Sunday, 6 December 2009
Perfection vs. Sustainability
CrossFitters tend to have extreme personalities. If we are going to work out, then we will push until we collapse on the ground exhausted. If we're going to deadlift, then we better lift 25 lbs. more than we did the last time. If we're going to eat better, then it'll eat 12 almonds, not 11 or 13. I love this attitude. In many ways I exemplify it.
I've nearly completed seven years of CrossFit. Recently, some unwelcome free time has allowed me to think about my experiences with training. Pretty much every extreme thing you can think of, I did it. Thinking about these experiences has lead me to ponder my training more deeply. As Adam Hesch has asked, Why am I here? Why do I fight so hard, every day, to achieve an ideal that I will never reach?
A lot of athletes will tell you that the mind can conquer anything. They will tell you that if we work hard enough there are no limits to what we can do. This perspective has validity. It is often the right advice. But I think that we do have limits. We might not know what they are, but they are there. And I don't think that the answer is always to just keep grinding.
I once ate so much food in the Georgetown University cafeteria that I vomited all over the table. That got some looks. I was trying to gain weight at the time without eating any processed foods. It turns out your stomach can only handle so much broccoli and chicken breast. If I were still trying to gain weight, I would temporarily relax my dietary restrictions. But you don't need to be that big to be a great CrossFitter.
Strength bias? You bet. I made barbell training the focus of my programming for years. I obsessed over 1 rep improvements or adding 5 lbs. to a lift each week for weeks on end. In the long run I found that I could make faster strength gains with less focus on barbells by improving my technique. But did I get fitter and stronger during the period of barbell focus? Absolutely.
Multiple WODs per day? For several months this year I was training 3-4 WODs per day. Often one would consist of a distance run at a 6:50 mile pace in a 20 lb. weight vest, a heavy olympic or power lift (I worked up to a 265 lb. power clean, 440 lb. deadlift and 245 lb. overhead squat at under 180 lbs. bwt during this time), several thousand yards of swimming, and a daily bodyweight circuit consisting of one leg squats, L-holds, deadhang pullups, and ring dips in a weight vest. Training was my life at this point. I had very little energy for anything else. I can't remember much from this period other than the constant shuffle between gyms and meals. My friends have reminded me that I was somewhat grouchy during the rare moments that I talked to another human being.
When the goal that I was training for didn't work the way I had planned, I quickly found this level of volume no longer manageable. I had made steady progress on the high-volume program up until that point, but I no longer felt capable of keeping up with training. I took two weeks off from serious training. It was the longest break I had taken since I started training 9 years ago at age 13. Did my body break down or did I just lose my mental focus? I'm not sure, but I think it was both.
What about the Zone diet? I spent a couple years weighing and measuring all of my meals. I learned a lot about portions and discipline with food during this time, but I no longer weigh and measure my food. I'll be honest with you. I still think that weighing and measuring my food would help my performance, but I don't do it any more. My guilty conscience tells me that I just don't want fitness bad enough. The other side of my brain tells me that many of the fittest guys in the world don't weigh and measure (or eat strictly paleo foods) either.
By the standards of most of my peers I am an exercise nut. But I don't feel that way. I've gone through some crazy WODs, exercised an abnormal degree of discipline in my nutrition, and completely transformed myself in the process. But I know that whatever I do, there are guys out there living their lives with more discipline. And I want to be more like them. But I know that I will always be making compromises. Should I accept these compromises, or should I insist on perfection? Will surrendering at one point lead to a cascade of failures?
I don't know all the answers to these questions. I will be fighting between the relentless pursuit of the future and the enjoyment of the present for the rest of my life. But this point does not just apply to me. It has very important repercussions for coaches. We have to work within our athlete's psychological and physical limitations while actively seeking to push those boundaries outward.