Mainstream athletic culture changes by the decade. From the spandex clad aerobic 80s, to the emersion of pilates in the early aughts, with a slew of different and equally creative crazes in between (I’m looking at you, pole dancing), it seems there’s always something new and exciting to keep yourself fit.
Currently, we reside in the era of the warrior. Spartan Races. American Ninja. Tough Mudders. And, of course, Crossfit. They all combine the rugged terrain, animal competitiveness and sensational glamour to attract the attention, even obsession, of any athlete, elite or otherwise. Coming from a sport that prides itself on being the hardest in the world, complete with obstacles, strength and endurance, it’s easy for cross country skiers to get a little defensive when people rave about their warrior status.
“Hey!” we say, “My sport has all of the things you love, why would you pass it up for gym time and fake obstacles?” While the warrior sports match skiing in their excitement, challenge and pain production (type 2 fun), they seem to lack the romanticism innate in skiing, those silent moments in the woods, community and rugged independence. At least that’s how I saw it, from the outside.
Even before its founders started #blowingit in the media (which will not be discussed here, you can google it), I had tolerance for Crossfit, but certainly not acceptance. It was too fast, too uncontrolled, too sensational to garner my respect. Others could partake in it, flex the big muscles they gained, brag about their so-called fitness, and I would smile and high five them, rolling my eyes from behind a veil of prejudice.
Then, this Spring, on a catch-up call with my teammate, other Annie, I was forced to face that prejudice. When I asked her how early training was going, she responded, with hesitance at first, that quickly vanished from sheer passion. “I. LOVE. CROSSFIT.”
Yikes, I thought. That’s not gonna work.
Then, a month or so later, we convened for our first team training session, where I encountered other Annie, a.k.a. The Hulk. The Hulk was fit, our kind of fit, not some city slicker/morning jogger hybrid fit, but cross country ski fit. She had no injuries from working too fast or without training, and she still had endurance.
So, I was wrong, sue me. But I still had my reservations. Then, at training camp in Northern Vermont, I had the chance to try CrossFit for myself. My coach originally suggested I skip the session, I’d be too sore, probably hurt myself, he said. So, of course, proving him wrong became the goal, and the enthusiasm of my teammates didn’t hurt.
Walking into the gym warmed up and open minded, I see that the warmup we’re doing is called “The Annie.” Nice move, Crossfit.
Then, it turns out that warmup is a race with jump ropes and sit ups. Having not raced in sit ups since REG circa 2010, my tail bone is not prepped for its repetitive collision with the floor. Sitting down comfortably will not be an option for a few more days due to the resulting raspberry wound. Strike one against the sport.
We next transition into partner power cleans. A few minutes of technique advice has us lifting safely and looking cool. I feel strong and think I look pretty good, too. CrossFit earns that point back, out of pure vanity.
Then comes the actual workout, a circuit between rowing, box jumps, arm swingy things (technical terms evade me), squat ball pushup things, and SkiErg. You do three sets of each exercise in the circuit, in descending order form 42, 30 and 18 reps, as fast as you can (Concept2 measured in calories) You have 30 minutes to do it. Easy.
Two minutes into the circuit: Uh oh. NOT EASY.
Pretty freaking hard, actually. In each exercise, you combine power with endurance with speed, with no rest in between. If Crossfit were embodied in one moment of ski racing, it’s the one where your technique starts to fall apart, your body hurts, but you keep on moving, keep pushing, because your competitive nature won’t let you do otherwise. It’s the outright denial of weakness in the name of getting to the line however you can. In that sense, it’s probably not the worst thing to practice.
However, the go-as-fast-as-you-can-however-you-can mentality isn’t perfect for my usual methodological ways. I know that’s not necessarily how all CrossFit workouts go, but I definitely encounter moments when my competitive spirit overtakes my desire to do things correctly. Pan to the squatty ball throw things, where completing a full squat before throwing the ball upwards grows rare for the mere fact that, once I lower into a full squat, I simply am not going to get back out (hence me “resting” in a tuck).
On the other hand, where CrossFit may be seen as a fitness “cheat” to a great deal of athletic communities, cheating within the game itself crosses personal with group responsibility. In order to make it through the designated time, it’s tempting leave out 1 to 3 box jumps, skimp on kettle bell swings, or cut through one or two ball throw things. But I don’t. I can’t. It’s a violation of the silent honor code, a denial of the solidarity of suffering signed in the contract of each course. If you don’t make it through the circuit in time, that’s ok, you stop. You make a goal for next time. You move on.
There are times in training when I could really use that mentality. I often find myself muscling through certain workouts just to keep up with the leaders of the train, to make face for whomever may be watching. The idea that it’s OK to go your own pace, OK to not PR on every time trial, OK to not make it to the line first every time, so long as you’re honest in your work, doing as much as you can as best you can, makes complete sense. Especially if you’re trying something new.
In that sense, I can see why the program has garnered so much success. It provides short, effective workouts for people of all abilities. You can fit it into a full time work schedule, and still have the physique of a full time athlete. And still be fit, in all senses of the word.
By the end of the session, the pain, insecurity and question balances evenly with the challenge, value and pure fun of the exercise. I’m to find that my judgements have mostly been proven wrong, any strikes against the practice countered with benefits. I neither love it nor disdain it. As for the question, to CrossFit or not to Crossfit? I could go either way.
Honestly, despite my delayed respect for the practice, I don’t think that the CrossFit life is the one for me. It was fun, I enjoyed the challenge, but there were a few too many rules and regulations (Annie predicted just as much). I could do it to mix up endurance training here and there, but probably won’t hit the gym everyday. That said, next time I run into a warrior, I’ll think before rolling my eyes. I’ll set some of my elitist athletic ideals aside and engage, swap stories and appreciate the work they do.
Then I’ll roll my eyes. But maybe only a little.