Detour by Shannon Kokoska

Things Don’t Always Go As Planned

I’m sad to report that I’m taking a break from Crossfit. I’ve had a nagging elbow injury that hasn’t improved (even after 2 months of rest), so it’s off to the doctors for MRIs and all that good stuff. The early diagnosis looks like probably tendonitis and a little arthritis in both elbows, and a partial tear on the left (the one that hasn’t gotten any better). So, more doctors, and a break from Crossfit.

I have “injured” my elbow twice since starting Crossfit. I didn’t consider either instance severe enough to label them injuries at the time, but apparently, they were. The first was my very first workout – the “try it for free” day, before I signed up. I did 40-some-odd push-ups that day (after not having done that many pushups, well, ever), and for 3 weeks after that, I could not do push-ups due to sharp pains in my elbow and bicep. The pain subsided, and once it did, I went back to including push-ups in my workouts. A couple months later, I had a great workout that included push-ups – one of the first workouts where I really felt strong, and I did great on the push-ups… and the next morning, I woke up to find my elbow had swollen to the size of a melon, and I couldn’t move my arm. That was about 4 months ago, and while the swelling subsided, I’ve had chronic pain in my elbow ever since. I can’t do push-ups, or lift anything heavy with that arm alone, or do any barbell move with a snatch grip, or unplug my hair dryer. I need to get it fixed.

Things don’t always go as planned. I hope to return to Crossfit. I love the barbell and I love the camaraderie. I hate the thought that my body might not be capable of doing all of the things I want to do in my mind.

For now, it’s back to running (and my ongoing struggle with my hatred of hills, which, in Virginia, are actually mountains).


Translating Crossfit’s Fitness

Before I started Crossfit, I did a lot of reading about it. One anecdote that came up over and over was how people would give up running or swimming or biking in favor of Crossfit, and then successfully complete a race in that sport with no specific training. I’ve read several tales of people running half marathons without training for the races – just doing Crossfit. They all seemed like tall tales to me.

I can’t speak to any long-distance efforts, but a couple of recent experiences are leading me to believe that those stories might be true after all.

I started Crossfit 4 months ago, in October. In the 3 months prior, I was a gluttonous lump on a log. And for the year or so before that, I was working out 3 times a week – running and swimming throughout 2013, but tapering to less intense things like long-distance walking by mid-2014 (5-9 mile walks). When I started Crossfit, I was completely out of shape in terms of strength and cardio endurance.

Until last week, I hadn’t done any workouts in the past 4 months outside of Crossfit. I’ve only recently started to feel a bit stronger and able to survive the metcon WODs. When snow buried me in for a few days and closed the gym, I got a bit stir crazy.

So I walked down to my apartment’s gym to go for a run. My plan was to run 1 minute, walk 1 minute, for a mile. I warmed up and then started to run, and much to my surprise, I felt pretty good. I ran the mile straight through. 13:29.

That was Feb 21, 2015. The last time I ran a mile was March 1, 2014. My pace a year ago? 14:07/mi.

I dug back a little deeper, since that March 1 run was a bit of a fluke, tucked into a bunch of weeks of swimming. What was my most recent pace, when I was running regularly?

I had to go back to the summer of 2013, when I was running mostly 2 and 3 milers. They paced like this:

Running pace data from the summer of 2013

Running pace data from the summer of 2013

My current 13:29/mi looked pretty spot on, compared to a year and a half ago when I was running regularly. Even more wild – I weighed 20-30 pounds less that summer than I do now.

Could Crossfit alone have given me back my running legs and lungs? It sure looks like it.

Today, I decided to go for a swim. Work prevented me from getting in my third Crossfit workout this week, and my ankle is a bit sore from a slip on ice in the parking lot a few days ago. I figured swimming would be less stressful on the ankle than running, so I headed to the pool.

My last swim was July 15, 2014 – more than 7 months ago.

I swam 1600 yards breaststroke today. That’s my typical swim distance, and it typically takes me about an hour. My pace today was 3:11/100yds – 56:01.

My pace last July? 3:20/100yds.

Last July, I was on-again, off-again with swimming. I swam 3x/week from November through March, took April off, swam in May, took June off, and swam in July. As I compared today’s pace to July, I got curious. How would today’s pace compare to the months when I was very consistently swimming?

I had to go back to December 2013 to find when I was doing breaststroke regularly, and here’s what it looked like:

Swimming pace data, winter 2013

Swimming pace data, winter 2013

3:08 to 3:30/100 yards. So today’s 3:11 pace over 56:01 looks to be on the fitter end of things!

All from Crossfit?

There’s really no other explanation, because that’s all I’ve been doing the past 4 months.

It feels really good to finally be (slowly) transitioning to the point where I don’t feel like I’m dying in every workout. Near-death, maybe! But my lungs are finally starting to catch up, and that’s opening up more options for me.

I love a lot of things about Crossfit – namely, the community, the barbell work, and overall intensity and efficiency of it. I do think, though, that I will continue to run and swim. I doubt I’ll do any more long-distance running (it’s just not an efficient use of my time as a slow-poke), but I’d like to get back into running 5Ks and 10Ks.

There are 2 things I miss about running and swimming, compared to Crossfit:

1) choosing my own music

2) the long, slow, less intense work that lets me zone out and think

I knew I’d miss the solitude (I really do enjoy working out alone), but I didn’t expect to miss the long slog! I wouldn’t give up Crossfit for either of those things, but I think I’ll find the best version of myself in some combination of them all.

I have to say – I’m still quite shocked by the numbers. I’m performing just as well at two cardio-centric sports with zero recent sport-specific training as I was when training them regularly, at a much lighter weight.

I’ve got Rocktown Crossfit to thank for that!


Goldfish photo by Benson Kua

Clowns, Competitions, and Cheesecake

Are you afraid of Ronald McDonald? I didn’t think I was, until I encountered this:

Creepy Ronald at Superfit Games 2015

All your gainz are belong to us.

Creepy, right? I know. I shouldn’t have even brought it up. Let’s move on.

This weekend, I took a road trip to Richmond, VA with my friend Sabrena for the SuperFit Games 2015 East Coast Championship.

We rolled up to the most adorable house in Carytown – our home for the weekend. Sabrena secured it via AirBnB and it was as good as we could have imagined, if not better… except for ol’ Ronald McDonald in the kitchen. Did I mention how creepy that painting was? We covered it up immediately (well, after snapping a few pictures to use to terrify friends with).

We weren’t competing in the SuperFit games; we were there to cheer on the nearly FIFTY Rocktown Crossfit athletes that were competing. #likearock It was an awesome spectator experience, and we got to see some of our Crossfit family podium and rock the house.

I had never been to a Crossfit competition, but had watched the Crossfit Games on TV. The SuperFit Games were what I expected: loud, adrenalized, and awe-inspiring, to name a few attributes.What made it different from watching the official games on TV was that a majority of these people were everyday humans that could be working out next to me at the gym on any given day – but still so much more than everyday humans. There’s a certain level of commitment and fortitude required to compete in a series of grueling events like this, and a measure of selflessness, particularly in the team events. It’s impressive to watch, especially in such a large collective. I can appreciate these things watching a dozen fellow Crossfitters at my gym, but to see a convention floor full of like-minded people putting forth their best efforts in the name of functional fitness – it was pretty mind-blowing.

The most popular question posed to me over the weekend was: “Are you going to sign up next year?!”

Goldfish photo by Benson Kua

Gosh. I don’t know! In my dreams, I’m fit enough and strong enough a year from now to compete and see where I stack up against my peers. But I’m so far from that now that I can’t really envision the reality of it. By age, I’d be in the Masters division (40+), but based on this year’s Masters RX workout, I can’t imagine any way that I’d be ready for that in a year. I’d be lucky to meet the qualifications for the scaled workouts, which don’t have a separate Masters option… and even if I can accomplish the minimum scaled requirements, there’s no way I’d compare favorably to all of the 20-somethings and 30-somethings crushing those workouts. So, I don’t really look at competitions as my realistic Crossfit future. I like competing in general, and would love to someday be in a position to be able to compete casually in Crossfit, but it’s not likely anytime soon, and may never happen. And that’s fine with me. It’ll be a bonus, if it ever happens.

We rounded out the weekend by initiating a couple people to Cards Against Humanity while indulging in Oreo cheesecake from The Cheesecake Factory. One of the many things I appreciate about Rocktown Crossfit is that most members are not 24/7 Paleo tyrants. They can enjoy a slice of cheesecake every now and again.

While you won’t see me on the competition floor anytime soon, you’ll see me back at Rocktown on Tuesday…. gotta work off that cheesecake.


Goldfish photo by Benson Kua.


Nothing Gold Can Stay by Thomas Hawk

Nothing Gold Can Stay

Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.

Robert Frost

Nine days after my 40th birthday, I attended my first Crossfit class.

Eleven weeks and a day later, here I am, writing this post.

My body is a special kind of tired. My calves are still sore from jumping rope on Tuesday. My left wrist feels creaky. I smell like menthol from the icy-hot patch on my back (though that has nothing to do with Crossfit… I sneezed funny this morning and tweaked a muscle in my back that gives me trouble a few times a year. I wish I was kidding).

Some people might consider these to be reasons why I should quit Crossfit. On the contrary, these are the reasons why I absolutely must continue down this path.

Eleven weeks and a day ago, I was motivated to join Crossfit for the same reasons I was motivated to start running half marathons in 2009. It was the same motivation that has gotten me up off the couch countless times in my adult life: fear of all of the negative health issues my body might succumb to if I continued to neglect my health and fitness. I have this vision of sitting in a doctor’s office receiving some sort of irreversible bad news that could have been prevented by eating clean and getting off the couch. What an awful reason to suffer a life-altering consequence – because I was too lazy to properly take care of myself.

But as life ebbs and flows, so does my focus on health and fitness, and each time I came to find myself in a valley, that fear of the point of no return spurred me back into action.

Crossfit has entered my life at a time when the calendar is slapping me in the face with truths that I’m not quite ready to embrace. I don’t have any issues with my health, but my spending on anti-aging serums and peels has grown exponentially in the past few years, and the snail’s pace at which I’m regaining previous fitness has been humbling, at best. I can still get away with dying my hair funky colors to avoid looking my age, but even my trusty Doc Martens are betraying the golden era of my youth. (As one of my undergrad students put it, “They’re like platform shoes from the 90’s!” Yes, dear. Yes they are).

My first Crossfit workout destroyed my body but ignited my spirit. Subsequent workouts early on challenged me physically and made me face several fears head-on. The physical struggle was so fierce that it drowned out any and all voices in my head. In the past couple weeks, I’ve finally started to feel like I can do this. The downside of my body starting to catch up, though, is that it leaves me room to think.

It’s not that thinking is bad. I’m definitely a natural born thinker. I love to absorb information, sort it out in my head, and analyze the heck out of it. I like to store bits and pieces of things just in case I ever need to know them. I enjoy diving into a topic that interests me and studying it from all different angles. I love data and statistics and trends. The act of learning Crossfit movements and philosophies plays very well into my affinities for thinking and learning.

The conflict arises when the facts point to truths that can be a tough pill to swallow. I came upon an article last week that laid out plans for the next Crossfit Open competition. I am too far down the scaling totem pole to consider competing, but I was interested in learning the lay of the land for future reference. That’s when I learned that I would be in what’s called the “Masters Division” – the over-40 crowd. So, that’s it? Year #40 draws a line in the sand between youth and those still fighting to hang on. My first thought was, “How can that be me? I’m just getting started!”

Well, I’m getting started at age 40. That’s the reality of the matter. Tough luck, kiddo.

I read an interview with rocker Pat Benatar once. She was talking about her book, and how she didn’t want a perfect face, because her laugh lines and scars were badges to display proudly. I respect that, and more so marvel at it, because I’m just not there. I’m not ready to wear the life that I’ve lived, because I feel like I’m just getting started.

It’s ironic to me that just as I reach a point in my life where I feel comfortable with who I am and confident in my work, my body becomes a traitor. Think about it. We finally gain the life skills and earn the wisdom of experience to tackle most days with grace and hard work – and in most cases, succeed – but that same grace and hard work applied in the gym will at some point forever offer diminishing returns. We all know this to be true even in our twenties, but I suppose some of us just think it will never happen to us.

I know it is happening to me, against my will and much to my chagrin. I woke up this morning with no idea how I would make it through today’s workout. This week felt brutal, but I also felt like I had to show up and put in the work and let the chips fall where they may. So I went to the gym and set up for the workout:

Every Minute on the Minute for 20 mins:

3 power cleans
3 front squats
3 jerks

My 1 rep max clean right now is 65#, and I’ve only done a few reps of jerks at 55# in strength training, but never in a workout. So I started this WOD with 40#, knowing that I’d probably end up stripping off the extra 5# and using just the bar. The first 5 or 6 rounds went well, and surprisingly, I was keeping pace with the rest of the class, finishing each round in about 30 seconds, and resting for 30 seconds. As the next 5 rounds progressed, I was getting slower at the reps, taking 35-40 seconds to complete them, and that wasn’t leaving me enough time to catch my breath before the next round started. In round 11, I was having trouble getting the bar overhead for the jerks, and after round 12, I knew I had to strip down to the bar (35#). That helped, but I still couldn’t get my heart rate under control.

Rounds 14 and 15, I started 10 seconds into the minute because I couldn’t breathe, so the rest of the class was finishing all 3 sets while I was still in the middle of doing squats. I felt the workout getting away from me. I couldn’t keep up. I grunted my way through the jerks in round 15 and then set the bar down and looked at the clock. It was already time for round 16. This just wasn’t going to work.

Coach Lauren told us up front that because this workout was scored by rounds missed, if we didn’t think we could get through all of the reps in a round, to just skip the round and take the breather, because either way, it would count against us. A month ago, I would have accepted at face value that the breather would very likely be part of my strategy. Today, though, as I’ve started to feel stronger approaching these workouts, I viewed it as a last resort – and damn, did it make me mad that I found myself in last-resort territory.

I sat out round 16 and fought back tears. I was angry at my body. I just kept thinking, I show up. I work hard. I study. I practice. I’m doing everything I’m supposed to be doing, and I still can’t get through this workout. It stung. I really thought that I would get my lungs and stamina back much faster. Last year and the year before, I was swimming miles and running half marathons. Just a couple months before starting Crossfit, I was doing 7, 8, 9 milers on the weekends with a combination of walking and running. 3 hours out on the trails – how could I not finish a 20 minute workout that let me rest half of the time?

But that’s the reality of 40. Fitness is harder to gain and harder to hold on to than it was even a few years ago. I’ve never been a natural athlete, but it still hurts the ego.

The clock marched on to round 17, and almost miraculously, that one minute of rest turned me into a whole new human. The remaining 4 rounds were hard, but I was able to knock them out on pace. I finished the workout with a score of 1, meltdown avoided.

I know that the only way I’m going to succeed in this area of my life is to embrace my age and look at Masters status as a gift. Be glad that I wake up every day able to do these incredible things. Trust that I have the wisdom and the intimate familiarity with my body to avoid injury in the process. Know that I will, as a result, become stronger and more fit than at any other point in my life. I cannot let fear of disease be my primary motivation, as then I’m forever running away. Instead, I will embrace the pursuit of strength as my motivation, and continue to march headlong toward it.

Nothing gold can stay, but there’s always another crack at dawn tomorrow.





Photo by Thomas Hawk.

I’m the King of the World

If there’s one thing that Crossfit is not, it is not predictable. Not only do the workouts vary wildly from one day to the next – your body’s ability to conquer them grows and changes as well. The repeated exposure to new challenges and unknowns taps into reserves of courage I didn’t realize I had. This truth was quite evident to me this week as I stared down the barrel of a 12-minute row.

Three weeks ago, I survived a WOD that duplicated the 2014 Crossfit Open workout, 14.4:

60-calorie row
50 toes-to-bars
40 wall-ball shots
30 cleans
20 muscle-ups

Well, I survived some of it; we were scored by reps completed, and I made it 17 reps into the wall balls for a score of 127. (I also replaced the toes-to-bars with med ball situps, as I’m still working on hanging from the bar).

That 60 calorie row was brutal. It took me at least 7 minutes. I was the last one off the rower (as per usual), and I could barely stand when I was done.

A lot of Crossfitters seem to hate rowing, but I don’t mind it. I might actually like it someday, if I can ever get better at it. I lack two crucial elements at this point: power and lung capacity. The rower is the second fastest way (after running) to cash out my lungs and throw my heart rate through the roof. Long before my legs or arms tire, I hit the wall of “I… can’t… breathe…”

When I checked out the WOD a few nights ago and saw a 12 minute row, I immediately flashed back to the 14.4 workout. Oh, how awful that row felt! It reminded me how out of shape I’d let myself get and made me suck wind like never before. If I could barely survive 7 minutes, how would I ever survive 12? I went to bed that night with a dark cloud over me, sad that I was heading into a workout that had a real chance of beating me.


Pooh: Have you ever had one of those days when you just can’t win, Eeyore?
Eeyore: Yup, I know how that feels.

I woke up the next morning and tried to look at the bright side: at least I didn’t have to count! The rowers have performance monitors that track all of the numbers for us. I headed to the gym and tried to formulate a game plan that involved not dying on the rower. The only thing I could come up with was: row slow.

Before I knew it, the timer counted down 3… 2… 1… go! And we were off. I tried to keep a slow and steady pace, but by 3:00, as usual, my lungs were on fire and I was breathing like a maniac. A couple minutes later, Coach Lauren cued me to put more power in my legs. “Push through the heels… strong pull!” The calories/hour rate on the performance monitor jumped significantly, but I was having trouble balancing my power output and my need for sweet, sweet oxygen.

I’ve watched a lot of videos on rowing. They all say to have a fast, powerful pull, and a slow, smooth recovery. That sounds great in theory, but somehow, my recovery was never slow enough to catch my breath. In a state of near-hyperventilation, it’s pretty hard to turn around and give a fast, powerful pull. Some videos address breathing, but only to state that you should get into a rhythm, with no suggestions on how to do that.

As the halfway point of that 12 minute row approached, I knew I had to find some way to catch my breath, or I would be toast.

At 6:00, my monitor showed 55 calories. Coach Lauren wanted to see us maintain our first half pace in the second half. I had to do something different. How could I slow down that recovery phase so I could catch my breath and push off consistently stronger on the next stroke? It wasn’t pretty, but as I slid forward into each catch, I took the slightest of pauses – just long enough to get one big inhale. Then, I pushed off again.

I was taking fewer strokes per minute, but I started to catch my breath, and my power output stayed consistent and was slightly higher than a few minutes prior. It didn’t feel at all smooth and graceful, but I felt much better and started to get into a rhythm of breathing, too.

The remaining 6 minutes were hard – but they weren’t worse than hard. I expect most of what I do in Crossfit to be hard. I want it to be hard. Worse than hard sucks (I do not at all believe you have to hack up a lung or puke your guts out to have an intense and acceptably hard workout), but hard is a challenge I’m up for. Those last 6 minutes felt good and hard.

As Coach Lauren called time, the rower reported 112 calories. I was 25 calories lower than the next lowest athlete, and a good 50 calories or more below most of the class (100 calories below the 9am top score). I only compare myself to the class to marvel at how fit my gym mates are, and note where I stand for future progress checks. The bright spot in my result was that I rowed 57 calories in the second half (compared to 55 calories in the first half). Not only did I maintain my pace, but bettered it by 2 calories, despite the onset of some pretty serious fatigue as the clock wound down.

And, I rowed for 12 minutes. Not only did not die, but pulled out what I feel was a strong improvement over 3 weeks ago. I still have a lot to learn about rowing, and a long way to go in rebuilding my fitness, but this day was a win.

It sure felt good to kick that rain cloud aside and take some comfort in the fact that I stared down yet another scary thing, faced it with courage, and emerged victorious. You won’t get me today, rower. I’m the king of the world.

Booty shorts squat

Skip the Booty Shorts

I was scrolling through Facebook today and came across an article called “Training Tips for Beginners.” I click on most of these links; I’m a beginner and can use all the tips I can get. Maybe I’ve been reading too many of these articles, because before I even got to the content, I devised Tip #1 in my head. It went:

Skip the booty shorts. You have to squat to earn those booty shorts.

Ahh, the post-holiday hangover! I don’t even know where that came from, as everyone at Rocktown (particularly those wearing booty shorts) appears fit as fiddles to me. (And for the record, I am not personally considering wearing booty shorts). But that’s what the post-holiday hangover does to my brain.

This new year, I’m focusing on behavior-based goals instead of outcome-based goals. This shift in my approach coincided nicely with a recent episode of Barbell Shrugged. They had some great tips for goal and resolution setting. I wanted to focus on things I can control, and I can control my behavior. I can’t necessarily control the outcomes. For example, I can control how many times I set foot in the gym per week. I can’t control whether or not I lose a set number of pounds by setting foot in said gym.

One of my goals is to up my workouts from 3 times per week to 4. The extra workout will most likely be Crossfit, though I would still like to get back into swimming and wouldn’t mind if one workout was swimming.

Another goal is to get off the extreme-calorie-deficit dieting bandwagon. To do that, I’ve joined a 2-month challenge at Eat to Perform. (Late registration ends Jan 15, 2015, if you’re interested in joining). There are essentially 2 parts to the approach to eating a la ETP:

1. You have to fuel your workouts. No cutting calories on workout days. You eat all of the calories your body needs that day.

2. Instead of counting calories, you count macronutrients (or “macros”) – protein, fat, and carbohydrates.

The intended result is muscle gain and fat loss… slow, steady fat loss. You create your calorie deficit (and thus weight loss) by cutting calories from carbs on rest days, and for those with a lot of fat to lose, they recommend 3 to 4 rest days per week. By keeping your protein up, your body has the amino acids it needs to perform muscle repair during those rest days. Like they say – you don’t build muscle when you’re lifting. You build it when you’re recovering from lifting.

Squirrel Rest Day

The Eat to Perform calculator (with some tweaking from the coaches) recommends that I shoot for:

Workout days: 150g protein, 250g carbs, 90g fat (2,410 calories)

Rest days: 150g protein, 125g carbs, 90g fat (1,910 calories)

For someone that has lived under the assumption that weight loss requires a 1,200 calorie per day diet, even rest days are a whole lot of food! ETP throws quite a few of the typical calorie-deficit-dieting “rules” out the window. No foods are off limits, though clean eating is encouraged. The whole “no snacks after dinner” concept is moot, to the point that ETP even recommends a pre-bed snack – not just any snack, but protein and slow-digesting carbs. I was so shocked to be encouraged to eat before bed that I did some googling around, and sure enough, there are many reputable sources citing muscle recovery benefits and decreased inflammation due to well chosen bedtime snacks. I don’t know if this particular source is reputable, but it summarizes what I’ve found elsewhere quite nicely: The Truth About Eating Before Bed.

We’re six days into the new year, and I’m doing pretty good at hitting my macros every day. I could be eating a whole lot cleaner, but I’m taking this all one step at a time. I could overhaul everything in a day and crash and burn in 3 weeks like most of my “resolutions,” or I can try a slow, steady approach and see if I can make some of these changes permanent.

The hardest part for me is getting variety in my diet – because I really don’t mind eating the same things day after day. I’ve had a smoothie for breakfast nearly every day for the last decade. It’s just easy and I’m too sleepy to cook in the morning. My stomach doesn’t really like food first thing in the a.m. but I’m almost always hungry first thing, so a smoothie does the trick. For a while I was in a great habit of having salads for lunch, but I fell out of that habit and am now fighting to get it back. But I’ve gone years on end eating PB&J for lunch, every day, day in and day out. For the past couple years, my go-to lunch or dinner has been a Jimmy John’s #6, no tomato, add sauce. It’s so extreme that the crew at my local JJ’s has my sandwich ready to go before I even make it through the door from the parking lot. I could eat that sandwich every day for the rest of my life and probably never get sick of it.

It would definitely be healthier for me to introduce more variety into my daily diet, but for now, I’m focusing on hitting my macros and ditching all of the junk except the Jimmy John’s. I’m allowing myself the option to have JJ’s on workout days, because it fits into my macros. It’s not the best choice, but considering that’s really my only major vice, it’s not the worst thing I could be doing.

To hit my protein, my lazy eating (let’s call it, habitual one-track-minded eating) results in a lot of protein shakes – which I actually like (see previous smoothie comments). It’s also probably not the most healthy way to be getting my protein, but at least I’m mixing up different kinds of protein powders – some whey for post-workout shakes, some plant-based for mealtime shakes. I spent as much money this week diversifying my protein powder collection as I did shopping for produce and groceries. At least the protein powders will last longer!

Why, oh why, can’t I thrive on green smoothies, protein shakes, grilled cheese sandwiches, PB&J, and Jimmy John’s? Oh how I wish.

But, baby steps. And with my baby-steps approach, so far, so good. I don’t feel deprived (and actually have trouble eating enough food on rest days). Workouts for the new year have been good. I added 10# to my back squat and 20# to my front squat maxes. Today was the first time I did consecutive days of Crossfit workouts that included strength segments, and while I was sore heading in today (and was sore heading out!), I feel pretty good. (I can’t lie, though – I’m glad tomorrow is a rest day!)

So that’s how I’m kicking off 2015… sans booty shorts. How about you?

Learning to Snatch

Learning to Snatch

Last night, after surviving my first day at home post-holiday-travel, I checked the Rocktown Crossfit web site to see what today’s WOD would be. I took the holiday week off from workouts (unless you count lugging two 50-pound suitcases around O’Hare airport while carrying a 23-pound backpack of camera and computer gear on your back) and after a good night’s sleep was ready to get back to it. The virtual whiteboard looked like:

10 min to work up to a heavy snatch
Then, 2×2 @90%

As many rounds as possible in 10 minutes:
200m run
10 pullups
5 power snatches (135/95)

My first thought was, “Thank goodness it’s only a 200m run at a time.” Running still crushes my lungs.

My second thought was, “Pullups, good. I need more of those.” I’m still doing them from the floor with the rings, as I still don’t have the grip or arm strength to even hang from the bar, but I like them because I feel like they’re making me stronger.

My third thought was, “I doubt I’m going to do snatches. They’ll probably get subbed with something else… but I’d better watch some videos just in case!” We did not cover snatches in the intro on-ramp PEAK training program, and as a n00b, I don’t really have any feel for what I’m ready for. I have to trust my coaches on that. My upper body strength is the most significant of my weaknesses, so I wasn’t sure I’d be considered ready to attempt a technical overhead move.

After watching some videos, I thought that if I had to do a squat snatch, it would be iffy, as my squat mechanics are still a work in progress. If it was all power snatches, I might be in luck. As it so happens, my snatch googling led me to finally understand that things labeled “power” are the high-catch versions of the lift. So far, I like those the best (probably due to aforementioned squat weaknesses).

I headed to the gym for the 9am class – my usual class, but not on my usual day – and found a zillion people there ready to get their WOD on. I’m exaggerating, but the class was packed. I didn’t recognize many faces, but as usual, everyone was super friendly and welcoming and encouraging. Rocktown Crossfit has the best people, hands down. #likearock

Needless to say, I was beyond excited when Coach Lauren proposed that during the strength session, we work on snatch technique. Yes, please! I started out using the training bar (25#). I expected to have trouble keeping the bar vertical in front of me. I thought I would want to swing it out and up, but surprisingly, that wasn’t a problem. My biggest problems were:

1. Jumping my feet too far out on the catch (well past squat width), and

2. Pulling with my arms instead of shrugging and pushing with my hips.

Both of these things got better with practice, but it definitely took a heck of a lot of brain power to make my body do what I wanted it to do. If I stopped thinking about my feet, they forgot to stay in close. If I stopped thinking about my drive, I reverted to arm-pulling the bar. There were 2 reps in particular that felt different and totally right, and I was glad that Coach Lauren caught one of them and said, “Yes! Nailed it – best one today!” – so I know that what that felt like was indeed what it should feel like. I couldn’t repeat the perfect mix of ingredients with much consistency, but I got it right a few times, and I will build from there.

For the workout, I used the empty women’s bar (35#). Doing snatches after pullups left my arms whimpering, so I’m glad I didn’t try to add any weight. I’ll save that for next time. In my second set of snatches during the workout, as my arms got fatigued, I was having a harder time catching with my arms locked out.

The verdict: I like snatches – power snatches, anyway.

Working with the barbell is my favorite part of Crossfit. I would like to start doing some strength training during open gym maybe once or twice a week, but I will have to talk to the coaches and figure out what that looks like. It’s on my list of things to do in 2015.

Here’s the video that I found most helpful in familiarizing myself with snatch technique:

And because I crack myself up:

Learning to Snatch

Here’s to a happy and safe New Year’s Eve to all. I’ll catch you on the flipside!

Living stone succulent flower Bill Glacey

Live, Learn, and Love

Live, learn and love… I don’t mean to conjure up any bad Alanis Morissette flashbacks, but she might have been on to something:

You live, you learn.
You love, you learn.
You cry, you learn.
You lose, you learn.
You bleed, you learn.
You scream, you learn.

I’ve always heard those lyrics in my head as implying suffering of some kind, with a resulting lesson learned. I don’t think that has to be the case. Crossfit has yet to make me cry or bleed, but my last couple workouts have made me appreciate the learning process in all of its forms.

Last Friday, my friend Sabrena kindly joined me for open gym to work on deadlifts. They don’t come up often in workouts, and I was curious how much I could lift. I suspected it might be one of my stronger lifts, maybe from all the running I’ve done the last few years. And, since the strength component of Crossfit seems to be my favorite part, I wanted to do more of it.

Those coming to Crossfit with absolutely no prior weightlifting experience (like me) have a lot to learn not only in terminology and proper form for the various moves, but in the capacity of their own bodies. I had no idea how much weight to put on the bar to start with, because I had absolutely no clue what I might be able to lift. The process became, for me:

Add weights. Pick it up. Put it down. Still OK? Repeat.

I surprised myself that day, with a final deadlift of 170#. I didn’t lift to the point of failure, as we ran out of time before the main workout, but I doubt I’d have been able to lift much more. Google tells me that as an untrained newbie, at my weight a woman should be able to deadlift 110#, so… go me! The “novice” level is listed as 195#, but I’m not going to lie. I can see 200# in my sights, and I would love to hit that milestone. I’ll try again in a few weeks, maybe around the new year.

My first real deadlift. 170#

This is me, definitely living and loving and learning.

Another thing I’ve realized through Crossfit is that “losing” isn’t always a bad thing. When I joined Crossfit, I very consciously accepted the fact that I was going to finish last at every workout for a long time. Most people equate finishing last to losing, but – at least in Crossfit – you gain a whole lot by finishing last. She who finishes last has the biggest cheering section – quite literally! Sure, I look forward to being the one cheering on my mates, but in the meantime, yes, please! Count for me! Tell me I got this! Hell yeah, I got this!

The last bit Alanis crooned about was screaming. One more thing I’ve learned about myself through Crossfit is that, while not a screamer per se, I’ve been known to occasionally growl at the barbell. It’s nothing compared to the grunting and groaning going on around me, and it blends right in with the booming music and the laughter and the cheers. Besides, nobody is listening to me, anyway – and if they are, they don’t care what it sounds like, as long as I don’t quit.

I came across an article the other day called “What Lifting Weights Taught Me About Being a Woman.” (I think it was another gem from Sabrena – good stuff). Fourth on the list of lessons learned is:

“Treating exercise as a means to be more, as opposed to viewing it as a never-ending struggle to be less, is absolutely a game changer.”

This is one of the most amazing lessons I’m learning through Crossfit. Yes, one of my goals is to lose weight. But Crossfit has redefined how I frame workouts, because my attendance at each class is not with the goal of losing weight. It is with the goals of completing the workout and increasing my strength. I want to be more – more able, more fit, stronger. Losing weight really becomes secondary or even lower down the line, because when I look at the things I am doing with my body in order to become stronger and more fit, it would be impossible not to lose weight.

My focus on numbers has also shifted. I used to weigh myself daily, hoping to see another .2 or .4 pounds lost. I’ve been doing Crossfit for 6 weeks now, and the scale hasn’t changed much. I lost 5 pounds right away, but gained them back. However, I’ve lost over an inch in my waist, and I can’t wear my usual jeans without a belt – so my body is definitely changing. I don’t mind if the scale gets a bit dusty with no use. I’m gaining a whole side of my closet!

There’s a lot to learn when you go from the couch to Crossfit, but so far, the lessons have been inspiring and empowering and life affirming.

You live, you learn.

Living stone succulent flower photo credit: Bill Glacey

Mount St Helens by Image Editor

I Like Helen

“Helen” is one of the benchmark workouts of Crossfit. There’s a series of workouts named after women (thus referred to as “The Girls”). I’ve seen and read a few variations on how “The Girls” got their names. One interview I found showed Crossfit founder Gary Glassman saying, “I think anything that leaves you laying on your back gasping for air wondering what just happened to you should be named after a girl.” Another variation quoted Mr. Glassman as saying that the workouts are named like the US National Weather Service names storms, because they’re so intense that they leave you feeling as if a storm just hit you.

Whatever the inspiration for the names, I met my first one this morning. Her name is Helen, and she looks something like this:


3 rounds for time of:
400m Run
21 Kettlebell Swings, 1.5/1 pood
12 Pull-ups

I’ve been kind of looking forward to the day I’d meet Helen. I may be out of shape, but even so, running is something that feels like an old friend. Sometimes, it feels like an old friend that I want to punch in the eye (I would never punch a friend in the eye!), but an old friend, regardless. I know how to do it (run, that is). I know how my body feels and responds to different levels of intensity while running, and I’m pretty good at managing my pace and noting my body’s cues. That’s pretty much unlike everything else in Crossfit, where everything is new to me and nothing feels second-nature.

I also kind of like kettlebell swings. I thought I hated kettlebell swings before I joined Crossfit. At my regular gym last year, I took advantage of a free session with a trainer, and she set me up with a strength routine that included kettlebell swings. The form was completely different than they taught me at Crossfit (really, I don’t think that trainer gave me any form cues at all – I just made it up from what I’d seen on The Biggest Loser, and she didn’t correct me), and the move always hurt my back and made me feel nauseous. I quit doing them after a month or so, until I joined Crossfit.

Once I got some proper coaching at Crossfit, kettlebell swings felt good! I had been swinging the bell down near the ground, bending completely over, swinging it way behind me with my hands down at shin level, and yanking it back up with my arms. So, yeah… that’s not the way to do them. I had no idea that kettlebell swings are more of a hip movement than an arm movement. When I took the focus off of my arms and put it to my hips, the kettlebell just glided, and the weird strain in my back was gone. It seems that the hips make all the difference. Never underestimate the power of good coaching.

The last component of Helen is pull ups, and while I still can’t even do one assisted, I can do ring pull ups. So that was my plan.

I headed to the gym in my running shoes instead of my Nanos, since there wasn’t a strength component today and, well, running. It was chilly outside, but the sun was out, so the temperature wasn’t too bad once we had warmed up. My goal was to finish the workout in under 20 minutes, using the blue kettlebell (18#) and the rings for pull ups. I knew I’d be taking up the anchor, because I have to run really slow in order to keep running at all, but I was confident that I could manage my pace and not meet pukie.

The first round went well (except that in my head, I thought we were doing 29 kettlebell swings… hey, I was far away from the whiteboard and my eyesight is atrocious! And obviously my short term memory is like a steel trap *not*). I broke the kb swings into two sets, 14 and 15, and did the first round of pull ups unbroken.

The second round taught me that I should’ve been a little more conservative in my first round strategy, and I had to walk 20 feet or so to catch my breath during the run. It sure will be nice to get my lungs back, someday. I did the same split for the kb swings, and broke the pull ups into 3 sets of 4.

That worked much better, as I felt pretty darn good for the last run and didn’t have to walk. Most of the class was done with the workout by the time I got back for my last sets of kettlebell swings and pull ups, and someone shouted out, “You can do it! 3 sets of 7!” Wait, what? Awww man. It was supposed to be 21 kb swings, not 29. But, woohooo!!! That’s way fewer kb swings! Those went well (maybe I could have gone a little heavier?), and I did the pull ups 3×4 again. Yowza, those last couple pull ups were ouchie.

I finished my modified Helen in 19:04. That puts me somewhere in the bottom 10% of all women, but at least I’m on the list!

I have a long way to go, but I can definitely count on lots of fun new things to learn, and lots of new personal bests to be achieved. And maybe someday Helen will be my BFF.

Photo credit: Image Editor

What a Wonderful World by George

Think It, Be It

Every now and then, something comes along in life that reminds me of the power of visualization.

While I was fighting off The Sickness last week, I spent a lot of time watching Crossfit videos, particularly on basic skills like squats and cleans. I watched the videos over and over, trying to memorize the proper techniques. I spent much of the week in bed, but my brain was doing a lot of thinking about Crossfit.

Then came my return to the gym. I expected to lose what little strength I’d gained, but to my surprise, I was able to clean 5# heavier, and quite a bit easier than 2 weeks prior. What changed? I was still under the weather and hadn’t worked out in nearly 2 weeks, but found the whole process of doing cleans to be much easier.

I think my improvement could in part be attributed to all the thinking I had done on proper technique and cleans.

Now, I do believe there is a fru-fru, coo-coo line when it comes to affecting the physical world with positive thinking. It’s certainly not magic, and thinking things into being takes a whole lot of work and not just flowery thoughts. But I do believe that there can be strong mind-body ties, and I do believe that there’s really no downside to positive thinking.

My experience at the gym yesterday sent me on a google hunt for articles on positive thinking and sports. What do you know – the first article I read cited studies done with weightlifters. Psychology Today had this to say:

A study looking at brain patterns in weightlifters found that the patterns activated when a weightlifter lifted hundreds of pounds were similarly activated when they only imagined lifting.  In some cases, research has revealed that mental practices are almost effective as true physical practice, and that doing both is more effective than either alone.

That sounds exactly like what I experienced, in that the movements came more easily to me, as if I’d been practicing them. But the only practice I had done was in my head!

The New York Times ran an article earlier this year on Olympians using imagery as mental training. They preferred the term “imagery” to “visualization,” as it implied invoking more senses, thereby making the visualization more effective. Rookie athletes described feeling more prepared for their events through practicing imagery, and the imagery process was described as “reassuring and empowering.”

I suppose this is why I look up each WOD the night before I go to the gym. It gives me a chance to envision how I will approach the workout and prepare by looking up and studying any unfamiliar moves. I think about how I will complete the workout, and that definitely feels reassuring and empowering.

What a Wonderful World by GeorgeCall it what you want, but the evidence is strong: think it, be it!

Photo credit: George