This last week I had a rather unexpected setback. I had a “minor” oral surgery procedure that managed to knock me on my butt for at least three days straight (advertised as “you’ll be up and going the day after”). I visited my wonderful physical therapist, Dr. Stephanie Thurmond, and after talking to her, and reading some blogs and comments from other folks in my position, I started thinking about CrossFit for “nonathletes” generally and what’s important for those of us who
- are overweight to morbidly obese,
- are over 50,
- are congenitally awkward and remember PE as a torture chamber filled with humiliation,
- have accumulated injuries that need accommodation,
- are illness- or injury-prone,
- have hormone issues (HRT, perimenopausal). and/or
- have illnesses that make them hypersensitive to stimuli (fibromyalgia, rheumatoid arthritis, migraines, allergies and asthma, as examples).
I’ve discussed much of this in other posts, but I felt the need to sum up.
1. Get past the slogans and hype.
“Forging Elite Fitness,” CrossFit’s official slogan, intimidates the hell out of most non-elite nonathletes. And lots of affiliates (aka boxes) like to up the ante. One I saw recently was “Blood is replaceable, Sweat is Expected and Tears are optional.” At this point it made me laugh, but a couple of years ago I would have seen it as a “nonathletes need not apply” sign. Although my husband was really into it, and is level-headed about pretty much everything, I still saw it as a testosterone-marketed competitive activity.
And it may have been, at least in the beginning. But the CrossFit powers-that-be quickly saw that even if you’ve got motivated folks, not all of them are athletes, or, if they are, they’re specialized enough that they burn out in a CrossFit workout, which is generally designed to improve your ability to function in the real world. You read variations on it all the time: “Our specialty is not specializing.” So even competitive athletes had to have parts of their WODs (workout of the day) scaled.
So it seemed that as CrossFit expanded and evolved, many CrossFit coaches saw the benefit of making the program more inclusive, involving the elderly and kids. I mean, as long as you’re having to adjust WODs on a custom basis, why not do it for anyone?
2. Ask questions. Lots of them.
Membership in a CrossFit affiliate isn’t cheap, nor is hiring a CrossFit coach. Boxes are cropping up everywhere (at least in my neck of the woods), so you may have some choices. Or you can consider working out at home, but you need someone who knows what they’re doing to watch how you’re doing things or you can easily end up worse rather than better.
First, look at staff bios if they’re available; I prefer being able to read them online. Most CrossFit boxes have at least a semblance of a web page. Ideally, you’d find a coach who has a lot of experience or special interest in working with people with whatever limitations you have, and, cherry on top, has professional training in biomechanics (like a physical therapist). Kelly Starrett is a well known CrossFit instructor who is also a physical therapist and he has tons of good information. But even his website can make you think it wouldn’t be a good fit, as he works with “elite athletes” and uses the term “athlete” to describe who his website is for. But I emailed the site, asking for clarification. I received the following response:
These mobilization are for everyone and everyone is an athlete!
Not my mindset, but cool, now I know that if I were in the San Francisco area, I’d definitely look at going there. And the response was from another physical therapist apparently working with Starrett.
But not every CrossFit box is going to have that attitude or that depth of experience. However, CrossFit central is very big on working with nonathletes, even if some individual coaches aren’t:
CrossFit is a core strength and conditioning program. We have designed our program to elicit as broad an adaptational response as possible. CrossFit is not a specialized fitness program but a deliberate attempt to optimize physical competence in each of ten recognized fitness domains. They are Cardiovascular and Respiratory endurance, Stamina, Strength, Flexibility, Power, Speed, Coordination, Agility, Balance, and Accuracy.
A bit stuffy, but the bottom line is that CrossFit is designed to improve anyone’s overall fitness. And affiliates and coaches who are members of CrossFit have access to materials to help them scale IF the coach is interested in working it out. Your job is to figure out which coach is going to be not just willing to work with your limitations, but who has an active interest in doing so.
So take the time to talk to the coaches before making a decision. Listen carefully to their responses. Tell them your particular concerns and ask them how they’ll be able to scale down or adapt the program for you.
3. Make consistency your first priority
Most injuries occur when people try to do too much too soon. Whatever your limitations, be willing to start slow and concentrate on being steady at it. When I started, I was really consistent for five months before a knee problem got in the way, and I let myself be sidelined for at least an equal amount of time. This last setback felt almost as bad, but I did what little I could within 3 days of my recovery. I’m bouncing back far more quickly than I have in the past.
And I have discovered that if I miss more than around 3 days in a row, I will start deteriorating in a much broader sense than being able to do fewer reps or less weight. Whichever illness has decided to start picking on me, migraines or fibro or seasonal allergies, it will get worse as well, and then my sleep is affected because I’m in pain or hacking, and things begin to snowball. If I suck it up and do what I can without injuring myself, which may be far less than what I was doing before whatever obstacle got in my way.
4. Listen to your body, and tell your coach what it’s saying
If your body is hurting, you need to evaluate it. I’ve written earlier posts about when to pay attention to pain and when to ignore it. Short version: If it’s sharp and new, stop and figure out whether you can continue or if you need to stop. Achey pains and cramps are generally not going to be things you’ll need to quit for.
But your coach cannot help you if you don’t communicate. I’m bad at this; I hate sounding like a whiner, particularly when other people are doing the same thing easily. But your primary goal should be getting yourself fit. That’s the whole reason you’re putting yourself through this stuff and why you came to CrossFit to begin with, so swallow your pride and tell your coach your problem. Sometimes it’s just a slight form problem that’s causing the pain.
For example, I started feeling a weird pain in my left knee (which is the bad one) while on the rower. It was on the outside of my knee, which was new. Turned out that I was opening my legs to give my gut extra room so I could get a longer push, which was putting torque on my knee. As soon as I corrected that, the problem went away. You will learn to troubleshoot some of the problems yourself, but often you need someone else to watch to see the form flaw.
5. Scale, scale, scale; form, form, form. Did I mention you should scale?
One of the aspects of a CrossFit workout is intensity: You need to push yourself. But that doesn’t mean overdoing it. What you are capable of doing is, to some extent, subjective. And it will vary from day-to-day. If you’ve tweaked a muscle, scale back anything that is the problem. Find ways to deal with whatever areas give you problems. Rule of thumb is that you should find the first round relatively easy and begin to start having difficulty (needing to take more stops, for example) around the third set. If you start getting sloppy with your form, you are increasing the chances of getting injured. On the other hand, if it’s just a lot of effort, but you can keep the form, then you’re on target.
This is what you’ve looked for in your coach: Someone who is willing to be creative to find solutions to your weaknesses. Use that creativity to scale appropriately. Concentrate on getting the form right and the rest will take care of itself.
6. Expect set-backs
Life happens, and things will get in the way of being as consistent as you’d like to be. Illnesses, vacations, injuries, surgeries, drugs: Any of these may cause a period when you can’t work out. It happens. Don’t flagellate yourself. Do what you can as soon as you can. This is the same principle as in weight loss. There’s a great post from LiveStrong’s The Born Reality that applies; here’s a taste:
Having worked with clients for more than 10 years, most people suffer from an extreme inability to fail on a small scale. When they screw-up, that’s it for them–they have screwed up permanently, and so they keep going.
Conventional wisdom tells us that if you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging–that’s the logical thing to do. However, when it comes to nutrition, we aren’t logical or conventionally wise. When clients have a dietary faux pas, their impulse, paradoxically, is to make it worse; after they eat the brownie, they think, “Well, I’ve ruined today. I may as well just eat whatever I want and then be good tomorrow.”
That would be bad enough by itself; however, for many people, they carry the failure over to the next day, and the day after, and finally, “I’ll be good tomorrow” becomes “I’ll start again on Monday.”
The Monday Mindset
Historically, Monday is the busiest day at gyms. (In my facility, attendance is 30% higher than any other day of the week, and that is not unique.) A decade of looking at clients’ food logs makes it clear that Monday is also the day with the highest level of dietary compliance.
Which is ironic, considering this: In my view, Monday is the most dangerous day of the week. Not Monday, but the idea of Monday–a fresh start, always available, never more than a week away.
7. Remember that you are only competing with yourself
CrossFit encourages competition and working in a group. In a well-run CrossFit box, the other people working with you should be supportive, and the coaches should create a supportive environment. Of course, we live in a flawed world with flawed people. There may be someone who makes you uncomfortable or is smug about how much “better” s/he is at whatever WOD. Don’t worry about them, and don’t let the jerks get you down. Most affiliates keep records of your times, reps, etc., and will make a big deal when you achieve a personal best.
It is a big deal. Pat yourself on the back and keep going!