I recently had a conversation with a close friend of mine about intensity. We are both CrossFitters. We have both done CrossFit for over a decade. We have both been involved with CrossFit at some of the highest levels. And yet, despite all of those shared experiences, we still came up against a significantly different understanding of intensity.

In our conversation, my friend mentioned some recent frustration she had after a workout where she could not reach a level of intensity that she defines as “worth it” when doing a workout. She added weight, went faster, did more volume, but she just couldn’t hit that spot that leaves her feeling like she has spent her time in the gym well.

Ironically, what made this realization even more potent was that she had actually had to make some sacrifices in order to carve out space in her schedule to get to the gym. So basically, not only was she frustrated that she didn’t get what she wanted out of the workout, she also regretted missing out on the other things she could have done and was irritated that she had poorly managed her time. In other words, she labeled all that effort as wasted time.

In CrossFit, intensity is just a label we associate with power output. I’ve talked about this before in regards to how the CrossFit methodology defines intensity in terms of average power output across the time it takes to complete a certain amount of work. In other words, it’s objective, it’s measurable, and hopefully, it’s repeatable. More power output across a longer time domain, aka higher intensity maintained for longer periods of time means increased fitness. 

But as we were talking, I realized that in this case, my friend wasn’t talking about that kind of intensity. As an extremely high level elite athlete, my friend has experienced the far right side of the bell curve when it comes to work capacity and power output. She knows how to make it hurt and she knows how to maximize her performance. But she’s not that athlete anymore. And that’s not why she does CrossFit these days. Or at least, that’s what I was trying to tell her, but I’m not sure we were on the same page.

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My friend labeled her time in the gym with the same metrics of success and failure as she had in the past. She qualified her success in terms of moving heavier loads, longer distances, faster. But what happens when you just can’t do that anymore? Is that a failure? What happens when, unfortunately, your old labels don’t fit with the reality in which you suddenly find yourself?

What we call effective, ineffective, good, bad, right, or wrong seldom changes unless something drastically calls our attention to the inequity of our labeling patterns  Our brains excel at creating and identifying patterns because patterns allow us to develop habits and habits save us emotional energy and saving emotional energy lets our brains be lazy. And if it is one thing our brains are good at, it’s being lazy. 

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Most times, we don’t even realize how limited we are in the number of emotional words we use to categorize the infinitely more robust volume of somatic sensations we experience throughout the day. In other words, we suck at actually experiencing our moment to moment existence because our lazy, habit forming, label making brains have lulled us into a zombie-like state of submission.

It didn’t take long for my friend to realize that she had missed an opportunity for a different kind of intensity during the workout. In her case, she’s not only a phenomenal athlete, but an incredibly talented coach. So, when I asked her about her intention, she quickly picked up on where I was going. Instead of labeling the workout as a waste of time, she wondered if it couldn’t have been an investment in some kind of future development. She realized that there were numerous other opportunities in that moment that she missed – pacing, skill development, interpersonal engagement with other athletes, or just simple practice in letting go of expectations.

But these are really hard emotional moves to make in the moment. And, I dare say, moves like this take an immense amount of emotional intensity and present moment awareness. These are skills that take practice, just like moving large loads, long distances, quickly. But trying harder, going faster, or simply adding more volume isn’t always the answer.

So Hard GIF | Gfycat

That habit forming brain of ours does not like it when we make it do something out of the ordinary. It will fight. It will squirm. It will do everything it can to keep you from breaking form. And the more we fight with it, the harder it will be. Ironically, learning to let go, though the path of least resistance, can sometimes require the highest degree of emotional intensity. Do less. Do less better. Nope, too much.

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I’m not sure I know how to do the math to track or improve this kind of intensity and I seldom have enough fingers to put the right label on it.

But I’m gonna keep trying…just not too hard.

See you on the Creek.

-Coach Jack