“The Red Queen Principle” and The CrossFit Games Open

‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!’

Image Credit: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871

Image Credit: Illustration by Sir John Tenniel from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking-Glass, 1871

That, my friends, is the 2014 CrossFit Open. As I alluded to in my last post, you are going to have to work as hard as you can if you want to stay anywhere close to where you placed last year in the rankings…and if you wish to place higher, it will take at least twice the effort.

The opening quote for this article is from the Lewis Carroll story “Through the Looking Glass” – the sequel to “Alice in Wonderland.” There is a point in the narrative where the Red Queen takes Alice’s hand, and they begin running faster and faster, but they never seem to get anywhere.

“Alice never could quite make out, in thinking it over afterwards, how it was that they began: all she remembers is, that they were running hand in hand, and the Queen went so fast that it was all she could do to keep up with her: and still the Queen kept crying ‘Faster! Faster!’ but Alice felt she could not go faster, though she had not breath left to say so.

The most curious part of the thing was, that the trees and the other things round them never changed their places at all: however fast they went, they never seemed to pass anything.”

After quite a bit of time and effort and been spent at this exercise, they took a moment to stop and rest -

“The Queen propped her up against a tree, and said kindly, ‘You may rest a little now.’ 

Alice looked round her in great surprise. ‘Why, I do believe we’ve been under this tree the whole time! Everything’s just as it was!’

‘Of course it is,’ said the Queen, ‘what would you have it?’

‘Well, in our country, said Alice, still panting a little, ‘you’d generally get to somewhere else – if you ran very fast for a long time, as we’ve been doing.’

A slow sort of country!’ said the Queen. ‘Now, here, you see, it takes all the running you can do, to keep in the same place. If you want to get somewhere else, you must run at least twice as fast as that!”

Those of us who have been around the sport of CrossFit for a few years can attest to this feeling of working your hardest, and making progress, yet somehow feeling like you are staying in the very same place when an event like the Open comes around. No matter how many PRs you achieve, how much your lifts have increased, your times have gone down, or how much fitter you have become, you seem to be surrounded by athletes matching or surpassing each accomplishment. Every year, exponentially more people join the ranks of this unprecedentedly large-scale competition, and as the pond grows into an ocean, only the extreme outliers can differentiate themselves from the masses.

The concept of “The Red Queen Principle” was originally proposed in 1973 by the evolutionary biologist Leigh Van Valen, and is widely used as a metaphor not only for evolutionary biology, but for many other types of competitive relationships as well. As one element of a system improves, so to does every other element, if the status quo is to be maintained. Francis Heylighten, a Belgian cyberneticist, in a published paper on metasystems, describes this phenomenon:

“A typical example of co-evolution is the “arms race” between predators (say foxes) and prey (say rabbits): when rabbits evolve to run faster, thus increasing their chances to escape foxes, they not only increase their own fitness, they also decrease the fitness of the foxes, thus augmenting the selective pressure on the foxes to run faster themselves. This typically leads to a non-linear, positive feedback type of interaction, where the two species pressure each other to run faster and faster.”

So basically, as your competition improves, you need to up your game as well if you simply want to maintain your position. Inevitably, as you become faster and stronger, instead of you then pulling out ahead, the field follows suit and matches your progress, tit for tat; any gains you have made are put towards the fight to hold rank. Even the most elite are looking over their shoulder, working hard to outpace the progress of their peers. In terms of overall health and fitness for a population, this is a wonderfully positive situation – but if your goal is to best your fellow athletes, it will require a significant investment of time and energy.

uphill

Staying competitive is an uphill battle – in some instances, literally!

We also see the entire sport of CrossFit evolving as the athletes rise to the ever-increasing demands of Regionals and the Games. What might have challenged the field in 2007 is most certainly different than what we will see in 2014. CrossFit drives the growth of the athletes who play the sport, and in turn, the athletes spur CrossFit to present new and more rigorous tests of fitness.

If you participate in the Open, you will finish the season with a number. This ranking is a snapshot of how you stack up against the community as a whole, using these specific workouts as testing parameters, at this singular moment in time. It does not measure your individual progress over the past months or years. Don’t lose sight of how far you have come…or allow yourself to become overwhelmed with all that you still want to learn, do, and experience. Step back and enjoy the journey.
- Coach DeMarco

The 2014 Open

Well, we’re down to just three weeks until the announcement of 14.1.

In my experience, the way to best prepare for the Open is to practice and hone the movements we will need to perform during the Open – lightweight thrusters, CTB pullups, TTB, snatches, lightweight deads, STOH, box jumps, wall ball, DU, and MU. Unfortunately, this can sometimes feel like eating the same PB&J sandwich every day for lunch…boring! I am doing my best to try and mix things up as much as possible and keep it interesting, but know that we will be dealing with this Open cycle until the beginning of April, so hunker down and get comfy!

We will have a deload the week before 14.1 is revealed (Thursday, February 27th). This recovery will most likely be scheduled for Friday the 21st through Wednesday the 26th.

My thoughts on how to approach the Open are simple. Treat it like a real comp, where you have only one all-important opportunity to give it your best shot. 

This year will have exponentially more athletes competing, and they will be filling the rosters at every level. If you ended 200th in your region last year, you very well might be 1000th this year…even if you have greatly improved your strength and fitness since the 2013 Open. This means that repeating a workout should only be a Hail Mary play for an athlete on the cusp of qualifying for Regionals. For everyone else, repeating is detrimental to your training and I cannot recommend it. Do not let your placement in the Open define you as an athlete, nor as a person. You may be a more well rounded athlete than people who beat you in the Open-style workouts, which is one of the reasons why these events should not be viewed as a definitive test of fitness. They are simply part of the funnel which sends the most elite of the elite to the Games.

Your final placement during the 2014 Open, while important, is only a fleeting snapshot of your athletic life. Training should be about transforming into the best athlete that you personally can become, whether that is a high-level competitor, regional phenom, big fish in the small pond, or maybe just a better version of the person you were yesterday. My priority is helping athletes get stronger, faster, and more skilled, all while avoiding overtraining and injury. It is easy to get swept up in the competitive nature of the season, but the roots of CrossFit are YOU versus YOU.

Either you have the genetic potential to be Rich Froning…or you don’t. You will either easily qualify for Regionals…or you won’t. Programming and busting your ass can certainly go a long way, but at this point in the evolution of the sport, the competition is daunting. I guarantee there won’t be as much shuffling this year, especially with the new rules of having to declare team or individual earlier than before. There will be little question who the top 48 are in each region.

This brings me back to my belief that you should treat each workout of the Open as a one-time, all-or-nothing attempt. That is how EVERY OTHER KIND OF COMPETITION operates, after all. Stick to the schedule we already have. Rest on Thursday and watch the announcement of the Open workout for the week. Friday, do some light training and perhaps feel out the Open WOD movements. Listen to the feedback of people you know who choose to hit the workout right away, and create a game plan for yourself based on what you know of your own strengths and weaknesses. Friday night, I will send out a strategy email, and Saturday is the day to throw down. Sunday, rest. Monday is the “Hail Mary” day if it is determined that repeating a workout is necessary, but for everyone else, it’s back to regular training.

This schedule is based on my own personal opinion, and I am the first to admit it does not take into account illness, gym logistics, freak snowstorms, or the other variables that will most likely come into play at some point during the five weeks we will be in Open mode. Adjustment might be required, and that is OK! Just let me know what you need, and I will help you out however I can. Lastly, if you don’t agree with my strategy, you are certainly free to do whatever you believe is in your best interest – at the end of the day, it is always your choice what you do, and I won’t get butthurt if you decide to kill yourself by attempting each Open workout three times…I will just say I told you so when the dust settles and you admit I was right ;)

Once the Open is over, and spring is right around the corner, we will be ditching the repetitiveness of the season with much more fun stuff! Running is back on the table, as well as heavy barbell work, high skill movements, outside work with prowlers and sleds, and additional opportunities for expanding your fitness with hiking, biking, swimming, and other fresh air alternatives to being stuck in a dark, cold gym!

I would like to thank all of you for the honor and privilege of working with you. There are a lot of choices out there for programming and coaching nowadays, and your decision to rely on me is something I take quite seriously.

Laura DeMarco
Owner, Whetstone Athletics

Barbell Meditation

The barbell is one of the few things in life that is unflinchingly, brutally honest with you. Moreover, it holds your face to the mirror and forces you to look inside. Are you distracted? Angry? Lacking confidence? Focus or fail.

Barbell work is arguably one of the most effective meditation practices.

barbellmeditation

“Who cares about rowing?”, and other competition observations

A few points…

1) Is everyone signing up for the Open? I should hope so!

2) Remember the assignment to row 1k for time this week? That wasn’t prescribed simply to torture you. Since we are in the on-season, there are competitions every weekend. I monitor the larger, well-respected ones; the ones where Games athletes and other beasties throw down and win thousands of dollars. These high-profile comps are where we see where our sport is headed, and get glimpses of how the best in the world are performing right now. The London Throwdown was just last week, and the opening workout was a 1k row. Fastest male times were 2:58; fastest females (yes, that’s plural) were 3:27. Now, I know what you’re thinking…just because some freak won a specialty workout doesn’t mean they performed well overall. Here are the top 3 males and top 3 females, along with their ranking for the 1k row:

Males

  1. Andy Edwards – tied for 33rd on the row with 3:07
  2. Nick Rouse – tied for 33rd on the row with 3:07
  3. Steven Fawcett – 90th place on the row with 3:15

Females

  1. Samantha Briggs – tied for 1st place on the row with 3:27
  2. Katrin Davidsdottir – 6th place on the row with 3:30
  3. Drofn Hilmarsdottir – tied for 1st place on the row with 3:27.

We see that for the females, row skills are EXTREMELY IMPORTANT. You don’t have to win, but you absolutely need to be in the top tier. This can be the difference between qualifying or not.

For the males, it was not as important to win; there were something like 151 guys competing to the women’s 98, so there was more bottlenecking with the times. HOWEVER, you will notice that both the first and second place males overall ALSO TIED FOR THE ROW. They were competitive across the board, not just freakish rowers.

My point is that, for those who want to be competitive in this sport, you do not get any mulligans. You cannot have any weaknesses. The field is evolving every year, and your margin for error is shrinking. You must be willing to put everything out there on your workouts, or you will quickly fall down in the rankings. For those of you who may not aspire to compete on that level, that’s fine too! Just know that we are working on making you a better, more well-rounded athlete anyway ;)

3) Please read this article - “Think You’re Tired? Might All Be in Your Head”. I know, I know…all that ‘power of positive thinking’ stuff is a bunch of hooey. Sometimes it can be difficult to believe that something as simple as our attitude can make such a drastic difference in our perception of fatigue and overall performance, but…studies are proving that this is indeed the case. DO NOT DISMISS the importance of sports psychology in what we do; the mind is much more powerful than what we want to credit.

Learning to Dance

dance

The barbell can be an unforgiving dance partner. One misstep, and she crashes to the ground. The choreography has come to an abrupt and clumsy end, leaving you standing there, abashed. Maybe you apologize, maybe you get pissed at yourself for messing up, or maybe you direct your frustration at her…but in the end, it comes down to the fact that you did not hit the right move at the right time.

Olympic lifts are complex. They demand strict adherence to a sequence of physical positions and impeccable timing. When done with finesse, they become a thing of beauty, and are capable of moving jaw-dropping weights from the ground to overhead. However, it is this very complexity that makes the Olympic lifts so incredibly frustrating for most athletes. We want to be able to do it, and we want to be able to do it NOW! The lifts cannot be conquered…but they can teach us patience, respect, and grace. Just as you cannot learn a language, or master ballroom dancing in a day, the Olympic lifts take time to master. Start with the basics. Learn the steps, and PRACTICE them.

Rob Silver, a friend of mine, and all-around great coach and programmer, recently posted a photo discussing this very thing:

robOlypic

His accompanying description,

“This pic captures the 4 major positions of the snatch working from upper left. When learning to lift, the most important thing is to make sure you are hitting these 4 positions. Position 1 is floor with shoulders over bar, back engaged both at spine and lats and and knees/hips externally rotated. Position 2 is bar at (bottom of) knee height with shoulders in front of bar and hammies engaged and back still tight. Position 3 is the launch/power/high hang position with bar pulled back into our hips, knees are (re)bent and torso is upright. Position 4 is the catch. Isometrics: using isometric holds on these positions is a great addition to a training program as it allows you to make sure you “remember” these positions and will strengthen your body’s ability to execute the lift correctly without pause. Hitting these positions lift after lift must come before lifting at speedier adding heavy weights. Therefor, while still perfecting technique, pausing isometricly at each position while moving slowly between 1-3 will improve lifting technique and pr’s will then follow. For experienced lifters, the addition of isometric holds will challenge their lifting ability under new stress, help solidify these positions as weight continually gets heavier by strengthening the supporting muscles, and is a way to add variety to lifting along the lines of the conjugate method. The downside is that isometrics only strengthen the muscles within 10 degrees of the joint angle being held. Therefore, isometrics are not as beneficial for sports like football but do have a place in crossfit and weightlifting where the sport is moving the barbell and exact positions the body will/should be in are known”

It brought a tear to my eye, let me tell you. Perfect advice!

My all time favorite resource, Catalyst Athletics, also recently posted an article about the importance of holding position and exercising control on the Olympic lifts.

“So many lifters get in the habit of dropping lifts as they stand, and this masks imbalance or instability that then becomes extremely obvious when they’re forced to actually hold onto the bar.”

The advice?

“From now on, until you never drop a snatch or jerk from overhead unintentionally, hold every snatch, power snatch, jerk, power jerk, overhead squat or snatch balance in the receiving position for 2-3 seconds before recovering. And when you do recover, hold onto the bar for a second before you drop it.”

“Get Cozy Down There”

A treatise on coaching style…

“Those are just a few helpful tips. If you disagree with them, that’s fine. Go right ahead and keep trying to inspire your athletes by telling them they remind you of a bucket of pig vomit. I’m sure they’ll reach great heights. Or maybe they’ll stab you with an ice pick. Either one of those would be pretty cool.”

My favorite quote from the recent article on Catalyst Athletics, “Motivation, Inspiration, And Stabbing,” by Matt Foreman

 

I have been around long enough to see (and experience) a variety of coaching styles. The only thing more useless and annoying than the coach who puts their athletes on a pedestal and flatters them constantly is the one who has nothing constructive to say and tries to inspire with insults and disparaging comments. Athletes are people, not gods to be worshipped or peons to be abused. The best coach is one who understands that there is an art to the balance of professionalism, camaraderie, instruction, and tough love, and strives to evolve themselves as well as their athletes.

- Coach DeMarco

Welcome to Whetstone Athletics

whet·stone n.
A hard, fine-grained stone for honing tools.
The purpose of Whetstone athletics is to shape you into a more effective athlete, just as a whetstone sharpens a blade. No one can achieve their potential in a vacuum; the better you want to be, the more important it becomes to have proper guidance. Olympians need coaches, and so do you.