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Friday, January 21, 2011

I heart Crossfit

Running will always be my first fitness love.  In my opinion it is your body's best exercise.  But there was a time in my life when I wasn't a runner.  I actually stopped running altogether in college.  I did it for aesthetics more than anything.  I emerged from my senior season of cross country running as a 6 foot 7 inch, 165 pound weakling.  Along with my long, surfer hair, I was the spitting image of Chris Robinson from the Black Crows.  My whipcord arms weren't attracting much in the way of the opposite sex.  Mostly women just thought I had an eating disorder and wanted to throw sandwiches at me.  The rest of them thought I was one of those weird wind dancers you see in car dealership lots during a sale.

Whether you like to admit it or not ladies, you like muscles.  You want your man to have abs that make it look like he's smuggling a half carton of brown eggs under his shirt.  You want his arms to barely fit into an extra-large t-shirt.  You want to have a hard time finding his neck.  Essentially, you want the entire male cast of the Jersey Shore, minus an entire wardrobe of Ed Hardy and the propensity to wear sunglasses only at night (and probably several other habits that are too numerous to fit here). 

My blog just got a little more gay.  Or greasy.  Or, in some people's opinion...both.

And that's just fine.  I was game.  I was happy to give up running for the chance to get laid.  So I stopped running entirely and started lifting.  I spent the whole summer at the gym, and continued going religiously throughout my college life.  My pantry at my fraternity was stocked exclusively by wholesale sized tubs of protein powder and other mysterious substances with words like "ripped" in the title that also came in 86 oz jugs.  I ate over 4000 calories a day, most of it meat.  I never went more than 2 hours without eating (6-8 meals a day total).  I lifted every day, for at least 1.5 hours at a pop.

By law school, I weighed 235 lbs and I could bench 315 lbs.  I totally lived the bodybuilding way of life.  Everyone at GNC knew my name.  I bought those bodybuilding magazines with gigantic mountains of male muscle on the cover that bordered on the edge of gay porn.  I knew 10 different exercises to isolate a completely unnecessary muscle like my traps (it's the no-neck muscle, the one near your collarbone).  I grunted loudly during exercise for no apparent reason. 

Here's a picture of me during my first year of law school.  That's an XXL polo shirt.  I'm not sure why I'm making such a creepy face.  Someone probably stole something I was eating.   

SIDE NOTE: Speaking of porn, when I checked my blog stats a couple weeks ago, I noticed that my blog is apparently the top hitting website for the search term "porn star maple grove".  My mom would be so proud! 

Just so that you can get a before and after, this is a picture of me this summer. 

Yeah...it's a picture of me in a gladiator costume.  I couldn't find any recent pictures of me standing straight on towards the camera.  That's okay...I think I look pretty epic.  Here I'm weighing in at a happy, healthy 205 lbs.  I can't bench worth shit anymore, and I'm fine with that.

I stopped lifting weights so aggressively for a couple of reasons.  First, I had a kid.  Anyone who has one of these little life accessories (or anchors, depending on who you talk to) knows that you don't have more than a handful of free hours or minutes in a given day.  You don't have the 2 hours per day  to do a full-on weigh lifting regimen plus cardio required to look like a meat head. 

Second, I always found the concept of weight lifting to be a little like ditch digging.  It's essentially make-work.  You're picking up something really heavy, moving it around a little bit, and then setting it down exactly where you found it.  According to the laws of physics, you've essentially done absolutely nothing.  And you blew a ton of energy doing it.  According to Newton, you're the scientific equivalent of a blowtorch. 

Not only that, but even after doing all that work, I noticed that I really didn't have any functional strength.  I could lift more than my body weight over my head, but I had trouble helping my friend move his couch into his new place.  In fact, I had trouble lifting much of anything that wasn't symetrical with a bar in the middle for grip.  I got tired shoveling my driveway.  I was all show, no go.  All that pumping was doing was filling them with useless mass.  I felt like a giant meat balloon.  That's probably why I had trouble resting my arms at my sides.

Okay, not quite the same thing...but you get the concept. 

Intro to Crossfit

I was introduced to Crossfit back in 2008, as it was gaining popularity in the military and law enforcement community.   My cop friends reported to me that they were gaining tons of functional strength and endurance from workouts sometimes as short as five minutes, but usually no longer than a half hour.  And, not that I was checking them out or anything, but they look more cut and fit (nice ass too...errr....*sigh*).


So what is Crossfit?  Crossfit is a strength and conditioning training program that revolves around the concept of high-intensity interval training (HIIT).  HIIT workouts involve short sets of high-intensity exercises punctuated by equally short periods of rest.  The exercises performed during HIIT should be done at as close to maximum intensity as possible.  The theory behind HIIT is that you can get a better bang for your buck doing 10 minutes of exercises at near maximum effort than you can with 30 minutes of exercise at your normal intensity. 

Crossfit uses a wide variety of HIIT exercises, including standard weights, body-weigh, Olympic lifts, and cardio to achieve an advanced level of general fitness.  Crossfit claims that instead of specializing in a particular discipline like running, or weight lifting, or biking, it allows users to be generalists; able to achieve a high level of performance in lots of different areas of fitness. 

My Crossfit experience

The thing that immediately attracted me to Crossfit is that it is free, and requires very little equipment to start.  It is possible to start doing Crossfit without spending any money on anything.  You can do the whole thing entirely in your basement.  That is unlike any other workout program that I know. 

From my experience in weightlifting, working out to any degree of effectiveness involves a gym membership.  A standard weight workout requires a multi-muscle group exercise, and several isolation exercises.  Multi-group usually means barbells and dumbbells.  Isolation means Nautilus, Smith, and all of those other machines that don't fit in your house.  Even current fads like P90X require you to invest $90 in a series of workout videos that you'll never use.  So far the only money I have spent on this program is the $150 it took to by a barbell and weight set so I didn't have to rely solely on body weight exercises.

I started using Crossfit by going to their main website.  This website will post the Workout of the Day (WOD...we love acronyms in Crossfit).  Some of the WODs are named after women.  I would assume this is because all women cause us men a certain degree of pain and discomfort.  You will come to hate some of these women immensely. 

Anyway, my first workout was a particularly evil bitch named Helen.  Helen's workout is 3 rounds for time of the following: a 400 meter run, 21 reps of a 55 lb dumbell or kettlebell swing, and 12 pull-ups.  It sounded easy enough.  Three sets and three exercises?  I usually did that for just one muscle group!  I was going to rock this bitch!  3-2-1 GO!

Well, during my normal workouts I would rest between exercises.  I would rest between sets.  I would walk around and get a drink of water.  Talk to the fellow gym rats.  Check out that lady who always wears really awesome spandex shorts.  And during each rep I would lift the weight slowly and with control to maximize that useless pump. 

Now I was sprinting around my neighborhood, throwing up a kettleball as fast as I could without smashing it into my nuts, and knocking out pull-ups without a break.  After the first set I fell over and gasped for air.  I still had two more of these things to go!  So I dragged my sorry ass around my neighborhood for my second set, flailed around with my kettleball, and barely cranked out my second set of pull-ups, using every method my gym teacher told me not to use.  I don't even want to talk about my third set.

After the workout, I was sore for a week.  I've never been that sore after weight lifting.  Very impressive.  For those who worship the pump, you know that sore muscles are growing muscles.  Even more impressive, I was that sore after a 10 minute workout.  I came back into the living room and sat down next to my wife.  "Getting some water?"  she said.  I usually came upstairs every 15 minutes or so to refill my water bottle.  "Naw...I'm done with my workout."  We were both sold. 

Cultfit: The nutty side of Crossfit?  Hardly...

Since I've started Crossfit, I've dropped around 30 lbs while still maintaining most, if not all, of my functional strength.  All this while being able to maintain a full marathon training plan.  I can't bench anything close to 315 lbs anymore, but that's because you don't bench press much with Crossfit.  Bench pressing is one of the standards by which strength is measured in bodybuilding, but it doesn't resemble any lift found in nature.  You really don't need your pecs all that much. 

On the other hand, I notice my gains in certain daily activities.  Last time I helped someone move, I was lifting whole bedroom sets without breaking a sweat.  I can shovel the driveways of everyone in the neighborhood.  And my personal favorite...I'm way, way faster. 

I'm not completely in love with Crossfit to the extent that others can become.  Crossfit devotees can get a little intense.  That's why some who don't follow the practice call the workout system "Cultfit".  A whole cottage industry has sprung up around the system.  There are workshops, and local gyms, and Crossfit brand merchandise.  There is Crossfit for Kids.  You can get certified in Crossfit, like a degree from Crossfit U.  Crossfit is even a sport.  You can compete in the Crossfit Games, where other weirdos compete doing WODs and one-up each other in time and weight. 

Men's White Pukie T-Shirt
This is my favorite item in the Crossfit clothing collection.  It's a picture of one of the Crossfit mascots: Uncle Pukey.  It's kind of a rite of passage into Cultfit to throw up at some point during or after a WOD.  I am among the uninitiated, and if this is the initiation process, do not intend to become a cult member.  I'll stick to paddles to the ass (not that this has ever happened to me).   

Not that I have anything against Cultfitters.  My good friends Jenna and Chris are two such people (I think they would agree with me that they are obsessed...they talk about Crossfit in their Christmas letter).  They frequent the local Crossfit gym.  They compete in Crossfit Games in the area, where they do very well.  They post pictures and videos on facebook of themselves doing Crossfit lifts.  Here's one now:

This is a Olympic Snatch lift.  If this were a picture of me, the weight would be on the ground behind me, and I would be sitting on my ass wondering what the hell happened. 

As far as I know, both of them have made massive gains in every aspect of their general fitness.  They are complete and total beasts, and I have nothing but respect for their passion. 

In a lot of ways, Crossfitters are cut from the same block of crazy as us barefoot runners.  We both believe in a minimalist approach to fitness.  You don't need a bunch of fancy equipment to get a good workout.  Just a few essentials and good, honest, hard work.  Lots of Crossfitters do other very sane things, like wear Vibram Fivefingers or go barefoot while lifting, and use the paleo diet.  How reasonable of them.

A Crossfit for every occasion?

And a lot of Crossfitters will tell you that they are better than you are...at pretty much every sport you can think of.  They use Crossfit as training for everything.  They run marathons, enter powerlifting contests, play football, and any other physical activity you can think of using only Crossfit training. 

This is where I used to get off the Crossfit bus.  I had been training for road races for several years, and I knew that the only way to get faster was to put in the miles.  If 40 miles per week got you a 4:00 hour marathon, the way to get a sub-4:00 was 50 miles per week.  But the most the Crossfit program ever has you running is a 10K.  And you only run a 10K about once every couple of months.  You can't run a sub-4:00 marathon on that kind of mileage, much less finish one!  Even though I had heard about it being done, I didn't believe it.  Those people were already elite athletes, and those accomplishments were the result of that talent.

Then one day, Chris (the studly dude in the above picture) decided out of the blue to run a half marathon, just to see if he could.  As preperation, he did only Crossfit workouts.  Now I've always considered Chris to be a pretty fit guy, but he's not on the Kenyan Olympic team.  Then he knocked off 13.1 miles in around 1 hour and 40 minutes in the middle of the summer.  Even with several years of training, my current PR stands at 1:50.  Later, I watched him knock out an 18 minute 5K on his first try.  Those times aren't beginners luck.  Maybe there was something to this stuff.

Marathon fail

So after I announced I was running my first ultra marathon in September, a lot of you asked me how I plan to train.  Now I've tried a ton of different training programs.  I've been frustrated by all of them.  I trained for my first marathon with the Hal Higdon Plan.  This program was designed to give you just enough of a running base to get you acros the finish line without causing injury or overtraining.  What it did for me is to give me enough base to run 20 miles, at which point I crashed and burned and dragged my ass the next 6.2 miles.

The same thing happened in every other long distance race that I've done.  For my next marathon, I pumped up my training volume, similar to the Hanson Brother's Method, hoping that increasing my mileage would train my body to deal with that last 6.2 miles.  I went from 40 miles per week to 50-60 miles per week.  And it worked.  I made it to mile 24 this time before I crashed and burned.  Suuuuuuuper....

I guess logic would say that I should go to 70-80 mpw so that I can actually finish one of these things comfortably.  Then for this 50 mile race, I might as well just never stop running.  Give my regards to my wife please!  Maybe I'll drop them a postcard. 

Needless to say, as much as I love running high mileages, I don't like being away from my family.  Whenever I think about ways to beef up my running performance while still having a life, I always think about Crossfit.  I also think about Chris and his beastly performance in that half marathon.  He's also signed up for Grandma's Marathon this June, no doubt planning to train with nothing but Crossfit.  I've backed away from Crossfit training as my races approached.  Maybe it's time to do the opposite.

Crossfit Endurance: The only thing better than Crossfit is more Crossfit

Crossfit already has a bunch of spin-offs that focus on exercises to benefit particular sports.  For my sport, they developed Crossfit Endurance.  Basically, it prescribes that you do an endurance specific WOD, followed later in the day by HIIT in the form of speedwork.  By doing so, you're building muscle strength and endurance in a short period of time, that should last much longer distances.  Essentially, Crossfit = good.  More Crossfit = better.

This isn't far off from how a lot of ultra hacks already train.  If you look at a lot of ultra marathon training programs (this one for example), you'll notice that they don't look a lot different than a training program for a marathon, or half marathon.  A lot of ultra marathoners I know don't run much more than 30 miles per week.  They focus on strength training, and developing an understanding of what long, slow distance feels like with an occasional ultra long run.

So my plan is to follow the Crossfit Endurance program for the most part, but without quite so much focus on short speedwork.  I'm not in it to win it when I run my ultra in September, I just want to finish.  I don't want to get away from what I love about race training too much, where you just get out and run for pure enjoyment.  There isn't any enjoyment in wind sprints and time trials.  I just have a feeling that following the program to the tee will suck the fun right out of training.  Then I will top it all off with several back-to-back long runs (called sandwich runs) to get that feeling of being out there on my feet for a long time.

Progress so far

Well I started my variation of Crossfit Endurance after my finish at Honolulu in December.  So far the evidence to suggest progress is purely anecdotal.  I ran a 10 mile run with some friends without any of the normal muscle soreness or fatigue.  My first test will be the Lace Up Against Breast Cancer Half Marathon in February, followed by the Med City Marathon in May.  If I PR either of those races, I'll probably be all in on this system of training.  For all of you folks, it's worth a try.  I promise it will be the hardest, and most rewarding training system you've ever done!

Wish me luck!  Cheers!


  1. I keep hearing about Crossfit but this is the only real explanation of it that I've read...and it sounds really cool. Thanks for taking the time to write about it.

  2. I agree with Beth. Great explanation. This was totally helpful for me. Crossfit is something that always seemed nebulous to me.

    The HIIT stuff you talk about makes a lot of sense. My husband uses that kind of training for mountain biking. He totally swears by it.

  3. Great post - I'm sure your CF friends have already said this but....If you ever have an extra $100/month to spare, the commaraderie of the CF gym is like none other. My CF peeps are like family.

    Good luck and Get Some!!!!!!

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