Category Archives: Training

Crossfit Open 2014: Stats, Ranks, and Data-Nerding

The CrossFit community is a welcoming community, but it is a welcoming community built upon the competitive nature of a very particular type of person. With every WOD there is competition with yourself (i.e. setting new a PR), competition with the other athletes in your gym (I’m looking at you Lance), and once a year there is a competition among all CrossFit’ers in the form of the CrossFit Games.

I am a member of CrossFit 206 in Seattle. The coaches at 206 have built an environment that is inclusive; 206 caters to both the most intense of athletes (cough, cough Evan) and to those that are just going to have a good time. It is a great blend of people and I am thoroughly grateful. With the start of the Games though I have begun to wonder where in the spectrum of gyms 206 falls. With the wealth of data made available through the Games website it is just too tempting for me not to nerd out and answer that seemingly simple question.1

I am going to preface everything to come with (1) I am not actually learning about the gym per se, but rather about the team the gym puts forth. It is not a minor distinction so I want to make it explicit. (2) For tractability reasons I have only included CrossFit’ers in the USA.

I think the natural starting place is to look at the number of reps that athletes were able to complete in a rather brutal 10 minutes. reps_wod1

The histogram of the performances of athletes is rather striking. The pink-ish bars are the number of women that did a certain number of reps, and the green-ish bars are the equivalent for men. Those distinct peaks in the histogram correspond to the power snatches portion of the workout.

The histogram of all athlete’s performance doesn’t do justice to the distinctness of those peaks. If I zoom in on just the central three peaks I get this: reps_wod1_zoom_not_marked

The leading edge of the peak corresponds to the transition between double-unders and power snatches. It makes sense that with a few seconds left an athlete wouldn’t have time to get set for a snatch and just give up after the double-unders. What strikes me is the dramatic drop off of athletes that finished with 13 or 14 snatches relative to those who finished with between 5 and 12. I’ve marked those drop offs with arrows on this plot. reps_wod1_zoom

The dramatic drop off could be attributed to a couple of things. The first explanation is that athletes who would naturally finish at 13 or 14 kicked in the “after-burners” in order to complete the snatches; I find this credible, though I know at 9:55 in the workout I had absolutely nothing left. What doesn’t jibe with this explanation is why those in reps 5 through 12 didn’t also kick in the after-burners, which would fill in the gap and leave a smoother transition. The second explanation is a little more nefarious in that the judges were a little generous with the clock when the athletes needed to get just that one more rep. Unfortunately I find this explanation both credible and quite likely. Whatever the reason for these striking patterns in these data I find it neat, and I mean what is a second or two among friends? Honestly for 99 percent of people we’re just doing this to have fun, so who cares about a little fudging.

But back to the main question, how does 206 stack up to other gyms? Since the Open is by definition open to athletes of all shapes, sizes, ages, and genders it doesn’t really make sense to compare a gym of mostly 20-something college kids to a gym of equally capable but older athletes. The Open addresses this by creating “Masters” categories and breaking out rankings by gender. I want to take that same idea and go just a bit further. For all the data nerd-ing to follow I am going to normalize2 an athlete’s performance against that of their peers, with a peer defined as an athlete of the same age and gender.

For benchmarking a gym I think the most obvious measure is the average performance of their athletes once age and gender has been accounted for. So what is the average performance of 206’s athletes relative to the average performance of all other gyms? CrossFit 206 is 2,536 out of 3,648 gyms3 competing in the Open; conditional on the inclusive environment 206 has developed I think that is pretty darn good. In case you’re curious where your gym falls in the spectrum the full list can be found here. (link)

Despite CrossFit’s “hardcore” reputation, performance isn’t everything. To me a good mix of people is just as, if not more important than how we stack up in a once a year competition. I like the term “inclusive” but you can use just about any word you want to describe the intangible feel of a gym. Almost by definition the intangible feel of a gym is difficult to quantify but I am going to measure it as (1) the mix of men and women and (2) the dispersion in age of athletes. Once again I feel compelled to caveat these two measures with the fact that an athlete must choose to compete in the Open (i.e. it is not random) and I have a strong suspicion that the choice to compete is related to the age and the expected performance of an athlete.

Despite this limitation I think I find some neat results. The average gym has 32 athletes competing and of those 41 percent of those are women. There is a wide range in the gender mix but very few teams are dominated by either men or women. female_fraction

Taking this one step further, when the women at a gym perform better are the men likely to perform better also? The answer is yes, there is a positive relationship between how the women do in a gym and how the men do. female_male_performance

This is reassuring. My take is that good coaching techniques lead to better outcomes for both men and women. Isn’t this the point of CrossFit? To master fundamental, all purpose exercises that are sport and gender independent?

Now that I’m thinking about performance, I wonder if gender mix affects a gym’s performance? The simple answer is there seems to be a positive relationship between the fraction of women at the gym and the gym’s overall performance, but only to a certain extent. To answer I had to turn to a regression5 based approach. Here is a picture of the gym’s expected performance as a function of the fraction of women in the gym. female_fraction_expected_peformance

I caution against drawing too strong of conclusions, or any conclusions for that matter, from this simple plot. It seems though that gyms that are dominated by either gender do worse than those who have a good mix. I am open to speculation about this from the CrossFit community.

Age dispersion is another dimension of inclusive-ness in my book. I have had my ass handed to me by AARP members as well as kids too young to have a drivers license. CrossFit is an equal opportunity ego-shatterer. A far as gyms go the average age is 32 avg_age_hist

but what I find more amazing is the dispersion in age of the gyms. The average gym has 31 years between its oldest competing athlete and its youngest competing athlete. age_spread_hist

Does this age dispersion have an effect on performance? Do the old-timers impart wisdom on the young bucks? age_spread_expected_performance

Unfortunately the answer is probably not. There doesn’t seem to be a strong relationship between the age dispersion and performance.

So far I have been looking at average gym performance, but as I mentioned earlier we also compete as individuals. I am not going to highlight my spectacularly mediocre performance in 14.1, but I have put together a list of personal rankings. By normalizing by age and gender I think a fair comparison can be made between a high school young’n, a kick-ass mother of two, and a cubicle bound older gent. Here is the full list, but as a heads up, it is a large file. (link) Under this ranking system Pam Kusar (age 53) of CrossFit Akron is number 1 when she completed 352 reps. That is stellar!

This little data-nerding exercise was fun. It satisfied my curiosity. I am not going to read too much into my performance or my gym’s performance on one workout in the Open. To me CrossFit is about having a good time and that’s all I care about.

1 Dear CrossFit Games website, this is the day and age of open data and mashups. Making it easier to collect and build on the wealth of data provided by the games is mutually beneficial.

2 Normalize means I take an athlete’s performance minus the average peer athlete’s performance divided by the standard deviation of their peer group. I require a gym to have at least ten athletes in the Open in order to get into my analysis. I remove athletes who signed up but did not compete in 14.1. Additionally I require ten people to be in a peer age group in order for the athlete to be in the sample.

3 For this analysis a gym must have ten members that competed in the first round of the Open.

4 I measure dispersion as the difference in age between the youngest and oldest member of the gym.

5 I first run a regression of the gym’s performance on female fraction, female fraction squared, average age, average age squared, age spread, and age spread squared. The squared terms are included because I am worried about non-linearities. I then plotted the expected gym performance on the y-axis and female fraction on the x-axis. I then fit a loess regression to show a trend.

Leadville Trail Marathon: 2013

Leadville Trail Marathon

The Leadville Trail Marathon was quite possibly the greatest physical challenge that I have had the pleasure to endure. The course itself was great, and all things considered the race shouldn’t have been that difficult, but it seemed the universe conspired against me and everything that could go wonky did go wonky.

I got to Leadville, or more specifically the neighboring town of Frisco, two days before the race in a desperate attempt to acclimate. In Seattle, where I trained for the race, my GPS sometimes read below sea-level so almost needless to say the altitude bug bit me hard. Simply walking up the five flights of stairs to my hotel room required concerted effort; this did not bode well for the race.

The night before the race I wanted to get some carbs in me, and what is better than Italian food for carbo-loading? My family and I went to Tuscato Ristorante Italiano on main street in Frisco. I mention this restaurant by name, and very explicitly, because not only was their food awful but immediately after dinner every single person in my family had serious digestive issues. While I doubt it was food poisoning in the strictest sense, they must of used something vile in their sauce because I was physically in pain.

I hoped my digestive issues would pass by 4:00 AM when I woke to get ready for the race, but alas they did not. I didn’t want to eat or drink anything because something gnarly was happening inside me. I knew I needed to eat but my body just said NO! with emphasis on the exclamation point. My buddy Zach drove me and my brother-in-law Grant to Leadville from Frisco, and all I could think about was my gut. I started pounding Pepto because the thought of running while feeling like this scared me.

The race started with 100s of people milling around the starting line. In good form the race was started with the blast of a shotgun. Very quickly I got left behind by Zach and Grant. Not only are they in better shape than me but also they live in Denver which gives them a 6,000 foot acclimation advantage. About a mile in to the course the half-marathoners broke away from the marathoners as we transitioned from dirt roads to trail. At this point I had been so consumed by my digestive issues that I didn’t notice my asthma acting up. I had been fighting a cold for two weeks and when I have a cold my asthma can be problematic. I thought I had kicked the cold but apparently not.

At this point I think you can imagine why the Leadville Trail Marathon was the greatest physical challenge I have had the pleasure to endure. Luckily despite my body revolting I did enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Running through the forest was ho-hum, but once we got above tree-line the mountain views were simply amazing.

Leadville Trail Marathon Profile

The crux of the run was supposed to be the 2,000 foot climb to the high point of the race at over 13,000 feet. I say supposed to be the crux because I fell into a steady hiking pace and marched my way up. It wasn’t easy but it wasn’t agony inducing.

All things considered I was feeling pretty good when I got to the top of Mosquito Pass. Before the race I had been worried about calf cramps so I bought some Zensah sleeves. Maybe they worked or maybe it was a placebo effect but my calves felt strong even with all the climbing. After a brief pause at the top of Mosquito Pass I started the long run down, and like a fool I ran down the mountain. I made the same mistake of running too fast down a long hill at the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K. I felt great all the way down, and I was passing people left and right. I had hauled my 200 pounds of body weight up that mountain, and by golly I was going let gravity do its thing all the way down. This bit of gravity assisted fun took its toll. Once the course flattened out the lactic acid caught up and in the words of George Oscar Bluth, Jr (G.O.B.) I realized “I’ve made a huge mistake.”

With the supposed crux of the race behind me I thought the last 9 miles would be easy. A few rolling hills, a jog around a mountain, and then a 3 mile downhill to the finish line. I thought wrong. The last 9 miles was my personal crux. I only have myself to blame because I had hardly ate or drank anything since the start. Yes, I had been sipping some Roctane and slurping some GUs but because of my digestive issues, the altitude, and my asthmatic breathing I could not force enough nutrition down my gullet. The wheels fell off the wagon and I sunk into a death march of epic proportions.

I’ll spare you the details of the last 9 miles except to say that there was a lot of walking and cursing the mountain gods for making these “hills” so long.

The last leg of the race follows a long stretch of road through town. Despite being able to see the finish line, hear the music pumping, and practically taste the beer, I could not will myself to pick up the pace and finish strong. My overall performance was sad. I finished in a little over 7 hours, but damnit I did finish. Despite my objective failure at running a good race the announcer made me feel like I truly accomplished something; that simply surviving was an achievement.

I am sitting here writing this trip report after drinking some coffee from my finisher’s mug. I have noticed that I reach for that mug a lot. I don’t particularly like the shape of the mug, or the feel of the handle, but I still reach for it because damn I am proud of it. While the Leadville Trail Marathon was the most physically challenging event I have undertaken I can’t wait to do it again next year.

Leadville Trail Marathon

CrossFit as Ultramarathon Training

Yakima Skyline Rim 50K Ultramarathon

The Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is a trail ultramarathon in the high desert of Washington that traverses 31 miles and has ~9,500 feet of elevation gain. It was both my first ultramarathon and my first organized race of any distance. To be upfront about it, my complete lack of experience makes me wholly unqualified to offer advice on training, never mind training for an ultramarathon. That said running the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K was a transformative experience and I am going to share my atypical training experience none-the-less.

About six months ago I decided to train for the Leadville trail marathon. I started running consistently and built up enough endurance so that my long runs were in the high teens. Like so many novice runners I did too much, too soon and the end result was an inflamed posterior tibial tendon. Besides adding milage that my body wasn’t ready for I also purchased a pair of Merrell Road Gloves for my short runs. I really like the Merrell Road Gloves now that I have sufficient arch strength but at the time I had no business running in a minimalist type shoe for any distance.

My training ground to a halt because of my inflamed tendon. After a month of complete rest I started going on one and two mile runs. I slowly rehab’d my foot and about two months ago I was finally back to where I could run six miles pain free. At this point I wasn’t in good shape but I wasn’t in horrible shape either.

I started doing CrossFit because I was concerned that my foot wasn’t strong enough to handle the mileage of a traditional training program. The CrossFit gym I go to is CrossFit 206 in the Leschi neighborhood of Seattle. If you are looking to try CrossFit I would highly recommend CrossFit 206. Their workouts are fairly standard in that there is 15 minutes of mobility training, 30 minutes of strength training (deadlifts, squats, cleans, etc), and then the workout of the day (WOD). The WOD is an intense 5 – 15 minute workout that is nonstop and usually done as fast as possible.

The WODs leave you exhausted but it is only 15-ish minutes of exercise. Can that really be enough of a workout to adequately train for an ultramarathon? My full training program for the 50K was CrossFit three to four times a week and then going on one longish run, 6-10 miles, and a couple of short runs, 2-3 miles, after CrossFit sessions. Well, after only two months of going to CrossFit 206 I finished the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K with a semi-respectable time of 8:09. Surprisingly my body felt good and I was not zonked when I crossed the finish line. I’ll admit I was a little sore all over and my calves were acutely sore for the two days post-race but I have been more sore after some of the WODs. On a side note: the CEP compression socks I wore really helped control cramps and spasms in my calves as I climbed seemingly endless hills. Just look at the profile of the race and tell me that doesn’t look like a calf punishing day of fun.

Yakima Skyline Rim 50k Race Profile

I think the 15 minute CrossFit workouts were able to prepare me for an 8 hour run because for those 15 minutes the focus is solely on developing fundamental strength. By fundamental strength I mean strength developed by full-body exercises that engage all the primary muscles as well as the stabilizers that are so often neglected. The fundamental strength helped in a number of ways. While running on loose rock I noticed that I was more surefooted because of the stronger stabilizer muscles in my legs. While trudging up thousands of vertical feet of trail I was acutely aware of how much stronger my legs felt. Despite weightlifting being the antithesis of distance running, the squats, deadlifts, and cleans really paid off. While running down thousands of vertical feet of trail I noticed how much stronger my core was and how I could engage my core to control my descent and relieve my quads.

So is CrossFit good ultramarathon training? I’d say that it worked for me but I caveat that with the Yakima Skyline Rim 50K is “only” 31 miles. Would CrossFit be enough for a 50 or 100 miler? I think it would be if your longish run was scaled appropriately. Now that I have the ultra-bug I am toying with the idea of a 50 miler and I am pretty sure I am going to continue the CrossFit + one long run training plan.

Bouldering as Training

I hate to admit this but climbing at the gym has grown on me. Actually, nix that, bouldering at the gym has grown on me. A year ago that would have been an unspeakable thought but now I’ve learned to appreciate bouldering in the gym for what it is.

Since moving to Seattle I have been going to Stone Gardens on a semi-regular basis. One of the unfortunate side effects of moving to a new city is that I didn’t have a go to climbing partner. That has since been remedied but at first I was flying solo so to speak. Without a belayer I took up bouldering.

In the beginning it was rough. I would thrash and dangle on the easiest of V0’s and my forearms would pump out on even the slightest of overhangs. On the all day climbs in North Carolina my Mythos performed wonderfully but on the plastic of the gym my feet wouldn’t stick like they had on the east coast. It would’ve been easy to blame it on the rubber or the slippery holds but I knew better.

It was frustrating but it all changed the instant I learned the drop knee. When that happened everything just clicked. Soon enough I was keeping my weight over my legs. I could take the time to place my feet instead of thrash for holds. I was making progress and though it wasn’t the same as looking down on the birds on a long route in NC, it was fun.

Now that the weather is starting to turn in Seattle I am getting outside more. The single pitch stuff I’ve been doing hasn’t been fantastic but I find myself ho-humming up 5.9’s, dancing up easier 5.10 friction, and even sinking gear in a splitter 5.8 in marginal weather a couple of weeks ago. Even though these are moderate achievements, they are half past amazing for me considering a year ago I was barely sketching up 5.7.

Bouldering in the gym has allowed me to break through a barrier in my progression as a climber. Not only am I stronger but I have learned how to move, how to balance and how to visualize the sequence. In a couple of years I’d like to be able to TR 5.11d, I’d like to lead 5.10c and I’d like to be confident that I can pull through the bouldery crux thirty feet above my last piece of pro. Maybe I’ll get there, maybe I won’t. What I do know is that without the gym I’ll never get there only climbing two weekends a month.


CrossFit – The Ultimate Mountaineering Workout?

There is a lot of talk about using CrossFit as training for mountain climbing.  Some people swear that CrossFit is the ultimate training for mountaineering and based on their enthusiasm that is almost fanaticism, I’d have to CrossFit intrigued me.

I am guessing if you’re reading this you know a thing or two about CrossFit.  If you haven’t heard about it the ten second run down is you train for functional fitness by doing full body exercises at a no holds barred pace.  A typical work out goes something like this:

  • 5 box jumps
  • 5 dumbbell squats
  • 5 burpees
  • 5 medicine ball slams repeat for 20 minutes

While that may sound easy, it is most definitely not.  The key to CrossFit is going at 100% the entire time and that intensity is what makes it tremendously difficult.

My climbing partner has been doing CrossFit for a while.  I was intrigued by the following of the program so I tagged along.  I knew what I was getting in to but I didn’t fully comprehend what was about to happen.

Upon arriving at Northwest Crossfit in Seattle I was given the run down of what the workout was going to consist of.  Very conveniently the typical workout from above was the demo workout they had planned.  The trainer led me through a thorough warm up and then critiqued my form as I learned the basic movements of the workout.  He pointed out little things like on a medicine ball slam I should slam it hard enough to bounce and then catch it before it hit the ground again.  Or that when I was doing squats for this workout I should use my momentum to push the dumbbells above my head.

So then I started.  Everything was going fine for the first three cycles.  It was fun, challenging but ultimately uninteresting.  Then the fourth cycle happened which corresponded to about the fourth minute of the workout.  My pulse started rising, my breathing started getting labored and everything started going to hell.  By the seventh cycle I was struggling not to rest between exercises.  While I wanted to rest, the trainer would challenge my manhood and prod me along with positive encouragement like, “you’re not a quitter are you?  Do you want to be a failure?”

Ultimately I made it 12 or 13 rounds depending on how you count before my body gave out.  In total I made it an entire 15 minutes before I succumbed to exhaustion.  Kind of pathetic but also kind of the purpose of the demo workout.  CrossFit gave me a helluva workout in under 20 minutes.

I recovered a bit and still in an oxygen deprived state of mind I got the hard sell.  Even with the broke grad student discount, at $120/month there was no way I could afford to sign up.

What I took away from CrossFit is that it is a helluva a workout in a very short period of time.  Is it the ultimate mountain climbing workout?  Maybe it is, maybe it isn’t.  I don’t doubt that I would get in great shape if I did it… but in my lowly opinion joining a rock gym for $40/month, trail running on hilly terrain and just getting out there on the weekends is a much better use of time and money.  I’m not going to learn how to climb smoothly on vertical terrain by jumping on a box or how to move efficiently by doing burpees ’til I collapse.  But then again that is just me.  I care more about the 6 pack of cheap beer at the end of a climb then trying to get a six pack under my tattered Gore-Tex.