Take a moment to think about it: If you’ve ever competed in CrossFit® — or really any sport as an adult for that matter — what’s the most valuable thing you’ve ever walked away with from that competition? Was it the official tri-blend t-shirt commemorating the event or the 10% off coupon for a brand that’s more than likely going to be defunct in less than six months?
I have about 20 of those t-shirts but unfortunately, that’s not the correct answer. The right answer is experience. Experience, and I can’t stress this enough, whether simply good or tragically, devastatingly bad is invaluable to an athlete. How valuable was the experience of Mat Fraser’s collapse at the Games two years ago to his utter domination this year? Aside from the post-competition drinks, experience is the most valuable commodity after competing. It can teach you where you excelled or where you faltered. Where the holes are in your programming or where your strategy was on point. It can also help you reflect on how you prepared immediately prior to the competition. The week leading up to any competition can be the difference between realizing your potential of all the work you put in or leave you wondering, "What the hell happened?"
The Week Before a CrossFit® Competition
The work is done. Realistically, there’s no way you’re going to drastically improve your overall fitness within the span of a week. The week leading up to a competition is the time to tweak strategies or maybe get more comfortable making bigger jumps on that snatch complex you have to hit. But most importantly, the last week is crucial for preparing yourself so that you can peak on competition day. Now comes the tricky part. Why? Because every athlete is so different. And yes, that may seem like a cop-out answer but it’s the truth. Different athletes, at every level, have different protocols that allow them to peak at the right time. And the only way to learn this is through — you guessed it — experience. It’s about testing out different strategies and finding out what works best for you. Most athletes fall into one of three camps:
- Full Rest
- Taper then Sharpen
- No Change
The "full rest" crowd are the athletes that perform best after taking, basically, an active recovery week prior to the competition. This doesn’t mean they sit at home all day watching reruns of The Price is Right and avoid the gym like the plague but rather they take it easy with some light cardio, some skill work and the occasional ROMWOD session to make sure their body is well rested and primed for competition day. The "taper then sharpen" athletes are those that ease off the gas pedal from their normal day-to-day a week or more out from game day. They decrease their workload or scale back percentages of their only routine, then use the week before competition to sharpen the axe. They test out portions of workouts to devise the best game plan, work on efficiency techniques to string together a few more toes-to-bar or get comfortable making slightly bigger jumps in weight so they feel sharp and confident going into the weekend. The "no change" crowd may seem the most counterintuitive at first glance. They’re the athletes that benefit from no real change in their programming leading up to competition day. On paper you would think everyone would benefit from some time off before competition but this isn’t always the case. Anyone remember the time they hit a new PR when they were least expecting it? That time you hit a new backsquat PR days after doing a 20 minute AMRAP of Fran (AKA Fran-rap)? It’s not that unusual. The same way it’s not unusual to have athletes treat competition day the same way they would any other training day and perform their best. All three strategies have their merits but it really comes down to the athlete themselves to decide what works best for them. Just as an example, one of our coaches made it to Regionals in 2013 and 2014. We used to joke that if the CrossFit® Open was five weeks long, he would do maybe 10 workouts aside from the Open workouts during that time — and that still might be a bit generous. Yet clearly, that worked for him. The Chinese weightlifting team, arguably the best weightlifting team in the world, does near maximal squats just days out from major competition to prime the legs. They rarely change their programming before collecting all of their medals a few days later. Different strategies for different athletes. Only time and experience can teach you what works for you.
In the immortal words of John Beckwith from Wedding Crashers, “It’s the first quarter of the big game and you want to toss up a Hail Mary?” Yet, time and time again this is exactly what I see. CrossFit® is filled with enough variables, the unknown and unknowable. You shouldn’t treat your game day preparation as such. On game day, you should approach each workout with the same preparation you would normally do on any other training day — for better or worse. What I mean is, if your normal pre-workout meal on a day-to-day consists of McDonald's with a side of Krispy Kreme donuts, then that’s exactly what you should do on competition day. The reason being is you know exactly what to expect from your body if you do so. If your everyday warm-up consists on rowing for five minutes, checking memes on your phone for another 10, then a couple of arm circles, then that’s what you should do. Too often I see people try to cram six months of good habits into the 30 minutes before the competition. People who have never rolled out in their lives now have a mobility setup that rivals Kelly Starrett. Better yet, they decide today’s the day they need pre-workout supplements, end up taking three scoops, do their first thruster and crap their pants — don’t be that guy. Understand the difference. I’m not advocating bad habits. I’m advocating not switching up your routine come game day. What’s the saying? “Practice how you play.” Eating healthier, warming up properly and taking the time for mobility are all tremendous habits, but habits that need to be tested and built into your daily routine months ago. If you are unsure how anything under your control is going to affect your performance, even with the off-chance it might have a positive affect, the day of the competition is the last day you want to test it out.
Nutrition is always the biggest hurdle to get over. It’s so specific and catered to the individual that there’s no real one-size-fits-all for any athlete. So I’ll keep this section short and hit you with some general guidelines overall. If you’re not accustomed to the increased volume you’ll be tackling come competition day, it’s important to understand that as the workload increases so does the caloric demand. Couple that with the fact your adrenaline is through the roof and it isn’t so uncommon to find athletes struggling to eat during the competition. These are the athletes who are straight out of juice by the time the last workout rolls around, as opposed to the seasoned athlete who understands the importance of eating to their performance even if they don’t feel like it. If you find yourself on the side of the fence that struggles to eat between workouts, shakes packed with protein and carbohydrates (and carbohydrates — thought I’d say it twice to drive it home) are a godsend. Finally, understand proper fueling doesn’t start that morning, or even the night before, but rather days out. The beauty of CrossFit® is its willingness to draw from other sports and disciplines to increase its horizons and grow. We can learn a lot from distance runners in this respect. Proper fueling and hydration all begin days out from a big race and what’s a big race in respect to a day-long CrossFit® competition? If you wake up the day of the competition with severe cotton mouth and remember the only thing you drank the day before was the blood running out of your double bacon cheeseburger, then you’ve already lost the battle with hydration, my friend, no matter how many Smartwaters you chug. For most athletes, the competition is the day they have circled on the calendar, the day they finally get their hands on the barbell and get to throw down in front of friends and family. But remember, for the experienced athlete, the real competition starts a week prior.