Burning Runner: Inside The CrossFit Culture

So What Is This CrossFit?

SO WHAT IS THIS CROSSFIT? This is how I discovered it: One afternoon, about a year and a half ago, I was running on a treadmill at LA Fitness near our office in San Diego. My running was restricted to the treadmill because of the injuries that have long been biting me—illiotibial band syndrome, Achilles tendinitis, Runner’s Knee, sciatica and such. Even with the softer-impact stress of the treadmill I had a tough time warding off injuries. Like many runners, I often chose to try and plow through the small ones. But then, like one winter’s day when I had sat down next to an art director to talk about a cover design, my back would freeze up and I’d spend the next week or two downing Advil, icing, heating, and stretching until the spasm released. There would be no running at all.

In CrossFit, routine is the enemy. Workouts are short and intense and vary by the day.

But on one of the days I could survive 40 minutes on a treadmill I watched from a distance as a personal trainer powered a client through cycles of pushups, burpees and medicine ball tosses with no rest between sets. At the end of 10 minutes he was vanquished, lying on the ground heaving for air. “What that hell was that?” I thought. I found the trainer and asked questions. She gave me a Xerox of a story from the publication called the CrossFit Journal entitled “What is Fitness?” by Greg Glassman. That night I spent hours searching through CrossFit.com, and in the following weeks many more hours. In the article, Glassman boiled down his conceptualization of fitness and how to approach it into the following:

World-Class Fitness in 100 Words

■ Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.

■ Practice and train major lifts: Dead lift, clean, squat, presses, C&J, and snatch. Similarly, master the basics of gymnastics: pull-ups, dips, rope climb, push-ups, sit-ups, presses to handstand, pirouettes, flips, splits, and holds. Bike, run, swim, row, etc, hard and fast.

■ Five or six days per week mix these elements in as many combinations and patterns as creativity will allow. Routine is the enemy. Keep workouts short and intense.

■ Regularly learn and play new sports.

Simple enough to read, but the imagery on CrossFit.com is both compelling and intimidating. Videos are routines of athletes performing fast, furious workouts where one moment they’re performing power lifts with barbells and bumper plates, the next handstand pushups and the next 500 meters on a rowing machine, repeating the sequence over and over in a race against the clock, the session leaving them spread flat on the floor while others applaud the anaerobic implosion (this is the exact nature of the how the competitive events are structured at the Games). The resulting body-types and athletic capacities displayed in the videos are awe-inspiring. Those who think CrossFit is meant to build body-builder-like piles of muscle mass are wrong—the elite CrossFit athletes are strong, sinewy and pliable. If you blend a decathlete, a gymnast and a triathlete together, you get an elite Crossfitter.

One month ago I joined Crossfit Elysium, a box near my home in the North Park neighborhood of San Diego. Before that I did the bulk of my workouts alone. Being in the box, you get coaching and push yourself much harder. At least I do. And it’s certainly more enjoyable to have others with you slogging your way through the workouts. Perhaps the most powerful thing that the founder of CrossFit engineered, in my mind, is the sense of community he installed into the structure of how CrossFit operates. You don’t walk into a CrossFit box anytime you want to work out in a lone wolf state of anonymity. Rather, you’re coached within a small group of people that inevitably share the cohesive we’re-all-in-this-together bond to help one another max out. At CrossFit Elysium, and other boxes I’ve had a chance to work out in, I’ve seen the same thing. And it was the same at Reebok Crossfit One, in Canton, Mass. on the Reebok campus. In fact, it was a week before the Games when I paid a visit to Reebok to get perspective on their new relationship with a sport I’d personally become involved with.

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