With thanks and love to my gymnastics coach Maddy Curley and to my training partner Jessica Suver for helping me feel what it is like to reach a lockout at the top of the rings. I will be getting up there under my own power soon. I promise.
There are just 29 days left before the CrossFit Games begin. This is a tally of the quantifiable work* I did last week to prepare for the competition.
What, no rope climbs?
*The list does not include warmups, cool downs, or accessory and skill work.
Muscles, when exerted consistently, get tight. Between a build-up of lactic acid and an emphasis on a specific, abbreviated range of motion, a worked muscle becomes sore and contracted. Without intervention, the next work out becomes even more arduous, the results less and less impressive. That’s where mobility exercises come in—to relax and restore range of motion.
The ur-text of this type of body work is Kelly Starrett’s “Becoming a Supple Leopard,” which advocates approaching all movement—from sitting in a chair to lifting a barbell—with mindfulness. It’s so common to see this book at CrossFit and weightlifting gyms that it’s easy to take for granted. But if you perform any actions from any pages for just five minutes a day, I promise you will soon see a more flexible (and better performing) you.
I begin every training day with at least thirty minutes of mobility work. There some I do daily no matter what—I always foam roll my shoulders and IT bands, and perform over/under shoulder dislocates (but I use a metal pipe instead of PVC), and Olympic wall squats, for example; others I tailor to whatever work is on deck for that day. If I am doing gymnastics, I mobilize shoulders; weightlifting, hips; running, hams, quads and ankles. I use props: a foam roller, lacrosse ball, 2” elastic band (6’ diameter), and a 6’ length of steel pipe. Mobility is not to be confused with a warm-up, which spikes the heart rate, preps the central nervous system and usually works up a sweat; with these mobility exercises, I’m preparing my muscles and joints for the hard work ahead.
After working out, I often mobilize again, about an hour later. Some days, I’m just too tired to lift my own limbs, and I head to a new spot in Venice called Stretch Lab, which provides one-on-one stretching with a flexologist. And at least once a week, Jessica and I turn to our local best-kept-secret Thai massage spot, where traditionally trained therapists rhythmically press and stretch the entire body using their hands, arms, feet, and body weight (by standing on you), a treatment I liken to passive yoga. It’s amazing.
But like everything in life, moderation is key. Too-loose joints can lead to torn muscles or tendons. I was recently alerted to the importance of maintaining tension for top performance, too. If, for example, your hips are “too limber,” you’ll have problems getting the bounce at the bottom that you need to lift heavy weight to standing. So I’m always looking for that sweet spot: limber and relaxed, strong and stable.
Like a lot of people, I’ve seen my running times slow over the years. (My PRs for a mile and a 400 meter sprint are from 2013 and 2012, respectively.) My number of strides per minute, though, (right + left) has remained the same: 184. I suspected that my stride length had diminished, though it didn’t seem any different to me.
A few weeks ago, I met with Chris Hinshaw, an expert running coach who works with CrossFit athletes on endurance. He confirmed my suspicions, and noted that studies have shown that while stride rate often remains the same after 40, stride length decreases by 40 percent. Trying to compensate for a decrease in stride length by increasing stride rate is usually ineffective.
While the factors that go into this slowing are complex, the big culprit (according to a study of masters athletes) seems to be a loss in muscle mass, which causes the contact time between the foot and ground to increase, and the lift-off to be less explosive. Less air, less speed.
The good news? There’s a way to improve. Chris prescribed a workout progression, a combination of sled pull and push sprints, flat sprints, and hill sprints, all done at 95 to 100% effort. These, he wrote me, “will help to improve ground force, reduce ground contact time, increase power output, fast twitch muscle fiber recruitment, [central nervous system] efficiency, and range of motion.”
I’ve completed three of the workouts, and I can feel the effort from my glutes down through my Achilles. As I run, I envision my stride opening up, gobbling up the yards. These workouts hold the potential to not only make me faster for the Games, but keep me running strong for years to come.
My idea of a power walk: pulling a 150 pound sled for 300 meters. In Venice Beach, California, training for the CrossFit Games.
During the last few weeks, Jessica and I have spent about half of our daily training time focused on strengthening the little muscles that often get missed or “worked around” during the faster pace of a timed workout.
At least three days a week for the last month, we have started our day with a shoulder warm-up routine, called Crossover Symmetry. Several of the specialized coaches we consult suggested the routine as a way to improve shoulder mobility and stability. It takes five minutes to perform eight easy movements. Among other things, it addresses the inherent weakness of rotator cuffs and makes them stronger, less prone to injury. I already have found that I can use my shoulders more freely and with greater confidence—which is key to improving the gymnastics and weightlifting moves I do every day, and most noticeable when I am working with my arms overhead, practicing handstand walking and snatches.
Today, after that warm-up, and before we performed our “regular” Invictus assignment, we spent about an hour performing five rounds of just four little moves, five reps in every round: First, holding the top of a chest-to-bar for three seconds and then lowering in five counts. Second, another slow lowering into a ring dip. Third, maintaining the bottom of a dip on parallel bars for one minute (accumulated time, if necessary—and it was). Finally, slowly lowering into a deficit headstand position with a quick push up into a handstand (assisted by one another, accompanied by many laughs). Every rep was so strenuous that we couldn’t do more than 1-2 reps at a time, and we required at least 30 seconds of rest before we could get another. The work was slow, but the point is to focus on the hardest part of the pull up, the dip, and the push up, and to dig deep, even to squirm around, in order to find the position where dormant muscle power might be teased into action and new muscle memory might be formed.
Then, after completing our actual workout (multiple timed sprints on the rowers: more shoulder work) and lunch, we went to Waxman’s gym to weightlift. It seems that Sean is thinking about these little movement segments, too. I spent the better part of an hour jumping in place with a weighted bar in hand. The point of this exercise was to force me to focus on the precise pattern where ankles, knees, and hips were optimally angled while holding shoulders and chest high and taut, to achieve the highest jump, moving the bar off the floor no more than a few feet. I was finally allowed to perform a complete snatch, for which this movement is just a teeny (but critical) part, when I could consistently perform sets of perfect—as judged by Sean—jumps.
My shoulders were so thrashed by the end of the day that it was a struggle to drive my car home from the gym. But I am beginning to understand that mastery of movement is about breaking it into smaller parts, and isolating and improving the weak link, instead of skimming over the details and hoping for the best.
* “God is in the detail” is a phrase most commonly attributed to the great modern architect Mies van der Rohe. But who said it first is a subject of dispute among linguists as is the question of who is in the details: God or the Devil. I prefer the former, which seems more positive.
This week, Jessica and I started training in the sport of strongman. Despite the name, it is not just for men, nor is it only for strong people. Strongmen events focus on the functional side of fitness, testing the techniques of moving around difficult objects like kegs, yokes, sleds, atlas stones, and chains. Jess and I are both naturally good at it and enthused about adding it to the weekly training schedule.
As good luck would have it, there is a strongman coach here in Venice Beach. Logan Gelbrich is a former pro baseball player and his gym, Deuce, is located in an abandoned auto body shop on a gritty stretch of Lincoln Boulevard. The gym itself is tiny—it might have fit two small cars in its previous incarnation. In fact, it serves as little more than an oversized storage unit for some of the strongman equipment Gelbrich uses in training. Most of the work is done on the concrete parking lot outdoors, in midday heat, mimicking the not-always-perfect conditions one might encounter in real life: say, if your car breaks down, you have to help a friend move a mattress up a flight of stairs, or you need to shovel snow or dig a ditch.
This week, Jessica and I learned how to move three things: the atlas stone, a heavy pipe, and a sled. An atlas stone is a ball made out of concrete and can be made in different weights. If you are a do-it-yourselfer, you can make your own; you might have to, since you’ll have a hard time finding someone to deliver a ball weighing 100 pounds or more to your home. Logan showed us how to maximize our grip and friction on the ball. For me, with just nine and a half fingers, the hardest part was just getting it off the ground; then, while still squatting, you hoist it onto your lap. From there, you can actually get your hands under the thing, and using the force of your hips, thrust it up and roll it over your shoulders so it drops back to the ground, guided by your back. I managed to toss #75 pounds while Jess did #95.
I struggled with lifting the awkward and heavy pipe—the diameter is just too large for my hands to fit around. Of course, that is the point. The girth of the axle seriously restricts your pulling power at any weight. Then, as you raise it off the ground, you naturally lose power around the height of the lower ribs, when your arms are fully bent. So at that point you are supposed to rest the pipe on your body by tipping into a swayed back limbo, flip your hands under the bar, and resume the lift from there. I never trusted myself enough at the crux, and twice lost a #95 bar which had been balanced on my chest. Once it grazed my knee on the way to the ground leaving a nice eggplant-sized bruise in its wake.
My favorite was the sled push/pull, not least because I already have some experience: I’ve pulled sleds weighing more than 100 pounds, while wearing skis, on polar mountaineering expeditions. Logan showed us the pulling technique, hand-over-hand on the rope from a seated position, and how to use the power of your legs to push it forward. The chances of seeing a sled event come up in the CrossFit Games this year are good; they’ve been used frequently in the past. I will be ready.
I am not sure if it is from spending eight minutes upside down yesterday doing forty-five handstand pushups or from the champagne I drank after my results for the 2015 Master’s Qualifier were posted on the Games website, but I got out of bed this morning seeing stars.
I finished the Master’s Qualifier in the top ten—#8 to be exact— which means I will be in the first heat of my division at the CrossFit Games in Carson, California this July.
I’d started the MQ on Friday morning at Waxman’s Gym with the one rep max snatch. Because Waxman’s is an Olympic standards gym, he only has weight plates in kilos. Jessica Suver, my training partner extraordinaire, gathered 100 pounds worth of weight plates (evidently feeling optimistic about my prospects, since I had never snatched more than 82 pounds). Coals to Newcastle: Waxman proclaimed it the first time anyone ever brought their own weights into his gym. After performing my warmup with an empty bar, Sean and Jess started loading on plates. I lost track of how much weight was on the bar. Jess just told me not to worry about it and to just keep lifting. My final score was 93 pounds, but when I did it I had no idea I was lifting eleven pounds over my previous personal record.
After that, we headed back to Paradiso’s Gym to perform Event #1, dips and cleans. I’ve been working on ring dips for 2 ½ years, but I had finally learned to do them only five days before; I was elated to show off my latest trick. At the signal, I leapt onto the rings and performed the first five dips unbroken in 13 seconds. I finished the clean weight (10 reps at #75) by the time the clock read 00:48. As I transitioned back to the rings, I thought to myself, “I can get five rounds. I am a dip star. Yes!”
I jumped up, expecting my arms to hold out for another five. But they gave out after just one. It took a full minute and a half to get just four more.
At 3:30, I was finished with the second round of cleans, giving me a full minute and a half to perform…just three dips. Lesson learned: coming out blazing isn’t the best way to win a gunfight.
I planned to do Event 3—row/thrusters/pullups—on Saturday morning and Event 4—deadlifts, box jumps and handstand pushups—later in the afternoon, in spite of the intelligence coming out of Invictus suggesting just the opposite. My reasoning was that the moves in Event 3 are all strengths of mine, and therefore would not sufficiently weaken me before tackling so many handstand pushups, which I thought would take me at least twenty minutes to perform. (Last year, the same number took me 35:24.) And, as I suspected, I finished Event 3 in fine time (21:49), a number I did not think I could improve without linking many more pullups into larger sets than my hands can tolerate. I did not, however, anticipate finishing it with my energy so completely spent. Even after a long healthy lunch and a catnap on the floor of the gym, there was no way I could find the power in my limbs to make a good score on Event 4 on Saturday afternoon.
I spent Saturday night in a Korean spa in downtown Los Angeles. These bathhouses are a dime-a-dozen in Koreatown, and a unique and inexpensive luxury. First I baked in a hot mineral salt room, then reaped the metabolic benefits of the Yellow Ochre room. Next, I simmered in a pool of warm water, before being called to the scrub deck by my aesthetician/masseuse. For 90 minutes, she scrubbed, massaged, and oiled new life into my tired body. I left with skin glowing, but otherwise more drowsy than ever from the narcotic effect of sustained exposure to heat.
Sunday had always been planned as a rest day. Despite the fact that I had only two scores I was happy with, and it was tempting to hit the gym on Sunday so I didn’t have work right up until the deadline for scores submission on Monday at 5;00 PM, I honored my commitment (and the admonitions of coaches and fellow athletes) and rested. I started a new book, Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall. His previous book, Born to Run, changed contemporary thinking about running technique. This one is an exploration into lost fitness arts and human strength capacity. I am only about ¼ of the way through it, and already, my copy is filled with notations about new ideas to take up with my coaches. (I will share those adventures in upcoming blog posts)
I tackled Event 4 first thing on Monday morning in a gym filled with people doing their regular workout. The countdown clock signaled the familiar beeps: 3-2-1…go. I lifted the #105 bar and it seemed light as a feather. 21 unbroken reps in the deadlift. I did the same number of box jumps, stepping up, not jumping (which is allowed, and takes just about the same time, but uses far less energy). I wasn’t winded when I finished and moved to the wall for the handstands. I performed them in seven sets of three, and went up and down each time feeling graceful and confident, just like Maddy has taught me to. Before I knew it, my judge counted 21. I finished the whole event in slightly more than half the time I’d expected, at 9:42. There were high fives and hugs all around.
I came home for lunch and a short session on my e-stim machine for my triceps before returning to perform Event 1, the dips and cleans, for the second time. It was 4:30 p.m.. The deadline for scores submission was 5:00 p.m, but the event would only take five minutes to complete. Jessica timed me on the seconds between each dip, and I resisted the urge to string two together. But I followed my plan (and her cadence) precisely, and, with five seconds to go, I had executed the 45 repetitions I wanted. I ran back to the rings in the hope of getting just one more in, but time was up.
Jessica typed my scores into the Games website, as I was still too shaky to do so myself. Then we went for champagne, even though the results of the MQ would not be made official until Tuesday morning.
It was very hard to ignore the news coming from Nepal over the weekend, especially since I have so many Sherpa friends who live there and climbing friends making attempts on Everest and other mountains in the region this year. I spent as much time as I needed to find out that everyone I know is alive and safe (although two dear friends were trapped, but unharmed, in the Western Cwm on Everest after the route through the Khumbu Icefall collapsed).
Beyond the still-horrifying news and with body counts still mounting, thoughtful commentary is beginning to emerge. And none I have read is more eloquent than this one, written by Steve Casimiro, in the fine publication which he founded, Adventure Journal.
If you don’t have time to click through and read it in its entirety, I will quote just two paragraphs here:
“Adventure challenges us physically, emotionally, and spiritually. It forces us to confront our greatest fears, it teaches us to draw upon our greatest strengths. It makes us suffer, it makes us doubt. It holds up a mirror that shows us our truest selves. And if we stay with adventure, if we set ourselves on a course of life is that is refreshed throughout our years with the joys of uncertainty and risk, these wonderful hallmarks of true adventure, then we become stronger, better, more flexible and more able.
And if we do this with other people, if we watch as they fail, get up, and succeed, if we support them and they support us and we get through our darkest nights and longest days, we make a connection that never truly dies. Bonds are only created through shared experience, and the more intimate the experience the greater the bond. The more you’re laid bare by the cold vagaries of the mountains or the seas or the desert, the more that intimacy can flow. And while anyone can be friends in good times, it’s in those crucibles of doubt and pain and survival that the deepest, strongest, most sustaining relationships are formed.”
As a climber, I recognize the relationships he describes; but I also recognize them as a competitor in the CrossFit Games. These are useless pursuits, earning nothing and contributing nothing to the practical pursuit of survival; yet they can help us feel connected. Not just connected to each other—though they do that, too—but connected to our best selves. It’s these connections that make enduring sorrow possible.
I’m glad to be heading into a week of rest, rejuvenation, and reflection. On coaches’ orders, I’m relinquishing the gym until next Monday. Besides hiking a little and taking some ocean swims, I will belatedly celebrate my 60th birthday this weekend. Starting next week, I’ll be focusing my all on the Games. And in each rep I’ll find gratitude for these muscles, these sinews, and this sweat.
I’ve had an especially heavy workload this week as I prepare for the Master’s Qualifier events, which will be announced on April 23. The work has taken a toll: I have a crook in my neck, knot in my upper back, a bruise on my collar bone, blisters on my palms, a cramp in my left forearm, abs so sore that it is a struggle to get out of a chair, and quads and glutes too tender to sit on anyway. But I will be back at it again tomorrow, so there’s no point wallowing.
Besides, the first and most important thing I can do to recover is to remain optimistic that I will feel better, even in a few hours, than I do right now. The active ritual of taking care of myself helps me foster a positive mindset and passes the recovery time in a productive way, which is healing in itself. I don’t claim to understand any solid science behind any of the things I do, and some of my recovery rituals may have as much medicinal merit as snake oil. But here are a few of the things I did today to prepare for tomorrow (in no particular order):
- Sleep (eight hours), hydrate (three quarts of water with 1/4 cup of fresh lemon juice, turmeric juice, and ginger juice added to each one), and sun (about 20 minutes of exposure, wearing a hat but without sunblock).
- Roll out my back, shoulders and IT band with a HyperIce Vyper Foam Roller Massager, massage my calves with a Body Buffer, and stimulate my quads with my Marc Pro.
- Soak, slather, spray, and cover.
I also took my dogs on a nice long walk and spent time visiting with the neighbors whom I often rush past on my way to the gym. As I write this, I am enjoying an afternoon cup of Matcha Tea — making it is a ritual in itself — with foamed apricot kernel milk and Manuka honey, which are also said to have healing properties. Who knows? It sure tastes soothing.
What are some of your recovery rituals?