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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.


Most Inspiring Fitness People & Stories of 2012

As the 2012 year comes to a close, I thought it might be worthwhile to take a look back at a few of the people in fitness that provided tremendous inspiration. They all bring something different to the table, but the common thread is that their actions or stories help provide motivation to stick to your diet, or get off the couch, or fight through setbacks and injuries, or not let your age be an excuse, etc.

The Most Inspiring Fitness People & Stories of 2012, enjoy and be motivated.

Debra Cordner-Carson, CrossFit

A crippling fear of the ocean caused her to be disqualified from last year's CrossFit Games. The first event featured an open-water swim, and the emotional struggle caused her to be out of the competition from the very beginning.

She refused to let her fear take the same toll at the 2012 CrossFit Games. The intimidation of the ocean was still quite strong, needing several pep talks from coaches and judges while on the beach before the event began.

Cordner-Carson fought through her fears and finished the open-water swim (which was the starting leg of a sprint triathlon).  

After not making it past the opening event in 2011, she overcame her emotions in 2012 to finish 13th (out of 45) overall. Her inspiring attitude and example won the "Spirit of the Games Award" for 2012.

She also suffers from lymphedema, which causes build up and retention of fluid in one of her legs, but has not let this or anything else prevent her from becoming one of the fittest women alive.

"You don't always win everything. There are always roadblocks in life...I'll keep overcoming them."


Adrian Peterson, NFL Running Back

One of the NFL's best running backs (and one of my personal favorites since his days at the University of Oklahoma) suffered a horrible knee injury, tearing his ACL and MCL on Christmas Eve 2011 game against the Washington Redskins.  After surgery on New Year's Eve 2011, Peterson battled back to start the 2012 season opener. 

One year to the day from his surgery, Peterson rushed for 199 yards and scored two touchdowns in a regular-season finale win over the Green Bay Packers.  He finished with 2,079 rushing yards for the season, 2nd-highest total in NFL history and is a front-runner for NFL MVP. No athlete in the modern era has been able to return from ACL surgery and return to top form so quickly.


Kevin James, Actor 

The "King of Queens" sitcom star kept his hefty shape for movies like "Hitch" and "Paul Blart, Mall Cop" - but managed to lose 80 pounds to play a school teacher-turned-MMA-fighter in "Here Comes The Boom".





The Rock, Actor/WWE

As we (well, I) get older - it becomes increasingly important to find role models that prove aging is no excuse to let your fitness suffer. One of my goals is to be the best "older" version of myself - and one of the best examples of keeping fitness momentum is The Rock.

Even at age 40, The Rock looks better than he did at age 20.  2012 saw him relentlessly busy shooting movies like "Snitch", "Pain & Gain", and "G.I. Joe: Retaliation".  

He also made his much-anticipated return to WWE, appearing several times on Monday Night RAW and on pay-per-view events at Survivor Series, and  WrestleMania XXVIII in his collegiate home town of Miami.

"The People's Champion" trains like a madman, even on days packed with 10-12 hours of movie shooting and stunts.  

His diet is high carb (and standard high protein) to fuel his activity - eating up to seven meals each day with items like sweet potatoes, rice, oatmeal, chicken, fish, veggies (with each meal) and occasional steak and eggs.

His cheat meals were legendary (trust me, take a look...) as well, proving that you can enjoy yourself with treats every now and then provided you've earned it.

The Rock continued to prove in 2012 that getting older can also mean getting better.


Matt Chan, CrossFit

Continuing in the theme of proving that age doesn't have to be a limiting factor, Matt Chan (34 years old) became the oldest man ever to achieve a Top 3 finish at the CrossFit Games.

In a sport requiring both immense work capacity (15 events over 5 days) and recovery efficiency, being an older athlete can surely become an obstacle.  Most of Chan's fellow competitors fell in the 22-27 year age range. It's a simple fact that the human body is not capable of the same things at 34 as it used to be at age 24.

Matt Chan combats age limitations by being smarter and more strategic.  Many Games competitors train multiple times daily, Chan trains once each day focusing on making that workout longer and more intense to compensate.  He is also a possessor of advanced-level knowledge of nutrition and recovery tactics (ex: he spent 10-20 minutes on the rower after EVERY event to flush waste products and lactic acid out of his muscles to speed recovery).

Chan continues to inspire that whatever the body loses with age, the wisdom gained can help compensate and still allow a person to maintain a high level of fitness and performance.


Carrie Riggin, Fitness Writer/Consultant

One of the enjoyable parts of fitness is sharing what you know and learn with others, while hoping to directly inspire them to better habits healthier lifestyles.


Carrie manages a busy lifestyle balancing work, writing fitness columns, catering to NHL fans as a member of the Carolina Hurricanes' Storm Squad, but also continuing to find time to focus on herself and her own fitness.

"Regular people" need to find role models and examples that they can relate to, and between her columns, blog, and Instagram offerings Carrie keeps her fans motivated while showing them fitness can be fun. 






Lindsey Smith, CrossFit

Continuing the thread around not allowing the busyness of life to impede on your fitness schedule, Lindsey Smith balances family life at home (including a young daughter), plus a full-time job as Athletic Director at an all-girls school in Ohio and Level-1 CrossFit Seminar Staff instructor (which requires frequent travel). Her training schedule is built around balancing overall life, which necessitates workouts as early as before work in the mornings, or even close to 10pm at night.

She's also one of the fittest women alive, competing in the CrossFit Games in 2009, '10, '11, and again this past year in 2012.

Read, or watch (here and here) to learn more about how busy her schedule is - and it may cause each of us to hesitate before using how packed our schedules are as an excuse not to find time to train during the week. I know I personally feel put-in-check about blaming my schedule for missing workouts after learning about Lindsey Smith's dedication.



Thomas Davis, NFL Linebacker

As a Carolina Panthers' fan, I'm admitting my bias from the start.  With that said, any athlete who is able to overcome three consecutive torn ACL's on the same knee to regain his starting job in the NFL deserves placement on any list of inspiring athletes.

Thomas Davis proved in 2012 that sometimes, when everyone else says you should probably just quit - you don't have to listen.




Kortney Clemons & Tatyana McFadden, United States Paralympians

I had the opportunity to have dinner with Kortney Clemons and his family in Indianapolis prior to the U.S. Track & Field Paralympic Trials this spring.  Clemons is a sprinter who lost his leg serving as a combat medic in Iraq.

He won the 2008 U.S. Paralympic Track & Field National Championship, and was featured in the 2009 documentary Warrior Champions.

Tatyana McFadden is a two-time Chicago Marathon wheelchair winner, who won a gold medal in London this year in the Women's 400m T54 event. 

McFadden was born in Russia with an underdeveloped spinal column and sent to live in an orphanage. She spent the first six years of her life using her arms and hands to get around before being adopted by a U.S. family and brought to live in the States.

She began to participate in wheelchair athletics as a young girl, and progressed to winning Parlaympic medals (silver, bronze) in Athens (at age 15), Beijing, and her first gold in London this year. She was even nominated for an ESPY as Best Female Disabled Athlete.

To call the atmosphere at the U.S. Paralympic Track & Field Trials "inspiring" would be sadly ineffective. To watch men and women who have lost limbs serving our country, or battled disease or deformity their entire lives, but declined to make excuses and continue to work hard and compete was one of the most incredible sporting environments I've ever witnessed.

I bought a dry-fit t-shirt at the event to remind myself during workouts once in a while that no matter how tired I am, how sore my various "injuries" may be, I'm still truly blessed to be able to do the simple things like run and jump with both legs. We fall into traps of complaining about nagging injuries, but these Paralympic athletes fight through far worse conditions everyday and still show competitive spirit out on the track in their respective events.  It was an honor to watch Kortney, Tatyana, and the rest of the field compete that weekend.



Jenny LaBaw, CrossFit

Continuing in the spirit of overcoming obstacles, Jenny LaBaw is one of my favorite CrossFitters for that same reason.  Without question an elite athlete (finishing 6th in the world in the 2011 CrossFit Games), she also spent most of 2012 as a prime example of how to fight and overcome setbacks.

LaBaw battles epilepsy, and decided to open up to the public this year about her condition in this powerful video:

She qualified for the 2012 CrossFit Games, and got off to a solid start - placing 7th and 4th (out of 45 women) on the first two events, a triathlon and military-grade timed obstacle course.

Hard luck struck her two days later, as a pre-existing neck injury flared up, causing her to struggle through the next two events.  I was in the stands with the crowd that day as she missed the time cap for the morning event, featuring 400m runs, split snatches (an Olympic Lift for those of you about to Google it), and bar muscle ups.  

It was a tough scene watching such a skilled and inspiring athlete struggle so mightily that she was moved to tears.  For me, and others around me, moments like that "humanize" great athletes because it makes them a little more like us.

Eventually her neck injury would cause her to bow out of the 2012 CrossFit Games, but true to form she did not cause that to interrupt serving as a role model, as she met and inspired a 5-year old girl also dealing with epilepsy later that weekend.

Winning, setting PR's, and earning medals are great things - but sometimes athletes like Jenny LaBaw provide us with greater levels of inspiration with the things they power through and overcome than anything else. There's no doubt that she will be back in 2013.


Hopefully this small list is a solid reflection of just a few inspiring athletes and stories from this past year - and serves to help set the positive tone for 2013.