Managing Your Way to Mediocrity

By Jon Gilson


[Editor's Note: This was originally published here on September 9, 2008.]

Patrick and I went to the track last week to blast through a quartet of four hundred meter sprints. He blasted, and I ran like a prosthetic-free amputee.

There was a brutal headwind, inexplicably extending three-quarters of the way around the track. It was an interesting twist, but I don’t think it caused my paint-drying, grass-growing slowness. That honor belongs to my ever-so-awesome habit of managing my way through daily workouts.

This practice is score-driven, meant to maximize the numbers on the whiteboard for any given level of fitness. Basically, you perform a workout multiple times, systematically varying your strategy in an attempt to either maximize work or minimize time from attempt to attempt. The idea is to find the limits of your ability, and to exist at that level. Unfortunately, ability management has a monumental downfall—the latent tendency to cause detraining. If one trains at the limits of ability, never trying to push the pace beyond current capacity and never exposing the body to an overwhelming stimulus, improvement does not occur. Even worse, ability slowly travels in the other direction, gathering speed on the gradual slope of suckdom.

The importance of this most basic of training principles, known as adaption to imposed demand, did not flash in my little brain until I’d been regressing for two solid months. My fastest four hundred was a swollen 1:21, a full twelve seconds off my personal best and ten seconds slower than my previous performance.

It doesn’t sound that horrible until you realize that the world’s fastest athletes can run more than a quarter of the track in that time. Ten seconds is an eternity.

The culprit was management. I was using running as a moving rest period, sandbagging each interval in an attempt to preserve capacity for other movements. The cumulative effect was a dramatic decrease in ability, and I deserved every inch of it.

The central tenet of CrossFit is intensity. Movements are pursued with aplomb, chasing the elusive goal of ever increasing work capacity. When we throw sport into the mix, ranking athletes and posting scores in black and white, the goal skews toward winning, and intensity suffers in favor of score maximization.

Score-motivated performance is not an unspeakable evil, but awareness of its potential to hurt long term development is a must. Unless there are medals, money, or everlasting glory at stake, it is wise to conduct every exercise with the ferocity of a midsummer hurricane. You might burn out today, but you won’t for long.

I’m banishing management from my athletic toolbox. Next time I charge into a gale-force headwind, I’ll do so with all-out effort, knowing that anything else is a recipe for mediocrity. If I limp in, unable to do a single thruster, pull-up, or swing, so be it. At least I’ll know I gave it everything, and the only direction is up.


Jon Gilson is the founder of Again Faster and former member of CrossFit’s Level I Seminar staff.