Open Season - a survival guide!

Once again the CrossFit Open is almost upon us. As per usual there will be a series of 5 workouts over 5 weekends that will challenge us in terms of intensity, load, duration, complexity of movements, and sheer determination. 

If you are about to partake, good luck!

This article is intended to give you some strategies to help you get through the Open in the best shape possible. It’s a long one (there’s a lot of info to cover), so feel free to jump around and only read the bits you are interested in. Mind you, if you want to read the whole thing in one go, knock yourself out! 

Now, on a normal day, CrossFit is a demanding sport. Many of the movements we engage in are complex (snatches, clean and jerks, and gymnastics, for a start). This means that we have to engage a lot of our large, prime-mover muscle groups, while at the same time co-ordinating and stabilising our bodies to effectively complete the movement, hopefully without injuring ourselves. This demands a huge amount of us, and not just of our joints and muscles. It also asks a lot of our metabolism and the different energy pathways in our bodies. And CrossFit also requires huge amounts of our nervous systems in terms of motor planning and activating the appropriate muscles in the correct sequence to most efficiently and safely engage in the movements. Further to that, CrossFit is generally a sport in which the community supports and encourages us to push ourselves and find our limit. Because of this we are frequently engaging in activities that are out of our comfort zones, which can demand a lot of us psychologically.

This is one of the reasons why CrossFitters find they can obtain bigger gains in terms of strength, endurance and performance than those engaging in many other activities.

It is also why CrossFitters need to be aware of proper recovery practices. If we neglect their recovery we can find ourselves crashing down in a heap, scoring up a list of injuries, or simply bowing out of the game.

When you add the demands of a competition like the Open on top of all this, you may find you are pushing yourself to your limit throughout March - physiologically, neurologically and psychologically.

If you want to make it through the Open in good shape, and hopefully with a few PBs under your belt, you need to be mindful of the demands on your body, and the need for recovery. In this article I intend to outline some common methods for aiding recovery. Many if not most of these you may already be aware of, but using them deliberately and mindfully throughout the open can aid you considerably in making it through unscathed.

Before we do that, however, let’s talk about what I mean by recovery.

First, when we train or compete, we place our body, nervous system and psyche under stress. This is important, because we need stress to push ourselves into adaptation and therefore to improve our performance - get stronger, develop more endurance, become more co-ordinated and skilled. But this also comes at a cost. We are depleted as a result. If we want to have our skill-set available at need and on demand, then we need to restore our depleted reserves. This is the process of recovery. 

In many ways, recovery is the flip-side of training and competing.

Failure to allow for good recovery can contribute to poor performance, and possibly increased likelihood of injury.

Hopefully by this point you’ve got how important it is to pay attention to your recovery.

I’m going to stop rabbiting on now, and get straight to it. Following is a list of recovery strategies.

  • Adequate and quality sleep
  • Good nutrition
  • Good hydration
  • Appropriate supplementation
  • Appropriate tapering prior to Open workouts
  • Compression wear during and after Open workouts
  • Foam-rolling and mobilising
  • Stretching
  • Active recovery sessions post-workout
  • Cryotherapy (ice)
  • Heat therapy
  • Meditation
  • Manual therapy (sports chiropractic, physiotherapy, massage)

I’m going to pause briefly to let you know that the evidence around recovery is a bit sketchy and anecdotal. We’re still in the early days of conducting solid studies and collecting quantities of good quality evidence about the concepts of recovery and the various strategies I’ve listed above. There is some good evidence for sleep and nutrition strategies, as well as around cryotherapy and compression. There is limited evidence about the contribution of the other points to recovery, including the effects of manual therapy (particularly using manual therapy when you are not specifically dealing with an injury). What I can tell you is that these strategies (and more besides) are commonly and regularly implemented by professional athletes and sporting teams to assist with their recovery. 

Now, to details.

Sleep: Fatigue is known to affect athletic performance. If you go in to an Open workout fatigued it is going to affect the outcome. Sleep is when your body heals and restores depleted reserves. But it needs to be good quality sleep. The following goes a long way to defining healthy:

  • Sleeping for between 7 to 9 hours a night
  • Undisturbed (waking no more than once during the night)
  • Asleep within 30 minutes of lying down
  • Waking feeling refreshed
  • Relatively constant energy and alertness throughout the day (although this can be dependant on a lot of different factors)

Setting up your bedroom and routine to allow for good sleep patterns will go a long way to assisting with your athletic performance.

Nutrition: Now, I’m not a nutritionist, and the field of sports nutrition is huge and complex, with many competing theories and approaches. What I can say is that if you eat a lot of crap (processed foods, high-sugar foods, high volumes of alcohol, etc) it will do you no favours athletically. If you fail to eat enough of the necessary macronutrients (protein, fat and carbohydrates) you will also fall short. If you neglect things like fresh vegetables you are again depriving your body of essential nutrients. So use a bit of common sense: eat real food, in appropriate amounts, and include lots of veggies! I will also say that if you are participating in the Open, this is NOT the time to suddenly embark on that new Keto/Paleo/whatever diet, nor is it the time to try and loose weight!

Hydration: There are so many different opinions on how much water our bodies require. It’s fair to say, however, that when you are very active you need more. Dehydration can impair your athletic performance. It can also mess with your body’s ability to regulate your temperature (you don’t sweat, so you can’t cool down). Try this: about 30 minutes prior to working out, drink about 300-500mL of water. For the rest of the time, if you are thirsty, please drink! Thirst is just about the best sign of dehydration. Water is still the preferred way to rehydrate, but if you want to use a sports drink, that’s your choice (and there are times when it’s appropriate - see below). Also, keep in mind the climate in which you are performing - heat and low humidity will contribute to faster dehydration (here in Canberra we’ve had plenty of both lately).

Supplementation: Okay, this is a huge field. I’m not really sure if I can effectively summarise it in a single paragraph. Having said that, here are a few ideas. If you are a real sweat-monkey, and you have a tendency to loose a lot of salt in your sweat, it may be worth supplementing with some sodium. You will know if you loose a lot of salt because you’ll have white lines around the sweat stains in your workout gear when it dries. The best way to get salt into you is either via a sports electrolyte supplement during and after workouts (I mentioned this above in the paragraph on hydration), or add a little bit to your diet. The other thing that happens during competition is an increase of stress. This can influence the function of your immune system and lead to an increase in inflammation. The problem with this is that it impairs recovery. You can combat this with Omega 3 supplements (fish oil), and vitamin D supplements. Now, vitamin D supplementation will only help if you are deficient, but there is a reasonable chance, living in Australia, that you may be. The only way to know for certain is with a blood test. Also, supplementation can take months to replenish your stores of vitamin D, so beginning this close to the Open may not help. It’s worth mentioning, however. Other supplements that may help with muscle soreness and recovery is creatine (not if you’re diabetic, have a kidney condition or are pregnant) and a general protein supplement, and a quality magnesium supplement. As with all supplementation, if you have a medical condition or use medication regularly please check with your doctor before trying this stuff!

Tapering: Basically, don’t smoke yourself the day before you do an Open workout. If you’re going to train, maybe dial it back to 60-70% effort, so you’ve still got something in the tank at the end of your training session. It almost doesn’t need saying, but if you go into an Open workout depleted you just not going to perform at your best. Be aware that if your overall training load suddenly increases dramatically you start to get into territory where you can become chronically depleted, and start to suffer in terms of performance and overall health. Also you will increase the chances of injury. So train smart. Most coaches will be mindful of this anyway, and either program the week to make sure you’re in good shape for the Open workouts, or will give you options in the days leading up to the workout to allow you to taper.

Compression garments: Use them during the workout, and then for about 24 hours after. Sleep in them if you can. Compression wear will help keep a lid on the muscle soreness (DOMS) you can get after an intense workout, and can help with muscular recovery afterwards. You’re going to get the best results using full-length garments for your legs and upper body (not the bike-shorts or t-shirt style garments). If you have to choose, wear them on your legs over your upper body. Just don’t put your compression garments in the dryer. It renders them useless. (And keep in mind that if you wear your undies on the outside you can pretend you’re a superhero!)

Foam-rolling: Really what I mean is using foam-rollers, rumble-rollers, PVC pipes, balls, spikey balls, barbells, or whatever you want to roll-out and mobilise your muscles and soft tissues. You can do this post-workout and it may help alleviate the DOMS that’s waiting for you the next day. You may also want to use mobilising as a regular part of your workout regime to help maintain good range of motion. It can work for either. In general, a solid mobilisation session will last about 20 minutes. In that time you could thoroughly work through both your legs from top to bottom, for example. There are so many approaches to mobility work. If you are unsure how to mobilise something ask your coaches, jump on Google, or read one of the multiple books available on the subject.

Stretching: Good for maintaining functional range of motion, may help with post-workout muscle soreness. Can also be relaxing, which can be useful given the intensity of the Open. I’ve previously written about stretching: check it out here.

Active recovery: You’re going to need rest days during the Open. But that doesn’t mean lying on the couch eating ice-cream all day (sorry to break the news). Staying active on your rest days can speed up your recovery and get you back to performance level faster. Active recovery involves performing light exercises that stimulate the recovery process without placing undue stress on the body. Examples include yoga, swimming, cycling, walking, and light bodyweight exercises. You can always ask your coach for ideas too.

Cryotherapy: Ice, ice, baby! There is a growing body of evidence to show that cryotherapy after an intense match/event/workout can assist with recovery. A lot of sporting teams will have ice-baths available for their athletes. Post-match, the players will immerse their entire bodies (excepting their heads) into an ice bath for short bursts. Most of us regular people don’t have the space or money to set up an ice bath (although I’ve seen some interesting things done with kiddy pools and bags of ice from the servo). We can however use some readily available alternatives - cold showers. First opportunity you have after a workout get in the shower, turn the cold on with NO hot water, and get under. Stay there for between 1 and 3 minutes. Done! Interestingly, cold therapy is also supposed to be good for your immune system and helps relieve stress in your nervous system too. It’s regarded as a bit of a reset for your physiology. There is also some evidence that long-term WBC (whole body cryotherapy) inhibit muscle hypertrophy, but I doubt you’ll be trying to put on huge amounts of muscle mass during the Open anyway.

Heat: There is less evidence for the benefits of heat as compared to ice, but, hey, if you like it go for it. The theory is that heat stimulates the blood vessels to open, allowing more blood to circulate through your tissues. This will remove metabolites that have occurred due to the activity you’ve just engaged in, and bring fresh nutrients and other chemicals to the muscles to aid in recovery. Immerse your body in a bath at temperatures over 37 degrees Celsius. I don’t believe there is a limit to how long you can lounge in a hot bath for - probably until it’s cold or you want to get out.

Meditation: Why meditate to recover from physical activity, I hear you ask? Because you need to allow your nervous system to recover as much as (if not more than) your muscles and soft tissues. Have you ever had the experience where after a particularly intense workout all you can do is lie on the floor? You don’t seem to have the ability to lift your arms or legs? It’s not just muscle fatigue. Every time you activate a muscle it occurs because of firing in the nervous system. Overwork the neural pathways that activate your muscles and you literally deplete the stores of neurotransmitters necessary to fire those pathways. These need to be replenished. Further to that, competing in something like the Open brings with it a measure of psychological stress. All of this can result in a depleted nervous system and cognitive fatigue - you loose strength, you have difficulty activating muscles, you are bone-weary, you have difficulty concentrating. You may even feel flat or depressed. Meditation can help restore things. If you don’t already practice meditation get yourself one of the many reputable apps that will teach and guide you through the practice. Keep in mind that many of the previously mentioned recovery strategies will be invaluable for helping your nervous system recover, including adequate sleep, good nutrition and hydration, and certain supplements.

Manual therapy: Okay, so maybe I’m shamelessly plugging my own services, but there are real benefits to be had by using the services of a good manual therapist for your recovery processes. A professional who can assess your movement patterns, and target treatment to keep you moving optimally may be able to assist in addressing areas of tightness and restriction that have built up. As I’ve said previously, the evidence in favour of this approach is still sketchy, so use your own judgement, however I would suggest sourcing a good sports chiropractor who uses some kind of soft tissue technique in their practice, or a good sports physiotherapist (possibly who manipulates), or a massage therapist experienced in working with athletes.

This list of recovery strategies is by no means exhaustive. There will be additional ideas that I haven’t included here. I hope it provides a good starting point. Please feel free to contact me for additional information on any of these strategies.

I wish you all the best in the Open!