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T.J Murphy’s Advice For Would-Be CrossFitters

One old-school runner shares his experience trying out a new approach.

One old-school runner shares his experience trying out a new approach.

A quick recap of why I got into CrossFit in the first place.

On paper, I felt like I should have been a beacon of super health. For nearly a year I’d been logging 40 to 50 miles per week, punctuated with tempo runs, long runs and interval workouts. I was practicing a vegan diet—fruits, vegetables, rice, beans, nuts, soy and tofu. Twice a week I was performing a set of core body strength exercises, on top of a basic stretching routine.

It was in October of last year that I crossed the finish line of the Rock and Roll Los Angeles Half Marathon that it started: a complete physical breakdown of my body. I’d walked 200 yards past the finish and I sat on a curb, gritting my teeth at how much my knees felt like they were on fire. I couldn’t put a stop to it. Two weeks after the race I developed a limp, a painful one, where every other step it felt like a knife had been jammed underneath my kneecap. For six weeks I couldn’t shake the limp. I was worried cartilage surgery was waiting for me on the horizon.

These frustrations were underscored by the fact that through the entire year preceding the half marathon my progress had been so meager—50 miles a week with speed training should have been yielding more results.

Not long after this I paid a visit to Nutrilite headquarters in Orange County where they gave me a battery of health and fitness tests. The blood workout showed that I had developed a high-level of insulin resistance, or hyperglycemia, a state that can also be described as being pre-diabetic.

Whatever I’d been doing had not been working out for me. This is when I tuned into the promise of CrossFit.

Anyone who watched the “CrossFit Games” coverage that was broadcast last week on ESPN 2 could see the all-around fitness—strength, stamina, power, speed and endurance¬—being displayed by elite CrossFitters. I’m sure most of these folks got into CrossFit blazing with enthusiasm and a desire to be super fit. When I decided to throw myself into CrossFit, I just wanted to be able to run again.

That was last November. Reading about CrossFit, talking to CrossFitters and followers of CrossFit Endurance, I knew it would be a slow and painful process. When I started I couldn’t perform five consecutive burpees—a CrossFit staple—or more than 3 pull-ups—another staple. My right thigh was atrophied, my left Achilles tendon was strained and my knees felt like I spent 10 minutes a day beating them with a hammer. Atrophied is a good word—mentally and physically I was a puddle.

It’s been 10 months since I started CrossFit. At the beginning it was a bit like opening up the hood on a Ford that’s been rusting on the driveway for years, the odometer reading 300,000 miles. I had no idea what the experience was going to be like. It’s been surprising. It took an adaptation to high-intensity work. It required humbling. But there’s no doubt about the working results—I turned 48 years old on Sunday. I can say that in many ways I am stronger and fitter than I have been since I was a teenager. My body fat percentage has dropped from around 20% to 13%. At the beginning I could not execute a single overhead squat with even a PVC pipe. Now, with knees that never required surgery, I can do them with 100 pounds, squatting to a 90-degree level, and sometimes even a bit below that. I’ve become a student of Brian MacKenzie (Endurance), Kelly Starrett (Mobility), Mike Burgener (Olympic Lifting), Carl Paoli (Gymnastics) and Dr. Barry Sears (the Zone diet). The coolest thing has been the coaching at my gym, CrossFit Elysium in San Diego, where I learn daily from coaches Paul Estrada, Leon Chang and Stacie Beal. Here’s something I never imagined would happen at a gym: at Elysium I’ve developed friendships with a bunch of terrific people and I enjoy one of the bonds that I believe is a core reason why CrossFit is booming in the country and around the world: a tightly knit, mutually supportive community of coaches and athletes from all walks of life.

When I’ve traveled I’ve dropped into other CrossFit boxes and have also found this quality of comradeship. CrossFit San Francisco, CrossFit Southie in Boston, Crossfit Marina in Orange County and Hoosier CrossFit in Bloomington, Indiana. I can’t imagine every using a hotel gym again.

With the rusted automobile image in mind, I still have months of work ahead of me before I believe I’ll be able to enjoy racing the way I’d like to. But since ESPN 2 is showing the CrossFit Games in September, I thought I’d share a bit about what I’ve experienced so that anyone who might be interested in trying CrossFit might have a better idea of what it’s all about, what’s it’s like and how to get the most out of it.

Mythbuster: CrossFit Isn’t Just For Hardcore Fitness Maniacs

While CrossFit certainly is for hardcore fitness maniacs, it’s for everyone else too. You may have never worked out a day in your life, but I guarantee you if you walked into CrossFit Elysium and joined up, the first thing that would happen is that you’d be warmly welcomed by the coaches and the other box members, and the coaches would devise a routine for you to get started. Ultimately you’ll be training alongside CrossFitters representing a broad scale of ability and experience—but workouts will be scaled to your level. I have met several CrossFitters that live at the higher frequencies of the EM band—they remind me of wrestlers who lived on my dorm floor at the University of Iowa many years ago—they exist 24/7 in a vacuum of extreme discipline—severe diet protocols, eradication of distraction, living in compression wear, not really smiling much and transmitting an overall level of grimness. I have nothing but admiration for these folks. Although—just as it was for me living in the Hillcrest dorm near Dan Gable’s Hawkeye wrestlers—I like enjoying a cold beer more often than once a month. And from what I’ve seen a more moderate approach applies to most of the CrossFitters in the world. My point? CrossFit is for anyone interested. In a way the perception versus the reality reminds me of triathlon. Maybe people assume that being a triathlete means peeling off Ironmans. But most of the triathletes in the USA are doing short triathlons that take an hour or less and can be more inclusive than running events. Same with CrossFit: it’s for all.

Leave Your Ego At The Door

This is the most common piece of advice mentioned to newcomers in the CrossFit world. It’s also one of the best. It may also be necessary. It was for me and still is for me. The nature of a CrossFit “WOD”—or Workout of the Day—is that those in attendance compete with one another to complete the workout first or to tally up the most work within a prescribed time. Times and numbers are then recorded on a whiteboard. At Elysium and the other gyms I’ve trained at, I routinely am training side by side with women who kick my ass, not to mention the other guys. I learned quickly that you want to use the competitive energy the setting generates to give a best effort—to ultimately compete with yourself and try and be better than you were the day, week or month before. Also, the workouts are always changing, so one day you’ll rank higher because the workout was more tuned to your strengths as opposed to weaknesses.

My bottom line? Know that you’re going to get whipped on occasion (if not often), get to the gym on time, do your best, learn everything you can and keep coming back. I essentially have confined my thinking to those thoughts. My ego is locked in a trunk in the basement with the lights turned off.

Get Comfortable With Being Uncomfortable

This too is common advice in the CrossFit world and it isn’t simply referring to the discomfort of training (although that’s a big part of it). It refers to how CrossFit is, compared to most gyms in the world, a radically different experience. In CrossFit, it’s not like going to an LA Fitness (like I used to) where you proceed to workout cloaked in anonymity. Walk into a CrossFit gym and you are going to be learning the names of everyone else. (One thing I’ve found astonishing about training at CrossFit gyms—the coaches learn your name instantly. At Elysium, I watched this happen with me and also with any other newbies. I have yet to hear a coach say, “I’m sorry, what was your name again?” I once did a Wednesday night workout at San Francisco CrossFit and Adrian Bozeman—well known in the CrossFit universe as a coach and a CrossFit Games referee—was leading the workout. Bozeman had coached the previous class and he’d have one more group after us. During the warmup he came up and introduced himself and I said, “I’m T.J.” An hour later I thanked him and he said, “Nice meeting you T.J.!” How the hell did he remember that?)

The point: In CrossFit, you’re going to be meeting people and getting to know them. Ultimately you’ll find yourself being cheered on by them, or you’ll be cheering them on. In a two-year period where I was a member of LA Fitness I didn’t learn anyone’s name—trainers, other members, the woman at the juice bar. One of the rare interactions I had with a trainer occurred when I asked one for a body-fat test that was part of my membership. Except for asking my age and weight she didn’t say one word to me—just had me grip a device that spilled forth a number moved on with her life. This will not be your experience in CrossFit, I promise you.

Back to the part about training discomfort: yes, this is also what I mean. I think one of the reasons I like CrossFit is that it reminds me of the days I trained for the 400 and 800 in high school track. Each workout blasted me with anaerobic stress—there would be pre-workout dread and post-workout glee. Same with my workouts at CrossFit Elysium. To my mind it’s one of the best things about CrossFit. In this bizarre world where we’re constantly blanketed by marketing promises that try to convince us that what we need is more comfort, more ease, more air conditioning, more television—I have found the back-to-basics no frills world of CrossFit so deeply welcome in my life that I can’t imagine ever not doing it. And yes, because the workouts are both high-intensity and constantly changing you never get comfortable with them. This is not your daily 20 minutes on the elliptical trainer, let me tell you. But the value is that it helps you build (or re-build) mental toughness that modern day life strives to drain out of you.

Take The Nutrition Challenge

If your CrossFit gym offers a “Nutrition Challenge”—do it. I’m doing my first, a Nutrition Challenge at CrossFit Elysium that started a month ago (with two weeks remaining). It started off with a 2-hour seminar where the coaches talked about the whys and how-tos of the Zone and Paleo diets, answering questions and such. The following Monday anyone who took up the Challenge began a six-week competition that involved gaining or losing points based on how many CrossFit workouts you did in a week’s time, Zone meals, Paleo meals, Zone-Paleo, water consumption, hours of sleep and a few other categories. I tried to do something like this myself a few months ago and it fell apart in a few days. Once again the CrossFit community and the power of accountability—and the fun of competition—makes an event like a six-week dietary overhaul a doable thing with exceptional educational value.

Mythbuster: You’ll Get Hurt Doing CrossFit

I have no research numbers to report on this but I do have anecdotal reporting. I hear that there are quite a few injuries in CrossFit. Maybe that’s true. But I can talk your ear off about all the injuries I’ve had running, and two weeks ago I took a dandy of a spill off my mountain bike, one that covered my face with blood (I thought it was sweat until I looked into a mirror and saw The Living Dead staring back at me). I know my experience has been that if you’re working with CrossFit coaches that are paying close attention to your movement and technique, you’re in good hands. But ultimately if an exercise is just too much for your ability at the moment, it’s time to can the ego (as mentioned before) and just tell the coaches you have to scale down. As one CrossFitter mentioned to me when we talked about this subject, CrossFit boxes generally go to great lengths to make sure no one gets hurt—injuries are not good for business.

Be patient. Know that your body is going to gradually make certain adaptations and depending on age and other factors, progress won’t come overnight but it will definitely come. This was one of the surprises. The first time I did front squats I noticed that my wrists hurt a lot. They were sore as hell. I thought it just might be part of the deal. But within a month my wrists apparently adapted, became more flexible, and now I don’t even notice. The same process happened with my elbows, and now I’m going through something similar with my shoulders. I’ve noticed that I get a lot more out of my workouts and perform at a higher level as long as I pay attention to my recovery diet (and diet overall) and routinely do mobility and restoration work. It makes a huge difference for me and I’m utterly scared to screw up on the diet and mobility work. And now I’m looking for areas where my range of motion is compromised because, as Kelly Starrett would say, these “holes” are opportunities to uncover better performance.

Those are a few of my first thoughts on getting into CrossFit. I suppose the most valuable thing I have to say about it is that it’s allowed me to feel like an athlete again. It’s also opened my mind up to the possibility of running Masters track races in the middle distance range—800 meters and the mile. Let me tell you: a year ago if you’d asked me if I would ever run on the track again I’d try and wake you up from your dream. But I’m feeling the restoration of the sort of power and mobility I know I need to run fast. That this has become an actual possibility is why I have no problem getting my butt to the CrossFit gym four or five days a week.