When I see people in workout gear I instantly look down at their feet to see if they’re CrossFitters. Such is the scene in Costa Coffee in Belfast on Saturday morning. Nano 6, Nano 6, some Reebok shoe I don’t recognise but I recognise as a CrossFit shoe. I look up to see the owner none other than Chris Hinshaw.
Chris walks over and introduces himself to me. He’s a warm, slight man with an introverted, cerebral manner. What I’ll learn over the next few hours is his lifetime of knowledge that he’s somehow managed to distill down to digestible chunks for us.
Chris Hinshaw has worked with Jason Khalipa, taking him from the guy that always came last in the endurance events at The Games, to winning the half marathon row in 2013.
How that came about was interesting, and Chris tells many interesting and humorous stories of our favourite Games heroes over the course of the day. It’s clear he’s a fan of the sport, and just as he’s exciting to meet Castro, Froning, Camille, and Fraser, he holds the same celebrity status to us. Small doses of CrossFit on top of his endurance training had enormous benefits to his game, and he’s figured out how small doses of endurance training can and has had an enormous impact on the CrossFit game.
Before Chris, Jason would just go to the track and run 400m as fast as possible. No warm up, just get out of his car and go! Then he’d rest about 60-90 seconds (not very well structured at all) and go again. He’d suffer. Then, by his third attempt, he wouldn’t finish. Then he’d go to the gym and lift weights. Chris’ goal was to slow him down and make him last longer!
Pacing & Intensity are linked, and we can really develop a feel for pace and intensity. The best Games athletes can look at a workout, and even though they’ve never done that particular combination of movements before (or even that movement!) they can figure out the time domain, and then pace for it. Knowing how to pace so you can elicit the adaptation you want from a workout is key. It’s something we as athletes need to learn, and as coaches we need to teach!
Chris breaks things down into 6 different time domains: 1 minute, 2 minutes, 5 minutes, 20 minutes, 40 minutes, and 90 minutes. Below 5 minutes there’s really no pacing, but above 5 minutes pacing is essential. You could also think of this as 6 different intensities. Sure, we may not do a lot of 90-minute workouts in your regular CrossFit class, but you can train that intensity during your warm ups so you can learn the pace.
As you can see, once we go to 5 plus minutes of time domain, our aerobic system is essential for most of our energy output. If we’re not training this system, we’re missing out on massive amounts of fitness (and gains!)
A telling story about learning the correct pace for long intensities is Pendleton in 2012. Chris Spealer was known for his 6-minute mile pace, and being one of the fastest runners in the sport. But, he couldn’t run a 9-minute mile pace. His body hadn’t learnt how to cycle through the motor units effectively at that pace. So when his body seized up running normally, he’d to switch to sideways running. Then, he’d to retreat to running backwards. Finally, he crossed the line limping on just his calve muscles!
(Chris recalls this story in a much more entertaining way than I’ve put forth in text here.)
Chris said you must maintain muscle unit capacity, don’t let the brain shut your body down. We’ve all been there. That point in the metcon where it’s one wall ball, or deadlift, or pull up, but we can’t even bring our body to attempt it. We’ve blown up.
Take home message: Ask yourself before each workou:, what quality of fitness am I trying to improve? So am I looking to see how quickly I recover? Am I looking to increase my max capacity? My strength? My speed? From there you can build a plan around how you structure your workout.
We then went on to the first workout of the day, which was essentially 10 minutes of running. But that was hidden around 10 rounds of 1 minute on, 10 seconds off. Proof that it doesn’t take much to fool the average CrossFitter! To warm up we skipped (on pretty heavy ropes) for single unders for 30 seconds break, then our partner went for 30 seconds. The aim was to match your round one score across the remaining 5 rounds. My scores were 55, 58, 57, 56, 56, 56. Allegedly my good buddy Pat Barber did this as 2 minutes on/1 off for 6 rounds and didn’t miss a beat!
The aim behind this was that even your warm up should be productive, learning what a relaxed 90-minute pace should feel like, and learning how to know your pace by feel. Lots of warm up drills ensued before we hit up the running workout.
While we terrorised many a learner drive we ran up and down the road outside CFB, with Heidi, Chris’ wife, counting the clock at the 100m mark. We each had a target distance to run in a minute, and a target time for 100m based off our current mile PR. For rounds 1 and 3 we were given the clock, then only a 5,4,3,2,1 count down to the end of the minute.
Pacing is hard!!! For me at least. Chris ran alongside me once and told me he could hear my breathing. My ninja training isn’t progressing as I’d hoped. Smart efficient runners can pace their breath to their steps. When I tried to count steps per breath I found I couldn’t breathe! (I’m smart, I swear!)
Afterwards, while everyone strolled back into the lecture my chest burnt and my lungs seized. Running, breathing, and pacing, and all at the same time, is a challenge for me!
As per the diagram below, you can see how you can manipulate the variables in the workout to give you the training stimulus you’re looking for. As Chris pointed out at the start of the day, a lot of the stuff you already “know” but it’s putting it in a way you can comprehend and explain a lot easier.
Taking it away from running, if you were looking to improve your recovery on back squats for example, you could hop on the rower, or perform some double unders/burpees/air squats, etc. CrossFit really is an endurance sport, and the weightlifting/gymnastics are becoming more endurance focused, and an athlete’s ability to recover is as if not more important than their maximum effort.
After lunch, we went nerdier, into Aerobic Threshold, Lactate Threshold, VO2 Max and all that other fun stuff.
Your VO2 Max is your body’s maximal ability to take up oxygen to use. A close approximation is 180 minus your age, which essentially dictates the fastest speed you can go at and still stay aerobic. This is the lowest intensity that Chris programmes at. This isn’t a magical set number though, as there’s a range of intensities around that that need to be trained. Becuase there are other variables coming into play and you also need to train your body to operate at a range of intensities, not just one or two points. If you do nothing but high intensity you deplete your body’s glycogen (carbohydrate) stores. You also need to get used to burning fat as a fuel source.
The lactate threshold is the point at which your muscles can’t burn off the lactate it’s producing during exercise. So it dumps the lactate into the neighbouring muscles, and then into the bloodstream. This is the “death zone”, but there’s probably a better name for it…
Everyone of Chris’ athletes performs at least one Lactate Threshold workout a week and is their most valuable one.
A point on this. CrossFitters aren’t going to put the mileage in that “real runners” are so it’s important that each workout has a purpose. This is actually true for everyone workout. Each workout should have a purpose, and aim, that fits into a larger picture. A lesson that really I should have known by now (but amazingly keep forgetting) is to explain the purpose behind each workout to my athletes!
Essentially a pacing workout builds your Lactate Threshold. In a good workout or metcon, somewhere around two thirds to three quarters you’ll be thinking “I don’t think this is sustainable”. Chris did point out that LT range has to be done “by feel” and not always the same day to day. Important reminder that each day isn’t going to be an improvement on the last. Oh, and if you failed to finish, you went too fast.
Running isn’t about running. What!? Why Chris is such a fan of running for developing aerobic capacity is that it’s the one exercise where you’re supporting your structure. In a pool you’re floating, and biking and rowing you’re sitting down. But that’s not the only reason running is win (according to Chris, I still run like a duck!)
The body builds up lactate (anywhere), and when it spills over into the blood the body sends it to the largest muscle group (the legs) so your legs have to be able to handle that. Running makes you recover better, essentially. Mat Fraser won the 7K run in Aromas, he also beat everyone in his heat in the Suicide Sprint. Why? He’s an exceptional ability to recover. That handstand walk beforehand was going to build up massive amounts of lactate, and as other athletes fell off the pace Mat was able to kick in when it mattered.
Most of us fall somewhere in the 50/50% slow twitch/fast twitch fibre spectrum, and kinda up until now we’ve (as CrossFitters) neglected the slow twitch side of things.
Type 2a fibres are the “good ones”. These are the fibres that can work aerobically or anaerobically. With training, you can take your ability to kick it up a gear from 20 second bursts to 40 second bursts.
We carried on our discussion of muscle fibres and all things lactate into our second workout. We warmed up by doing a minute of rowing blind to the monitor. Our partner was allowed give us a count of how far in we were but not pace or distance. Again this was to develop the proper feel of a 90-minute/recovery pace.
Then onto warming up our rowing to max effort. We’d 10 seconds to reach maximum speed (1:22/500m for anyone still reading).
The workout that followed was
5 seated box jumps (high AF)
10 tuck jumps (3/4 depth squat)
20 plate jumps
30 seconds rowing
-resting about 4 minutes between efforts.
The aim here was to firstly trick your body with some ballistic training into giving maximal effort (seated box jumps are FUN!), then get to your max pace within 10 seconds. Once you dropped by 2 seconds on max pace you were done. My first round, I hit 1:22 and held it until 23 seconds. 18 seconds on the second round and 23 again on the third round. So for me I was recovering enough in the rest interval to keep hitting my max pace, only now I needed to develop an ability to keep that pace (Training those 2a fibres y’all!)
Afterwards we worked for:
12 overhead jumping split lunges
24 alternating plate jumps
200m recovery jog
And you thought the aerobic capacity course was nothing but long boring runs! We were developing our speed endurance in the first part, then our ability to clear lactate in the second part. Plus each part had a specific reason and sequence to it that was well thought out too! Chris is a very clever guy!
To wrap up the day, Chris brought us through a traditional training model. The reason it was always a pyramid is there was always a goal at the end. A distance and a pace that could be set. CrossFit’s gone and changed all that as we don’t have one single goal. We’ve lots of things to work on.
Chris, knowing what he knows now, said he wouldn’t have someone do a whole bunch of running if they haven’t developed their General Physical Preparedness. So for those of you reading just to see if there’s going to be way more running now you can breathe a sigh of relief! What there will be is more explanations around the training response we’re looking for in each workout, and better structured and reasoned workouts too!
To finish up, we got a glimpse into the training regimes Chris has prescribed to Games athletes (along with a hilarious story of Rich Froning “cheating” one of his workouts and getting punished for it!)
“Build knowledge. Build Confidence.” This was one of the last things Chris presented as he wrapped up the day, which was extremely well run! (Get it?) It’s awesome to see someone who’s been involved in sport and coaching for so long be so passionate about it and I’ve no doubt this was only a drop in the ocean of the knowledge Chris could have shared with us. This course was well worth the trip and a huge thanks to Jenna & Niall at CrossFit Belfast for bringing him over!