Mindset Training & Longevity in Crossfit
You just graduated from foundations at CrossFit Pallas, and the first few weeks are a physical and mental battle as you try and learn what seems like 1,000 new exercises, focusing on cues from coaches trying to get your body to make sense of all of these new movement patterns. After a couple weeks, you start to get the basics down, and you can recall them more easily...progress! The next year or two are filled with countless PRs, as your body adapts to this new training methodology. Weights go up, times go down, you’re scoring more reps on nearly every benchmark workout that you do. Life is GREAT!! It’s easy to stay motivated so early in your fitness journey.
The next 2-3 years are even more fun. You’ve started to feel like you have a mastery of the basics (which we never have - we can always improve our air squat!) and now your goals include things you never imagined, like your first pull-up or your first muscle up, or maybe that bodyweight squat is getting closer!
Now you are 5 years into your CrossFit journey, and that PR bell is ringing less frequently. You still get to ring it a couple times a year, but they are becoming harder and harder to achieve, and require even more time on your part to achieve them. You’re also 5 years older...and for some, that may mean you’re still very young and in your peak years of physical performance. But for others...it may mean that you have entered a new stage of your physical life. You can feel that you aren’t recovering the way you used to, or it feels like you need to warm up for 60 minutes before class. This is where the importance of self care comes in; something we will reflect on towards the end of this article.
Having an appreciation for how fitness changes as you age is a crucially important aspect of feeling successful in the gym, and sustaining progress over the course of your life. Progress, and more importantly, wellness, is not always about numbers and times in the gym. It’s about the bigger picture of health. It’s about staying independent and functional well into your 70s and 80s.
But...it’s not easy. How do you stay motivated when you know you may not hit your Fran PR again? Or that you may not be able to ever match that 1 rep max deadlift you pulled in your 30s? This post is designed to help re-orient your mental game to the things that matter most (whether it be proper goal setting for the athlete, or coming to terms with aging and it’s effects), to help keep you excited to come to the gym, and ensure that your fitness journey stays consistent throughout the entire course of your life.
This is my personal approach to training, and life, that I’ve developed over the last 7 years of training at a high level, and trying to become the best business owner, coach, husband, friend, and athlete that I can.
Purpose - This is your why; why do you show up at the gym every day? Two things that are incredibly important when determining your why are that is is internal, not external, and conceptual, not numbers based. At the end of the day, the only thing you have true and full control over is YOU. Your attitude, the work that you put in, the decisions that you make. If your ‘why’ relies on something external, so many factors in life could inhibit or negatively affect it. If your why is something that you fully control, it’s something that can be consistent and you can rely on every single day. My why is simple - I am genuinely curious what the limits of my body are. How far can my body and mind be pushed before it breaks, or fails?
Failure is not final, nor is it inherently a bad thing. Failure is an opportunity to learn, to grow, and to adapt. Didn't make that lift? Good. Reflect on why you missed, and try to make adjustments so it doesn’t happen again.
Process - This is the most important of the puzzle to sustaining progress, and more importantly, feeling successful every single day. If you spend every day focusing on the process, and not on the outcome, then you allow yourself to achieve victory on a regular basis. This creates a waterfall effect that allows you to stay excited and motivated about coming in to the gym. Really, it’s quite simple (in principle) - focus on giving ‘it’ your all, every single day. Stop caring so much about the outcome, because focusing on the outcome will not make that outcome come about faster. Focusing on doing the minutia, the small things, every day, is what will bring you to the result that you desire - and not only doing them, but doing them well and with a purpose.
Now...what is this ‘it’ I should be focusing on? Let’s say you want to do your first toes to bar. Is coming in every day and trying to do a toes to bar the answer? Absolutely not. This creates an endless cycle of frustration, and feeling like you are failing, because you are not achieving your goal. Instead, focus on the process of getting your first toes to bar. Stick around after class and do a couple sets of kip swings and hollow holds. Work on your shoulder activation by doing some banded lat pull downs. Do v-ups and GHD sit-ups to strengthen your midline. Focus on your nutrition, recovery, and hydration - because these factors are just as important to achieving fitness goals as putting in the work in the gym. By focusing on these small steps of improving your toes to bar, you allow yourself to feel a sense of accomplishment every day. Rather than “ugh, I failed to do a toes to bar again today”, it becomes, “hey, I did my accessory work today to get closer to my goal!”. That’s a win; and notching those daily successes will not only get you closer to your goal, but they will let you enjoy each day so much more, because we all love the feeling of succeeding and getting closer to what we want.
Positivity - Everything in life is better with a positive attitude. Period. But you know what’s the worst? Fake positivity. Hiding feelings of negativity under a smile that’s not real. Fitness, and life, is hard. It’s supposed to be that way; things that are easy and comfortable often don’t lead to anything meaningful. When I say be positive, I mean find the growth opportunity in every situation - because personal growth is always a positive thing. Stop believing that anything is inherently good or bad. The stoics call this having a ‘reverse clause’ - this simply means that when something bad happens, we actively seek the good that can come from it, or the lesson we can learn. Sometimes this can be easy, and sometimes...incredibly difficult. If we can look at a ‘bad’ situation, and we realize that we erred in some way and brought it about - then the answer is ‘easy’. We take an honest assessment of the mistake that we made to bring about this result we did not want, and do everything in our power to not repeat that behavior. Sometimes, though, you can genuinely say that you did all the right things...and life still doesn’t go the way we want. You know what? It’s still good. Because our decision to handle it with grace, and to survive through it, means that we’ve become stronger. Make the decision to be stronger.
A scar simply means that we were stronger than whatever tried to hurt us.
Will I ever PR again?
Now that we’ve laid some groundwork for how to approach your time in the gym (and hopefully, your life), it’s time to apply this more directly.
There are certain circumstances in life that we cannot affect through any decision we make. We can influence the decisions of others, but we can’t control them. We can take care of our bodies and minds so we stay healthy as we age, but we cannot stop aging. We must accept the circumstances that are truly out of our control as facts, and alter our responses and outlooks on them/to them. This is much easier said than done, and requires constant attention and reflection on our part to staying focused on ourselves, and not on the actions of others or the universe.
This means that we can’t be focused on the external things - weights, times, and reps - all of the time, and more importantly, we need to adjust our expectations and goals for ourselves as life changes. If I’m being honest with everyone, I think I’ve hit one weightlifting PR in the last 2+ years, and I don’t know when I may hit another one. And you know what...that’s okay - and fitness is a huge part of my living.
I have decided to focus instead, and set my goals around, the way lifts feel. On technical improvements. If I snatch 90%, but I implement a major technical correction and the lift feels completely different and better, than THAT is a PR! We can always improve our technique, our process, and this may lead to a PR in the future. But how will I ever feel successful when I’m done training competitively, and I have set all of these records at the peak of my athletic performance? The numbers I was able to lift, and times I was able to hit, as an athlete in my 20s will likely never be repeated as I age into my 30s, and start exercising with different goals and intentions in mind. When this comes, then it will absolutely require a major re-evaluation and refocusing on my part - and I promise to share that journey when it gets here.
Fitness & Aging
It’s a fact - as we age, our peak athletic performance deteriorates, regardless of our fitness level.
Does that mean you are just going to stop training? Heck no. As the chart above shows, the bigger base you can build when you are younger, the more fitness you will retain as you age - if you continue to train. What it does require of us, is that we re-orient our process, our goals, and our expectations of ourselves to fit the external circumstances that we cannot change. If we don’t do this, we are setting ourselves up for an endless cycle of frustration and feelings of failure.
There are two types of goals - outcome and process goals. Process goals are what was discussed above; outlining the small steps that we can take to achieve our larger goals. These are the things we should be focusing on every single day to not only achieve our best selves, but to make the journey more enjoyable. Outcome goals are what we hope to achieve with our process.
The chart below shows, at an elite level (we’re talking world records here by the best athletes in their categories) the drop off in various records in selected age categories. We’ll focus here on the ‘mean levels’ of decrease in the age brackets - from the ‘open’ category to age 40, there is an average decline of 12%, and from age 40 to 50, an average decline of 20%. To look at this in a term that makes sense to us in a CrossFit gym, let’s say that you hit a back squat PR of 300lbs when you were 30. You can expect that your back squat PR at age 40 will be 265, and at age 50 will be 240.
Well...holy crap. That’s frustrating, huh? It definitely will be, especially if we set unrealistic expectations of ourselves as we age. So how do we deal with this, and allow ourselves to set appropriate goals? And more importantly, still love ourselves and our fitness journey as we age?
Here are two examples of how we can approach this.
First - let’s say that we numerically adjust our outcome goals as we age. Maybe the goal becomes to squat 90% of our lifetime PR back squat at age 40, and 90% of that at age 50. While on the surface, it may not make sense…’why would I set a goal of doing less weight?’ When in reality, it’s a goal to maintain a high, but realistic, level of performance as you age. Most importantly, this goal is now realistic and achievable, and if you happen to surpass it...well that’s just incredible!!
Second - we create goals that aren’t centered around specific numbers, and are more skill and flexibility oriented, as these categories of fitness see less deterioration with age. Maybe we set a goal of achieving a freestanding handstand? Or of performing successive rope climbs in a certain time frame? Or we set a goal of performing stretching and self care that will help nurture our bodies as they demand more recovery? Or heck...maybe we just set a goal of coming to class 5 days a week for the rest of your life!!
The last, and probably most important piece, of the puzzle of maintaining fitness as we age is self care. The work that you put in outside of the gym becomes even more crucial to attaining your goals; we’re talking about stretching, self care, nutrition, sleep, hydration, which all lead to better recovery. When we workout, we are actively causing breakdown in our muscles so that they will be rebuilt and come back stronger. Your muscles recover, and rebuild, at a slower rate as you age. That’s why it is so absolutely crucial that the recovery aspect of your life gets even more focus and attention as you continue to stay active into your glory years. It may mean taking more rest days, scaling a bit more, etc based off how your body feels - because over training and under recovering are synonyms in my mind. A balance between the two is a fine line we are constantly walking, and it gets more difficult with time, but easier as you better listen to your body.
Remember, folks - while performance is an important aspect of CrossFit, the primary focus of what we do in classes every day is HEALTH, WELLNESS, and FUNCTIONALITY. This is a lifelong journey that has so much more to it than just the weight on the bar, or the time on the clock. Feeling empowered within your body is why we do what we do, so that we can enjoy our life outside of the gym longer...hopefully for the rest of our lives.