“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.


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