Friday, August 23, 2013

CrossFit at 54

There was a competition underway when I first visited CrossFit St Paul; it had pounding beats, tattoos, (relatively) young people. Something new for an old guy. I felt dorky, but I'm good with that. I decided if I lasted a few months I'd have something worth sharing -- one old guy's experience with the relatively new fad of high intensity workouts.

Four months and one back injury later, I'm still at it. My initial exposure was misleading; I'm usually the oldest person in my regular classes -- but often not by much. There's one guy who might be about 60; he's a lot stronger than me. I'm getting used to the beats, and even wearing short socks and semi-fashionable gym shorts -- though my shoes aren't the right tech. Contrary to my initial impression my CrossFit classes are about half women.

So why did I start with CrossFit, how has it worked for me, and what's the downside?

I started because 50 is not the the new 40. It is same as its ever been -- early old. Among other things that means getting noticeably weaker from year to year. For me it also meant calorie restriction took as much muscle as fat. I need to keep up with my kids, so I needed a lot more exercise.

No problem -- I like exercise. Not running mind you -- I've not done that since undergrad days. Lots of other stuff though - cycling, swimming, nordic skiing, hiking, hockey.

Problem is my version of 54 comes with a lot of family obligations, not to mention (still and for the moment) a job. My life is good, but rich. The only thing I can cut out now is sleep -- and I need more of that. So I needed lots more exercise, but I had only a couple of hours to spare.

So that's why I took a look at CrossFit five months ago. Group psychology to drive effort, coach driven but cheaper than a private trainer, no contract, extreme variety, enough danger to keep me awake (more on that later), lots of sessions I can fit into a packed and variable schedule, facility directly on my weekly commute, engaging franchise owners - it was a good fit.

Ok, Andrew, it was also because you kept bugging me about it.

There was one other motivation - a big one. I didn't believe the late 90s reports that significant exercise delayed dementia onset, but the evidence has continued to accumulate. I suspect it's not as beneficial in humans as it is in animal studies, and I suspect it works better for some genotypes than others -- but it's all we have. Nothing else makes much difference. I need to keep my brain until my youngest is in college - 8 years from now. So moe exercise.

I did a private "on boarding" -- extra cost but it let me work around my schedule and my health status. I learned I was even less fit than I'd expected. After I joined the regular program I experienced three phases over 4 months. In the first phase I had remarkable muscle soreness, which led me to wonder about bursts of apoptosis. In the second phase my muscles did better, but I was limited by my poor endurance. In the third phase I was able to run a few miles for the first time in 30 years, and I was no longer always the slowest or weakest participant.

Sometime around the last phase, I had my first CrossFit injury - a back strain. I'm familiar with that problem, and the rehab routine went well. I'll get back to the injury bit.

I now do CrossFit twice a week; that's about as much as I have been able to safely handle. I currently need 3 days to heal between each session. Between sessions I do my usual 2 hours of bike commuting one day a week, 1-2 hours of inline skating with my #2 son, and 40 minutes of conventional Cybex workouts with my #1 son, focusing on back, abdomen and some base arm strengthening. Time spent with #1 son is considered family duty, so the new regime added about 2 hours to my week. I made that up by spending less time writing on my blogs, I manage my writing compulsion by microblogging with Pinboard, PourOver and

After five months, despite my back strain injury, St Paul CrossFit has worked well for me. I haven't developed much visible muscle, but I'm significantly stronger and I can handle more exertion. My weight didn't decrease until about month 4, since then I dropped 8 lbs and am close to my optimal weight.

The net effect is that physically I perform and feel more like I did at 44 than at 54. That's a big difference; if I feel at 62 the way I was at 52 I'll be content.

I'm not as keen on CrossFit as some but I enjoy the people, the exercise, and the game of staying within my limits. My two sessions a week are well worth the $135/month I'm paying; I'll probably go to three times a week when ice and snow stop my bicycle commute.

Which brings me to injury risk, and Jason Kessler's CrossFit experience ...

 Why I Quit CrossFit (Jason Kessler)

On my very first day of CrossFit, I threw up. It happened my second day, too. And the third. And pretty much all of the first month...

For the next three years, I squatted, pulled, pushed ...

… CrossFit was unlike any workout I had ever done before. It throws out the traditional-health-club model of machines and isolated exercises and replaces them with a whole-body approach rooted in the real world. Calisthenics, Olympic lifting, and gymnastics combine to form a workout that emphasizes ten basic physical skills: cardiovascular and respiratory endurance, flexibility, stamina, strength, speed, coordination, power, accuracy, balance, and agility. Every day, a new workout (called the Workout of the Day, or WOD) is written on a whiteboard, and everyone in a class completes the same workout no matter what fitness level they’re at.

... Your typical CrossFitter wants to zap his fitness tank down to zero by the end of a workout. He’s not content to be just sweaty — he wants to collapse into a heap on the floor...

…. quickly amped up the frequency of my visits from three to four, then five days per week. Without even realizing it, I became that evangelizing asshole who makes people think that CrossFit is a cult...

… Not everyone gets injured to the point where he has to get knee surgery, but I did. I also developed a chronic shoulder injury that to this day, eight months after my last CrossFit workout, is still a constant reminder ... the penalty for not executing movements with perfect form, but I’ve come to believe that having perfect form 100 percent of the time is literally impossible...

Jason was lifting an awesome amount of weight but even for less ambitious athletes the injury risk is real - largely because of the focus on technique-critical Olympic style free weight lifting and on continuous improvement. At 54 I'm into managed-decline rather than improvement, but at 34 I'd have been tempted. CrossFit workouts are intense -- and I'm not sure five or even four workouts a week makes sense for most 35+ bodies.

My gray hair means I get gentle encouragement that I can use or ignore, but younger, keener people could get in trouble. I think CrossFit could do a better job of teaching early recognition of injury and ways to respond to it. Since we pay based on our use rate there is a bit of a perverse incentive at work here, but the St Paul franchise has added Yoga and other lower intensity programs that can round out 2-4 high intensity workouts.

For me the risk feels less than pickup hockey (head, knee, face, laceration) or serious downhill skiing (knees), but a bit higher than inline skating (head) or road biking (cars -> infrequent but serious injury). In other words, it's in the risk range I'm used to, even though it's higher risk than traditional gyms or high intensity Pilates. Honestly, for me, managing the risk is part of the appeal. I suspect as CrossFit evolves, however, there will be tracks that deemphasize the riskier weight maneuvers and more focus on early response to injury.

Will I still be doing CrossFit at 64? It seems unlikely, but it's not impossible. I'll let you know.

Update 9/23/2013

Still enjoying CrossFit and staying injury free, but I do wonder if our gym is a little atypical...

Getting Fit, Even if It Kills You - New York Times 12/2005

... For his first CrossFit session, he swung a 44-pound steel ball with a handle over his head and between his legs.. ... That night he went to the emergency room, where doctors told him he had rhabdomyolysis, which is caused when muscle fiber breaks down and is released into the bloodstream, poisoning the kidneys. He spent six days in intensive care.

... The short grueling sessions aren't for the weekend gym warrior. The three-days-on, one-day-rest schedule ... "Murph," a timed mile run, 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, 300 squats and then a second mile run. (A weighted vest is optional.)

Mr. Glassman, CrossFit's founder, does not discount his regimen's risks, even to those who are in shape and take the time to warm up their bodies before a session.

"It can kill you," he said. "I've always been completely honest about that."

... "If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don't want you in our ranks," he said.

I rather doubt I'll be doing "Murph" in this life, and I like 1 day on, 2-3 days of something else. Good thing I've never run into "Coach" Glassman.


GZ said...

John - thanks for the insight.

Still not going to be for me (yet) - as I enjoy the running as a way to explore places, but I can see it being a someday thing.

It sort of drives me nuts that any exercise thing has to come with its own culture (but that is human I guess).

Unknown said...

Save your body. Worried about memory loss as you age? There's an app for that: