought about bodies or physical beings really. She was a happy Jo, who spent most of her time reading, restaurant-ing with friends, playing video games, etc. She also had pretty bad asthma, which she used as an excuse to avoid general movement. She had mysteriously, perpetually low blood pressure that gave her dizzy spells and occasional blackouts. She’d been unhealthy in odd, mildly annoying ways for all of her life and she just assumed these small things– wheezing, sudden bouts of weakness, fatigue, or nausea– were part of being human.

The second photo is Jo less than a year later, though the majority of that transformation occurred in just three months. It is what happens when small things become big problems– when inattention to fitness becomes full-blown, foolish disregard for health. Honestly, I had a difficult time finding a picture of myself in this period– and there are none that actually show how terrifyingly small I’d become. I didn’t like photos or mirrors– the waifish, fragile thing that stared back at me did not match that image I had of myself. In that picture, I’m 88lbs and so small that they don’t even make clothes that fit me.  For about a year of my life, I couldn’t eat without crippling stomach pain and was thus constantly underfed and… somehow decided that I could live with that. At this point, I simply knew I was small and weak and I wanted to be bigger. Instead of fixing my nutrition and my baseline health, I started CrossFit and tried to lift all the things.

Working out is always the way you get fitter, right? And beginners can get fitter doing pretty much anything, right? So I stumbled into CrossFit without any knowledge of proper scaling– or moderation. I didn’t understand the monumental significance of diet and recovery. I figured lifting heavy things was enough. I slogged through workouts with weights that turned sprint-efforts into max lifts, I did hourlong metcons with insufficient fuel. My body was in a constant state of breakdown and some of it felt truly terrible. I wanted so bad to get better— to be stronger, faster, more coordinated for god’s sake. I loved the idea of CrossFit– where a community of people got together and had fun with their fitness. But my reality was awful. Everything hurt so bad…  everything from running to lifting to box jumps was so damn hard or just plain out of reach that I felt like I was playing a different game. I wanted to be able to wod with the big kids and hold my own. But every day, I felt like I was just floundering on the sidelines. And in my desperation, I continued to ignore the way my body begged for help. I didn’t think about “strategy” during workouts. I didn’t bother to pace myself. Every single workout was a flat-out, frantic flailing to the finish. Ten minutes or forty, it felt like I was just trying to stay alive. I know it’s stupid now. I should have recognized it. I was so weak and sick that I had trouble climbing stairs. I was literally fucking blown over by the wind. There were so many things about my health that I needed to fix before I should be tackling hourlong workouts. But, again, living in my body, I didn’t realize my own experience was so far from the norm. I didn’t realize that the overwhelming exhaustion I felt two minutes into a workout was a cue that I was doing something actually wrong rather than just “embracing the suck.”

But that was no way to live, and eventually… enough time living in an absolute fog of weakness and frailty was enough to prompt me to take better control of my health– seeing doctors, fixing my diet and finding foods that didn’t make me ill, resting appropriately and allowing myself to recover. It still feels like a miracle to me that I wake up every day with energy. That I can eat without pain. That I don’t feel perpetually cold. Something I wish no one had to experience, but I wish everyone could understand: there’s a tremendous difference between the pain of a tough workout when you’re prepared to handle it and the pain of you tearing yourself apart.

Today, when I climbed off that rower, yeah my legs were on fire, my lungs burned. But all of that faded in moments. Afterwards, I could stand and walk back to my apartment. I will feel fine and happy and energetic for the rest of the night. For my first year of CrossFit, I couldn’t have completed such a workout without being wrecked for the remainder of the week. I’m starting to see more and more of a problem in the way we glorify physical exertion that kills you. You shouldn’t be crippled by your workouts. They shouldn’t ruin the rest of your day. If, for god’s sake, they’re supposed to make you healthier– you should at some point feel healthier. 

And as I left the gym today, I remembered– as I do often these days– how fucking grateful I am to feel good.The best part of my workout wasn’t my jerk PR or discovering that 90lbs felt light… it was the fact that I could move one of the benches out of the way all by myself–without thinking about it– a task that I couldn’t complete two years ago. It was the fact that I warmed up to that 90lbs with weights I couldn’t clean when I started CrossFit. And it was that, after all of that, I feel freaking fantastic.

I know… I have a long, long way to go as an athlete. But I’ve achieved a few things I’m proud of– with the exception of the squat and bench, I’ve literally doubled all my lifts since starting CrossFit (squat and bench are about 20lbs short). I went from ring rows to being able to do strict chest-to-bars, from being afraid to kick up to the wall to deficit handstand push-ups. But really… most of all, I feel unspeakably blessed every day that I can do all these things and feel good afterwards. Yeah, I get the fun of “terrible” workouts– trust me, my favorite WOD is The Seven, and I’m a sucker for any AMRAP over 30 minutes– but there’s a very important distinction between productive exertion and blind self-destruction.

Sometimes, I’m still annoyed with myself because the large majority of my physical progress has taken place in the past year. For the first half of my CrossFit career, I engaged much more in breakdown than building-up. I was so obsessed with getting ahead, I completely neglected the very foundational basics of my health. But I try to remind myself that that regret is as much a waste of time as my bits of anxiety about screwing up a lift today or rowing too slow tomorrow. These are small things, and I’ve got bigger plans for the future. (I didn’t want to call those “before” and “after” pictures because I’m not even close to done yet.)

I remind myself now– you have to crawl before you can walk before you can run. But really, now that I’m starting to find my stride, I’m trying to let go of past mistakes and enjoy each new step– and the fact that I can make them at all.

What You Have

In General, Rhetoric, WOD on July 17, 2013 at 3:33 pm

On Monday, I did 5×5 heavy back squats, followed by high volume speed pulls for the deadlift. Yesterday, I was rocking the post-squat-soreness waddle. This morning, when I woke up, the muscle soreness had burrowed in and piped battery acid through my legs. Everything felt leaden and useless. But today was “Jackie,” and I’ve actually lucked out of attempting Jackie for months now despite how often our box programs it. I worried that my soreness meant I couldn’t perform as well today as I otherwise would have. I worried that the 7 sets of handstand push-ups to failure I performed yesterday meant that my overhead strength would suck today. I worried about the fact that I had work in the evening, which meant that I had to train in the morning, which meant I’d have to wake my stiff and aching body much earlier than usual… and everything would factor into a generally sucky workout. Then I remembered something Coach told me when I visited her.

She programs a lot of shoulder work for me each week. I pretty much never go a week without handstand push-ups, sometimes in several variations. That, in addition to the fact that every week has an upper body max-effort day, and the fact that the box obviously programs WODs with overhead work means that sometimes I second-guess when I should schedule all my skill work to maximize my performance. I asked Coach about this, and she pointed out that… the conditions will never be perfect. Part of why CrossFit constantly varies is, in fact, so that we don’t get too entrenched in our habits, so that we test ourselves with new challenges and new conditions. Sometimes I’ll test my HSPU’s fatigued, and I’ll just have to live with it– no “could’ve/should’ve/would’ve” done better if I’d been fresher or hadn’t lifted the day before. None of that matters. What I need to do is make the most of this workout on this day. All I can ask of my body is what it has to give me in its current state– if I’m at 80%, then I’m going to get the best damned workout I can with that 80% and feel good about it. I won’t tear myself apart for not being able to do 100% all the time, and I’m not going to drag my feet at 60% just because I’m feeling worse today.

So, knowing that I was a little more beat up than I’d like to be, I got to the gym early to make sure I’d be extra-warm for the work out. I dedicated more time to warming up and my mobility. I made sure I didn’t lift until I felt loose, and comfortable, and knew I wouldn’t be overexerting tired muscles.

I PR’d my push-press. Not only did I push-press my old 3RM for 5 reps, but I added 5lbs to that and managed 4 reps. Then I took 3 minutes off my previous “Jackie” time. Admittedly, it’s been a while since I’ve tested the WOD, and admittedly, I still have a bit to go before I give the firebreathers a run for their money, but I’m making progress.

Yeah, I think I could’ve done better if I’d woken up feeling like superwoman– if I hadn’t stayed up working on lesson plans last night, if I’d gotten to work out in my usual evening time slot, if I hadn’t been sore, if my quads didn’t still hate me for Monday. But, if we waited for the “perfect” conditions to train, we’d probably never train. Every day is an opportunity to make the most of what you have with what you can. Give it your all– even if today’s all is not as much as tomorrow’s. Tomorrow, too, will come, and you can celebrate that with just as much vigor, and regret nothing.

Goalsetting and Girly Tunes

In General, Training on July 6, 2013 at 9:30 pm

I’ve been around a lot lately to see Coach Singalong and his country-music-loving-buddy work out together. You haven’t experienced all that CrossFit has to offer until you watch two men with the collective work capacity of a Spartan army clean and jerk a couple hundred pounds while singing along to Kelly Clarkson’s “Stronger.” Despite their un-hardcore (softcore? No…) taste in music, they’re both undeniably phenomenal athletes. And, if you compared their scores on the whiteboard, you’d assume they’re evenly matched. But what I find fascinating about watching the pair is that they’re two entirely different trainees.

Coach Singalong is… well, a coach. He knows others will model themselves after his movements. He aspires to competing at the Mid-Atlantic Regionals. He wants to make CrossFit a profession. Most of the time, his every movement is precise. His last push-up is as clean as the first one, even if he slows  between them. Every single squat hits well below depth and he hits full extension at the top. CountryBoy, however, is a totally different beast* (*actually, beast is probably an understatement. This man can bench press a small truck– or a large tractor… for reps). More often, CB is clearly just there to get a workout. A few of his squats miss full depth. If he loses a lift right before full extension, he might not necessarily try it again. That’s not to say that CB can’t hit those lifts perfectly, or that he’s being a dishonest ass that day. It’s just that day, that moment, he’s just working out for himself and doesn’t give a damn. In a stereotypical CrossFit setting, the “hardcore” coach would be “no-repping” the shit out of CB. Would be screaming at him to reach a higher intensity, with more precision. But… sometimes that’s not the point.

As much as I love the CrossFit culture– its passion, its commitment– I think that some participants lose sight of the difference between “training” and “competition.” In “competition,” you want to go all-out… you want to give that 110% and your judges are going to hold you to that precise standard: hips below parallel, chest touching bar, head through the window. From the competitor’s perspective, things look a lot more black-and-white. You want high intensity, and there are clear standards for each movement– from point-A to point-B. With training, there are so many different factors that make a mess of things.

In general, if you’re training for self-improvement, to work on your movement patterns, to work on your health, to become a better athlete– you want the best movement within your range of motion. For some trainees, that’s not a squat to full depth yet. For some, they shouldn’t pull a deadlift off the floor until they have that mobility. For most, that also means that some workouts shouldn’t be for the fastest-damned-time or the most-fucking-reps you can get in that workout. Yes, during competition, that’s important because you’re trying to win by the numbers on the board. But in training, perhaps your personal “win” is a clean where you hit all three extensions, or a kettlebell snatch where you don’t beat the shit out of your forearm. I had a member ask me during our on-ramp if all the “in-between steps” mattered during a Turkish get-up, or if he could just stand the Kettlebell from Point A to Point B. The “in-between” steps matter. They’re not only the most efficient, most stable, safest way to get from point A to point B, but actually the in-between steps of that particular movement also ensure you engage all the muscles that such a full-body exercise intends to train.

You’d think that makes training also black-and-white. In competition… we want intensity and any way from point A to point B. In training, we want perfect form. But it’s not that easy. We’re all so far from perfect. And we have different reasons for training– even from day to day, week to week. And what’s different about CrossFit is, well, we’re really not quite a “sport” in the same way as others… it’s not like a powerlifting gym where every day people come in building towards their next meet… or like Football or Soccer where you’re preparing the team for the game. For a lot of recreational CrossFitters, this is a fun way to get their fitness on and in good company. For CB, sometimes he just wants to get a good sweat and have fun with his training buddy, which I would ruin by telling him he’s missing his lockout on this or that rep. For some of our beginner CrossFitters, they would be entirely demoralized if we “no-repped” every time they didn’t hit all the points of performance. Some of them would never get any reps. It would’ve taken me several months of CrossFit to even be able to write my name on the whiteboard. This means that coaching requires a large amount of compassion and intuition. You have to understand an athlete’s goals, present mood, current motivation, and balance all those things to ensure that he 1) stays safe, 2) progresses, and 3) feels satisfied with his workout. On some days, that means letting CB get away with a few missed reps. On some days, that means slowing a new member down– fixing the second pull of the clean but acknowledging that she’ll need to work on depth and wrist mobility another day.

I’ve had such lofty and faraway goals for myself as a CrossFitter for so long that, for a while, I reached a point where all of my workouts felt hopeless. If I didn’t PR a lift, I wasn’t getting stronger. If I did PR a lift, I wasn’t getting stronger fast enough. If I PR’d one lift but slowed in my metcons, I was getting stronger, but my conditioning was suffering, etc. The way I’ve managed to change this– how I got back to getting excited about every workout and being able to leave the gym each day with some degree of satisfaction– is by setting a small goal for each training session, and adjusting that goal as the session progresses. If I show up at the gym and my bench is just not happening and I missed the strength PR I wanted to set for that day, then I end the day with some technique work. Yes, I didn’t get stronger that day. But I improved my kettlebell clean and the speed of my elbow transition.

Admittedly, too, sometimes like CB I just want to get a good workout without fretting too much about my form. I went to the gym last weekend, during open gym hours, just frustrated with a lot of external bullshit that I let get to me. And I just wanted to rage. So… I didn’t make a plan, didn’t give myself set reps or a time, or whatever. I picked movements that were relatively safe and not technically demanding, and I just bear-crawled and burpee broad jumped and slam-balled until the feels went away. And that was what I needed– nothing quantifiable, nothing on a whiteboard, nothing but the sheer adrenaline of the moment. That was my training goal for those ten minutes of that day. The following day, I came back and drilled my olympic lifts with a PVC for precision. As coaches, we may do well to keep such flexibility in mind when working with clients. Some days, it’s not the time to scream at your athlete to go-go-go. Sometimes he needs to slow down and work on technique. Other days… if he’s not hurting himself, maybe you let him go wild. No one wants to come back day after day to have his form nitpicked to exhaustion. Also, the workout on the whiteboard is not engraved in stone. Perhaps this particular athlete needs to cut the AMRAP to ten minutes. Perhaps she can do this weight but for fewer reps. Maybe she should work on double-unders by doing attempts for one minute instead of counting “reps” so that she can fit in skill-work without A) getting stuck on the movement and wasting the entire WOD getting a “good rep” or B) replacing them with single-unders and not really training that skill at all.

So, takeaways: Coaches should consider the different needs of their athletes on different days, athletes could find greater motivation in making small goals for their workouts, and – most importantly – sometimes big, burly badasses throwdown to really girly tunes.

Stepping Forward

In General, Training on June 24, 2013 at 9:33 pm

As I travel for work and for CrossFit, I find myself becoming more comfortable in the unfamiliar. In fact, I find myself excited by the unfamiliar– by being immersed in new, daunting environments wherein I have the humbling fortune of meeting people so much more knowledgeable and experienced than I am. This past weekend, Coach let me hang out with her and PowerWOD (her boyfriend/strength coach/elite powerlifter in five different weight classes/nicest guy I know with a 800+lb deadlift) while they were in Virginia to conduct a seminar. Though Coach has helped me a great deal just through video correspondence, emails, and my incessant text messaging, it was so much more helpful to be able to work in person. And just to absorb her knowledge and coaching techniques as well. It also restores my faith in the world to confirm that these athletes and trainers whose careers I’ve long admired are also genuine, down-to-earth people who will readily welcome a neurotic Asian chick as a friend. Furthermore, traveling to CrossFit Annandale, meeting their crew and staff and welcoming community– I’m still stunned by the way CrossFit gives people a shared language with which to connect so quickly.

I insist that, of the many cool things in CrossFit, the best thing it has to offer is the way it brings people together. It took fitness and made it accessible and communal– not that this is new. This has happened in group fitness classes, in yoga studios, in bodybuilding and powerlifting gyms long over time. But I think some athletes and coaches forget to take advantage of the robustness of this community. We become comfortable in our boxes, surrounded by our familiar faces. We’re used to our favorite pull-up bar and wall-ball target and afraid to look incompetent in a new gym. But it’s too easy to stagnate in the familiar– in what we already know. It’s in discovering what we don’t know and pursuing that knowledge that we grow.

Speaking of pursuing knowledge, Coach gave a piece of advice that really stuck with me. It was about the 100’s chipper (event 4). Coach didn’t brag about this during the seminar, but I’ll brag for her here. She took second place in her region. On a 400 rep workout. Her point, during the seminar, was that… during that workout, you can’t think about the 400 reps. You can’t start counting at one and expect to get to 400. All that matters is the rep right in front of you. Similarly, when you’re coaching that athlete, you don’t tell her to get 400. You applaud her one and tell her to get two. Then to do another two. Then get to five. Then six. Thinking about rep 400 at the beginning is soul-crushing. But if you rep it out one by one, you’ll get there.

I couldn’t help thinking about how that applied to my life. Or how I should apply that to my life. Calling myself a graduate student felt like a fantasy. Still, the idea of ever becoming “Dr. Jo” feels impossible and ridiculous. The idea that, at the end of all this, I’ll have been in school for a minimum of 19 years (not even counting preschool)… is beyond soul-crushing. If I woke up thinking about the fact that I still have to finish my coursework, and memorize hundreds of texts and spend days being tested on these texts and pass my comprehensive exams and then write an entire book-length dissertation (along with a second book-length project that my adviser and I have agreed I will try to complete concurrently) and defend that dissertation… and afterwards, throw myself at the mercy of a near-impossible job market and beg for a position at a respectable institution and pray that these 19 years of learning and writing and studying have been enough. Well, fuck, I’d never get out of bed in the morning. I get out of bed by deciding that today, I will get to my classroom and teach my class and hopefully those students will leave a little more excited about the power of language. I will go to my office in the writing center and work with students on individual pages and those individual pages will improve and hopefully they will draw from that something they can apply to future pages. I will get to the gym and I will lift something that will break me a little bit so that I can heal and grow stronger and bigger and lift a little more the next time. I will help coach this class and learn from the coaches and athletes around me so I can be a more experienced, more knowledgable coach tomorrow. And in these small ways, these tiny steps, I will inch my way towards the Jo I want to become.

I’ve noticed that we apply the words “it’s not a sprint– it’s a marathon” to just about everything that matters in life– as much as I love the sprint, it appears that the dreaded long, slow distance is a better metaphor for life. Most journeys towards self-improvement are long and soul-crushing. But despite our dread, we still readily undertake them– and like marathoners, we should approach these challenges not just to cross the finish line, but for every tortuous footfall that takes us there. It’s a marathon. But don’t think about mile 26 right now. Just lift your right foot. Then your left. And step forward.

Growth and Gratitude: reflections on two days of trial-by-coaching

In General, Training, WOD on June 12, 2013 at 9:47 pm

The past two weeks have been a “trial period” for aspiring coaches at our box. I really regret missing the entire first week for my conference in Kansas (despite the absolute awesomeness of CrossFit Lawrence). However, I was fortunate enough to teach three classes in these past two days. Honestly, the experience has just been fantastic and rewarding, very enlightening, and humbling at the same time. For the teacher in me, a lot of it feels familiar: breaking concepts down to their constituent parts, linking them back together in a way you hope will make sense to others. I think the part of it that has been strangest, and that I’d really love more experience in, is just managing the movement element. I’ve been a writing teacher and a stage director. I’ve taught and coordinated people, but only either in sedentary settings or with predetermined scripts. A gym is obviously an entirely different environment. Arranging 15 people and 4 benches for some pre-metcon strength work is a game of strategic navigation that I’ve never played before. Nevertheless, no one died– I think. And no one threw a kettlebell at my head (despite Scotchy’s threats). I’d like to believe that the classes went well. I know I learned something more with each one– about group management, time management, about each of the individual athletes and how they respond to different cues. My favorite part of all this has been getting to spend more time with the community of welcoming, generous people we have at the box. I’ve loved getting to know the new faces when they walk into the class. Additionally, I’ve really enjoyed getting to know my fellow would-be, could-be coaches better. I’ve enjoyed participating in their classes and seeing how they apply their own personalities to the workout– how they analyze and take apart and approach the teaching of each movement. Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve felt more energy in this box this past week, and I hope that endures. I’m excited to see where and how we can grow from here. Anyway. I don’t envy The Jefe his decision, and want to express my earnest gratitude to him for having the open-mindedness and faith in people to believe that anyone with his/her heart and mind in the right place has the potential to be a good coach. Of course, there’s much more to the job than the mere desire to do it well. I hope my acts have lived up to my intentions. To those of you wonderful folks that have attended CrossFit à la Jo in the past couple days– thanks for your trust and your time. I hope I have earned it. If not– well, I’m nothing if not relentless. And I will continue learning and growing and improving until I do deserve that faith.

In other (somewhat but not entirely unrelated) news, I PR’d my Cindy today– by almost double the rounds I’d tallied a year ago. My point, though, isn’t to brag about my Cindy score. This particular workout plays to my strengths, and I still have so many areas in which I need to improve. Even today, I know my push-up form collapsed, and I need to strengthen the endurance of my core. But I am improving. I still see myself getting better in small, measurable ways each week as I train. And in just the two days I’ve been coaching, I want to say this to the newer athletes at the box: I get it. To the kid who’s trying to clean too much. To the girl flailing off the pull-up bar. I get it. I get how frustrating it is to feel your body betray your will. I get how infuriating it is to fall so far behind the firebreathers that you feel like you’re not even playing the same game. And worse, how entirely disheartening it is when, afterwards, all the “hardcore” athletes banter about their times and rounds and no one asks you because it’s irrelevant to them. Fuck them. Fuck the weight you can’t yet lift or the pull-up you’re still chasing. You’ll get there. If you slow down. If you stop beating yourself up for what you can’t yet do, and you start encouraging yourself to achieve what you can. Yes, lifting heavy is freaking awesome for you. But sometimes, you need to put down the iron and pick up the PVC again. Retrain the basics. Build your foundation. Allow yourself to progress one small step at a time and applaud those moments. And you’ll be surprised how those tiny, incremental advancements can accrue. And, a month– two months– half a year from now, you’ll be amazed by how far you’ve traveled.

A last note for my State College readers: those of you that have attended classes with the aspiring coaches in the past few days, please do email the box with your feedback– even if you did want to throw a kettlebell at my head. The success of this place is best measured by how it fulfills our members and helps them both define and attain their goals.

Happy Wednesday, all. And, as always, thanks for reading.

CrossFit Lawrence: Refuge and Rage

In General, Training on June 4, 2013 at 2:59 pm

People throw around the word “community” a lot lately. Your neighborhood is a “community.” Your classroom is a community. Your workplace would like to be a community. One of the many things I love about Crossfit is that, in this claim—and all claims—it is honest. The CrossFit community is a tangible, palpable, reliable thing. And, fortunately for us, the proliferation of boxes across the country means that the traveling CrossFitter is rarely stranded.

As most of you know, I’m in Kansas for the week for a professional conference. Because I didn’t want to throw away an entire week of training, I spoke with Coach and she programmed a week of travel workouts for me. I emailed Thomas Thatcher, the owner of CrossFit Lawrence, to ask if I could obnoxiously impose and use his facility for my own pre-programed workouts. He responded with two words: “Come rage.” I liked him immediately.

Despite my frequent travels, I still feel a bit of anxiety about visiting new boxes: what if I get in the way? What if I misrepresent my box or my coach? What if I trip over my own two feet again and faceplant on their plyo boxes? Yet always, I feel silly for these thoughts within five minutes of visiting a new box. The coaches always welcome me into their space. The members are friendly and help me find the equipment I need. They don’t judge me, or watch to evaluate how much I lift or how many skills I can perform; they just encourage me to WOD on beside them.

Every time I visit a new box, I also try to take in everything about their procedures, their coaching process, etc… to see what I can smuggle back to my own box. Thatcher runs a fantastic facility. Given: the space is expansive and has more toys than I can name—tires, a full rig, a bouldering wall, kettlebells, and dumbbells, and a yoke. They have indoor and outdoor lifting platforms.

But, more importantly, Thatcher runs with his box with thoughtful attention and an infectious enthusiasm, and just an embracive love of people and movement. The daily workouts are balanced and carefully planned. Today, I witnessed a group warm-up, focused strength and skill work, an intense metcon, and a cool-down—all packed into an hourlong class. Though Thatcher circulates the facility throughout the workout, twirling a PVC, shouting at his athletes, he keeps a critical eye on everything. Between enthusiastic whoops and Kelly Clarkson lyrics, he corrects form and technique and advises athletes on how to scale. He maintains a keen awareness of when athletes need to be spurred on, and when they need a moment to breathe. And somehow within all that, he has the time to visit a back-squatting Jo, to tell her to power through the bar for her last set.

Next week will be my first week of trial-coaching, and I’m so grateful for the opportunity to conduct a few classes. I’ve been working towards this moment since I tripped over my first plyo box—since the first time I dragged my scrawny, asthmatic butt through a 400m run and bruised my collarbone on 50lb cleans. I’ve grown a lot since those hapless days, but I know I still have far to go. I will never stop learning, and I want to apply that education to help others find their own way, perhaps even to save them from some of my mistakes. As a coach, I want to be able to promise my athletes the same things I pledge to the students in my English classes: I will never ask you to do something without knowing concretely why and how it will benefit you. I have done and will continue to do my utmost in self-education and experiential learning so that I can provide you with the most comprehensive understanding of your own plan for self-improvement. We are in this together, and I will not abandon or give up on you. I’ve got your back.

As I become even more of an active member of the CrossFit community, I remain conscious of the ways I can draw from and give back to this world. Regardless of my silly anxieties, I will continue visiting new boxes and putting myself in strange environments to force myself to grow and learn from this newness. I will observe more experienced, more knowledgeable coaches like Thomas. I will eventually become a model from which others can learn. I will provide a refuge for athletes and traveling CrossFitters looking for a place to sneak in a pre-conference WOD. I will add to this network of compassionate trainers and athletes and humans out there that support one another, hundreds of miles from home. Thanks to this very solid, very real community, and Thomas, and the folks at Crossfit Lawrence…  at 6:00am before a full day of professionalization and headache-inducing conversation, I get to listen to the Kansas rain, watch the dawn crest the horizon, bury my thoughts beneath the barbell… and rage.

Rebuilding Jo

In General, Training on May 2, 2013 at 3:36 pm

Anyone who’s been even remotely following this years’ CrossFit Games season will have heard of Sam Briggs. In 2011, I had just started CrossFitting, and did not pay much attention to the actual Games. In 2012, when Briggs had pulled out of competition, I was obsessively “leaderboarding”– tracking the big names like Annie (T and S), Kris Clever, Becca Voigt, Julie Foucher, Camille, etc. I was entirely unaware of Sam Briggs. Somewhere in the middle of the year, I stumbled across her blog, where she tracked her daily workouts. She seemed like the usual, down-to-earth, passionate CrossFitter. She mostly just posted daily WODs with little reflection or context, so I lost interest and stopped following. This year, she burst onto the scene and freaking kicked ass. Briggs placed 2nd in workout one and then claimed first place for the remaining four workouts of the Open.

Of course, being me, I began doing my homework. Briggs went on temporary hiatus in 2012 because of an injury– a fractured patella, to be specific. She had undergone serious rehab for the majority of the year, but returned possibly more beastly than ever. Something I’ve hated about this years’ Games season is the poor sportsmanship– the way people have tried to cheat or “loophole” their way through workouts, or the way people have tried to accuse entirely honest athletes of doing the same. Of course, when Briggs jumped back on the scene a serious workhorse, the conversation turned to steroids.

Non-athlete and non-sports-follower that I am, I tend to consult the Cookie Monster on all things athletic… When I asked him about Briggs’ impressive performance this year, he frowned pensively and answered, “I don’t know. Didn’t you say she’d been through rehab? That’s harder than normal training.”

I believe it now.

Though my back has been feeling progressively better each day since the deadlift injury, I made an appointment with a PT/Chiropractor just to get it checked out, and to address some other issues I may have. Though the glamorous life of graduate-student-ing doesn’t pay well, I’m currently the proud recipient of the best health insurance I’ll possibly ever have, so I might as well abuse it while I can.

Though I’d made the appointment for my back, the Doc looked at me for three minutes before he figured out that my hips are grossly misaligned. I mean, I’m not surprised. Jefe figured out a year ago that my hips tweak to the right when I rise from my squat. My right side always pulls the deadlift off the ground first. No matter how I try to maintain my alignment when I squat, I always pivot on the way up. For cossack squats, I can lower my right side fine, but I lack the same flexibility in my left. In fact, though the doc examined my back (I think a facet joint or two is inflamed from bearing unexpected weight? — der, the fifth rep of a 200lb deadlift, perhaps?), his greater concern was the hip imbalance.

And the more I think about it, the more I realize– like with all things CrossFit, this is probably something I should have fixed first, to establish a solid foundation, before I started trying to build on it– before I started pulling 2x bodyweight deadlifts for reps, before I started pushing my squat heavier.

The back is feeling better and better. The last remaining aches and pains have all but disappeared, but for the past few weeks, I’ve been too scared to go heavy. It’s been frustrating as hell– especially when trying to gain mass– refraining from heavy lifts or even hard metcons. Anytime I felt something tweak in my back, I slowed down. I stopped loading weights the moment I felt any strain. But the way I’m trying to look at this– my self-imposed silver lining– is that at least now, my body is forcing me to go back and rebuild my foundation. I can only work for form right now– not max weight, not speed. Coach has been programming my deadlifts and cleans at pathetic fractions of what I used to lift, and so the only way I can maintain my sanity is by using these moments to hone in on the mechanics.

Strangely, too, the rehab must be doing something. I left the doctor’s office feeling fine– not as if I’d exerted or worked anything. We spent 15 minutes with the electric stim machine, some light exercises, a bit of back-popping and I was on my way. But the next day I was sore– not achy in the post-injury way, but sore like I’d beasted out on a long WOD… and all of yesterday I couldn’t figure out why– I hadn’t done more than usual at the gym. Then it struck me (slo(w)-Jo): must’ve been the PT…

I complain a lot about my body. I’ve blamed it a lot for being awful to me– a childhood of steroid inhalations for asthma, an adulthood of treatment-roulette for my IBS… etc. But I’ve also been pretty terrible to my body in return (or, perhaps, more a chicken-and-egg thing). I did nothing remotely athletic or physical until age twenty, and upon discovering the thrill of endorphins, I jumped in 1 million percent without any regard for rest, mobility, or restoration. And now you, dear readers, get to hear about all the backpedaling ways in which I try to make up for it.

All that said, I’m happy with some of the progress I’m still making. Since I’ve been careful with the lower body lifts, I’ve concentrated more on upper body movements. My push-press broke its plateau and I PR’d the lift by 5lbs directly before shaving 4 minutes off my previous “Annie” time. My “Nicole” score yesterday was 68 points higher than my previous PR (granted– that old score was a year ago, from when I just started to do kipping pull-ups, and eeked out a whopping score of 11). At any rate… I’m trying to look at the brighter side of these things– that, though it’s taken me far too long to get around to it, I’m back to trying to establish a solid foundation for all my movements. Though I don’t anticipate a Sam Briggs-esque comeback, hopefully I’ll bounce back stronger and more durable 🙂