The Two Faces of CrossFit

March 5, 2015

Thursday is my “active rest day.” My coach suggests taking a swim, but the waves are so high today that a Pacific dip will require more activity than he imagines. So I will take the dogs and hike with friends in the hills above Malibu instead, since recent rains have freshened the air and greened the mountains surrounding Los Angeles, qualities too fleeting to pass up on a sunny winter day. At 5:00 PM PST, CrossFit HQ will announce the second workout of the Open via live feed. I will watch at the gym with fellow athletes, and at 5:30, two of the best men who train at the gym will go head to head on it, just for fun (they will re-do it later in the weekend for a better score). But tonight’s fun match will help the rest of us decode the workout, an important strategy, since almost all of us will make a first go tomorrow.

As I write, I realize that, in my posts, I freely use references to CrossFit gyms, training, and techniques, and to the Games. But what I haven’t really explained is that there is a difference between CrossFit as a style of fitness and CrossFit as a sport.

More than 10,000 loosely affiliated gyms offer the program of functional fitness training known as CrossFit. I say “loosely” because, as I understand it, the gym owner pays a small annual fee for the right to use the name, but retains the right to implement his or her own programming and philosophy. I do most of my training at one affiliate gym: Paradiso CrossFit in Venice Beach, California. But, since I travel a lot, I have visited dozens of other affiliates all over the world, and I can attest to the broad diversity of the facilities and varied interpretations of functional fitness.

CrossFit gyms usually offer group fitness classes, typically hour-long sessions with exercises tailored to the abilities and interests of their members, but when I decided about a year ago that I wanted to compete in the sport of CrossFit, I stopped attending them. I follow programming written specifically for aspiring CrossFit Games competitors by C.J. Martin, who owns a gym in San Diego and programs for some of the top CrossFit Competitors in the world. And when I am at home, which is most of the time, I train on my own, during a designated four-hour “open gym” period. I’m not isolated—there’s a group of 15 or so other competitive athletes who are following the same general plan I am and who are at the gym at the same time—but we are all essentially training alone.

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I can train in virtually any place in the world where I can find the basic equipment I need: barbells, weights, a pull-up bar, some kettle bells, and a medicine ball. If there is a rowing machine and a ceiling high enough to mount a climbing rope, all the better, but not essential. I always travel with my own custom-made jump rope. (The length of it, the handle weight, and the rope material, which is actually a fine twisted wire cable, are all made to my specs. And my name is written large on the handles so it doesn’t get mixed up during a WOD when thrown on a gym floor littered with many others.)

One of my favorite “gyms” was located in the backyard of a little mountain chalet in Verbier, Switzerland. The owner had all of the equipment locked in a storybook wooden barn. For seven days last spring, when daffodils were peeking through the remnants of a snow carpet, he loaned me the key. I dragged everything into the sun, and, surrounded by the high Alpine peaks, worked out every day for two hours, après ski.

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CrossFit has also become known as an emerging global sport (some say its the fastest growing sport in the world), and the World Series of functional fitness is currently the CrossFit Games. While the Games started in 2007 as a weekend of informal competition, it became sponsored and televised (on ESPN) in 2011, with prize money over $2 million. Many athletes are also sponsored, like you see in any other professional sport, and train full-time in pursuit of success at the Games.

I’ve written before about how I transitioned from CrossFit as my workout to CrossFit as my sport. By the way, I noticed this morning that my place on the leaderboard has jumped up a notch to 4th place Worldwide. While I am proud of that standing, I also know that it is only a first step on the road to the Games.

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