Friday, January 3, 2014

Citius. Altius. Fortius. Simul.

Since I don’t foresee The Huffington Post or Grantland contacting me anytime soon to freelance write for them, I’ll have to make do with Patel It Like It Is.  I’ve gotten several messages lately from around the world asking me what the heck type of workouts I’m up to based on my Facebook newsfeed.  Well, let me tell you about CrossFit. 

I’ll start at the beginning and preface this by saying I’m one of those people who drank the CrossFit Kool-Aid.   I joined CrossFit in fall 2012.  It was a weird period where I hated the world and felt like life was “happening” to me.   So, I joined CrossFit to get some sense of control back and fill the void left by the end of my rugby career.   Eighteen months and thousands of squats later, I can’t imagine not CrossFitting for the rest of my life.  So, what is CrossFit?   Well, in a nutshell, Crossfit is a fitness regimen of constantly varied, functional movements performed at high intensity in a communal environment leading to better health and fitness. 

Whenever you walk into a CrossFit gym (aka “box”), you’re guaranteed one of the hardest workouts you’ll ever have. and each box tends to publish their daily workouts (great for workout ideas if you travel for work).  The hour usually goes something like this.  Everyone does a warmup together to get you loose and ready for the rest of the exercises.  Then comes the strength and/or skill exercise portion for ~20 minutes.  This could include anything from back squats, pull-ups, handstands, bench press, snatches, pistols, etc.   Then comes the workout of the day (aka “WOD”).  This is usually a set of exercises done for time or a fixed time workout done for as many rounds as possible (aka “AMRAP”).  The challenging and fun part is that these workouts vary every single day.  At the end of each WOD, it’s common for people to be sweating profusely spread-eagled on the ground trying to catch their breath and hoping not to upchuck.   As we say, CrossFit never gets easier, it just sucks less. 

Squat cleans, December 2013

Ass-kicking lessons
I’ve played sports or pursued athletic endeavors as long as I can remember.  CrossFit is the only thing I’ve found to be a guaranteed ass-kicking each time while also being the most motivating thing you can do.  I’ll get to the motivating aspect in a bit, but to expand on the ass-kicking element, I’ll say this.  In a given class, you will see people of all ages, shapes, sizes, and fitness levels.  That gives you some accountability and something to aspire to.  As we say, you’re always chasing someone while someone’s always chasing you.  My times, weights, and scores are not close to anything worth bragging about, but they are improving.  And, I have role models for the type of CrossFit athlete I’d like to be eventually.  There are beastly 30/40-something year old mothers who kick my ass every day in the WOD.  I think that’s great that these women are doing this for themselves and becoming stronger both literally and figuratively.  

One woman (a former DI college athlete) from my box once quipped, “Honey, never lose your figure because it’s so hard to get it back.”  Haha.  Regarding figures, I’d say CrossFit is doing a world of good in redefining what “beauty” is for women of all ages.  Maybe the day will come when teenage girls desire to be “strong and lean” vs. “skinny”.  Since I began CrossFitting, I’ve gained ~16 pounds and my (expensive) jeans no longer fit.   Except for the pricey collection of 7s and Citizens that I now need to replace, I’m OK with the weight gain and pants size increase because I know it’s muscle.  My 15-year-old self would’ve reacted differently.  

I love CrossFit workouts because they are so audacious.  I remember when I was beginning grad school in London, I met an alum who was an Italian navy officer turned Bain consultant.   He said something that was so profound and something that has always stuck with me.  
“It is only when we operate at the edge of our limits can we exceed them.”  
I would argue that most people (including me) are operating in cruise control mode for the majority of their endeavors at work, school, hobbies, etc.   I look forward to CrossFit each day because I know for that one hour, I will be physically operating at 100%.  Over time that 100% relatively becomes my 90%, and I can see and feel that improvement/growth. 

I mentioned previously that CrossFit can be one of the most motivating things you can do.  Part of that is because it’s a fitness philosophy or system that works.  We also have great coaches that cheer you on and push you to do your best.  Trust me, if you have someone like Coach Logan yelling behind you “Run like is bear is chasing you!” or (my favorite) “Payal, row like your ass is on fire!”, you will run and row faster.  Haha.  Coaching that emphasizes form and safety, snarky commentary, and someone just pushing you to do better actually makes you improve.   

Squatting well below parallel, August 2013

Furthermore, I’ve found that CrossFit has helped me to identify the subtle differences between smart strength and brute strength.   In strength training, form matters in that there are better/more efficient ways of doing things.  It’s a bit of smoke and mirrors.  An example would be the first time I did power cleans in a WOD.  I had no idea really what I was doing, and afterwards, Coach David came up to me and told me to treat a power clean like a kettlebell swing by using my hips to pop the weight up.  He told me, “Payal, put a little ass into it, and the heavy bar will float up”, and it did!  Another example would be when Coach Yannick from CrossFitAKA in Amsterdam taught me how to conserve energy by landing in the squat position when doing 20” box jumps.   I can think of so many examples of this type of great coaching I’ve received from the official coaches as well as other CrossFit members (very common for us to teach and learn from each other).  

Kettlebell Swings, January 2013

CrossFit Camaraderie 
I’m motivated to CrossFit largely because of my fellow CrossFitters and the culture of the organization.   It’s not uncommon for people to tell me that they think CrossFit is a cult.   Everyone is allowed to have their opinion, and I’m not offended by this comment.  I choose to think of CrossFit as a community.  Throughout my life, I’ve always found that anytime you can work, study, worship, or live in community, good things will happen.  I believe CrossFit is a community full of achievement junkies who just believe in better.  It’s a community where people encourage and cheer each other on in the box, in competitions, and in life.   It’s a community where failure is celebrated.  It’s a community where people say “please” and “thank you”.  It’s an egalitarian and accepting community where your socioeconomic status and place in life matter less than what you value and where you’re headed.  And like my alma materit’s an incredibly positive environment.   Whether you call it a cult or community, I’ll self select into that type of place any day of the week.

It is a bit weird to think that people who individually workout together can have such a strong feeling of connection, isn’t it?  I remember one of my co-workers once quipping, “We connect through our vulnerabilities.”  I almost laughed out loud and thought that was some royal bologna.  But, on second thought, I think there’s a nugget of truth to it.   CrossFit is not “glamourous”.  Most people look terrible at the end of the hour.  Sweat, blood, dirt, vomit, spit, grunting, etc. are all familiar to us.   And you publicly struggle.  And it is this vulnerability and shared set of experiences that create intense camaraderie just like in any other team sport.  

CrossFit Evolving (London) birthday party, October 2012

AllSport CrossFit Football Combine Workout + Flag Football, August 2013

Earlier this year, a friend forwarded me this provocative New York Times article on why it’s so difficult to make friends after the age of 30.  Sociologists since the 1950s have identified these three conditions as crucial to making close friendships: 1) proximity; 2) repeated, unplanned interactions; and 3) a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other.  Through this lens, it’s easy to see why it’s so easy to make friends in college.  And, I’d argue the same for CrossFit.  Your fellow CrossFitters likely live or work close to your box.  And while you do see each other fairly often, you never know who’s going to show up in your class as peoples’ schedules are always shifting.  And again, as mentioned, when you’re working out, you’re gross and a bit vulnerable, which encourages people to let their guard down.   If any person from either my London or Houston box ever came up to me needing a favor that I had the ability and means to provide for, of course I would.   And that sentiment to go to battle with/for each other is a very common shared feeling.

CrossFit as a Global Sport (and Business)
When you think about it, there aren’t that many sports out there that have global appeal and participation.  Baseball may be America’s past time, but you won’t find many jerseys in Poland.  And while netball is popular in Europe, you won’t find many playing the game on this side of the pond.  The sports I think of as "global" tend to be popular ones in countries that were part of the British empire (e.g. soccer, cricket, tennis, rugby).  Or mainstay Olympic events like track & field.   And while there are examples of certain sports actively pushing for exposure beyond current boundaries such as the Premier League now broadcasting games on NBC Sports or the NFL committing to three regular season games being played in London at Wembley in 2014, it takes a while and loads of investment to build (and monetize) those brands globally. 

And then I look at CrossFit.  I had a chance to meet Adidas CFO Robin Stalker when I was in London.  He spoke about the rationale for Adidas’ brand Reebok for partnering with CrossFit and the investment that went into re-positioning Reebok as a fitness brand.  CrossFit from day 1 was the global sport of fitness.   Think about it, ESPN broadcasts the CrossFit Games every year, and athletes from all over the world compete for $1 million and the title of “fittest on earth”.   

I think of CrossFit as the McDonald’s of fitness in that wherever you go in the world, you will have a consistent fitness experience delivered by an organization with a strong culture and deeply ingrained values.  Whenever I travel domestically or internationally, I’ll log onto and type in a zip code in the affiliate finder tool.  I can usually find a box and will then email the owner to see if I can drop in for a workout (and usually pick up a t-shirt too).    I’ve done this for about 20 boxes in the US and also in 8 countries.  And, everywhere I’ve gone, it’s very much plug and play.  I know what to expect in terms of movements, general routine, and standards.  And because unique terminology and acronyms are used, there is a common CrossFit language wherever you go in the world.   And there’s further standardization with the benchmark girl WODs and Hero WODs named after military heroes.  Think of it like hurricanes, if you say “Hurricane Rita”, people instantly know what you're talking about.  Same thing with benchmark and hero WODs.  When my coach in London tells me we’re doing Fran, I know instantly that’s 21-15-9 of thrusters and pull-ups.  This workout standardization also allows for global comparisons of my times/weights/scores to other people regardless of nationality.  That's part of the secret of building a global sport.

CrossFit Aggieland, April 2013  (Fantastic box!!)

CrossFit NYC Black Box, March 2013 (Don't bother going here!)

The other part about CrossFit that has always intrigued and excited me is that it promotes entrepreneurship.  This very well-written article explains the business and ethos of Greg Glassman’s CrossFit.  Essentially each box or affiliate is independently owned and operated.  The “affiliate franchise fee” tops out at $3,000/year and because the equipment tends to be free weights in locations that tend to be warehouses or strip malls, the startup costs are "reasonable" compared to other small businesses.   

As this affiliate map shows, there are somewhere around 7,000 affiliates around the world.  From my own observations, most tend to be single-location businesses, so that means there are likely 6,000+ people making a living running their own CrossFit business.  (As an aside, I have seen a few CrossFit “chains” like CrossFit Copenhagen which has about eight separate locations).  I think that’s awesome.  

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CrossFit affiliate map, January 2014
Furthermore, CrossFit has a strong military element in it with the number of military members who CrossFit, the hero workouts, and common values.  I’ve noticed that several of the boxes I’ve visited are owned by ex-military personnel.   In business school, I noticed how our country doesn’t do that great of a job helping our soldiers find their next career after they’ve served their time.  I’m glad that many ex-military personnel have found their calling as CrossFit owners.     

Better Together

All else equal, I love CrossFit because it’s made (and continues to make) me a better person.   I’ve learned about my mental weakness but also my mental toughness.  Anyone who has done Murph has learned that, and I give credit to my London coach Stretch for first teaching me how to “chip away” when I desperately wanted to quit Angie.  

CrossFit has encouraged me to increase my protein consumption.  As a vegetarian all my life, I’ve just accepted being protein and iron deficient, but nowadays protein shakes, eggs, and nuts are part of my daily diet.  

CrossFit has made me a better runner, and if I still played rugby, I know the same.   I think of CrossFit as a “multiplier” in that it helps you in the rest of your fitness and sporting endeavors.  I imagine that’s why many professional athletes incorporate CrossFit into their training regime.  As a personal example, I ran my best half marathon time this fall in Istanbul with very few training runs.  I believe CrossFit is the missing link in that paradox.  

CrossFit has made me less of a hermit through our happy hours, birthday parties, road trips, Facebook conversations, and daily interaction.   My CrossFit friends are certainly not my closest friends, but in an odd way I count this motley crue as some of my dearest friends.  

AllSport CrossFit Christmas Party + White Elephant Gift Exchange, December 2013

CrossFit has given me a refreshed confidence.  It’s hard to explain, but just knowing that you can deadlift 1.5x your bodyweight or squat 1.3x your bodyweight is empowering.  I sometimes find myself “sizing up” other females in the grocery store or around town and thinking to myself “I could take her”.   

And as a woman who has always struggled to find other women I can identify with, I’ve certainly found some ladies who exhibit behaviors I’m trying to build into my character.  One woman in particular is my Houston coach Susie.  Twenty years down the road, I hope my kids, family, friends, and professional colleagues are impacted in the same way that Susie has impacted those around her because she’s certainly living my dream. 

The official tagline of CrossFit is “Forging Elite Fitness”.  That’s good, but if it were up to me, I’d borrow from the Olympics and amend to “Citius, Altius, Fortius, Simul” meaning “Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together.”  

SDHP, December 2013

Ring swings during the "12 Days of Christmas (fave WOD ever!), December 2012

Squat therapy, August 2013

AllSport CrossFit Fine Looking Friends!  December 2013

1 comment:

  1. Great write-up, tempted to try this out now...but I have become really unfit over the last few you recommend a base level of fitness before embarking upon CrossFit?