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.


Jay Ashman said...

it is a very tough balancing act for those with extreme personalities, and oftentimes CF attracts the perfectionist, the Type-A, or the one who is driven to succeed at almost any cost...

I've fought my share of dumb training injuries by not listening to my body, and I have learned the hard way... now I know that if my times and lifts don't progress as fast as I would like them to, I have another day and training cycle to do it in..

thomas.m.hickey said...

Knowing when not to gut it out is hard.

Recently I had to take a good week or so off because I didn't listen to my body when I over did fatiguing my back during Elizabeth.

Sure I completed the WOD, but I wasn't able to work out for quite a bit of time.

I think self criticism is a bit of an issue here. Sometimes it's hard admit to yourself that you should stop, but I'm getting better at being mature enough with my training to listen when my body is shouting that something isn't quite right.

Tsypkin said...

When Russ says he was "somewhat grouchy," what he means is that he was "a festering prick." But that's not changed much.

Jason said...

great, great post.

Russ Greene said...


I've had a few dumb training injuries too. Insisting on running at night for the second WOD of the day, and taking 10 attempts on a bodyweight squat snatch have both done me in in the past year.

I would be fitter now, had I known when to stop then.

It's very hard to tell when you need to stop, and when you're just being mentally weak.

adam said...

I find this article hard to comment on if only because of how widely definitions may differ from person to person - especially regarding the title. I do wish that at least the context of "perfection" and "sustainability" had been defined since they can vary a lot from person to person. Furthermore, I feel like the title makes the initial assumption from the get-go that the two are incompatible, which doesn't leave as much room for debate as to if they indeed might not be.

What do you mean by your sentence "Why do I fight so hard to achieve an ideal I'll never reach?" Is this ideal something that is quantifiable? I believe I understand your sentiment - I only pose that such statements are difficult to have discussion with when they can't be measured or defined (though I do also believe that the posing of such sentiments, even if unquantifiable, may still have value). Also - if you say "you will never reach" doesn't that completely cut off the possibility of such an ideal ever being attained? Surely that can't be a fruitful attitude, despite, perhaps, the very real challenge of attaining such. If attitude is one of the few things we really do have full control of in life (stoicism) I would submit that such statements not be made if only for leaving ourselves a necessary hope for future difficult circumstances. We can't crawl out of the sewer pipe if we have convinced ourselves that the lid on the top is locked, when it may turn out that it only appeared that way.

Not trying to be nitpicky when I say any of this - trying to give honest perspective for constructive discussion.


My own struggle with this issue has been searching for the proper balance between complacency and scrupulosity - twin demons that do not promote growth in any aspect of life. I find that many aspects of my attitude towards fitness mirror my attitude towards spirituality: How do we avoid complacency without falling into the spiral of excessive self-scrutiny and angst either?

At the end of the day, speaking only for me, it really does come down to trying to "do our best" and trusting God to fill in the rest. I believe anything I have done in life that can be considered a "success" (if any) has only come about with this formula. "Seek ye first the kingdom of God and all these things shall be given unto you" has been one of the best motivating quotes for me fitness-wise when either complacency or scrupulosity sets in.

Whitney said...

I second Jay's thoughts. I think that so many times the perfectionist, Type-A, person who wants to succeed at almost any cost is what can cause CrossFitters to push themselves beyond their limits (even if those limits are only temporary) and cause unnecessary injuries and ultimately hinder our athletic performance. I think a HUGE part of fitness is learning how to listen to what your body is telling you. Our bodies shouldn't have to shout at us. Maybe they give us the more quiet, scornful scolding that is just as important (if not more so) to listen to than waiting for it to shout at us.

Russ Greene said...


I apologize for the lack of clarity in this post. I wrote it off the top of my head late at night. My goal was for more of a conversational, personal style than I normally achieve. In that effort I lost some "accuracy and precision."

Judging by your comments on scrupulosity vs. competence, I think you understood my point despite the unclear writing.

Josh Courage said...

Russ, I like that this posts reads with a hint of humility towards the ever changing pursuit of fitness. I'll give you something that I have lived by for many years now, it is something i say to myself every day:

Acknowledge right now where you are and what you have done to get here, be happy with it, appreciate it. Good, now go get better.

Russ Greene said...

Thanks, Josh, that's something I needed to hear.

Apolloswabbie said...

Russ, Quite a post, loved it. We think in similar ways - I would guess you fit the NT (intuitive thinking) profile from the Myers/Briggs perspective. Much of what you wrote - for example the Zone bits - are word for word the thoughts I've had about the topic. THanks.