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CrossFit

Double the Fun

April 18, 2015

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I have almost always worked out alone. Not isolated, mind you. I am rarely in an empty room. But it is something like walking by yourself down a crowded street.

Throughout the years, I have tried many times to get friends to join me at the gym, but it didn’t work for more than a session or two. For many years while training to climb mountains, and now as I train for competition, what I needed from a workout was wildly different than someone looking to maintain fitness. Still, I’ve watched the many athletes in my gym who have training partners with a small twinge of envy. They are never stuck setting up complicated equipment by themselves, which adds an element of inefficiency to the workout, or wondering how to set a good pace or where to take breaks. And even during the most arduous sets, they can laugh at the pain, rather than be overwhelmed by it.

This week, I found a training partner: Jessica Suver, a CrossFit Games athlete in 2013 and thirty years my junior, who shares many of my weaknesses and strengths. Because we are both tall (she is 6′), we are especially challenged by the gymnastic elements of CrossFit, and we are both strong (Jessica has a 400 pound deadlift!). Because Jessica is not competing in the Regionals Competition this year (and therefore is ineligible for the Games), she decided that the Invictus Masters competitive plan (the program I follow), with its emphasis on building skills while improving strength, would be the perfect way to accomplish her own goal to qualify for the CrossFit Games in 2016. Partnering up with me was her idea. I leapt at the chance.

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Working together, Jessica and I plan to do the same things every day: training barbell at Waxman’s Gym, seeing Maddy Curley for gymnastics coaching, and performing our WODs at Paradiso’s Gym. The only difference is that she will use the weights prescribed for younger Master’s, while I lift the “granny” weights prescribed for me. We’re also planning to do some of the recommended recovery activities together, like hiking and swimming.

In just one week, I have already discovered the benefits of working with a partner. Jessica has been a rower and volleyball player, and I am learning from her aptitude for competition. We can hold each other accountable for really learning the skills we each need. We can spot each other and take video to illustrate constructive criticism. We might even indulge in occasional commiseration. But I look forward the most to a shared sense of accomplishment as we reach our individual goals—double the gratification.

 

Recovery Voodoo

April 10, 2015

Week's Work

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.

Easter Egg, Venetian Red, 2009. Amy Bessone

Easter Egg, Venetian Red, 2009. Amy Bessone

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?

Rational Exuberance

March 23, 2015
Beautiful, amore, gasp, eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering painting, 1997. Damien Hirst

Beautiful, amore, gasp, eyes going into the top of the head and fluttering painting, 1997. Damien Hirst

 

 

Sometime during my formative years, I picked up the notion that restraint was a hallmark of success. And even though, if asked, I can easily name dozens of unbridled and eccentric geniuses and I’d be hard pressed to cite a single example of one person in history who excelled because they held back, I have clung to this flawed logic for as long as I can remember.

Now, I don’t pretend that what I do as a sports competitor is on par with inventing the silicon chip, painting a masterpiece, or performing an opera capable of making an audience cry, but for short periods of time, almost every day, I am expected to give 100%. Yet I don’t think I realized what “leaving it all on the floor” really meant, until today.

I began to question the value of parsimony a few months ago, when I started analyzing pull-up videos, which I took of myself and other athletes in my gym to try to figure out why I could not get my chin over the bar when they could. The tape told me: I could plainly see that the other athletes’ movements exploded into unbridled exuberance at precisely the same point when I aborted in the name of control.

Beautiful Helios Hysteria Intense Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty), 2008.  Damien Hirst

Beautiful Helios Hysteria Intense Painting (with Extra Inner Beauty), 2008. Damien Hirst

My suspicions were further confirmed when I started working with a specialized gymnastics coach. When she described the back swing—the point where the athlete is hanging off the bar and the body is bowed back—she exclaimed, “This is the fun part of the movement, where you want to take a minute and feel how long and exposed you are, and hang out there for a second, then pop up to the bar, filled with joy.” I realized that the same moment was, for me, the cue to take a death grip on the bar, and to avoid at all costs getting to that moment when control is lost and one is given to the forces of nature.

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I needed that same exuberance to get through 15.4—no pull-ups, but dozens of push presses and cleans. Of course, strength comes into play, but no one on earth can lift 7000 pounds in eight minutes* using their arms alone.

Today, though, I approached the weighted barbell with an ebullient spirit inside me that I have never felt before. It seemed to infect the iron with light and life. As my judge counted “60, 61, 62…” I imagined tossing the bar into the rafters. I fell two short of my goal to reach 100 reps, but by the measures that count, today was a big win for me.

It was also fun.

 

* a number I calculated by multiplying my goal of 100 reps times #70.

Making a Study

March 20, 2015

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Yesterday was my rest day. I typically spend Thursdays doing something related to art, because I cannot easily fit visiting galleries or museums into my schedule on the days when I train. A large show—more than 60 paintings—by the masterful British artist J.M.H. Turner (1775-1851) just opened at the Getty Museum, in Los Angeles. I visited it with my friend C.F., who is a painter and a sculptor, and my favorite person to go with on these weekly art outings because his eye is keen and our taste in art is similar. We are both devotees of abstraction: he paints it, and we both collect it. And we are also lifelong students of art history.

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Turner is best known for his large, densely painted oils, often depicting dramatic allegorical scenes, and the show was rich with some of his finest. But my favorite pieces were the light and airy watercolor studies, created with speed and efficiency, on site and only for himself, where the master experimented technically before committing to the more permanent medium. There is an unselfconscious, spontaneous quality about these small personal works that I found more intriguing than many of the larger, heavily worked masterpieces for which he would be judged.

 

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It is in the spirit of making a study of my own that I will make a first go at 15.4 this afternoon. I have no idea how many rounds and reps I can get in eight minutes. Because Masters 55+ are asked to perform multiple rounds of Push Presses  instead of Handstand Pushups (like younger athletes must do) interspersed with rounds of Cleans, I can’t reckon my own numbers based on their times like I did last week when our movements were exactly the same. So like Turner working fast and light to capture a few fleeting moments of sunlight, I will just start working against the clock and see what turns up.

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Doing the Math

March 16, 2015
Childhood Dreams, Loui Jover, 2104

Childhood Dreams, Loui Jover, 2014

It is important for me to establish a clear goal for myself before beginning any competitive workout. Since I would only be making one attempt at 15.3, today’s go had to represent my best effort. This weekend I spent a little of my down time gathering data. Since age is not an impediment to jump rope speed, I researched how long it takes the top athletes to perform 100 double-unders: around :55. Allowing for the likelihood that I could not do them all unbroken, I allowed myself an extra :05 to trip and go again.

I calculated :10 for the switch to wall-balls and to take a few breaths before starting what I hoped would be an unbroken set. There are not many ways to speed up wall-balling (10# to a 9’ target), since gravity brings the ball down. But after watching a few instructional videos, I discovered that there is one technique to speed up the squat and toss sequence, the half of the move an athlete can control, by using a wider stance and parallel feet to keep tension on the hamstrings. When pulled in a squat like the rubber band in a slingshot, these muscles propel the ball into the air like a pea.

I timed the pros in the demo videos, and they were doing wall-balls at a rate of 1 per second using this technique. Looking back over my own records for wall-ball sessions, I found that my best rate to date was 1 every :03. I decided to shoot for a rate of 1 per :015, which, if I could pull this move off for 50 wall-balls, would give me a finish time of 3:25. Bingo. I had a goal.

Then I asked one of my coaches for input, and she added a coda, “Finish in 3:25, yes…and then get to the rings for the muscle-ups.” I had not considered setting up for a move I cannot do. Still, she asked me to keep getting to the rings in mind the whole time.

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I started the day at my chiropractor’s office, in the hope of sweetening up my nearly mended back. Since his work is more about engagement of the joints and muscle groups surrounding the injury than it is about back cracking, I went straight from there to the gym, and felt no need to do additional mobility in preparation. I set up the rings for a muscle-up, as I’d been coached, in spite of raised eyebrows from gym mates who know I don’t have them yet, and I assembled the rest of my station, with a wall ball and a jump rope. The moment my judge arrived, we started the clock.

As I had predicted, I tripped up once midway through the double-unders, and quickly resumed jumping again, finishing them at 1:00 and on schedule. I started throwing wall-balls at exactly 1:10. While I didn’t manage to throw them all without a break—at number 35, I started seeing stars and decided to hold the ball for a second and catch my breath—I didn’t glance at the clock until after I heard my judge count “48, 49, 50.” It read 3:25.

I didn’t go straight to the rings because my head was spinning. But I got to them about a minute later, jumped up, felt the smooth wood in my palms, and steadied the sway by engaging my midline, as I have been taught to do. I took a huge back swing with my legs, and as they swung forward, thrust my hips toward the ceiling with as much force as I could muster. I pulled hard with my arms to try and capture the upward momentum, and felt, for a fleeting second, that making it over the rings and into full extension is closer for me than it has ever been.

No rep on a muscle-up today, of course. But in spite of it, I ratcheted up the ladder this week to 3rd place worldwide, and resolved to make muscle-ups a priority in the coming months.

Good News, Bad News

March 13, 2015

 

I tweaked my back on Wednesday. When the pain became acute, I was not doing anything heavy or even very strenuous: low weight thrusters in volume. But whatever caused what was later diagnosed as an irritated nerve may have happened earlier in the day, during gymnastics. My physical therapist said it might have been brewing all week.

So the pins and needles were more literal last night before 15.3 was announced. I was wired to my Marc Pro electrical stimulation machine, twitching involuntarily, as I watched the Games website feed on my iPad. When I learned the workout will be jump rope double-unders, wall-balls, and muscle-ups, I felt an overwhelming sense of relief.

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Photographer Guy Bourdin

I cannot yet perform a muscle-up. I have been working on them for more than a year now, but I don’t consider myself even close to possessing the strength and understanding for this fast and complicated gymnastics movement. So back problem or not, I will not be able to score enough points (157) for a full first round. The question is, how many other women 60+ in the world can do a single muscle-up, let alone seven of them, which will allow them to progress into a second round, where racking up many more points with fast paced double-unders and wall-balls will be a sure thing?

The really good news for me is that neither double-unders or wall-balls will compromise my back very much, if at all. So my personal goal is to get to 150 points (the full number of reps of double-unders and wall-balls in the first round) as fast as I possibly can to place my best in the tiebreaker, which is determined by the elapsed time to completion of the last wall-ball shot.  I will rest and treat my back all weekend. On Monday, I will do 15.3 just once, going balls to the wall*. And that night, when the results are all in, I’ll be eager to see how many of my peers can perform a single muscle-up, let alone seven of them. Go, girls!

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* From the Urban Dictionary: To push to the limit, go all out, full speed.

A very colorful phrase, one needs to be careful when using “balls to the wall”.  Although its real origin is very benign, most people assume it is a reference to testicles. In fact it is from fighter planes. The “balls” are knobs atop the plane’s throttle control. Pushing the throttle all the way forward, to the wall of the cockpit, is to apply full throttle.

 

If the Shoe Fits, Wear It

March 10, 2015

I took my first go at 15.2 on Friday afternoon:

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For Master’s Women 55+, there was a subtle difference from the challenge for younger athletes, who had regular chest to bars: we were asked to do jumping chest-to-bar pull ups, which are really a different exercise because the power in the movement comes from the jump. My goal was to make 175 points, halfway through the round of 16’s. But I focused on the challenge of the #45 overhead squats, because when two of the top athletes at my gym performed it the day before, both of them mentioned afterward that they wished they had worn lifting shoes. With rigid soles and raised heels, these allow you to squat into a deeper position while maintaining a balanced upright torso, making these high reps much easier to perform. On Friday morning, I wrestled with the decision, and ended up wearing lifting shoes.

After just 10 jumping pull-ups on Friday, I almost quit because I could feel my legs fatiguing under the strain of jumping in my lifeless lifting shoes. By the second round, I knew, these shoes would feel like concrete boots. But my stick-to-it-iveness would not let me stop. Instead, I continued to failure which came, exactly as I predicted. As the clock ticked toward 6:00, I failed 12 attempts to reach chest-to-bar (ouch) and fell three points shy of completing the round. My final score reached a mere 85 points.

 

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Cement Shoes, Le Corbusier

 

I considered redoing it on Saturday morning and reserving the possibility of making a third attempt today. But instead I rested my arms, which were more wiped out than they should have been after so few jumping chest-to-bars—I’d had to compensate for my poor jumps. On Sunday, I went to the gym and practiced the rounds of 14 and 16 reps, ingraining the timing I needed into my muscle memory. Without the lifting shoes, I found that I could easily fit the number of moves (56 and 64 respectively) into the allotted 3:00.

This morning, I followed my usual routine. Wearing my minimalist sneakers, five of my squats were disqualified (or, in the lingo, I no-repped on them) because my hip crease failed to dip below parallel—something that is harder to do in shoes with a lower heel-to-toe ramp angle. But I came away with a score more than double what I got on Friday: 182. This puts me at 13th place for the workout and in 5th place in the Worldwide rankings. I can live with that.

Two down, three to go…

Marilyn Monroe. Photographer Philippe Halsman, 1958

 

 

 

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.

Finding My Weakness

January 27, 2015
norcal_masters

photo by Charlie Mason

 

This weekend I competed in the NorCal Masters competition. While the field in my division consisted of only seven competitors, they were formidable: three of them were CrossFit Games athletes in 2014 and one finished in 10th place. For most of the two-day competition, I held a strong fourth place. I made the finals. But in that heat, which consisted of a succession of Power Cleans at #105 and rope climbs, I lost my game. Sure, I was spent from the eight previous events, and the lifts were at my one rep max—but they were at the high end for everyone. My competitors distinguished themselves with an ability to maintain focus and form.

I am beat up, sore, and exhausted. But I came away stronger in the long run, because my weaknesses were writ large for me, and I know what I have to train for in the coming months. I must learn to use momentum in my pull-ups—to kip them—and be able to do at least five sets of ten in rapid succession. While it was not tested this weekend, I also know that I need solid chest-to-bar pull-ups. I must improve my barbell work, so I become comfortable working at heavy weights and maintain form under pressure. From looking at videos of myself in that final heat, I can see that I had the strength to pull 105 pounds off the ground. But I failed, consistently, to get under the bar to lift it. That process is not yet fully routine, and it must be in order to compete at the level to which I aspire. And part of that failure had to do with my weak inner game. I need to find calm and grace under pressure, every time I step up to the weights.

 

I am going to take today as a rest day and restore my tired muscles and my spinning head. But tomorrow I will hit the gym with new resolve and focus, grateful that I was able to compete among a group of high-level athletes who helped me learn more about what distinguishes them from ordinary mortals. I will get there.

Learning to Compete

January 13, 2015

 

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My first morning at Paradiso CrossFit, David, the owner and a trainer there, was kind to me.  He showed me how to use a giant green rubber band to assist myself at the bottom of a pull-up.  The band had so much tension it practically sent me through the ceiling like a pea from a slingshot. I’ve been known to wear jewelry that weighs more than the kettlebell he had me swing. And after just a few regulation push-ups, I had to drop to my knees to finish a set of ten. Fortunately, I was finishing up this humiliating performance with a few sit-ups by the time anyone else arrived at the gym, so I managed to preserve my dignity for another day. I limped home, leaden in my worn-out limbs, but most sore in my heart with the realization that I had become a person who was resting on wilted laurels.

Working out for a score, which is a hallmark of the CrossFit program, was entirely new to me. In fact, I had never in my life participated in any sport with a winner or a loser. The first time I saw my time and reps recorded on the whiteboard at Paradiso I was horrified to have my place in comparison to the rest of the class become public knowledge. The workout was 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups and 15 air squats, repeating as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes (a sequence known as Cindy in the CrossFit world). I performed the whole workout with modifications—so I wasn’t really performing the prescribed workout at all—and simply could not get my hip crease to fall below my knees in the squat. I recorded a score which fell in the middle of the group, but even though I’d done my best and gotten an intense workout, it wasn’t truly legitimate.

I worked hard to improve my strength and mobility for the sake of my fitness, but more than anything, I wanted to post a real score. I wanted to meet movement standards and perform at prescribed weights so badly that I simply stopped caring if I was in the middle or dead last. It was about that time, six months after I started CrossFit, that I started to get real. And, apparently, better at it.

There are two CrossFits. It’s a type of gym and a fitness philosophy, but it’s also a sport, and now I wanted to compete. I had strength, endurance, and a high threshold for pain, honed by years of alpinism, and that was (and is) a big plus in CrossFit.  What I needed most was to learn to use my body efficiently and to its greatest advantage—skills most often cultivated in the team sports I’d never played.

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I entered the CrossFit Open for the first time in 2012 and I finished in 70th place out of 194 women in my age/gender class (55-59 years old).  In January of 2013, I entered an All Master’s Competition in Northern California and took third place. While the field of competitors in my class was small, they were fierce, and included at least one Master’s Woman my age who had been to the CrossFit Games the previous year. The three of us standing on the podium were within a few points of one another’s scores. It was the first time I had ever felt truly competitive in a sport. I got a taste of winning, and I liked it.

After that, and with just six weeks left to train for the 2014 CrossFit Open, I started a training program written for aspiring Master’s Competitors. This meant training five days a week for three hours a day and active rest work on the two days I was not at the gym. I placed 5th in my region and 46th out of 522 in the world. While I was happy with my improvements in the overall ranking, the big takeaway was how much I enjoyed training hard, every day, with a goal in mind. And that is what I have done, every day since.