CrossFit and Competition

A couple of weeks ago I wrote a blog about the CrossFit Open starting soon (October 10th!), and I’ve gotten some questions about whether or not someone is “ready to compete”, and when you should tackle your first CrossFit Open.  We’ve also recently shared an upcoming fitness event called Reps for Recovery which includes a competitive heat for those looking to win some cash money, and of course we all were glued to the computer screen watching the CrossFit Games in July.  So competition is all over the place with CrossFit, and I thought in answering the question “Am I ready for the Open?” I would also unpack how CrossFit became so competitive and where each of us should fit into this culture in a healthy way.
First of all, many CrossFit workouts are set up as a challenge against the clock.  Do as much work as you can in a finite amount of time, or complete this defined amount of work as quickly as possible.  For me, this is where the healthy competition that creates results for CrossFitters starts.  If you do the same workout a few months later, with the same movements and same amount of weight on the barbell, now it becomes a test against yourself.  Will you pass?  Have you gotten more fit — at least in the context of this specific test?  Being challenged to beat a previous version of yourself is a huge motivator, and this can really drive you to eat well, work hard in the gym, sleep more, and generally treat yourself more and more like an athlete each day so that when the test comes, you are confident you have made improvements and it’s just about finding out how much.
The CrossFit Games was born out of this inherent “race the clock” mentality that CrossFitters started to develop.  In 2007, Greg Glassman threw out a challenge to the entire CrossFit community, which was pretty easy to do at the time because the community was relatively small, and everyone got together every day on the WOD Comments board.  Most workout descriptions on .com end with “Post your time to comments”, and people did by the hundreds on a daily basis, now probably thousands.  Most of these guys and girls were doing CrossFit on their own in their garages or a YMCA or military base, and so the Comments board was a way to see if their times were competitive with others that were also doing it.  It was a gut check on how hard you worked.  And because of that, Greg Glassman knew who he had to invite to the first CrossFit Games – the people with the best Fran times and Grace times and 5K Run times.  Those people were musts, and they wanted to get together and throw down with each other, but Glassman also extended the invite to anyone that thought they could compete with the “Fittest in the World.”  That’s a pretty cocky slogan, but he was daring anyone that didn’t do CrossFit to show up and prove him wrong!
CrossFit in itself was competitive because you could do a workout and check the “leaderboard” of people that posted comments, and that led to the CrossFit Games.  It also led to the huge growth of CrossFit affiliate gyms like ours around the world.  More and more people heard that CrossFit was the way to get seriously fit, and it was also a blast!  People that had been doing CrossFit for a while and saw Glassman’s vision started their own gyms, new people started joining, the average CrossFitter ditched his garage gym setup to join a bigger gym (that still looked like a garage) in order to workout with his friends.  Life was good!
Unfortunately, competitive people working out together on a daily basis can have some negative effects.
If you ask a serious CrossFit competitor — or a professional football player for that matter — when they compete, they will identify a defined season.  This is when they lay it all on the line and do whatever it takes to win.  This could include knowingly using bad form in order to push their limits, trash talking or otherwise trying to get in their competitors’ heads, even bending the rules if they think they can get away with it.
Ask that same question — when do you compete? — to an average everyday CrossFitter, and they might happily but aggressively reply, “EVERY DAY!!”  Ouch.  If you just think about the toll on your body and your mind from going 110% during every session in the gym because you’ve entered into an imaginary competition with someone else, you might see that would lead to extreme burnout pretty quickly.  Keep working out at that pace without allowing downtime for recovery will lead to injuries.  Add on to that the “do anything to win” tactics like using poor form, using the online leaderboard to explain why someone else beat them, or not meeting movement standards in order to gain an advantage, and now the unhealthy competition has really reared its ugly head.
So if you ask me again if you should compete in the CrossFit Open, no matter your experience level, I will say “Yes!”  The Open is something that we can prepare for throughout the year in our regular training, and our opportunity as CrossFitters to compete in a healthy way — against ourselves!  The Open will provide you with chances to repeat some workouts from previous years so you can find that direct comparison, but it’s also a very good overall test of your fitness over 5 weeks.  I like to compare my overall Open rankings year over year as an annual benchmark of my fitness.  I also like to enter into local competitions when I’m feeling up to it, in order to fulfill my desire to compete directly against other athletes.  In that way, I find that I am able to use each training day as just that — an opportunity to train my body and mind in whatever element of fitness might be on the docket for today.  If it’s supposed to be a lightning fast workout, you better believe I’m going fast.  If it’s supposed to be a heavy day, I’m going heavy.  But all within the confines of what I know I can do, and not in comparison to anyone else.
I encourage you all to compete, but in a healthy way that won’t cause you to burn out or resent others in the gym.  Compete when it counts, in the CrossFit Open.  Compete with yourself on benchmark workouts where You can test your fitness against last year’s You.  Leave the fiery competitive spirit for those few opportunities, so that you can tap into it when you need it.  And every other day?  Get in the gym, work hard, have fun with your friends, go home sweaty and happy.  That’s really what it’s all about!

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