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First Year of CrossFit - Lessons Learned

I'm late on this topic by a couple months, but this past May I celebrated my one-year anniversary after starting CrossFit. 


To some, that is the same thing as saying "I’ve joined the cult!", but one overlooked aspect of being in the cult, is that you have no problem with other people accusing you of being “in the cult”. In-fact, this brings a sense of pride.


One year of regularly practicing any sport or form of exercise will produce quite a few key learnings, some positive, some negative, but almost all being useful in some way. Over the past 12 plus months there have been PRs, ripped hands, nervousness before competitions, fun during and after competitions, dieting mistakes, explorations in new equipment/apparel, and everything in-between.


I've learned a lot in the first year of CrossFit (the main thing being that I love it and have finally found my "thing"). Here are a few of the other main high points and helpful lessons:


1 - Some days are just not your day.


I think one of the reasons so many of us get swept up in CrossFit is the fact that there are both highs and lows. There are some days when you set PRs and feel on top of the world. You stand up on a Dead Lift, pulling more weight off the ground than any other day in your life. You feel like Superman (or Wonder Woman).


Just the same, there are some days when you feel like you are running in quicksand. You feel like on every burpee, there is a large bear standing on your back with both feet ground and he won’t get off. You feel like no matter what, your chin just won’t get up over that bar for one last pull up. Your feet are three sizes too big and trip the rope on your double unders EVERY single time. You want to throw the rope on the ground and stomp on it like Wylie Coyote. 


Some days, the programming seems like it was written just to fit your individual strengths and talents. Other days, it feels like your coach is trying to punish you by personally writing your goats up on the whiteboard and compiling them into one hateful AMRAP. 


You'll have great days, and less-than-great days, just learn to ride out the waves over the course of the weeks or months. Eventually you'll level out if you stick with it (and work on your weaknesses).



2 - After a while, it's OK to cherry pick.


First, before coaches everywhere punch a hole in their computer screen at this next topic - let me explain. Someone who is new to CrossFit needs to only focus on two things - showing up consistently and giving max effort.  


Eventually however, your weaknesses will become apparent. At that point, you will need to (with the help of your coaches) pinpoint which aspects of your toolbox need greater attention. Some folks are weaker in-terms of overall physical strength. Most of us could use sharpening in our Olympic lifting disciplines. Others (like me) need work on our cardio gas tank to increase work capacity against the clock. Maybe you're extremely well-rounded but just can't quite nail your first muscle up. 


No matter what it is, once you begin to get serious about yourself as a CrossFit athlete, you will need to approach your training calendar each week/month with a specific focus to ensure that your weaker points are being attacked towards improvement.


Put your pride aside, be honest about your weaknesses - then ask your coaching staff to help formulate an attack plan that will turn that weakness into a strength.



3 - Diet Matters.


Perhaps the most obvious thing I'll write, but the way you fuel your body matters. You may not need to convert completely into a Paleo lifestyle, or Zone Diet, but your food should be viewed as fuel for both performance and recovery. Pure overall calories, in the form of junk food or fast food isn't sufficient and both your WODs AND recovery will suffer. It may be over-stated but I’ll state it again – NASCAR drivers or Formula-One racers don’t put garbage into their gas tanks.  We need to view our bodies the same way. 


While not a mandatory, it's a sound idea to investigate a recovery protein to replenish after a brutal WOD or lifting session as well. (Personally I rotate between Progenex and SFH)



4 - Calming down is better than pumping up.


Most football players try to get as amped up and hyped as possible before a game. One thing I've learned in a year of CrossFit is that getting too pumped up can actually hurt your performance. CrossFit requires an athlete to maintain both mental and physical control during a WOD. You can't be so jacked up that your mental focus goes out the window, and you lose sight of your strategy while navigating through a chipper WOD, or forget your technique cues with the barbell. 


Jason Khalipa once mentioned listening to reggae music before competitions to help himself mellow out. The first few weeks of trying CrossFit, I went into workouts jacked up like a football player, but the more time went on, I learned from the experts (as well as personal experience) that it pays far more dividends to keep a calm approach before and during a WOD. 


Trying intentionally keep calm will also help regulate oxygen consumption (well, at-least to a degree) and keep yourself relatively mellow instead of artificially elevating heart rate and pulse, since the workload in the WOD will likely do that for you anyways.



5 - Know when to take a break


As with any intense pursuit in life, there can come a time when you've pressed a little too hard and the psychological cost starts to weigh on you. Burnout can happen with anything, even our passions and hobbies. The large majority of us took up CrossFit because we love it. Hardly anyone was forced into this. It's important to keep balance and avoid hitting the point where you become both physically and mentally exhausted. 


Former Games competitor Azadeh Boroumand actually experienced this and stepped back from competing in 2013 to give both her body and mind a chance to recover. 2012 runner-up Julie Foucher decided months in-advance that she would focus on medical school and not pursue the Games this year. Both ladies showed that they understand the concept of balance, and that at the end of the day CrossFit is supposed to be fun. 


We do this because we love it. Sometimes you may need to take a few days (or a week) off from the box completely - and you'll come back refreshed inside and out, and ready to crush your WODs again. Plus, odds are that the people in your box have missed you as well and will be eager to have you back.



6 - Injuries can happen, be as safe as possible.


As with any intense form of training, injuries can and will happen. Hamstrings get tweaked, back muscles tighten up, shoulders feel a little too loose, ankles get rolled, bad things happen. The key is to control what you can, and avoid the injuries that were within your own doing. I've dropped a kettlebell on my foot during a WOD by letting the fatigue cause me to forget the simplest of safety points. I've tweaked a neck doing kipping pullups without warming properly, then made it worse by trying to do HSPU days later before I was completely healed. (Yes, both injuries help define “stupidity”.)


Listen to your body. If something feels off one day, don't be too proud to scale a WOD appropriately. Do your mobility work a couple times each week. Learn how to warm-up and cool-down properly and figure out which parts of your anatomy warm up faster or slower than the rest. Injuries happen to anyone who trains intensely and consistently, regardless of the sport or exercise discipline. Be sure to control the parts that are within your control.



7 - Equipment Matters


While it may not be necessary to go out and shop for the latest in Reebok CrossFit apparel (though sometimes it feels nice to blow your money on a cool pair of WOD shorts) – there are certain pieces of equipment that truly do matter.  Wrist straps/wraps can definitely help your stability in movements like handstand pushups, shoulder-to-overhead presses, front squats, etc.  

Knee sleeves are also helpful in any heavy or high-volume squat programming (I cannot imagine my life without them).


While I have not personally invested in a pair yet, the majority of those with a pair of Olympic Lifting shoes say that the difference in ankle flexion and heel stability is noticeable and extremely helpful.  

It can also be helpful to purchase your own speed rope to practice double unders when you’re away from the gym, or to toss in your suitcase for vacations or work trips.

Invest in quality equipment, in the long run it will be worth it, both from a performance and safety perspective.



One year ago this month I was in Carson, California at the Home Depot Center (now the Stub Hub Center) watching the Friday track triplet at the Reebok CrossFit Games.  Three of my best friends convinced me to take a later flight home from a business trip in L.A. to hang out with them and use one of their spare tickets.  It was one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.  I’ve attended four NCAA Final Fours, college football bowl games, NFL games, NBA games and even the Olympics – but nothing compares to the feeling of being at the Reebok CrossFit Games LIVE and in-person.  

One year later, and one year into my CrossFit venture I’ve learned a great deal – some good lessons and some pretty difficult ones. Whether you’re a recreational CrossFitter, or if you’re Rich Froning or Samantha Briggs, I think most would agree that in this sport we are all learning new things every day.  We learn things both about CrossFit as a competitive sport, and about ourselves overall. And that’s one of the main reasons why we do this.