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.
I love food. When I look at my fridge, I want to see pleasure, not obligation. Not antithetically, training also demands that I eat thoughtfully. I need to eat not only for taste, but for performance.
I follow a plan that ensures that I have energy when I need it, in balanced proportion (more or less 40% carb-30% protein-30% fat) without the sluggishness that follows a heavy meal (I eat about 1800 calories per day). But I’m often traveling between gyms during the day, which means I don’t have time to get home to prepare a sit-down lunch for myself. And my days are usually so packed that when I come home hangry, I won’t be forced to make a desperate choice, because what I need and want to eat will already be there waiting for me. I need good food, fast.
Local farmers’ markets take place on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Shopping at the Santa Monica farmers’ market is one of my greatest pleasures—a sensual and aesthetic abundance and a chance to talk with the farmers who grow my food and to meet up with friends who shop there, too. But for now, I use a service, Good Eggs, to shop for me, since I don’t have the time to do it myself. They drop off a cooler packed full of locally grown vegetables, fruit, and meat.
Thursdays and Sundays are my rest days, and a perfect time to think about my meals and prep them. This is what’s in my fridge for the next four days:
- Roasted Squab with morels, roasted broccoli and kabocha squash puree
- Mara De Bois strawberries
- Halibut with braised collards and kale
- Oatmeal with roasted plum jam
- Bone broth
- Carrots with sesame and cilantro
- Roasted sweet potatoes and golden potatoes with Herbs de Provence
- Braised beef short ribs with peach salsa
- Opah with tarragon, roasted asparagus and sautéed English peas with lemon
- 4 eggs
- Chicken patties with beet top pesto
- Sautéed red cabbage with caraway seed, mustard seed, and champagne
- Apple-cinnamon oatmeal
- Bone broth
- Roasted Celery root with orange, cumin, and coriander
- Baked sweet potato
- Blackened Chicken breast
- Duck breast with cara-cara orange glaze
- Roasted purple cauliflower with balsamic and basil
- Pork sausage, asparagus, zucchini, and broccoli saute
- Oatmeal with almond paste and stewed blueberries
- Bone broth
- Roasted rutabaga with lemon zest
- Chicken breast with chili sauce, cilantro, chives, lime, and basil with tomato
- Roasted sweet potatoes with herb scented salt
Then I prep. Chopping, zesting, dicing, sautéing, and cooking everything I can: a working meditation. By mid-afternoon, I have a pleasingly stocked refrigerator, organized into labeled containers. In the following days, when I get home, mind and body fatigued past the ability to make decisions, dinner is ready. Voila.
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.
Time is on my mind. Measuring my performance by reps per minute, pacing my lifts so they start slow and finish fast, all in a matter of two elapsed seconds, noting the skills that need to be mastered before competition—is there enough time for me to master this? Time expands—when I’m working at my best, the ten seconds from setup to lockout in the deadlift feel like an hour—and contracts. Only three months until the Games.
In the gym, I’m constantly surrounded by time. The analogue clock on the wall, the countdown timer, my wristwatch, my timer app, a stopwatch: I use them all, sometimes simultaneously. I break hours into minutes, minutes into ten second intervals, those intervals into second-long movements. I turn my body into a metronome. The sound of my own breath keeps pace.
Whenever I lose myself in the physicality of time, I’m pulled back into the awareness that time equals achievement. Can I fit more pull-ups into a minute than I did last week? Can I shave time off my mile run before the Games? Even as time suspends during an intense workout, the countdown clock is ticking away in my mind.
Claudia Hammond, in “Time Warped,” talks about the many ways in which we perceive time: “We construct the experience of time in our minds, so it follows that we are able to change the elements we find troubling — whether it’s trying to stop the years racing past, or speeding up time when we’re stuck in a queue, trying to live more in the present, or working out how long ago we last saw our old friends. Time can be a friend, but it can also be an enemy.”
The constraint to be the very best I can be on July 21—the day the 2015 CrossFit Games begin—could seem hostile and looming, but I actually find it exhilarating. Urgency makes every moment feel vital, which makes the days feel slower, more meaningful. I feel, as Joseph Campbell put it, “the rapture of being alive.”