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

Becoming a Supple Leopard: Book Review

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(quick note: A disclaimer: one of the reasons I’ve been able to read BASL with such apparent speed–it’s nearly 400 pages and just went on sale a couple of days ago–is that I helped with the content editing in one of the final phases of the creation of the book. So I actually had a chance to read the raw contents before it was laid out into print form.)

It was the summer of 1992, and I was back from San Francisco to visit my folks in Cedar Rapids, Iowa. I was in my halcyon days as a marathoner, with a 2:38 PR, and raced year round in the those glorius intermittent spaces when I wasn’t swamp-crossing through an injury.

During that visit I was hampered by an illiotibial band problem, a sharp pain on the outside of my right knee that was hard to run through. I made an appointment to see the  physical therapist in the area that was known as a runner’s physical therapist—not just a doctor of physical therapy but a guy you also saw on the starting line of the local 10ks. In the early 1980s, when I was still in high school, I recalled seeing him hanging out with a diet Pepsi after working out at the Nautilus gym. People were always coming up to ask him for advice on how to handle their injuries, or what kind of stretches they should do.

A golden rule for the injured runner is always to see out treatment from doctors who are runners. For obvious reasons. For one, they know that just walking around OK is not enough — you want to run. As the story goes, a limping runner walks in to see their non-running physician and asks for helps, tells the tale surrounding their problem, and the doctor squints a bit before stating the stupidly obivous: Stop running.

The doctor who runs, of course, gets it, is empathetic to your woe, and tries to help you maneuver around the problem and get back on the road, back to the task of being a runner.  This golden rule is actually a “law,” in the 700-page opus, “Lore of Running,” by Dr. Tim Noakes, a combo ultra-runner/MD who writes the following in his laws governing running injury: Law 8: Never Accept As Final the Advice of a Nonrunner (MD or otherwise). 

So I was abiding by the law, seeing a physical therapist who was a fellow runner. It was the first time I had ever had an appointment with a PT so wasn’t even sure what to expect.

During the appointment, the PT began to talk about what he believed was a growing problem in the practice of modern physical therapy: relying too much on technological gadgetry. He said it was his opinion that the art of  PT  had suffered greatly PT increasingly relied on machines like ultra-sound and muscle stim. Machines had driven a wedge between the doctor and the patient, he told me. A patient comes in with an Achilles tendon problem, and he said he rarely if ever put his hands on the patient’s ankle. He just warmed up the machines and started zapping away, and told the patient to ice a lot and take Advil. That’s what he did for me: ultra sound treatment on the right knee and some talk about the stretches I should do.

I don’t claim at alll to have any real comprehension or expertise on the where the standards of physical therapy are or were. But this story of my hometown PT 20 years ago was in my mind when I first went to meet Dr. Kelly Starrett for a similar reason a couple of years ago. This time my knee seemed on the verge of complete system collapse. I sensed I was a candidate for knee replacement. (Starrett, it should be noted here, had run the Quadruple Dipsea and thereby passed Noakes test.)

Starrett never asked me where the pain was. Rather, he had me try and perform a simple knee bend at San Francisco CrossFit. From that movement, that took all of a few seconds, he apparently saw everything he needed to see. Which, I should add, struck me as completely odd. Rehab began in the next few seconds when he began to teach me how to do an air squat correctly, from foot position, to midline stability, to the path of the knees, to the loading of the correct muscles, to the correct head position, posture, how I focused my thinking, to bracing my spine. He also taught me what he called “the couch stretch,” one of the backbone mobilizations that was taught and re-taught frequently on mobilitywod.com–an incredibly painful mobilization that I was expected to hold not 10 seconds, not 20 seconds, but two rather teeth-splitting minutes for each leg.

PHOTO

A sticker that was on the door of Starrett’s physical therapy office.

He then spent about five more minutes  with the most high-tech device in his PT office (aka storage container), digging underneath my kneecap with the prong of a hard-rubber dog toy. While he was working he was carrying on a casual conversation with a fellow coach. I was in such pain I wanted to bite into an electric rail.

It was a brand of physical therapy that was almost exactly counter to the well-meaning PT who had worked on me back in Iowa. It’s worth noting that the Iowa PT session did exactly nothing for my injury and Starrett’s session not only sprung me free of the injury but helped me push a reset button on my health in a life-changing way.

I have brought up these stories to help make one of my key points about Starrett’s new book, “Becoming a Supple Leopard.” In Starrett’s education as a physical therapist, he brought with him his gift for a sort of X-ray vision that saw through the noise and to the deeper relationships between how we move and the results in terms of health and performance. He has synthesized his medical training with thousands of hours of coaching and thousands of hours of being an athlete with a talent for seeing and understanding the inner workings of movement. His diagnostic tool for assessing my situation, as I mentioned, was to watch how I did an air squat. What he was looking for, why, and what he determined I needed to do are thoroughly explained in the book.

Since then,  as much as I’d studied the MWOD and interviewed Starrett, and also attended his classes as San Francisco CrossFit, the 397-page vehicle that is the book has provided me a huge new level of insight in terms of how Starrett thinks and what Starrett sees. Anyone reading BASL who thinks that the push-up is just a simple Basic Training way to build your pecs and arms is going to experience a kick to the head. While most athletes and coaches who buy the book are expecting (and will get) a reference on how to assess and address specific problem areas with specific solutions–whether its an injury-thing, a range of motion limitation or a motor-control problem–my favorite chapters are the ones that layer in the way Starrett sees the movement world, like the chapter on “Midline Stabilization,” “The Laws of Torque” and the chapter on “The Tunnel.” There is also the overarching system he calls “The Movement Hiearchy.” These are the ones you notice have had an impact on you when you’re walking down the street and you see someone walking ahead of you with a brand of spine-shearing mechanics. You see it and you wince with pain at what you now know is a core-to-extremity violation.  You start seeing this stuff everywhere you go now, even though it’s been there all along. At an outdoor restaurant the other day I took a quick look around and was somewhat horrified at the way everyone was slumping at their tables.

Kelly Starrett coaching at a CrossFit Mobility certification.

Kelly Starrett coaching at a CrossFit Mobility certification.

(This experience helped me form a theory about why Starrett is legendary for the amount of coffee he drinks. He has to. He walks around a world drowning in dysfunctional movement patterns and he can’t turn off his brain. He can’t not notice it. In fact, when he watched the movie “Lincoln” he walked out of the theater so stung with the image of Daniel Day Lewis’s Lincoln hunch that he couldn’t help from replicating it, drawing the request from his wife, “Please tell me you’re not going to walk around like that all week.”).

Although it’s easy to imagine that the first generation of readers will mostly be CrossFitters, Olympic lifters and powerlifters—the lifts, rowing and kipping are some of the signature athletic movements that Starrett bores into within the book—the book will appeal to just about any coach or athlete you can think of. I am curious to see how this book impacts the physical therapy world. Again, while I know little about the working school of thought in physical therapy, I do know that the PT back in Iowa would have loved this book.

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

The Dedication and Discipline of Diane Fu

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This story first appeared in Tabata Times.

In the CrossFit world, the dominant voices when it comes to specialist coaches tend to be men with personalities so old-school and brazen they somehow remind you of a mud-grizzled F-350 pickup truck. This especially applies to the weightlifting and powerlifting arenas, where heavy-duty names like Louie Simmons, Mike Burgener and Greg Everett resonate through the din. But a fresh new coaching talent is beginning to get global traction in CrossFit, a lithesome Olympic lifting specialist, just 31-years of age, with stylishly cut black hair,  known for being smitten with puppies as well as wielding a masterful sense of order and precision. If you were to pick a car this coach reminds you of, an artfully customized Mini Cooper might flash in your mind.

And then after you get to know this emerging star—a woman in a field that’s been dominated by men—and watch the speed and power of her lifting and the multiple dimensions and deep-draw of her coaching, it hits you: she’s one of those Mini Coopers super-charged up toward race-car power and speed.

One of the emerging star coaches in the CrossFit world, we’re getting to know San Francisco CrossFit’s Diane Fu.

“I thought she was just this skinny girl,” recalls Carl Paoli, creator of Gymnasticswod.com and a fellow coach at SFCF. “But she came to my first seminar ever and I saw her box squat 285 pounds.” On another occasion Paoli witnessed the skinny girl blast through a met-con. “It was two front squats at 250 pounds, followed by box jumps, about five or six rounds worth.” Later, others at the gym would notice the spare figure of Fu back-squatting 330-pounds.  “I realized, ‘She’s just a beast with these raw lifts,’” says Paoli.

But what really impressed Paoli and SFCF owners, Kelly and Juliet Starrett, is not just Fu’s surprising strength, but her coaching prowess, a skill that has Fu’s schedule completely jammed year after year.

“Diane is a fully-committed professional coach,” says Kelly Starrett, who teaches the Mobility Seminar for CrossFit, Inc and is author of the forthcoming book, “Supple Leopard.”  “Coaching is number one for her. She is the consummate teacher who brings everything she has to give in helping her athletes meet their potential. She works so incredibly hard. She is constantly learning about everything she can, improving and perfecting her work. She goes to every seminar she can, as many times as she can. She’s been to the Mobility Seminar 10 times. Each time she was working her ass off to learn everything she could.”

“One of the reasons Diane is so successful as a coach is that she’s extremely organized,” says Juliet Starrett, who first recruited Fu to become a part of the SFCF staff. “So many coaches and personal trainers fail to approach the profession with the sort of precision Diane gives to the work. And she’s there up to 12 hours a day. She’s extremely detail oriented as well as being one of the hardest working coaches we’ve ever seen.”

Although it was last month that SFCF moved from the so-called “Parking Lot of Dreams” to their new indoor facility in an historic building in the Presidio, for years Fu had been a fixture at the outdoor gym, up to 12 hours a day, coaching clients one-on-one, teaching general CrossFit classes and coaching the Olympic Lifting group that is now known as Fu Barbell. In the colder months of San Francisco, which is tends to be most months on the calendar, Fu could be seen wearing a puffy geese-down coat, so bountiful as to disguise the fact of her physical sleekness. What was equally common for regulars at the gym was the image of Fu’s workouts, where her disposition–friendly, smiling, calm and patient with her athletes–transformed and a Bruce Lee brand of intent would come over her face as she performed Olympic-lifting moves with lightning-strike speed.

But that wasn’t always the way it was. Before migrating into CrossFit, Fu worked in corporate for the fitness-center chain Bally’s, where in 2006 she had hired a new personal trainer that would later discover SFCF early on and later introduced it to his boss. Fu’s employee was Adrian Bozeman—who is now the head official at the CrossFit Games and a master teacher within the CrossFit certifications. Bozeman became a coach at SFCF, and Fu eventually joined up.

With a laugh, Fu recalls a time when Bozeman was coaching her on Olympic lifts.

“He watched me lift and then said to me, ‘You’re just so slow.’”

That would change. The myriad challenges of CrossFit appealed to Fu and her affinity for applying discipline and hard work to a plan. In addition to CrossFit classes, she sought out teachers and workouts throughout the city. “I was just trying to get a handle on things,” she says. “Kipping pull-ups, thrusters, front and back squats.”

The extracurricular work included Olympic lifting, and she began training at the Sports Palace in San Francisco with Jim Schmitz,  one of the most accomplished coaches in USA Olympic lifting history. “The ‘Dungeon,’” Fu remarks.

Although at the time Fu had progressed into being one of the top female athletes at SFCF, the Sports Palace gave her a reality check on her Oly lifting.

“I was blown away at how strong the women were,” Fu says. “Even in the lighter weight classes. I would see a 125-pound female power-cleaning double her bodyweight—for work sets.”

Eventually, Schmitz convinced Fu to take a break from CrossFit and give her full attention to weightlifting. “He told me, ‘You can always go back to CrossFit once your strong enough,’” Fu recalls. Fu went all in, dropping CrossFit and everything else and focusing squarely on lifting, eventually competing on the national level. In competition Fu would achieve a 67kg snatch and an 83kg clean and jerk, with out of competition PRs 71kg and 95kg respectively. The intensive focus, Fu says, enabled her to connect the dots in a different way, a mixture of her new education at a pure Olympic lifting gym along with the knowledge she had been gaining coaching at SFCF where Kelly Starrett was leading the staff into new lines of thinking in how position and moving between positions related to performance.

“I feel like I’ve become a bridge between two worlds,” says Fu, speaking of how she’s been able to draw from both Olympic lifting and CrossFit to the benefit of her athletes.

Christine Carosi is one of those athletes, a regular now at Fu Barbell for three years. “She’s not like some of the old-school Olympic lifting coaches where the answer is to always lift more,” Carosi says. “She has such a great eye for seeing things. She can pick out the problem quickly and see deeply into it. For example, let’s say she sees that you’re not locking out the jerks at the top. She’s bringing so much to her coaching she can tell that the problem isn’t in your elbows, it’s in your shoulders.”

Paoli agrees. “She’s innovative. She’s bringing something into CrossFit that we’ve never seen before.”

And, Carosi says, despite an overloaded coaching schedule, Fu executes the same programming that she lays out for her weightlifting athletes. “She programs for those of us who are gearing up for competition with a five-day-per-week program and she follows it too,” Carosi says, adding that Fu’s strength wow’s the whole crew.

“Diane may only have a 40-minute hole in day of coaching,” Kelly Starrett says.  “And she never lets things slide. She takes that 40 minutes and gets her training done. That’s how disciplined she is.”

It was thanks to Paoli and Kelly Starrett that a young and talented coach is being discovered globally. Frequent appearances on the MobilityWOD.com have given her exposure and–thanks to some social media advice from Paoli–she’s gaining a large following on Instagram.

What sort of advice does she have for the CrossFitter looking to improve on the Olympic lifts?

“First, find a coach,” Fu says. “New weightlifters don’t know the difference between good and bad form or what to feel. They need feedback.”

Fu adds that practice is where the magic is. “Practice often and spend more time on the snatch than the clean and jerk.”

Finally, pay additional attention to your mobility and range of motion. “If you’re lacking any corners, the weak spots will be expressed in the movement. Especially when going at full speed.”

For more, visit www.fubarbell.com or follow Diane on Instagram: @DianeFu

TJ Murphy is the author of “Inside the Box,” a runner’s journey into the CrossFit world. 

You Have a Goat? You Lucky Dog! A Discussion on CrossFit, Running and Being a Masters Athlete

Here’s a clip from the book, “Power Speed Endurance: A Skill-Based Approach to Endurance Training” by Brian MacKenzie, an encyclopedic work that organizes and explains MacKenzie’s full-spectrum skill approach to running, cycling and swimming:

The problem with endurance sports is each discipline works within a limited range of motion. Continually working within these limited ranges for extended periods of time is a huge problem, especially if you are a veteran that has done nothing but your respected sport for years on end.

Ok, quick comment: I am an example of this. I took up running and marathoning in the 1980s and since then put a solid sent on the odometer using the same limited range motor patterns to wear down the outsole rubber of many pairs of running shoes. It worked pretty well for a while, then came the injuries and the decline in performance and then more injuries. To which my high school running coach (God love him, by the way) would have barked, “You need to stretch!”

Which draws me to another clip:

The issue is not that static stretching lengthens the muscle. The issue is that stretching addresses only ONE aspect of your physiologic system—your muscle. It doesn’t attend to motor control, it doesn’t attend to the position of your joints or what’s going on at the joints. Stretching doesn’t address sliding-surface function—that critical interplay of how your skin, nerves, and musculature react with one another. However, all these things aggregate into what looks like tight musculature. And that’s why we have dealt with these problems our whole lives with a good ol’ fashioned, old-school directive of “stretch it.”

The above paragraph is from a book set to arrive on shelves in April, “Supple Leopard,” by Kelly Starrett, another encyclopedic work including a panoramic transmission of Starrett’s thought and practice when it comes to position and movement within the “unified field theory” of athletics.

Starrett teaching a mobilization at a mobility cert held at CrossFit Invictus.

Starrett teaching a mobilization at a mobility cert held at CrossFit Invictus.

In particular, Starrett is talking about how athletes limping around with various ailments from training and competition are advised to stretch, or to stretch more, or to just “stretch it out.” It’s been a blanket answer used to address complaints that crop up when human beings train hard and compete hard, and want to train harder and compete better.

Starrett makes the assertion that the reliance on this blanket prescription has, generally speaking, killed off a lot of discussion and development that could have happened. Development that would may have led to a wiser and more potent system than the throwaway fix of, “stretch it out.”

This all ties back to how Starrett likes to characterize a CrossFit box as a lab–as a place where, with good coaches watching athletes closely–issues can be identified well before they become injuries. Additionally, these issues are probably sucking the life out of an athlete’s potential. Spotted and figured out, weaknesses are considered pockets of new energy and power.

I’ve needed to be reminded that this is a critical value of CrossFit training, one that I’ve been missing out on recently because I have been letting my pride get the best of me. And this goes back to a term used often by the likes of Starrett, MacKenzie, Diane Fu (movement and Olympic lifting) and Carl Paoli (movement and gymnastics)–the word being “goat.”

Goat: In CrossFit, goats are the weaknesses you have as a CrossFitter. They are the skills you dread having to perform, because you know you aren’t very good at them, they frustrated you and you’d much rather do something you’re better at.

The term goat is fit to be used in triathlon, by the way, because many triathletes have either one or two strengths and at least one weakness. The greats, like Chrissie Wellington and Craig Alexander, have no glaring weakness and are masterful at all three disciplines. Most doing the sport have at least one goat that is nagging at their performance. This applies to some of the champions athletes as well who either have to build up a huge lead with the bike leg (because their running is lacking) or make up a huge deficit with the bike and/or run. Many triathletes end up spending more of their training time on their strengths as opposed to their goats (I’m guilty of this), because it’s more fun and your ego gets some sunshine.

MacKenzie working on a runner's mechanics at a CrossFit Endurance certification.

MacKenzie working on a runner’s mechanics at a CrossFit Endurance certification.

Triathlon has nothing on CrossFit, however, when it comes to goats. The definition of CrossFit emphasizes that the more athletic disciplines involved, the better. Triathlon is swimming, cycling and running. CrossFit is swimming, biking, running, weightlifting, gymnastics, powerlifting, jumping, throwing, rowing, and on and on. Triathlon, by the way, was the first event of the CrossFit Games in 2012, a multisport event folded into a multi-day competition involving 2 to 3 multi-sport events per day, each of these events a surprise in itself in terms of composition and arrangement.

So the point is that it would be dreamy to only have one or two goats as a CrossFitter. Like in triathlon, the best tend to be those with few weaknesses. Rich Froning, Jr., for example is just all-around good-to-great at just about everything in CrossFit. From his standpoint, there’s always room to improve, so I’m sure he thinks he has some goats. But that’s a view-from-the-mountain-type thing.

Here’s the view from a mild foothill: A quick rundown on the worst-of-the-worst when it comes to my CrossFit goats:

Cleans
Jerks
Clean and jerks
Snatches
Pistols
Turkish-getups
Double-unders
Handstands

There are others of course, but those are the ones I am confronted by most frequently. And when it comes to these things, in general it’s not that I don’t know what to do, but limitations in my ability to get into to the proper positions is what gets in the way. And those limitations stem from my unique mobility, motor control and range of motion problems.

Let me again refer to Starrett’s fundamental declaration on the concept that “stretching” is the universal antidote to injuries, range of motion deficiencies and recovery.

The issue is not that static stretching lengthens the muscle. The issue is that stretching addresses only ONE aspect of your physiologic system—your muscle. It doesn’t attend to motor control, it doesn’t attend to the position of your joints or what’s going on at the joints. Stretching doesn’t address sliding-surface function—that critical interplay of how your skin, nerves, and musculature react with one another. However, all these things aggregate into what looks like tight musculature. And that’s why we have dealt with these problems our whole lives with a good ol’ fashioned, old-school directive of “stretch it.”

And so this is where the use of mobilization comes in for Starrett’s approach to attacking athletic problems—whether an injury-related problem or some sort of power drain that’s robbing an athlete of the full expression of their athletic capacity. The core intent of Starrett’s mobilization, as I understand it, is to look at a problem in terms of the positions you get into or can’t get into in relationship to joint stability and the flow of power, and using this analysis as a guide to what tools are appropriate in terms of making thing better. Tools to fix motor control problems or range of motion problems. The guide for analysis, relationships and the tools in the box are what’s at heart in “Supple Leopard,” and also deeply deposited into his long-running video blog at http://www.mobilitywod.com.

In my case, Starrett recently posted a piece about CrossFit training and mobility work for masters-age CrossFitters. For me, it was an invaluable read. Going to CrossFit classes four or five times per week is simply difficult to recover from. When you’re in your 40s–and I’m in my late 40s–one has to be careful not to compare a personal rate of workout recovery with that of the 20–somethings you may be working out next to.

And in particular, not effectively recovering from CrossFit workouts can make the next day’s workout all the more difficult. Not so much in terms of the strength needed, but I’ve noticed that it takes me a lot longer to warm-up. And even then, if the workout is calling for Olympic lifts, I can seem especially slow and clumsy. It’s best at these times to not look around at some of my younger cohorts, some of whom slip into these sleek, powerful and deep squat positions with apparent ease. I will get frustrated. At the same time I’ll be hearing from the coach, “You have to get deeper.” And then follows the lecture on how I have to get faster with the middle part of the lifts.

So frustrated, in fact, a couple of weeks ago, while lashing myself with a number of missed double-unders with a jumprope made out of what I would emphatically describe as razor wire, I completely lost my cool and threw the jumprope on the ground. It was like a snake that kept biting me and I wanted to stamp it dead. I’m not sure if any of my classmates saw the violent rage I was threatening my jumprope with–hopefully they were all blissfully focusing on their workouts. But it was a pretty dumb moment.

At any rate, Starrett’s post was a reminder that for Masters athletes and otherwise, as hard as it may be, you have to leave the ego out of it and address your individual situation with honesty and intelligence. Use the competitive structure of CrossFit training to your advantage but not to your self destruction. The past couple of weeks I’ve left far too many CrossFit workouts with a despairing level of frustration, and I can trace this to not being lucid with my thinking.

Here’s the clear assessment: If I’m going to mix CrossFit workouts with CrossFit Endurance workouts, I have to toggle the variables to find the jet stream of training and improvement that I wish to be in.

I have to keep in mind that it’s not just all the mileage of rolled up with the limited range of motion that MacKenzie has talked about, but it might be of some distinct impact that while I was running those miles, the calendar pages flickered by and, alas, I seemed to have aged.

For me, this means don’t worry about whether I come in last in a CrossFit workout. Use the others to keep myself honest and pushing myself in a WOD, but that’s it.

And a few other pieces of advice gathered from the coaches I’ve spoken with over the last two years.

Long, thorough warm-ups are not a matter of option. They’re required for me to start a WOD. I imagine a common mistake for newbies and Masters athletes alike is to count on the in-WOD warmup, which may last only 5 minutes. It’s just not enough to warm-up the shoulders, hips and everything else so that when you do start something like Olympic lifts, you’re at the high range of your mobility rather than just starting to get the engine going.

Follow the workout with post-workout types of mobilization. Starrett generally counsels at least 10 to 15 minutes a day for most people. For runners, especially older runners, we’re going to need two or three of these sessions a day. These sessions require using a variety of tools from the kit and really honing in on what Starrett commonly refers to as “ugly” or “nasty” areas of tissue where things are glommed up. And if you sit a lot at work all day, the sitting needs to be countered with frequent breaks from sitting and building mobilizations “into your day,” as he puts it. For example, if you’re going to be on a long phone call and are chained to your desk chair (he’s prefer you stand by the way), get a lacrosse ball under a hip and stir things up.

Tweak the variables so that the program is correctly scaled to you. Again, this was referred to in Starrett’s post about Masters-age CrossFit athletes. Variables like intensity and number of workouts per week. I’ve had a similar conversation with MacKenzie about how to properly adapt to a CrossFit Endurance program. If you blow yourself apart with a massive session of heavy deadlifts and a long met-con, and don’t effectively recover to a sufficient level before a scheduled running interval workout, you’re not training effectively.

Goats are good. This has been an underlying message in just about every interview I’ve ever conducted with Starrett, MacKenzie and Paoli: that by discovering a goat, you’re also discovering a possible stream of performance you haven’t been using. You’ve been “leaving it on the table,” they would say. CrossFit founder Greg Glassman talked about this long ago in the first days he was conducting certifications–that an argument for an athletic specialist, like a runner, CrossFit will reveal weaknesses that, if solved, will unleash a jolt of performance and potential that never would have come about through standard “sports specific” styles of training.

So rather than trying to kill jump-ropes, I realize I have to (once again) let go of my bloody ego, look at things clearly, cultivate patience and get to work. And first of all understand: goats are good. Following is the one Mobility WOD I’ve appeared on, where I learned about a tool for hamstrings.

For more info, go to http://www.mobilitywod.com and http://www.crossfitendurance.com.

SUPERSEDED Inside the Box book cover imageInside the Box: How CrossFit® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body is available from these online retailers:

Lessons From the Greats: Rich Froning’s Attitude

Recently Kelly Starrett went to spend some time working with two-time CrossFit Games champion, Rich Froning, in Froning’s hometown of Cookeville, Tenn. I asked Starrett what impressed him most about the 25-year-old coach and athlete.

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Two-time CrossFit Champion, Rich Froning

“Froning is the ideal training partner,” said Starrett. “He works out with such joy and enthusiasm. He just throws himself into it with joy. Ask Rich, ‘You want to do a workout?’ and he’s like, ‘Of course! Let’s go!”

Starrett spent time working specifically with Froning to help him flesh out mobility and technique issues, tweaks designed to enable the delivery of even more power and efficiency.

What seemed to strike Starrett most was here you have inarguably one of the best CrossFit athletes in the world who is still wide open to learning and having fun playing ideas to get better and better. Contrast this image with the advanced athlete of any sport who has allowed his or her ego to get in the way of being open to criticism.

A sense of humility is a state of mind that CrossFit coaches often encourage those taking On Ramp programs during their first days in the affiliate. For Rich Froning, retaining this brand of openness, keeping the ego in check and throwing himself into workouts with joy and abandonment may be key reasons why 2013 may be his best year ever.

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

Fix the feet, fix the knees?

I have a memory of a running coach of mine, circa 1992, who watched me run and noticed that my right foot flared out when I ran, duck-foot style. He noticed the flaring and he also noticed that my left foot flared outward as well but considerably less. At the time I was running up toward 80 miles per week. We were looking at my footstrike because my training was getting snagged by an intermittent stream of minor injuries and pains. Most of them revolving around the right knee. It was clear to the coach that my duck-foot running style had something to do with the development of patella tendonitis that kept stabbing at me. I could run but it usually hurt to run. Runners are a stubborn breed—injuries are meant to be run through if at all possible.

As it was during that time, solving such a problem usually went like this: try different running shoes. Something stiffer, with more of a heel counter, and perhaps a “stability” device embedded in the midsole to brace the arch. Triple-density EVA foam rubber and torsional rigidity. These were the buzz words.

If the stability shoe didn’t work, then it was time to see the sports podiatrist. This path typically resulted in the creation of custom orthotic insoles, which weren’t exactly over-the-counter cheap. Then came the adaptation-to-the-orthotic phase, sometimes accompanied by more injuries and trips back to the podiatrist to get the orthotic tweaked. Technical running shoe stores would often have a list of shoes recommended by sports podiatrists for runners–shoes like the Avia 2050, which was on top of the list that I saw. The 2050 had a midsole with that felt about as stiff as it were cut out of plywood. Imagine the polar opposite of the Nike Free and you had the 2050.

In my case anyway, trying to fix the problem of my flaring foot did not happen by changing shoes or using insoles. The fact is I never fixed it. Until recently, that is.

Indeed, a short while back I had a one on one with Brian MacKenzie, author of “Power Speed Endurance” and the guiding force of CrossFit Endurance. MacKenzie watched me run and what did he see: Just about the same thing that my coach did 20 years ago: right foot flaring out and left foot flaring out as well but not as much.

In unison with what Kelly Starrett talks about on the Mobility WOD and also in classes at San Francisco CrossFit, Brian said something eerily simple sounding: whether standing, walking, running or doing box jumps or whatever, train the foot to be straight. The beginning of this process was awareness–by showing me video of my running form, I could see for myself how the foot was flaring out and landing at angle—even though it felt straight to me. MacKenzie then had me try running pigeon-toed. I did it. In my mind it felt as if my right foot was turned at almost a bizarre angle inward. But further video review revealed this: despite what I thought was happening, the foot was in fact still flaring a bit outward.

So per MacKenzie’s advice (and Kelly Starrett’s as well) I’ve spent the last weeks simply making a conscious effort to keep my feet straight. My girlfriend and I walked a couple of miles today to go see a movie here in San Francisco and during that walk I was spending a constant dimension of thought on keeping the feet straight and also engaging my core muscles about 25% or so.

One of the reasons I’m being so diligent about it is because it’s both been working and–here was the big surprise for me–it feels good. By keeping my feet straight and engaging the butt and core muscles my right leg is working the way it feels like it’s supposed to work. As opposed to the strange wince of weakness and pain that happens on the inside of my right knee when I land a footfall or footstrike in an outwardly angled fashion–where it feels like knee tissues are getting pinched and ground away—by keeping my foot straight the leg feels like it’s organized in such away that impact stress is dissipated into a much more powerful musculoskeletal system. This is especially noticeable when I walk or run down hills or down stairs. In fact, it’s such a noticeable difference I find myself whacking myself in the head with the thought: Good god, is this all that it really took? Just retraining my foot pattern?

MacKenzie demonstrating a simple drill to work on fixing the flaring-foot problem.

MacKenzie demonstrating a simple drill to work on fixing the flaring-foot problem.

I imagine the reason I never even considered trying to change it manually is that I figured that trying to consciously shape what I assumed was a pattern dictated by natural biomechanics would cause all sorts of problems. But here’s the dark side of that assumption: I was already plagued by “all sorts of problems.”

At any rate, that’s my experience so far. While in Iowa and then in Boston for the holidays, I went for just some good old runs for the sake of running, continuing to concentrate on my developing mechanics. Finishing runs without limps, without lingering knee pain, without damage.

For a discussion on rebuilding the feet, here’s a discussion between both Starrett and MacKenzie on the subject.

Power Speed Endurance: Finding the Goat

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Power Speed Endurance author, Brian MacKenzie, demonstrating a drill using a plyo box at San Francisco CrossFit.

I recently had the chance to have Brian MacKenzie—author of Power Speed Endurance—take me through the sort of initial evaluation he does with runners at CrossFit Endurance seminars seminars.

First, MacKenzie had me go through a series of simple runs that he videotaped. He then took me aside and showed me the videos. The main thing he pointed out to me was the movement of my right foot and right knee. Which pretty much stunned me.

I was sure that as I was running I was keeping my feet straight. But there was no mistaking the fact that my right foot was flicking out duck-walk pattern and that as I landed on my right foot, my knee collapsed inward.

While you can get away with a movement flaw like that for some time, I have learned the hard way that the soft-tissue implications of such a deviation are not good. As I’ve written about extensively, knee problems on my right leg ruined my running over the last 10 years. No amount of strength work, running shoe gadgets, flexibility training, leg extensions, etc., were able to change this pattern.

MacKenzie then showed me drills and exercises that he has in the book that were part of my assignment. The drills were meant to teach me, from the ground up, how to run with my foot landing correctly and my knee driving out as opposed to collapsing inward.

To demonstrate the difference, MacKenzie had me jump off of a 20-inch box and land with my right foot. I did. Just like I landed in my running, the foot splayed out and the knee collapsed inward.

I tried it again consciously trying to apply the landing pattern he was talking about–which is the same pattern that San Francisco CrossFit coaches teach with the air squat: you screw the feet into the ground, driving the knee out and distributing the weight across the foot. Done properly, the hips and hamstrings take on the load as opposed to the load being dumped onto your knee.

On the third try I did it correctly. The difference in how I landed was a surprise. As opposed to a slight wince of pain and a feeling of power collapse, landing in the pattern MacKenzie was teaching had his sort of powerful, braced elasticity to it. MacKenzie smiled because he knew I had seen and felt a major difference.

After the drills, we did a few more runs. MacKenzie taped them. He told me to apply the same patterns I was practicing in the drills to the sprints. After less than an hour, it started to catch on. We watched the tape and I had to wonder–was this the first time in 20 or more years was I running without shredding my right knee? I could feel that the proper technique was more powerful and, again, I think elastic is a good word to describe the sensation. The leg was simply braced in a better position.

And so here’s a thing when it comes to taking on the Power Speed Endurance approach to running: It’s not something that happens overnight. I’ve heard MacKenzie talk about this, about how it’s a process that takes time to rewire old patterns and habits. It might happen swiftly for some. I think in my case it might take some time–at least in regards to fixing my right leg and foot.

So in sort of designing my own approach to adopting the PSE program, I’m dedicating the time between now and New Years to simply learning the drills in MacKenzie’s book and the mobility drills as advised by Kelly Starrett (MacKenzie has a section in the book relaying some of Starrett’s www.mobilitywod.com exercises to benefit runners).

Box Jumps for Runners

Hi T.J. I just tweeted you. I picked up ur book b/c I am relatively new to Crossfit. I was the runner fro 28 years (no marathons, abt 25 miles/wk but it was a passion. Then the knees got in the way, the lower back. I read ur book b/c I wanted to see how someone who was even worse of than me in the knee dept. dealt with crossfit & the box jumps, etc and never got to find out. Mind if I ask you what is going on there? I loved the book and learned so much. Wish I’d read it before I started, would’ve saved me a few very down nights b/c I felt so unbelievably uncool and scared I would injure myself. Thanks.

Jessica,

One of the things I’ve noticed at the CrossFit gyms I’ve visited in the past year is that runners like you and I are not alone—there seems to be a growing number of us becoming interested in CrossFit because of chronic injuries. Matter of fact, just yesterday I did a workout at San Francisco CrossFit and a friend of mine from the Golden Gate Triathlon Club, Lara Zaman, was training with their Endurance group, led by coach (and mountain biker) Nate Helming. Lara had read the book too and basically said, “I went through almost the exact same thing you did.”

Box jumps: I remember the first time I was being taught a box jump at CrossFit Invictus in San Diego. I think the first box put in front of me was a 20-inch box. I shook my head at the coach and said, “I’m sorry, but that just isn’t going to happen.” He eventually placed a 12-inch box in front of me and after working up courage (it took me a while) I was able to jump onto it. I really couldn’t imagine going up even another two or three inches and couldn’t imagine ever improving at it.

I don’t know why this is but distance runners in general–unless they’ve been training for it–have simply sacrificed the essential athletic ability for a vertical leap. In my 20s when I was my best as a marathoner, I remember realizing how little of my fitness transferred to a basketball court when I tried to join some friends for a pick-up game. Although I had played in grade school, I remember how I felt like the last thing I wanted to do was make any sort of cut on the basketball court. And I couldn’t jump at all. What I could do was run straight for a very long time.

About two months ago, at the age of 48, and out of the smoking ruins of the complete breakdown I described in the book, I went to a CrossFit class at United Barbell in downtown San Francisco and the first piece of the workout was a max height box jump. I jumped onto a 30-inch box that day. (others in the class were well over 40 inches. I recall a couple of the athletes over 50 inches). In workouts over the past year, I use a 20 or 24 inch box for the multiple reps required.

I’ve been astonished that this was possible, of course. But there was a similar path in a lot of the essential movements at a CrossFit gym—the overhead squat, rope climbs, pull-ups and the Olympic lifts. For me it was all about starting with the bare minimum and just going back to the gym four or five days a week. The progress came a lot faster than I ever would have imagined it. Box jumps included. It seems like the athletic capacity was dormant and simply needed to be woken up a bit.

The progress is not unlike the progress that is made in pure distance running: You put in a steady amount of work, increasing the amount of speed bit by bit, and the body responds by adapting and getting better.

But as far as bad knees and box jumps, if I’m understanding your question, what’s the right approach for a runner? The best advice I have to offer is to talk frankly with the coach about what you can do, what your injuries are, and find out where you should start. A good coach will scale the workout to a point where it’s going to not only be safe but extra safe, and then as the coach watches you train over the next month or so, they’ll gradually increase the level of the workouts.

My experience was that as I developed and applied correct movement patterns and supplanted the motor patterns that were constantly shredding the soft tissues of my knees, the pain and trouble went away. But as any fitness writer would say, if you have pain, it’s best to check with a doctor first.

I would also direct you to the Mobility program by Kelly Starrett, DPT. In the search box put terms like “knee problems” and “running” to get some great video blogs on how to understand and address some of the things you might be dealing with.

Inside the Box: How CrossFit® Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body is available from these online retailers:Inside the Box book cover image 72dpi 400x600p

Half-Marathon Training with CrossFit–Notebook Entry 1

The 3:30pm class at San Francisco CrossFit.

Monday’s X-Out: San Francisco CrossFit, 3:30pm class coached by Kelly Starrett. Hottest day of the year in San Francisco. I don’t think there’s any doubt on that one. The  workout was a “running Christine.”

3 rounds:

400m run/12 deadlifts with body weight (185 pounds)/21 box jumps (24in box)

For time.

Notes: Starrett started us off with a talk on proper body mechanics and lower back position with the dead lifts. For every rounded back he’d see during the workout I think we were going to get 20 burpees. (“I’ll cap it at 100,” he said). After the warm-up he also talked at length about the position of the feet with the box jumps….he had us practice a few and you could hear all of this thumping sound of people landing on the boxes. He had us take our shoes off and jump again. The thumping sounds dissappeared not just because of the lack of shoes but because we used our feet differently. Starrett encouraged us to learn how to land quietly like that–to use our feet rather than the cushion of the shoes. He also talked about keeping the feet straight and the knees out when jumping.

By the end of the deadlifts in the first round I knew we were in for a treat–I was already breathing extremely hard and I estimate my heart rate to have been over 170 for sure, maybe over 180. During my box jumps Starrett told me that my knees were caving inward as prepared to explode for the jump. He had talked about how collapsing the knees in this way compromises power and at the same time puts a lot of stress on the soft tissues. I spent the rest of the WOD thinking about correcting this movement pattern–I believed I could feel the additional power when I jumped with the right position of the knees and with my feet pointed forward as opposed to flaring out like a duck.

The flaring out like a duck thing is something that I’ve been aware that I’ve done for a long time. If I were to go running in snow or sand I could look back at my footprints and see that while my left foot was turned out just a little bit my right foot was turned out a lot.

After the workout Starrett gathered us in a circle and asked for feedback and questions. I asked about the turned out foot thing—Last week at a class coached by Brian MacKenzie he noticed that I wasn’t getting my right-side hamstrings and glute muscles to fire. This observation was in tune with something I’ve noticed in a lot of CrossFit movements–my left side was doing far more work and my right leg seemed to be along for the ride. MacKenzie told me this is a huge thing for me to work on—that “fixing the feet” and hence the balance of power usage is critical for my being able to run well and without the risk of the sorts of injuries I’ve had in the past (my right knee problems being the worst of the injuries I’ve dealt with).

I asked Starrett about this connection with the flaring right foot and the fact that I am not getting my right-side hamstring and glute muscles to fire. He went through this domino effect of a foot flaring out and the collapse of the power train up through the body.

He also suggested that the reason the foot flares in the first place is likely related to mobility issues in the hip flexors. So running with these problems–the flaring right foot and the shortened muscles just made everything worse and worse.

I sent an email last night to MacKenzie to ask for his advice on the basic CrossFit Endurance approach to running the Zappos.com Las Vegas half, which is just a little shy of 9 weeks from now. I have only been Crossfitting the last half of a year–no extra running. Making it to CrossFit 4-5 times per week the last month.

  1. CrossFit 4-6 times per week
  2. Running drills 3 times per week
  3. Fixing the feet work 2-3 times this week
  4. Glute-ham developer sit-ups 3 sets of 5 every day.

Annie Sakamoto and the culture of CrossFit

Tonight ESPN2 will be showing the “Double Banger” event from the Reebok CrossFit Games this past summer. I recall being in the stadium and holding my breath while one of the crowd’s favorites, Annie Sakamoto, at 5-foot-tall and smaller than most all of the other top women, battled with an event that clearly favored the larger, stronger athletes. Sakamoto had met her match with the event–reminding me of a sled drag exercise she faced in the 2011 Games that she had to thrown literally everything she was made of to make the thing move an inch. One of the reasons that Sakamoto is such a favorite at the Games is because of her tenacious athleticism that is displayed within so many of the early videos posted on CrossFit.com–when you’re new to CrossFit you comb through the archives and Annie comes up often in these inspiring vignettes of she-will-not-be-denied efforts.

Annie Sakamoto pushing the sled in the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games chipper.

I first reported on Sakamoto after attending the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games. I was just becoming immersed in the new sport myself. This was the story:

IT’S JUST KILLING KELLLY STARRETT. He shakes his head slowly, eyes fixed on the fault, a wincing, profound hurt registering in eyes. It’s bright and Orange County warm, late on a Saturday afternoon, day two of three at the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games at the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif. He’s watching a young woman perform a set of seven front squats with 155 pounds, and in her drive to complete the movement her midline stability breaks into a state of overextension comprising her lower back.

Over-extension: Starrett agonizes when he sees it—an athlete splashing away power like a drunk holding a to-the-rim glass of the finest champagne. The break in posture opens the athlete to potential injury and, as Starrett puts it, “leaves performance on the table.” Starrett, a physical therapist and owner of San Francisco with his wife, Juliet (who competed in the Games last year), has logged thousands of hours coaching athletes, watching them move and obsessively coaxing them into better mechanics, learning, testing and absorbing the rich data of human movement. Obsession is the right word: Problems of movement simmer in his thinking despite the busiest of days, his working solutions being posted daily, for almost a year now, in videos relaying the daily discoveries on mobilitywod.com

Kelly Starrett, left, coaching at a CrossFit Mobility certification at CrossFit Invictus.

“CrossFit is the perfect tool to expose holes in our movement,” he says. “A CrossFit gym is a lab: it’s a safe place to press boundaries, experiment, test and re-test, see what works and what doesn’t work, and become better athletes.” Starrett’s out to make the case that increasing performance is not limited to how much we can train or how hard we can train, but peak genetic performance becomes achievable only when posture, mechanics and movement are developed like skills, freeing up more power and becoming more efficient. When another athlete allows her knees to buckle inward as she thrusts the weight from a deep-knee bend to a standing position, Starrett slowly shakes his head again. “She’s so broken,” he says. Starrett knows he could help her if he just had the chance. Watch him walk through San Francisco CrossFit and he’s constantly seeing and coaching every athlete that steps near his frame of vision. This is how he’s hardwired and why most everyone in this stadium knows his name.

CrossFit is not just about becoming the athlete of the future, he’ll tell you. It’s about becoming a better human being. It’s about self-actualization. It’s about creative thinking, it’s about not being OK with imagined limitations, it’s about not making excuses, sucking up the discomfort and living life well and hard.

Reebok CrossFit Games

The Reebok CrossFit Games may be the world’s ultimate fitness lab—throughout the Home Depot venues there are men’s and women’s elite individual competitions, a team competition pitting the best CrossFit affiliates (commonly known as “boxes”) against one another, masters competitions and a teenage event. The competitions themselves are direct expressions of the daily workouts performed at 2500 affiliates [Note: as of September 2012, the number is estimated to be near 4000] around the country, throughout U.S. military installations, including Iraq and Afghanistan, and internationally. The workouts are constantly-varied combinations of movements and exercises plucked from gymnastics, endurance sports, powerlifting and Olympic-lifting, performed at high-intensity and against the clock and against one another. For example, the one we’re watching now consists of the three rounds of the following: 7 reps of the front squat, 700 meters on a stationary bike and a 100-foot traverse of “the killer cage,” a sprawl of post-apocalyptic looking  set of monkey bars. The elites would do the most—10 different workouts spread across three days, the final three performed with brief rests in between. At the Reebok CrossFit Games, fitness–with rigorous attention to how fitness can be defined and measured—is a sport.

The Killer Cage at the 2011 CrossFit Games.

STARRETT IS ONE of countless coaches in attendance and competing. Another, sitting 200 feet to Starrett’s right in section 7, sipping on a beer–and no doubt in equal distress over the poor front-squat technique on display–is Mike Burgener, owner of Mike’s Gym, an Olympic weightlifting expert with more than 30 years of coaching under his belt. Brian MacKenzie, CrossFit’s resident endurance sports leader, is also here with a posse of CrossFit Endurance coaches. In fact, through most of the stadium you’ll find CrossFit-certified coaches, box owners and their members. Arriving at the Games, the competitors had no idea what the workouts would be. The CrossFit athletes had to train the best they could for anything and everything, and from the original pool trying to qualify to be here–according to Reebok more than 25,000 participated in the process [Note: In 2012 more than 60,000 entered the initial stage of qualifying]–the best were now grinding their way through the flurry of races, testing their speed, power and stamina in a demonstration of CrossFit’s attempt to define precisely what fitness is. CrossFit’s open borders have attracted an array of experts from various disciplines and sports sparking discussions, sharing of ideas and the ongoing lab test of the daily WOD (workout of the day) that ordinarily would never have happened within the relative isolation of individual sport communities.  Competition WODs of the 2011 Games drew in elements as widely varying as an ocean swim, wind sprints, dead lifts and climbing across monkey bars, and through the workouts a parade of powerful, sinewy athletes were physically and psychologically engaged in a showcase of what Starrett calls “the unified field theory of athletics.”

This “open-source code” structure of Crossfit has caught fire. The Games started modestly in 2007 and through 2009 was held on a ranch in Northern California.  Rising with the tide of meteoric growth of CrossFit boxes and Crossfitters, the event moved to the Home Depot Center in 2010. But perhaps the most telling signal of CrossFit’s viral explosion is the investment being made by one of the world’s largest fitness shoe companies.

IT WAS LAST November that I first heard that Reebok, a global sport and fitness footwear company, signed a $150 million dollar 10-year sponsorship with CrossFit—CrossFit being the grassroots, viral fitness phenomenon a decade in the making that has been steadily re-writing the books on what constitutes a local gym. I had known Reebok since my years in the late 1980s selling their shoes at a technical running shoe store in San Francisco, but I’d only become introduced to CrossFit through reporting I was doing for a Triathlete magazine story.  I knew enough to know that those watching from the sidelines could see the risks for both brands. Consider the collision between the two brand images: CrossFit was Navy SEAL Hell Week set to death metal music and Reebok was an hour of step-class performed to music from “Flashdance”—Reebok’s global image could be muddied and spiral out of control and CrossFit, a training movement based on a grassroots revolt, could betray its followers, spark countless spinoffs and shatter to pieces. The 2011 Games weekend was a key checkpoint in the relationship. I’m here for several reasons—one being that in the last six months I have joined the growing legions and have become a Crossfitter myself, a surprise considering my old-school, long-distance running past. I also came to report on the partnership with Reebok and how Crossfitters were reacting to it.

 What is CrossFit?

SO WHAT IS THIS CROSSFIT? This is how I discovered it: One afternoon, about a year and a half ago, I was running on a treadmill at LA Fitness near our office in San Diego. My running was restricted to the treadmill because of the injuries that have long been biting me—illiotibial band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, Runner’s Knee, sciatica and such. Even with the softer-impact stress of the treadmill I had a tough time warding off injuries. Like many runners, I often chose to try and plow through the small ones. But then, like one winter’s day when I had sat down next to an art director to talk about a cover design, my back would freeze up and I’d spend the next week or two downing Advil, icing, heating, and stretching until the spasm released. There would be no running at all.

But on one of the days I could survive 40 minutes on a treadmill I watched from a distance as a personal trainer powered a client through cycles of pushups, burpees and medicine ball tosses with no rest between sets. At the end of 10 minutes he was vanquished, lying on the ground heaving for air. “What that hell was that?” I thought. I found the trainer and asked questions. She gave me a Xerox of a story from the publication called the CrossFit Journal entitled “What is Fitness?” by Greg Glassman. That night I spent hours searching through CrossFit.com, and in the following weeks many more hours. In the article, Glassman boiled down his conceptualization of fitness and how to approach it into the following:

World-Class Fitness in 100 Words (from CrossFit.com)

■ Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

■ Practice and train major lifts: Dead lift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.

■ Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.

■ Regularly learn and play new sports.

Simple enough to read, but the imagery on CrossFit.com is both compelling and intimidating. Videos are routines of athletes performing fast, furious workouts where one moment they’re performing power lifts with barbells and bumper plates, the next handstand pushups and the next 500 meters on a rowing machine, repeating the sequence over and over in a race against the clock, the session leaving them spread flat on the floor while others applaud the anaerobic implosion (this is the exact nature of the how the competitive events are structured at the Games). The resulting body-types and athletic capacities displayed in the videos are awe-inspiring. Those who think CrossFit is meant to build body-builder-like piles of muscle mass are wrong—the elite CrossFit athletes are strong, sinewy and pliable. If you blend a decathlete, a gymnast and a triathlete together, you get an elite Crossfitter.

One month ago I joined Crossfit Elysium, a box near my home in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. Before that I did the bulk of my workouts alone. Being in the box, you get coaching and push yourself much harder. At least I do. And it’s certainly more enjoyable to have others with you slogging your way through the workouts. Perhaps the most powerful thing that the founder of CrossFit engineered, in my mind, is the sense of community he installed into the structure of how CrossFit operates. You don’t walk into a CrossFit box anytime you want to work out in a lone wolf state of anonymity. Rather, you’re coached within a small group of people that inevitably share the cohesive we’re-all-in-this-together bond to help one another max out. At CrossFit Elysium, and other boxes I’ve had a chance to work out in, I’ve seen the same thing. And it was the same at Reebok Crossfit One, in Canton, Mass. on the Reebok campus. In fact, it was a week before the Games when I paid a visit to Reebok to get perspective on their new relationship with a sport I’d personally become involved with.

Athletes competing in the team competition

The “Boxes” Are Full

CROSSFIT GYMS are called boxes because that’s usually what the are: a large box of raw space. In a typical box you’ll find all the equipment stashed along the sides or in the corners of the gym—barbells, kettle bells, jump ropes, and weights are the standard fare. Climbing ropes usually hang from the ceiling and sprawling cages can stretch out alongside one wall for exercises like pull-ups or toes-to-bar. Reebok Crossfit One is massive. I’m not sure but I think you could host an arena-league football game inside it.  On the day of my visit they held classes from 6:30 am to the early evening, five workouts in all. I joined the lunchtime workout where they’re were about 20 of us. Three coaches, lead by Denise Thomas, hovered throughout the hour, talking us through technique and firing off bits of encouragement. The “met-con” segment—met-con short for metabolic conditioning—was a combination of rowing, thrusters with a weighted barbell and pull-ups. A thruster, roughly speaking, is a combination of a front squat and a push press, and it’s become fascinating to me how the heart-rate bangs against the ceiling whenever you start cranking out reps of these relatively technical movements (far more technical, for example, than doing arm curls on an arm curl machine) that tax a combination of muscle groups. I was partnered up with a Reebok employee named Neil, and we pushed each other to the end of the met-con.

Before the workout I chatted with Chad Wittman, Reebok’s director of sports marketing and fitness training, and he told me that, of some 1600 employees at the Canton headquarters, the number of those going to the CrossFit classes has grown to 400. “I think eventually half of the company will be doing CrossFit a year from now,” he said. “That’s how much our people have embraced the culture. It’s not just that CrossFit is a hard workout—it is for sure—but it makes hard training fun.” In fact, the program has proved so popular that the Reebok café has been transformed to offer options that are Paleo-friendly, the Paleo diet (a diet that recommends meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and nuts and staying away from processed carbohydrates like pasta) being foundational to the overall CrossFit approach.

On the first day of the Games at the Home Depot Center, I attended a small press conference held by Reebok and talked with Reebok’s Chris Froio, who is spearheading the company’s partnership with CrossFit. “Our mission is to refocus the brand back into what it was founded upon: A fitness training brand,” he said. “We know that a lot of people are out there doing fitness activities but they’re not enjoying it. We’ve been asking, ‘What is our definition of fitness? What is motivating? What can make fitness fun?’ We researched every idea possible over the last three years. We found CrossFit to be the best partner for us to take to our mission to the world.”

I asked about the strategy of this: In the DNA of CrossFit is a revolt against the popular ways of mainstream fitness. Will the greater CrossFit community revolt against the intrusion of a corporate giant?

“I think you can see the reaction here at the Reebok booth has been very positive and we’re putting people to ease that we’re not the monster that is going to ruin their community.”

“We knew we had to prove that we were real,” Froio adds. “We started our box nine months ago with just a few members, but now we have 400 active Crossfitters.” Froio said that they were purposefully slow to announce the new partnership, allowing for an incubation period, one in which Reebok spent time talking to leaders in the CrossFit world to ask what people wanted and didn’t want from them.

Froio believes the approach has paid off and that the authenticity of Reebok’s embrace is valid. “This fitness culture has transformed our office in Canton. This is a viral thing. People talk about it. The community is realizing we’re not just a bunch of suits just out to throw money at CrossFit.”

At the press conference was Kate Rawlings, owner of Cocoa CrossFit, an affiliate based near Cleveland, Ohio. Rawlings has become one of the first professional CrossFit athletes and is sponsored by Reebok.

Kate Rawlings, owner of Cocoa CrossFit, talking to a group of international journalists at the CrossFit Games in 2011.

“I think they’ve done a beautiful job,” Rawlings said. “They didn’t come in and just tell us what they were going to do. They put the community on a pedestal. They made it less corporate.”

The most powerful spokesperson on behalf of the authenticity of Reebok’s embrace of CrossFit, however, was Peggy Baker, 53, who has worked at the company for 27 years. A type-2 diabetic for 22 years, Baker says she’s needed pills and insulin shots for 18 years. When she was pressed to try a CrossFit workout, Baker said her goal was clear: “I would try it so that I could tell them I hate it. Seriously! I’m 53 years old. I haven’t run since high school. I said, ‘Listen, I’ll try it. But is my health insurance going to cover this? Will my husband get a double-payout on the life insurance?”

The first element of the workout was an out-and-back 400-meter run. “I was afraid,” she said. “Right away I was well behind everyone. I get out to the halfway point and I wasn’t sure how I’d get back.”

Denise Thomas, one of Reebok’s Crossfit coaches, then appeared at Baker’s side, and quitting was not an option. Thomas comes from professional soccer and is as lithe as she is explosively energetic. In her coaching she somehow manages to mix equal parts cheerleader and drill sergeant. Baker soldiered on, and was energized by a sight of the finish. “Everyone was standing on the ramp into the gym, shouting ‘you can do it!’”

In telling the story Baker choked up. “It’s a community like I’ve never seen,” she said. In two months she’s lost 33 pounds and her insulin injections have been cut in half, and she’s been told that she may be able to go off insulin treatments completely by the end of the year. I asked her what she had to say to others struggling with adult-onset diabetes and weight problems. She replied, “If I can do it, you can do it.”

Reebok’s stated intention is to take this message—If a 53-year-old hasn’t-exercised-since-high-school diabetic can become a Crossfitter, you have no excuses—to Europe and Asia. Froio said that Reebok intends to open up Reebok CrossFit boxes on both continents but will not be supplanting the current affiliate system.

Would Crossfitters at the Games welcome or reject the immense presence of Reebok? A valid answer to this question will take another year or two, but one thing was immediately sure: There was no boycott of the Reebok booth.  A half a day into the Games Reebok reported having already sold $70,000 worth of product. Throughout the weekend, the booth, selling mostly a new line of Crossfit apparel and shoes, was clogged with shoppers. While the Crossfit.com forum in the preceding months didn’t hold back with outrage at the idea of a Reebok CrossFit t-shirt for $50, prices didn’t slow down the crowd in Carson.

Questions & Answers

THE QUESTIONS AND ANSWERS about the relationship between Reebok and Crossfit are just starting to unfold. For example, is CrossFit big enough, or will it get big enough, to fulfill Reebok’s global interests, branding issues and financial goals? And will the qualities that have fueled CrossFit’s popularity—a grassroots revolution against the typical corporate franchising system–remain intact? And is CrossFit going to be able to retain quality control of coaching at the affiliate level if it continues to grow as fast as it is?

I know one thing: The quality of CrossFit’s growth depends on the box owners and coaches like Steve Serrano, owner of Crossfit Marina. In the morning before I joined Kelly Starrett in the stands at the Home Depot Center to watch the Saturday events, I drove down to Huntington Beach to drop into a CrossFit Marina class. I’d never met Steve and he had no idea who I was or that I was coming. Yet when I walked up to the open garage door to the gym he greeted me like I was a best friend of his brother. It was the 9:30 am workout and he personally coached me through basic thruster technique–a front squat that explodes into an overhead press. Using a PVC pipe he taught me the footwork and the movements. I then moved up to using a barbell and eventually some weight on both ends. He carefully reinforced the points that would allow me to do the work safely. Then I joined him and two of his gym members in a met-con. The entire time he cheered me on. CrossFit was many things, I thought, but the level of passion and teaching Serrano brought into his box was what made it all go. It was why, without a doubt, box communities are so loyal to their owners.

A few days after watching the 2011 Games I went to Crossfit.com and watched the archived 2009 Games videos. Near the end of the footage Serrano appeared. He was medical director and was being interviewed after the final women’s event. Emotion rose in his eyes and voice as he spoke about the efforts that he had witnessed:

“To see people go at things to such an extreme level, they exert themselves so intensely, they get this level where they drop off. It takes its toll. It hammers the shit out of them hormonally. The body gets so drained nutritionally, they get emotional decomposition. If we can support them through that–that’s the best part of this job; that’s the fun part. All their friends in the crowd–you see how that fires it up. How we support each other. It’s all part of this community. It’s what makes this method so different than everything else. It’s so cool to be a part of.”

Annie Sakamoto–co-owner of CrossFit Santa Cruz Central– coaching a competitor after she’d finished in the event.

I’M WATCHING the final women’s heat of the Saturday series of competitions, the last race of the night. Having seen all the elite men and all the women it’s apparent that the toll Serrano speaks of is not just hormonal—many of the athletes have multiple strips of athletic tape applied to shoulders or legs or backs in an attempt to yield some physiological relief. But it’s the hands that get the most attention—they are taped up like NFL linemen. Chalk, tape and gloves were critical to survival, and if you watch closely and you can see that accumulating damage to the hands is slowing down some of the athletes. I asked Max Wunderlie, a CrosFit Endurance coach based in Connecticut, about what they’re going through. “A correct grip can help you stave off the wear and tear,” he told me. “So can gloves. But there’s only so much you can considering how much friction these guys are being exposed to.” He asked if I noticed how volunteers were using towels to clean the monkey bars after each round of competition. I said I did—I imagined they were wiping the chalk off. “Chalk? No, they don’t care about chalk. They’re wiping off blood and chunks of flesh.”

The friction and force applied through the hands of the top Crossfitters is unreal. Chris Spealler is the owner of CrossFit Park City in Utah where he also coaches. He’s 32 years old and a rarity: He’s competed in every CrossFit Games since its inception and picked up three top-five finishes. Most of the male elites are around 5’10 and 190 pounds. Spealler is 5’5 and 145 pounds, yet can dead lift 420 pounds, snatch 210 and squat 375. He has also knocked out 106 pull-ups at once, double what most of his competitors have recorded. In a three-day competition where a considerable about of pulling, lifting and pushing transpires through the grip of hands on metal, the hands are to CrossFit what tires are to Formula One race car.

THE MEN’S AND WOMEN’S WINNERS of the 2011 Reebok Games were Rich Froning, Jr., 23, from Cookeville, Tenn., and Annie Thorisdottir, 21, from Kopavogur, Iceland (popularly known in the CrossFit world as Iceland Annie). Both put on masterful displays of power and technique—Froning, at 195 pounds, can knock out a 60-second quarter-mile sprint, dead lift 510 pounds and 75 pull-ups. Thorisdottir, who competed in her first Games in 2009, came to the new sport with gymnastics, ballet and pole vaulting in her background. Because the methodology of CrossFit allows for scaling–allowing a newcomer like me to do the same brand of workouts as the greats, made possible by scaling the workload down by degree, I can watch Thorisdottir compete and have a sense of what she’s going through. Yet, in fact, she kicks my ass. Thorisdottir weighs 30 pounds less than I do and with a 352-pound dead lift PR she beats me by 75 pounds. Throughout the weekend she softly smiled and waved to the crowd in between the bouts of her unleashing an unbelievable about of athleticism on her competition.

The most electrifying presence at the 2011 Reebok CrossFit Games, however, was a spring-loaded 35-year-old competing in her first Games. Annie Sakamoto, a mother of two with her husband, Jake Wormhoudt, co-owns CrossFit Central Santa Cruz. A roar went up each time she raced into the stadium to compete or fight through a weight lift that had her legs shaking on the verge of collapse. At 5’0 and 116 pounds, Sakamoto was a crowd favorite because most everyone who gets into CrossFit has been inspired by perhaps the most famous workout video where Sakamoto, Nicole Carroll and Eva Twardokens are recorded performing a workout called “Nasty Girls,” three rounds of squats, muscle-ups and hang power cleans for time. Muscle-ups slay the best of CrossFit athletes and the maximum effort the three women put forth in the video is like watching a race.

Sakamoto also appears in myriad demonstration videos throughout Crossfit.com–a source most Crossfitters in the stadium have at one time or another depended on.

“It was pretty humbling,” Sakamoto told me when I asked her about the crowd’s emotional reaction to her presence. “To be honest I had no idea. I thought I was yesterday’s news–the old guard!”

Sakamoto was managing a restaurant in Santa Cruz in 2004 when she was first persuaded to try CrossFit. “My training at the time was a random hip-hop class I was going to. I went to check it out CrossFit–I’d heard all of these stories about people puking. But the teacher put me through a pretty easy workout. I thought, ‘This is for weenies!’”

Sakamoto returned for a second workout only this one was taught by the CrossFit founder, Greg Glassman. “It was just an atrocious workout,” Sakamoto recalls. “It  absolutely destroyed me. My stomach was distended. I thought I had a hernia. I felt so bad I asked my husband to take me to the hospital.” It turned out she was fine. “When I could walk again I couldn’t wait to get back in there. That was when I was hooked.”

Within six months of her first workout she got certified to coach. She has become, whether she realizes it or not, an icon of the sport.

Sakamoto’s first appearance at the Games almost didn’t happen. “I really had no intention of qualifying at the Northern California regionals,” she says. “My coach is Gary Hirthler, and he’s just fantastic, but during the regionals I told him I didn’t want to go to the Games. He’d tell me to just keep doing what I was doing and not to worry about it.” Sakamoto finished 3rd and qualified. “Driving home I again told him, ‘I don’t want to go the Games.’ The honest truth was that I was scared to put myself out there against these amazing athletes. Gary said, ‘I totally understand that. But what if you don’t get this chance again? What if you never again get this opportunity?’”

“Then I remembered what CrossFit is all about,” Sakamoto says. “You’re ultimately out not to measure yourself against others but against yourself. It’s about doing the best you can. That was a freeing feeling for me.”

When it was all said and done with the final “chipper” event Sunday afternoon, a beaming Sakamoto received an ovation. She’d finished 9th overall. The remarkable image of the 116-pound Sakamoto pushing a sled weighted up with 275 pounds 40-feet had the crowd on their feet and she was subsequently given the “Spirit of the Games” award. Sakamoto has already decided she intends to return in 2012.