3 Keys to Preventing Rhabdomyolysis

(Originally published on Stack.com)

On March 10, the Associated Press reported that William Lowe, a former University of Iowa football player, filed a lawsuit against the university accusing the coaching staff of negligence. According to the AP report, Lowe alleges he was the victim of injuries sustained from a high-intensity off-season workout supervised by Hawkeye coaches and trainers on Jan. 20, 2011.

Lowe was one of 13 Iowa football players hospitalized and diagnosed with external rhabdomyolysis, a severe condition of the liver due to the release of muscle fiber contents into the bloodstream. Rhabdomyolysis has an assortment of causes, from car accidents to severe hydration. It can also be caused by extreme amounts of exercise, like an Ironman triathlon. Warning signs are extreme muscle soreness and dark-colored urine, caused by a substance known as myoglobinuria.

The reported culprit in the Hawkeyes football story was a Squat workout that lasted nearly 20 minutes: 100 Back Squats with a load equaling 50% of a one-rep max. In the lawsuit, Lowe is pursuing monetary damages for physical and mental anguish, contending that, “the injuries and damages [he] sustained . . . arose from the same general types of danger that [he] should have avoided through safe and proper athletic training and supervision.”

When the original story broke in 2011, rhabdomyolysis became the subject of much reporting and analysis in the mainstream sports media. As Iowa head football coach Kirk Ferentz acknowledged in a 2013 interview, the Squat workout had been performed several times in previous years with no adverse consequences, and it was only in the aftermath of the 2011 incident that they heard of the disorder.

“That whole incident is unfortunate in a lot of regards,” Ferentz said. “If you look back, no one really knew what rhabdo was at that point.”

“It can kill you.”

Indeed, college football is not what has been most frequently associated with rhabdomyolysis in the media. That dubious honor most certainly goes to the popular strength and conditioning program known as CrossFit. One of the first articles in the national press that identified rhabdomyolysis as a potential hazard of CrossFit appeared in The New York Times in 2005. In that article, CrossFit founder Greg Glassman spoke about the dangers of rhabdo. “It can kill you,” he said. “I’ve always been completely honest about that.”

In a more recent story, “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret,” Eric Robertson, an assistant professor of physical therapy, rekindled the controversy—in light of CrossFit’s spectacular growth over the last 5 years—trying to make the case that a future epidemic of CrossFit-created rhabdo cases will be the downfall of the program. He wrote, “My prediction: in a few years, the peer-reviewed scientific literature will be ripe with articles about CrossFit and rhabdomyolysis. Health providers will be there to scoop up the pieces, but who is there to protect those people unknowingly at risk?”

Robertson’s assertion prompted a fact-check by Mitra Hooshmand, Ph.D., a neuroscientist who publishes the blog, ScientiFit.com. Hooshmand, who says she is not associated with CrossFit, reviewed the medical literature and concluded that rhabdo is not exclusive to CrossFit: “The populations affected by exercise-induced Rhabdo and reported in peer-reviewed journal articles and case studies range anywhere from teenage athletes to professional football players, fire-fighters, Army and Air Force personnel, bodybuilders and swimmers. Therefore, it appears that exercise-induced Rhabdo can afflict individuals in almost any form of intense exercise.”

Hooshmand also ran the available numbers to see whether claims about the rate of rhabdo incidents in CrossFit, Robertson’s or otherwise, have any evidence to support them. “Let’s do the math,” she writes, calculating from the known cases of rhabdo over the first 10 years of CrossFit’s existence. “[It] equates to less than 1 case per year, accounting for 0.00000036% of the U.S. population averaged over those 10 years.” Hooshmand also says the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention does not appear to be keeping stats on rhabdo, “suggesting the condition is either extremely rare or poorly documented.”

Dr. Leon Chang, an MD specializing in anesthesiology, is a co-owner of CrossFit Elysium in San Diego. Chang has a unique point of view on the controversy, given his combination of CrossFit knowledge and time spent in the hospital helping to treat victims of the disorder. “As far as rhabdo, I am mildly concerned as an owner,” he says. “In general, rhabdo is very rare in the CrossFit population. If you look at youth sports, like high school football, distance running and such, you’ll see there are far more cases of rhabdo or generalized injury from over-exertion in those activities compared to CrossFit. Unfortunately, due to CrossFit’s reputation for intensity, coupled with a laissez-faire attitude on the part of some in the community and playful jokes like Pukey the Clown and Uncle Rhabdo, cases of rhabdo in CrossFit get blown out of proportion.”

Chang says exercise-induced rhabdo bears little resemblance to the condition caused by something like a car crash. “I have seen and taken care of many patients in the hospital with rhabdo,” Chang says. “When serious, it truly is a life-threatening condition—the cases I’ve seen in the hospital make the CrossFit examples pale by comparison.”

Chang disagrees with the fundamental point that critics like Robertson try to make—that unknowing newbies entering a CrossFit box are a high risk. “The new athlete is essentially not at risk for rhabdo. In a nutshell, they simply are incapable of pushing themselves hard enough to cause muscle breakdown and real injury. Lack of cardiovascular conditioning, strength and mental willpower will kick in and cause them to slow down way before they are at risk for rhabdo, which is a protective mechanism. Similarly, an athlete who has ‘trained up’ appropriately has developed their capacity in step-wise fashion: They can handle what they can do, because they practiced and developed the ability to get to where they are. So they’re a safe population as well.”

“This is a recipe for rhabdo.”

Who is at risk then? Which athletes participating in CrossFit are potentially in danger? The answer, according to Chang, is former athletes who are out of shape. He says, “An ex-military individual or former CrossFitter are perfect examples. These people have pushed hard before and they have the mental toughness to keep going when their bodies say stop. Unfortunately, they are physically de-conditioned and no longer equipped to handle such high intensity. This is a recipe for rhabdo, and for those people, we watch them very carefully, and make sure they don’t push too hard on their first few workouts.”

This may have been the case in the Iowa Hawkeyes football episode. As the Cedar Rapids Gazette reported, the Squat session (which apparently was followed by Sled Drags), was one of the first workouts in the off-season training schedule, right after winter break. As a father of one of the hospitalized football players acknowledged in a press conference, concerning how much training his son had performed over the break, “I could tell you he didn’t do anything except eat a lot and lie around, and then this was kind of the first day back.”

John Welbourne is a nine-year veteran of the NFL and creator of CrossFit Football. He commented on the Iowa football affair in a blog post, suggesting that a number of factors may have contributed to the incident in which so many athletes suffered rhabdo at once—but most likely it was just too much, too soon for players who showed up out of shape. “Had [the coaches] prepared their athletes for a workout consisting of 100 Back Squats at 240 pounds and a 100-Yard Sled Drag done as quick as possible? I guess not, as rhabdo usually follows a dramatic increase in volume. The problem is, these athletes might not have been ready to handle this workload, and the coaches should have realized it. Many times as a coach you design something that looks great on paper only to change it dramatically once the workout starts.”

Welbourne also openly wondered whether the workout was on a Wednesday, Thursday or Friday morning—following a “dollar drink night,” which is not uncommon in a university town at the beginning of the semester. A night of drinking could have set the stage for rhabdo via dehydration, he wrote. (Jan. 20, 2011 was a Thursday.)

Keys to prevention

Whether it’s a first week of CrossFit training or an early season football practice, how can athletes and coaches reduce the risk of rhabdomyolysis?

Gradual exposure to high-intensity training. In a 2005 CrossFit Journal article, Glassman explored the nature of the five CrossFit-induced rhabdo cases that had been reported to date. To reduce risk, Glassman advocated “On-Ramp” beginner programs for anyone new to CrossFit, even those coming from more standard physical fitness programs where workout intensity was relatively low. “Elite CrossFitters are performing 18,000 foot-pounds of work per minute for three or four minutes (that’s nearly half of one horsepower!),” Glassman wrote. “This is what our top tier athletes are doing in workouts like ‘Fran.’ Without deliberately training for maximum expression of effective work against a wide-ranging time domain, it is virtually impossible to deliver power output as high as our athletes do.”

“Hydrate or Die.” In an article written for the CrossFit Journal, Eugene Allen enumerates some of the other known causes for inducing rhabdo, including heavy alcohol consumption. Allen suggests dehydration is the most prominent threat for athletes. For the athlete, hydrating before a workout, especially in hot weather, is a preventative measure. “The Camelbak tag line ‘Hydrate or die’ is more meaningful in light of some understanding of rhabdo,” he says.

Beware of eccentric movements. Dr. Chang says that with respect to rhabdo, an emphasis on eccentric movements, with high repetitions, is particularly dangerous. “Any movement with a pronounced eccentric component can potentially cause rhabdo, out of proportion when compared to other movements,” he says. “An eccentric movement is when the muscle is ‘loaded’ and under tension but is not contracting. So for example, when one deadlifts, the pull from the floor is concentric. Once at the top, lowering the weight under control to the ground is an eccentric load. Hamstrings lengthen, back muscles tighten up, but no contraction occurs.” Some exercises have a pronounced eccentric phase, and a good CrossFit coach will be aware of the danger and temper the volume levels for beginners.

“The classic offenders are Kettlebell Swings and Jumping Pull-Ups,” Chang adds. “In the Kettlebell Swing, controlling the bell on the way down represents a very long, loaded eccentric phase. For the Jumping Pull-Up, what often happens is the individual does the Pull-Up, but then slowly lowers themselves back down, which represents eccentric work for the forearms and lats.”

T.J. Murphy is a veteran journalist, CrossFitter, and author of the best-selling book Inside the Box: How CrossFit® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body. Inside the Box is now available in your local bookstore, CrossFit gym, and from these online retailers. Please order Inside the Box today.Inside the Box a book about CrossFit by T.J. Murphy ITB 72dpi 400x600

“CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism,” on Salon. A Response.

Image

Some kids doing CrossFit. They could be playing video games, a culture that might be a better fit for the “CrossFit Mirrors American Miltarism” premise.

If you have some time to burn, read this piece that was recently published on Salon.com, written by Eric Lemay. It’s sort of an analysis of CrossFit, with the author involving the likes of Plato, Aristotle, Noam Chomsky and George Orwell. As the title suggests, his premise is that the popularity of CrossFit is a reflection of how American culture has embraced militarism.

In building his argument that “CrossFit Mirrors American Militarism,” he uses sentences like this:

Cognitive linguists have shown that we make sense of our lives through metaphors: life is a journey; love is war; Syria’s use of chemical weapons is, in Obama’s words, “a game-changer.”  In sports, Americans have a set of analogies, images, tropes, and conceits, through which we understand ourselves, even when those metaphors, like Obama’s, woefully distort the reality we’re trying to describe.

And:

The counterview to sports as a beacon of meritocratic equality and unbeclouded truth is that it’s a spillway for our worst public and private selves.  Orwell, as you’d expect, saw sports as “bound up with hatred, jealousy, boastfulness, disregard of all rules and sadistic pleasure in witnessing violence: in other words it is war minus the shooting.”  And Chomsky sees sports as an opiate for the shirtless, face-painted, giant-foam-finger masses: “It’s a way of building up irrational attitudes of submission to authority and group cohesion behind leadership elements.  In fact it’s training in irrational jingoism.”

I’m not sure how ‘unbeclouded’ that statement is, but I usually have no problem with someone trying out CrossFit and not liking it and wanting to write about why they didn’t like it. But I feel compelled to respond to Lemay’s piece. It skews the true value of CrossFit in a way that might dissuade some who before reading the story may have earnestly been thinking about joining a CrossFit gym, and may have really benefited from joining a box, but decides not to because of Lemay’s disparaging description.

Here’s my response in short. As to Lemay’s notion that CrossFit is some new strain of a culture becoming militaristic, I would like to quote CrossFt Elysium coach Paul Estrada about what CrossFit is or isn’t when a debate like this gets heated up. He reminds people that, “It’s just exercise.”

I could leave it right there because those three words pretty much say it. But I’m like Lemay, so if you’re interested, here’s my long form response.

The great gang at CrossFit Elysium.

CrossFit Elysium.

First of all, CrossFit isn’t as violent a form of training that he attempts to establish. Despite the narrative of Pukie the Clown and some of the storytelling and imagery one can dig up from the internet, most of the people doing CrossFit these days are not vomiting all over the gym. CrossFit is not Hell Week in the Navy SEALs. There’s an 86-year-old woman who is an active member of CrossFit Santa Cruz Central. She’s incredibly fit and energetic for an 86-year-old, but she’s not going to make it very far in BUDS. So if this piece was the first and only look a reader has into CrossFit, that reader would almost have to imagine a gym where instead of buckets of chalk there are buckets of vomit; that what CrossFitters do on a daily basis is work out until they puke. He writes:

Every CrossFitter has their favorite story of workout obliteration, often involving a bucket. 

Well, I don’t.  I’m a CrossFitter, and I’ve worked out at more than 20 CrossFit gyms now over the past two years. I’m aware of the CrossFit “Pukie the Clown” ethos but think it’s exaggerated.  Although I have definitely pushed myself in workouts,  I can report the following:

1. I’ve never thrown up during or after a CrossFit workout.

2. I’ve never come close to throwing up doing CrossFit.*

2. I’ve never seen anyone throw up.

I’m sure some  have thrown up from CrossFit workouts, just as one of my teammates back in high school did after running his first 800 meter track race of the season. The “Pukie the Clown” CrossFit mascot is more of a joke than anything but as legend has it, the first execution of Fran was accompanied by puking. But those who have puked from CrossFit are not breaking an barriers when it comes to exercise. I have a few memories from my grade-school sports years of kids throwing up after a basketball practice or hot-weather football practice. The occasional site of a teenage kid throwing up during practice is something I imagine most kids in sports have seen.  But as of yet I haven’t seen it in a CrossFit box. Lemay, who apparently belongs to a CrossFit box, is exaggerating, perhaps to try and build toward his militarism argument.

Lemay portrays CrossFit founder Greg Glassman on being hellbent in making people throw up so they’ll be ready for the end of the world. This is not an accurate portrayal of Glassman or the official CrossFit presentation of the model delivered in their level 1 cert. Rather, Glassman is hellbent on a program that is effective and clearly defined. Watch all the Glassman lectures and go to a level one cert (I’ve done both) and I doubt you’ll come to that conclusion. (One of the topics brought up at the seminar was, ‘How do I get my kids to like healthier foods?’)  What I observed is this: CrossFit is a general strength and conditioning program for all-comers, designed to increase health, wellness and quality of life. Glassman says as much in his lectures. It’s what you find at most CrossFit boxes. Is there an additional value for first-responders? Yes. In that a high-state of general physical fitness is a good thing to have when all hell breaks loose and you have to be ready to carry a human being on your shoulder out of a burning building.

Indeed, CrossFit does emphasize intensity. For a reason: High-dose exercise produces the greatest results with the least amount of time. Competitive distance runners know this: Hard sessions of 6 x 800 meter runs at 5k race pace with 2 minutes of recovery between each rep is a hard session that will help vault you to another level of performance in a way that tons of slow jogging will never do.

310-320x213

As I’ve written about quite frequently, CrossFit has been an effective gateway not just for former high school athletes to regain or retain health and athleticism, I meet a lot of committed CrossFitters that had never been in an organized sport in their lives. They’d never really been in any sort of good shape. And then there are those remarkable CrossFitters that are coming from the realm of obesity and even morbid obesity. At Amity CrossFit, where I currently train, there’s a really nice guy that has to scale about every workout, but CrossFit may have saved his life: he was pushing 400 pounds, in his 40s, and he’s lost at least a fourth of that and I’m sure that his biomarkers have retreated from the heart-attack red zone.

So to my point: CrossFit is a good thing. It’s not the only thing—Just about any sort of exercise is a good thing for America considering the obesity epidemic that continues to spiral and infect our population—but the combination of a community structure, exercise and nutrition is a powerful package.  It works.

And CrossFit has gone global by the way, which doesn’t jibe with the article’s title. Lemay even mentions this: “Now there are over 5,500 [CrossFit gyms], from Rarotonga Island to India.”  Europe, South America, Down Under and more. And China should get in on the act, too: recent reports say that nearly half a billion Chinese are showing signs of being pre-diabetic.

Lemay put a lot of work into a story re-published on Salon.com, no doubt getting a lot of attention. He finishes his argument with this, a thought that came to him after watching some CrossFit kids doing pull-ups:

At that moment, I think I’m about as far from global conflict as you can get, that I’m part of a tight-knit community where people feel welcomed, supported, and challenged.  And then I see the flag, hanging on the gym wall, and I realize that the observations I’ve been making don’t clash, that a strong sense of community and a martial ethos go hand in hand, and that one thing the emergence of CrossFit may very well show us is America’s ongoing transformation from a culture of sports to a culture of war.

I think it’s an odd conclusion, but I’m glad to hear about some kids having some fun getting exercise.

As far as American culture goes, CrossFit is on the right side of the equation. This past weekend, while in the Chicago area, I was in a Walgreens and saw a new product section: Diabetes Care. Diabetes is so rampant that it has it’s own section, just like lipstick. Obesity and type-2 diabetes come hand-in-hand, of course, and you can just feel how huge the pharmaceutical/medical-industry-complex is going to get and how many billions of dollars are going to be made off of Americans being sick. Despite Chomsky’s view of sports, I imagine if he were to look at the numbers and the facts, he too would support a social policy that encouraged the likes of a community-supported-health-and-fitness program like CrossFit. A company that, by the way, has developed exercise programs for kids intertwined with SAT preparation. A company that has built a school in Kenya. A company that has supported infant-drowning prevention awareness.

CrossFit as a mirror of American militarism? Lemay writes:

When I started CrossFit, I was troubled by the hero wods.  The prospect of doing pull-ups and push-ups to honor a dead American soldier struck me as suspect, if not morally bizarre. 

Indeed, CrossFit does honor fallen soldiers. As well as firefighters, police and other first-responders. What this mirrors is a creed: To those who made the ultimate sacrifice while serving the public, we will not forget you. And CrossFit communities are known for offering direct support to first-responder families. The CrossFit community has come, for example, to the aid of the families of fallen Arizona firefighters. But you’ll see that it’s not just first-responders that CrossFit gyms rally for. At CrossFit Elysium in San Diego, my box when I lived there, they recently held a fundraiser for the sister of one of the gym’s members, who is in a fight with cancer.

Lemay doesn’t convince me of his premise (obviously). Do we have a militaristic culture in general? More than a decade of war might speak to that question more than whatever it is CrossFit is or isn’t.  As far as a cultural zeitgeist, it has seemed to me that CrossFit is, in this very high-tech age, a place where people from all walks of life can come together, get fit, and be there for one another, and do it in a place that is attractively back-to-basics and void of the typical marketing noise that drenches most commercial gyms. That’s what I’ve seen, anyway.

* I don’t sing and dance my way out the door either, but I don’t throw up.

Highway Through Hell: Getting Back Into CrossFit

Amity CrossFit.

Amity CrossFit in Palo Alto, Calif.

Last Friday I was reminded of why training in a CrossFit class is superior than trying to do CrossFit workouts on your own. This applies to me, anyway. I just can’t push myself as hard as I can alone than I can in a class. I thought I was getting in some pretty hard workouts on my own.  My heart rate would get above 180 and I’d be breathing fairly hard. But last Friday I joined Amity CrossFit here in my new town of Palo Alto and on Friday, Saturday and yesterday, I’ve been more properly smoked.

In fact, yesterday, near the end of a three-round met-con, I just had five wall-balls left and the 26-minute workout would be over. Just five reps. It was going to take a matter of seconds. Yet the finish of it all felt like it was hours away.

In re-joining a gym and getting back into it, I’ve had to brace myself for the fact that I might as well be starting over again. I’ve lost significant amounts of stamina, strength, power and mobility. At my first workout back to CrossFit, the coach at Amity said, “Don’t over do it in these first workouts back. Be patient with it.” His advice was a reference to that part of our ego that doesn’t want to let go of how fit we used to be. But the fact is that that level of fitness you used to have is just a fading memory. Better to  forget it and take up the beginner’s mind.

So in being a beginning CrossFitter again, these are some of the operational guidelines I am bringing to the process:

1. Focus on form. You want to walk out of the gym feeling like you maxed the workout, but I’ve really bought into the CrossFit principle of virtuosity: That you first master the movement and then bring in the intensity. If you start taking short-cuts in just trying to better your time or rep count, you’re putting yourself into a hole that is going to be much harder to fix down the line. From how you do a push-up to overhead squat technique, get the form right first and do everything you can to listen to the coaches and keep things squared away. Good coaches, like the ones I’ve been fortunate to have at Elysium and SFCF, and the one’s I’ve met at Amity CF, won’t let you do otherwise anyway, so this principle is good to keep in mind so you don’t get frustrated when they start correcting you.

2. Work through the soreness. So this past Friday the strength portion of the workout was back squats. I knew while doing them, with a weight far less than I used to be capable of, that my hamstrings were going to be on fire for a couple of days. I am anticipating all sorts of post-workout soreness as I get back into the swing of CrossFit this next month. But I recall Paul Estrada (at CrossFit Elysium) advising newcomers to CrossFit that the thing to do is just work through it: that although a particular muscle group stings from yesterday’s workout, the best thing to do to recover is to keep going to CrossFit at a regular pace. Take a day or two off after every 3-to-5 days, but don’t vanish completely.  The soreness  might be annoying during the warm-up but as you get into training it tends to recede. And through the constantly-varying nature of CrossFit, you’ll probably be doing something different anyway. In other words, just because you’re sore, there’s no reason to stop going to CrossFit until you’ve recovered through days and days of just sheer rest. Your recovery and improvement will happen by continuing to move and train (even if you have to lighten things up a bit to do it safely and smartly). “Motion is lotion,” Kelly Starrett says.

3. Hydration and diet. Just my luck I’ve started my CrossFit comeback the same day the heat wave took hold of the west coast. Each of the three workouts I’ve attended since I started back has been accompanied by temps in the mid-90s. And the coaches at Amity CrossFit have been explicit about taking care of your hydration needs. So I bring a water botter with me and spike it with a NUUN tablet to get some electrolytes in as well.

4. Work hard, but don’t go overboard. Much has been written about CrossFit and rabdomylosis, the potentially fatal condition that can strike because of too much skeletal muscle breakdown. The danger is not so much for complete newcomers to CrossFit–they tend to work their way in gradually and develop mental toughness to work harder and harder later on as the body adapts to the training. The primary danger is for someone who used to be in shape and used to consistently push themselves extremely hard. So the mind’s capacity to push through discomfort is not in tune with the out-of-shape body. From what I have learned, this is a prime target for rabdo. Yesterday was a pretty long and fairly tough met-con at Amity CrossFit: Three rounds, 400-meter run, 30 kettlebell swings and 50 wall balls. 50 wall balls following 30 kettlebell swings is a highway through hell in itself. I actually love this kind of met-con. But I kept in mind to push myself hard but don’t try and go for broke, because the reality is I’m still in my first week of CrossFit.

5. Work through the nerves. It was funny, driving to Amity CrossFit for the first workout back. I had butterflies. I think this is part of the reason the classes are so effective: They create a game-day environment and, just like in sports, you unleash more capacity in competition than you do in training. Competition anxiety seems to have a benefit here. But it’s not that much fun. I couldn’t believe how nervous I was all morning before the Friday noon workout. I took a minute to recall that, in fact, I really wasn’t on my way to any sort of game or race. It’s just exercise. Just an hour of exercise and some welcome time away from the computer. So than I chilled out a bit and was able to have some fun getting back to the gym.

T.J. Murphy is a veteran journalist, CrossFitter, and author of the upcoming book Inside the Box: How CrossFit® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body. Inside the Box is now available in your local bookstore, CrossFit gym, and from these online retailers. Please order Inside the Box today.Inside the Box a book about CrossFit by T.J. Murphy ITB 72dpi 400x600

No Excuses: Beating Back the Limitations of Age

jim baker

Last Thursday I spent some time at CrossFit Santa Cruz Central with Jim Baker. As many in the CrossFit community know, Baker goes back a long ways within the sport. He was a client of Greg Glassman’s when Glassman was still personal training out of a fitness center and not in the prototypical box.

I met with Baker to work on a story for WOD Talk Magazine. Baker specializes in training senior CrossFitters and I had the pleasure of meeting with five of his clients in a new space at CFSCC, age range 62 to 86.

It was a notable group considering that a 74-year-old CrossFitter was mentioned in the NYT story yesterday–a mention that I wondered if it might have surprised some people given the general working impression of CrossFit in the public domain. Indeed, CrossFit isn’t just for kids. The case can be made that the simple value of retaining functional strength and movement is why CrossFit can become a more vital utility as one ages. It’s a fine thing to be an athlete and to be super healthy, strong, ripped etc. But imagine if it simply allows you to be independent and continue to enjoying everything that life has to offer. When Vilma Siebels–the 86-year-old in Baker’s contingent–left the interview last Thursday, she was on her way to a line-dancing class.

Baker is on a mission to get the word out to other owners of CrossFit boxes: Don’t just let your gym languish silently in the middle hours of a weekday. In addition to having a noon workout for all-comers, build a personal training clientele and classes for folks that are retired and can easily make it to the gym at 10am or 2pm.

One thing that was clear in the talk with the older CrossFitters at CFSCC is that Baker is a master coach, and that helps make all the diffference. Older CrossFitters, for one, are going to require a longer amount of warm-up before a WOD. And scaling and being tuned to the a senior CrossFitter’s mobility challenges are paramount to success. Each of the athletes I spoke to were sort of wow’d by Baker’s ability to read things and make necessary adjustments to the workouts. Yet the athletes were definitely being pushed enough to make gains that were surprising to them. Rosemary Sarka, 67—a cancer survivor who has worked with Baker for years and credited the CrossFit training for helping her recover from the exhaustion and atrophy–just recently got her first unassisted dip, an achievement that clearly surprised and delighted her. Such surprises at what they were accomplishing in the gym were common among the group.

To me it’s always extraordinary to meet and talk with people that are helping us reshape our ideas about the various physical limitations that are sometimes imposed on us from the collective. SCCFC has it’s share of inspiring athletes, including the legendary Annie Sakamoto. Siebels, I was told, was right up there in terms of blowing people’s minds.

There are those routine occasions where I’m introduced to someone in their 20s or 30s and the subject of running or exercise or CrossFit comes up, and I’ll hear them say about something like a 5k run or some similar entry-level exercise challenge, “I could never do that.” I really wish at that moment I could introduce them to Siebels, just to see what she might say to something like that.