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A few days ago the other Fairwinds coaches and I got into a conversation about one of the workouts this last week. The specifics of the actual workout are not as important as the conversation we had about how to coach it. Specifically under debate was how to effectively guide athletes to get the intended stimulus of a workout. It was a good question and it was a fun conversation. 

I got the sense that we were driving towards some kind of “truth” and in that pursuit, attempting to develop coaching guidance for all future workouts. At the time, I didn’t necessarily have a problem with this pursuit since systems, when effectively designed and implemented, work well. Since much of CrossFit’s success rests on measuring objectively observable phenomenon and effective systems are generally objective, systems work well in CrossFit. 

The overarching goal of our training methodology is to improve an athlete’s work capacity across broad modal and time domains. Coach Glassman correlates work capacity to an athlete’s fitness in his article What is Fitness where he explains it a lot better than I can. The article simply says that we are always driving towards intensity and power output and we prioritize anything that maximizes that power output and intensity. Calf raises, lat pull downs, and biceps curls sure are neat but their ability to illicit intensity in regards to power output pale in comparison to a basic deadlift or a more complicated clean and jerk. 

As for us at Fairwinds, the system we decided on as coaches was that any cue or guidance that reduces the amount of time it takes for an athlete to complete an assigned set of work is what the coach should prioritize. This means that we often cue athletes to reduce loads, develop better technique, or improve mechanics.  Consistently sound performances at ever increasingly higher levels of intensity allows the athlete to move better and move faster and thus become fitter. Therefore, cues and guidance that reduce an athlete’s time to complete an agreed upon amount of work becomes the priority. As a result, time becomes the primary dependent variable and we are constantly looking to reduce the amount of time that we are not working. Resting may be necessary from time to time, but resting without intention means less work being accomplished, which means less power output, which means less results.

The moment a CrossFit athlete realizes this truth about time and its ability to maximize her fitness and thus optimize her health is the moment she emerges from the metaphorical cave of fitness fads. In Plato’s Republic, Socrates and Glaucon embark on a dialectic that explores the pursuit of Truth as exemplified through an allegory of a cave. In the context of fitness, this pursuit can often come up against a lot of obstacles and confusion. For years, athletes spend their time chasing the shadows of heart rate percentages versus fat burning zones, cardio versus strength training, low fat versus high fat, low carb versus carb loading, macros versus fasting, and all the other noise that surrounds athletic development. If all of these are the Truth, it seems like an awfully busy and crowded pursuit. Time, as the sole variable to fitness, clarifies that confusion.

But I am left with a slightly troubling epistemological hangover.  I’ve basically hung my hat on the idea that the true path to fitness is through intensity and that intensity is driven by time; but is that the real answer? Can there be just one fitness Truth – time? I think of the Taoist epistemological challenge of the butterfly dream:

The other night I dreamed I was a butterfly flitting from flower to flower. Now I do not know if I was a man dreaming I was a butterfly or whether I am now a butterfly dreaming I am a man.

Music Video Butterfly GIF by James Bay - Find & Share on GIPHY

The dreamer and the dream become one. A true “I” dissolves and the illusion of truth disappears with it. 

I often find myself similarly losing touch with the clear truth of time during CrossFit workouts. Sometimes, the first four minutes of a twelve minute AMRAP will feel as if I am working forever. Every movement is deliberate and takes effort. But at some point, I lose myself in the rhythm of the movements. The pain subsides to the flow of the effort. There is a freedom. A joy. Before I know it, I hear, “1 MINUTE TO GO!!” Wait, what? How is that possible? Where has the time gone? 

But there are also moments in other workouts when I can’t imagine myself continuing to work. I am stuck in the pain. I find myself saying I must stop. I must rest. And then I hear, “1 MINUTE TO GO!!” The time ends, the workout is over. And after I recover and look back, I wonder whether the pain was as bad as I thought. Could I have gone faster, kept moving?

What then is the Truth? Was the pain something I imagined at the expense of entering a peaceful and meaningful sense of flow or was it flow that I imagined at the expense of ignoring the reality that the pain would, like all things, eventually return?

In reality, both are illusions. Time on the clock did not stop. It did not accelerate. But for me, in a sense, it did both in both cases. And though the suffering of the pain of the moment abated in one version and got worse in the other, neither shadow of reality allowed me to focus on what was real. In both cases, I failed to maximize my ability to work and thus failed to optimize my fitness.

Stay in the moment. I promise the pain will come. Stay in the moment. I promise the sense of flow will come. These are not objectively real and they aren’t what’s important. They, like all things, will pass and our attachment to them distract us from what’s real. Take a deep breath. Pick up that heavy thing. Move it back and forth. Do it fast. Fitness achieved.

I’ll make a deal with you, let’s keep it that simple and see what happens.

Or perhaps I am completely wrong. Perhaps the orphan in The Matrix was right and there is no spoon. Perhaps time is just another illusion, another spoon, and I am using it to distract us from an even bigger Truth. If so, I apologize for that philosophical egg left on our faces.

Either way, I’ll see you in the box.