The Competition Wellness Paradox
“That would be sweet to be Rich Froning” … A thought that I’m not ashamed to admit has passed through my head more than once in my six years of competitive CrossFit. You could also insert Mat Fraser into that sentence as well. In a bubble you would think that Rich, Mat or Tia Clair Toomey being the best in the world at something that supports long-term health and longevity would in-turn also be the healthiest individuals at 50 years old. It turns out that is not always the case, and to some extent you’re already starting to see it in Froning’s case. He competed two years ago at the games with a severely torn meniscus, he’s had knee surgery and multiple treatments to try and become pain free again. Self-admittedly he refrains from lifting above 90% in training, saving it specifically for competition. It appears that being the world’s fittest man comes at a price…
Let’s leave the competitive bubble of the elite for a moment. Why did you start CrossFit? Be honest with yourself for a second and think about what your goals and dreams are/were in CrossFit. I know that some of mine are/were competitively driven, but I do know that has drastically changed to things like being able to play sports outside with my kids and grandkids, being able to be comfortable in my own body well into the later stages of my life. I will tell you that the way 24-year-old Justin trained did NOT support being able to walk into my 70’s, much less play sports. So, how do we balance the need to be competitive versus the need to be healthy? That is the paradox. Train less, be healthier… well there’s a little more to it than that.
CrossFit traditionally gets a bad reputation for causing injuries; I personally tell people CrossFit is like any other professional sport (it is a professional sport), the only difference between CrossFit, Football, Basketball and other pro sports is the perception that it’s healthy and effective to be doing the same things, at the same intensity as the PROFESSIONALS do it. I love football, I played football in high school… but under no circumstances are you going to see me suiting up and playing full on tackle football in the near future. If I did, my body would most likely not survive a couple games without injury. It’s the same with CrossFit, if I haven’t participated in the sport recently, and I’m trying to do the same things as the Games athletes are doing, I’m probably going to end up hurt. Now, if my goal is to get to the Games, then you’re going to have to accept you may make some sacrifices to attain that goal. Any athlete who has played any sport professionally is going to see some of the results of pushing their body to its limits. It’s the same with CrossFit, if you want to push your body to the limit then you may see some negative impact on your health in the future. For example; doing handstand push ups is a general requirement to be a competitive Crossfitter. Turns out, getting upside down and compressing your cervical spine 50-100 times over a long period of time is going to cause some issues. Now, certain things impact some athletes more than others. Most days I can do 100 handstand push ups and feel no negative impact (yet), but some athletes that are even stronger and fitter than I am in the movement feel a huge impact the next few days. How good you are at something doesn’t always impact how much your body feels the repercussions of it.
Now, you’re probably thinking “Man, Justin is telling us CrossFit is bad for you”. That’s not the intent or the crux of the article. We’re talking about the paradox between competing at a high level and being healthy through the back-half of your life. In my opinion as a Crossfitter that is not looking to compete at a professional level(Sanctionals, Masters/Teen qualifier, etc.) , you should do the following: MASTER the nine foundational movements of CrossFit (Air Squat, Front Squat, Overhead Squat, Shoulder Press, Push Press, Push Jerk, Deadlift, Sumo Deadlift High Pull, Medicine Ball Clean), after you’ve perfected those then you need to take notice of which movements cause pain AND which of the remaining movements you move poorly through or lack strength in. You need to either work hard with a coach to make those movements efficient and safe for you, or you need to consider cutting them out of your repertoire. Is doing a HSPU or a squat snatch at 60 years old going to make you healthier than those that can’t? The answer is no, it might make you better at Crossfit, but that’s where you need to remind yourself what your intentions are… if your goal is to be able to squat snatch, great! Work on it, but you’re no more likely to have positive health outcomes being able to squat snatch than you are without it. You also need to take into consideration the intensity at which you’re training on a daily basis, there’s a lot of new research being done on the impact of consistent high intensity interval training and what that does to your body in the long term. Which means there’s still a lot we don’t know about how the volume these athletes are putting in is going to help/hurt them down the road. Here’s what we do know; controlling the things that you can control is going to help your health in the short-term and the long-term. Things like sleep, hydration, nutrition, meditation, stress level are all things within your control, and if you can improve those areas it will go a long way to creating positive health outcomes.
I’ll finish up with a relatable example for you. I like to think of everyone’s body like a car… when you first get your car you can usually rev it up and burn it to the ground with no immediate impact felt. That all starts to change around 100K miles, then you start to feel the effects of how much maintenance you’ve kept up on, and you might start hearing a few weird noises in the engine. Then, as the car gets older the likelihood of a breakdown becomes higher, more maintenance is required to keep it running smoothly, and you may not be able to go 0-60 quite as fast you did when you first got it. Some cars go 250K with no issues, some cars break down after 100K, but all cars are going to break down at some point (to a degree). The harder the run your car now, may impact the likelihood of a break down later, or maybe it won’t… one thing is for sure, unless you’re into racing cars, the speed limit is generally going to make your car last the longest!
Justin Barchus is a coach at CFW and the head coach of the Portland Pickles baseball team. You can read more of his writing on his blog https://jbfitnessthings.blogspot.com/