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.

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In Inside the Box, veteran journalist and marathoner T.J. Murphy goes all in to expose the gritty, high-intensity sport of CrossFit®. From staggering newcomer to evangelist, Murphy finds out how it feels, why it’s so popular, and whether CrossFit can fix his broken body.

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