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Posts Tagged ‘CrossFit’

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 ;).

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On Integrity and Intensity: Comparing Two 300lb “Grace”s

In Training, WOD on February 13, 2014 at 5:26 pm

I’d like to draw everyone’s attention to an astounding video: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VF3rIHZ-GHc&feature=player_detailpage

The most impressive part of this video is not the fact that Zach Krych completes 30 clean and jerks at 303lbs in just over 18 minutes– though yes, that’s a feat that most mere mortals cannot even imagine.

The impressive part is this:

Note how, despite the fact that Zach clearly fatigues during his monstrous Grace-on-steroids, he still hits these five key positions. We provide a lot of excuses about how, when intensity ratchets up, form naturally breaks down. Don’t let it. Yes, to a certain degree, your movements will get messier when you’re “going for time.” However, maintain the positions that matter. It’s easy to black out in the middle of a WOD, to miss entirely the cues that coaches call out, but a smart coach is prioritizing the points of performance that ensure that you’re moving safely— and these same positions will also help you move the most amount of weight efficiently.

I stumbled across this video because Columbus Weightlifting posted it in comparison to Rob Orlando’s 300lb “Grace”– a video that impressed me waaayy back in my early days of CrossFit. However, with a few more years of scrutiny and CrossFit screw-ups under my belt, all I can see now are the many breaks in Rob’s form. Don’t get me wrong– he’s a phenomenal athlete. But as he tires throughout the WOD, his feet spread into a hideously wide catch position. He doesn’t fully extend on his jerks. He hyperextends his back. All that kicking the wall probably doesn’t help either. Also… Rob’s final time? 33:07.

CrossFitters tend towards an impatient mentality. We want to be good at all the things right now, and sometimes it can feel frustrating to slow down, to scale down, to reduce everything to make sure we hit all our performance points. However, Zach’s performance proves that ultimately such attention pays off– maybe not for this one workout, maybe not tomorrow, but for your growth as an athlete and your health– well, as a human.

Where Monsters are Made: Visiting CrossFit CSA and East Valley CrossFit

In Uncategorized on January 5, 2014 at 4:46 pm

Recently, a friend posted this article to his Facebook wall.

I believe this quote sums it up best:

“I think the name CrossFit now tells you about as much as saying ‘I’m going to go out and get a burger,’” says Werner. “It could mean grass-fed, pull out the stops, try to make a great burger. Or it could be mass-produced like McDonald’s or something. It could be some truly awful hole in the wall.”

After the many blind panegyrics or equally ignorant tirades I’ve seen for and against CrossFit, this one was a welcome, more even-handed assessment of the current state of CrossFit. Because CrossFit has taken such a hands-off approach in the management of its brand, for the uninformed individual choosing a new CrossFit gym, it’s kind of like playing fitness roulette. Just a couple days ago, my mother introduced me to one of her coworkers who tried CrossFit for a day, sustained a shoulder injury, and vowed never to return.

“We’re not all like that,” I found myself saying. Though, in my travels, I’ve also seen too many gyms “like that.” CrossFit has introduced me to some of the most passionate, gifted, and attentive coaches I’ve known. It’s also thrown me into some of the most disastrous “fitness” settings. To extend that burger metaphor—right now, if we’re trying to discuss “injury rates” in CrossFit, it’s like trying to assess incidents of food poisoning in all people who ate burgers. I’d be much more suspicious of the plastic-wrapped, lukewarm patty from a gas station than a gourmet platter from a Michelin starred restaurant.

So with such diversity in the experience of CrossFit gyms, I’ve found myself wondering a lot lately—what makes a good gym? What defines a good gym, even? Without much guidance from HQ, where does a new gym look for inspiration?

CrossFit CSA in the early A.M.: the calm before the storm

EVCF: the weightlifter’s dream. CrossFit rig visible in the back. Not pictured: strongman equipment to the left, an ample supply of sleds, GHDs, KB’s, rowers…

Something I’ve observed from both CSA and EVCF (my home-gym-away-from-home): good leadership helps—someone with a clear vision of what s/he wants the gym to be and to do for its athletes. Coach told me a while ago that CSA took really good care of its athletes, and I got to witness this firsthand when I visited. The owner conducted regular meetings with the competition team to check up on their needs and progress. He promotes the shit out of them, constantly updating their social media and getting their names into the public. Meanwhile, CSA also takes care of its tremendously diverse clientele. There are designated spaces for the powerlifters, the MMA fighters, the CrossFitters. There are coaches with clear programs that manage all of these clients and their unique needs. The coaches know how to coordinate a busy class and still tailor to the individual—diagnosing the needs of each person before the session and scaling everything to his/her ability. While visiting CSA, I had the immense fortune of working out alongside the competition team as well as dropping in a normal class. With the competitors, intensity reigned and I saw the ferocity we admire so much in our Games-level athletes. However, with the regular classes, I saw a much wider range. There was a regionals-level competitor who completed each round with 100 unbroken double-unders and decided to challenge herself on unbroken ring push-ups until her shoulders gave. But right beside her, there were much more everyday exercisers who got in a good workout with a different pacing. These were people who, after the workout, had to clean themselves up and go to meetings or classrooms, etc… who CrossFit for wellness rather than competition… who might need to be able to lift their arms later in the day and wouldn’t benefit from shoulder-failure. And that was okay. Despite the wide range of objectives and work capacity in the participants of the CSA CrossFit class, the environment was such that every individual felt comfortable working at his or her own pace—and the coach that managed each class was skilled and comfortable enough to coordinate all these differences at once.

I saw that same balance at EVCF. My favorite Phoenix gym has gotten even bigger since the last time I was in town. They have the broadest offering of classes I’ve ever seen—from a massive weightlifting program with world-class coaches to a dedicated mobility class, a kettlebell class, powerlifting, sprinting… There’s separate programming for normal CrossFit and for EVCF’s rather successful competition team.  On Saturday mornings, their competition team trains together, there’s a mobility course and the kettlebell class, as well as the “Big 3,” which focuses on the major powerlifting movements. There’s also two weightlifting classes—one at 11:00am and 12:30pm. In addition, there are sometimes a few drop-ins doing their own thing, or private coaching sessions. With that much going on, I expected it to be chaos. But somehow EVCF has enough space and confident, authoritative coaches that everything proceeds smoothly.

In the past couple of weeks, I’ve loved watching the EVCF competition team train. They actually work, well, as a team. Perhaps because CrossFit began with a certain individualized spirit (for the lone warrior who could train in his sparse garage gym), I’ve sometimes felt that some of the “team” efforts feel strangely detached—more like separate people working out beside each other than an actual team endeavor. But EVCF’s head coach, August, tailors his programming so that the athletes have to work together. They often go through the day’s workout in pairs and, though they need to train at different times throughout the week, they carve out that Saturday morning slot to come together. Like Kirian of CSA gym, August takes care of his athletes. He stresses to them the importance of recovery and mobility and oversees their individual needs. I’ve seen him sit around to direct his clients through specific stretches or assistance exercises—and I’ve seen him do this for everyone from his veteran athletes to the newbie who just walked through the door.

With a lot of younger gyms, I see such concern over labels and regulations, over what “is” or “isn’t” CrossFit. We do or don’t do certain movements. We must warm up or not warm up a certain way. We have to go at a certain intensity or we have to offer only these sorts of classes. But the success of CSA and EVCF shows that the spirit of CrossFit isn’t about any of that… it’s not about introducing all your members of Pukie. Not every class needs to follow the traditional metcon structure; not every CrossFitter needs to or wants to follow a standard “CrossFit” template. Part of the beauty of CrossFit is that it adapts to so many different individuals—and for that reason, we should remember that it’s not a one-size-fits-all program. CSA and EVCF have shown me what a diverse group of people and needs and training methodologies can come together in one place while still maintaining a tightly-bound community. Yes, there is definitely the danger that certain gyms will become too scattered trying to pursue too many shiny new interests at once– but CSA and EVCF have expanded their offerings (and their fitness-ings) without becoming chaotic by providing what can help their members rather than just what’s shiny and new.

Just there’s no single training approach that will build a great CrossFit athlete, there’s no single approach to creating a fantastic CrossFit gym… and it seems to me the most successful gyms recognize this. They aren’t afraid to experiment—to think, well, “outside the box.” Leading a successful CrossFit team involves treating them as such—as a group, yes, but one composed of unique individuals that must address disparate weaknesses and learn to work together. Creating a truly standout CrossFit box requires fostering an environment that encourages members to “go hard,” but also cushions them on the off-days—makes it okay to fail, and encourages them to come back the next day hungry for something better. For boxes that claim to welcome a wide range of skill-levels, they must juggle the needs of professional athletes and weekend warriors, and meet these needs on an individual basis rather than shoving everyone into a single mold.

I think because CrossFit began so simply—with Mainsite posting a single WOD for all the people—some gyms forget the unique guidance that their box can offer. If everyone would get the same quality workout doing burpees and pull-ups in their garage, no one would pay the $100+/mo gym dues at a CrossFit gym. We have the opportunity to treat members as individuals even as we create a larger, supportive community. I can’t imagine that meshing an MMA gym with a CrossFit gym with a powerlifting gym was easy for CSA… I can’t imagine that EVCF thought it would be easy to run a kettlebell class alongside a powerlifting class just as the weightlifting class begins warming up… But they’ve done so, maintaining a strong vision for what would best serve their community and their members. Though CrossFit CSA and East Valley CrossFit are very different places, what they share in common– and what I think makes them such effective powerhouses in their respective regions– is that they’re led by committed, level-headed in individuals that aren’t concerned with trends or what Rich Froning is doing in his garage. They aren’t trying to follow some paradigm of CrossFit, nor wasting their time trying to see what all the other gyms are doing. They’re concerned with the members of their own gyms who are already there and working their butts off day in and day out. They prioritize giving these people the best return for their hard work, and cultivate the most supportive environment for these specific individuals in their specific contexts.

Happy New Year, readers! Let’s make this one better than the last.

Bonus footage of CSA’s competition team training

(ignore the scrawny Asian interloper)

http://instagram.com/p/iFHaHkJ4uJ/

http://instagram.com/p/iFGuGaJ4th/

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.

The Thing About Food…

In Food, Training on September 27, 2013 at 11:51 am

The first time in my life that a lot of people began asking me about my diet, I became very uncomfortable. It was right after I’d gotten sick– after dropping 30 pounds when eating became such a painful and unpleasant process that food made me anxious. It was right after my IBS diagnosis and way before I figured out what I could and couldn’t consume to avoid a beeline to the bathroom when I was out in public. It disturbed me that some friends and family (and many acquaintances) were suddenly “amazed” by my transformation. When they asked for the “secret” to my weight loss, I wanted to (and often did) tell them that the “secret” was to feel awful for three months, get so small and weak that everything feels cold and you can never stop shaking, and to spend ridiculous amounts of time looking for a g*ddamn toilet (TMI, sorry). In retrospect, I probably should’ve been gentler in my responses… but being perpetually underfed makes one a feeble, hangry (hungry+angry) cretin.

Those of you that remember my arrival in State College might (actually, should) be surprised– or rather, appalled– along with me that anyone had such a response to my weight loss. It disgusts me that we’ve so saturated ourselves with the promotion of “weight loss” that any weight loss is presumed intentional and commendable. The gym’s photo of me when I signed up as a member is pretty terrifying. I cringe every time I see it… I didn’t realize it at the time, inhabiting my own body and experiencing the (albeit very fast) “gradual” change to thinness, but I look like I could snap. There was nothing healthy about being so skinny that sitting was uncomfortable because my bones dug into the chair.

But food is a strange beast. I find it infuriating that people get so dictatorial about other people’s diets– or that people refuse to understand when an individual struggles in reforming that diet. I’ve probably said it before, but… the solution for most addictions is abstention. But we have to eat. Repairing unhealthy dietary habits requires more than sheer avoidance or “eating all the things.” A binge eater or anorexic needs to confront his/her “addiction” every day. Finding balance is so much more challenging, and means something different for every individual. For me, any unfamiliar food filled me with fear. Eating out felt like playing Russian roulette with my stomach– except all six chambers were probably loaded. I was really sick and in denial of my sickness. I wanted to be “normal” (whatever the hell that means) so when people insisted “oh just try this” or “don’t be like that, have a piece,” I did. So I never figured out what my trigger foods were, and felt perpetually ill.

I felt like I had no control over my body until I finally took charge of my diet. This required a lot of experimentation to figure out what worked for me. It required saying no to a lot of things and rejecting other people’s dietary “wisdom” no matter how right they thought they were or how well such advice had worked for them. I still have bad days sometimes, but they’re a lot more manageable. I can go out to eat now too, and have become an expert at navigating menus for the things that won’t make me sick. To get to this point, I had to confront certain things about myself– that I’m not “normal,” that the average diet wouldn’t work for me, that I’d have to sit out of the pizza parties and that sometimes I’d have to be “lame” and reject the party offerings. But, fortunately people have been pretty understanding and I can have a perfectly good time at parties without eating pizza or drinking beer. Even if it means I have to bring my own Chipotle take-out to the party.

This time around, when a lot more people in my life have come back asking for nutrition advice, I hope it’s because they’ve seen the reverse transformation– that I’m actually working my way back to health. I’m still nervous dolling out dietary advice because the one thing I’ve learned is that it’s immensely personal. A notorious example from our gym is my favorite enduro-addict who can have a tube of Pringles and a package of Oreos washed down with a Rockstar for dinner, every single night, and feel fine. He’s shredded, has spectacular endurance, and is all-around healthy. His lipid panel is apparently stellar. It works for him. But probably not for the average human.

On the opposite end of the spectrum, if I didn’t have to eat the way I do, I probably wouldn’t recommend so much care for anyone else. Between the IBS and CrossFit, if I have one bad day, I can do spectacular damage to my body. I know that I’m bad at keeping myself out of the gym even when I’m feeling weak from IBS flares, so I do my best to avoid all triggers… otherwise Jo goes in to work out in a body devoid of nutrients and her body tries to eat itself and the hangry cretin comes back. I’m also (getting) better at taking it easy if I’m having a rough day.

So… now when people ask me for nutrition advice, I generally have two points to emphasize:

1) For the great majority of people just looking to get healthier, eating whole, minimally processed foods will be everything you need. If you can recognize the ingredients (if they didn’t come from a lab), they’re probably okay for you. If it lived and died before you ate it (including plant-matter), it’s probably okay (don’t eat poisonous plants, cook your meat… unless it’s sushi… or tartare… mmm tartare).

2) Beyond that, diet is largely personal. Some people function better on high-carb, low-fat, others vise-versa. Don’t use the scale to gauge your progress. Use how you feel. Do you feel more energized or sluggish? How do your clothes fit? How are your lifts? (Hopefully, you’re lifting 😉 ). How is your recovery? Give everything you try enough time to play through your system (2-4 weeks) and then reassess. Don’t listen to anyone else’s dogma. Don’t follow what Rich Froning or Michael Phelps or Miley Cyrus eats (souls? She eats souls, right?). Revising your diet is confusing and daunting– partially because there’s not a lot of concrete research in the field of nutrition (and it has a new fad every month) and partially because our bodies are so adaptive and dynamic that it’s difficult to isolate any one factor as the change. The only way to feel like you have any grasp of what’s going on is to take control of your own nutrition– make your own damn decisions and track your progress based on how you feel rather than how you’re told you should feel.

Anyway, this month’s been really rough in terms of stress-factors and… well a lot of unexpected life complications. I apologize for the tapering of posts. However, after a few recent conversations, I felt this was worth saying. It’s nothing new or revolutionary, but particularly for those beginning their own journeys towards health, I feel it might be worth hearing. You’re not broken. It gets easier. You’re not alone.

Be good to yourselves.

Jo

Some days, you lose

In Uncategorized on August 15, 2013 at 7:11 pm

Forgive the melodramatics. Sometimes, the Jo needs to wax poetic.

I fold my fingers around the barbell—my hands stretched between knurled grips designed for an armspan much longer than my own. I push my hips back, bringing my body towards the ground in a low squat. The metal is cool for mere seconds before it leeches the warmth from my palms. In a world that is just, I think, my rage would be tangible. In a world that makes sense, all the hurt I can’t contain thickens to a shell—an armor. In this world I conceive, emotion can scar and heal in the same way that flesh repairs and grows back stronger. I think these things and I draw my breath, imagining my 5’2” frame a cathedral. I am filling it: the vastness that is me. In my world of sheer fantasy, I am robust. I am powerful. Untouched and unbroken. I tense my shoulders, feel the earth beneath my feet, and I push. Metal clicks. For a moment, the weight leaves the ground and my heart lifts with it. But my shoulders scream and the bar wrenches me forward. In reality—in this world that we live—I’m pitched onto my toes. In this world that does not forgive, gravity wins and iron strikes the ground with more force than my pull. When I collapse, I am not a cathedral, nor made of stone. I am flesh and folded limbs and imperfection. I am small. And regretful. And so very human.

… tomorrow, I will fight again.

Here’s hoping you’ve all had better days 🙂

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.