It is only natural that athletes involved in any sport or fitness discipline seek competitive outlets, regardless of individual skill level. Across the greater CrossFit community, professional, amateur, and recreational athletes, alike, have the unique opportunity to showcase their innate talents and training developments through participation in local CrossFit competitions. Many of these are hosted by area box owners, staffed by gym coaches and members, and programmed to accommodate beginner, intermediate, and advanced athletes. Often, competition organizers create separate divisions and publish corresponding movement and weight standards so that registering athletes understand beforehand the relevant performance expectations.
Although the atmosphere at most CrossFit competitions—on the local, national, and international stages—is usually loud, encouraging, and supportive, such excitement can overwhelm or intimidate competitors, especially first-timers. Still, anxiousness is a normal sensation, for even the most seasoned athletes, and if addressed early on through adequate competition preparation, that same energy can be channeled to enhance game-day performance. The following guidelines summarize a general template for CrossFit competition preparation that I have found success with in recent years, and in various contexts.
For purposes of this writing, I am assuming that competition administrators will release some, if not all, of the programmed workouts in the weeks preceding the event; however, this is not always the case. And, even in competitions where workouts are known, there are usually workouts (or aspects of workouts) that are not revealed until the day of competition. Whether those unknowns are chosen randomly (by lottery) or are specifically chosen to exploit deficiencies many CrossFit participants share, the preparation guidelines outlined herein are, nevertheless, applicable.
The first task of a competitor is to test out—one time—each known workout, exactly as it is written, and as early on in the preparation phase as is possible. (There is a reason each workout should be tested only once, at the outset, and that reason will be discussed below.) The primary objective of this initial trial run-through is workout assessment: To honestly evaluate performance and to discern/discover/determine/diagnose any and all potential sources of individual and/or team deficiency. Eliminate competition day confusion by submitting all urgent and lingering workout-specific questions to competition administrators in a timely manner; your diligence will be appreciated by those running and judging the contest.
Effort during this attempt must be wholehearted, authentic, and compliant. In other words: No shortcuts! Your first impressions will inform the remainder of your preparation phase; skewed data is of no practical value.
The second task flows inherently from the first: Address the particular sources of individual and team deficiency highlighted by the initial test run, with respect to each workout. Structuring EMOM-style workouts (“every-minute-on-the-minute”-style workouts) to tackle one or two points of individual focus is a great tool for putting this step into practice. Frequent sources of team deficiency are group synchronization and the elimination of wasteful transition time. To improve team coordination, complete partner workouts that challenge communicative efforts under fatigue.
There are a couple things to keep in mind when working through this task. First, repeating the known workouts, day-in and day-out, without setting time aside to correct workout-specific issues, is counterproductive and wastes precious time (and energy). Do not fall into this trap! The goal of competition preparation is to familiarize yourself with workout movements, formats, and performance expectations, while leaving yourself mentally eager to attack each workout on game day with productive urgency, spontaneity, and invigoration.
Programming EMOMs and other preparatory workouts that simulate the unique demands of competition workouts, but remain sufficiently different to elicit fresh appeal, is no easy task; but, that is precisely what your coaches are there for. Always feel free to request suggestions from trainers you trust. Remember, gym owners and coaches benefit, personally and publicly, from their clients’ successes. Competition performance is a material representation of the services they provide the community—they are there to help!
The third task is to continue observing, as faithfully as possible, typical strength, skill, and endurance training protocols several days a week in the month(s) leading up to competition. Doing so is the best way to get ready for any potentially unknown workouts.
Keep in mind, though, that “overtraining” can be detrimental to both competition preparation and long-term physiological health. To avoid this result, consider keeping loads moderate (versus heavy) during class METCONs, or even reducing the time domains of certain daily workouts, especially when you intend to commit time that day to competition-specific training endeavors, like those advocated above. A little extra training is okay—that is how progress is made; but, there is a fine line between exhausting yourself and creating conditions for continued improvement. Again, consult your coaches for recommendations and always account for recovery.
At the tail-end of the preparation phase is the “taper”—the fourth task—and this should commence about a week out from competition day. The taper simply connotes a segment of the preparation phase wherein the training focus shifts from conditioning and building to maximizing recovery and storing useful energy, and it should, like all the aforementioned tasks, be collaborative. Accordingly, begin the taper with a second, final run-through of the known competition workouts. The emphasis during this trial run is less on intensity and more on implementing the changes and adaptations you have been addressing throughout the broader preparation phase, as well as identifying any lingering logistical issues. This should not be a compilation of mediocre attempts at the competition workouts, but do not be afraid to pause workouts and test alternative strategies.
Between the second attempt at each workout and competition day, minus one, continue working out and adhering to your daily routine. That said, consider dialing down your training volume and intensity, and devoting any additional time accrued to post-session stretching and mobility work. As with many things, let moderation be your guide here—your body’s nervous systems need breaks, too.
Finally, one day out, mimic exactly the competition movements you will be performing the following day. Execute these repetitions at full ranges of motion, after a brief warmup, and under nominal loading. Generally, three light working sets of up to five repetitions is all you need. Even though competition day experiences should be filled with excitement and anticipation, you do not want your movements to feel foreign or abnormal when the time comes. This re-exposure session—your last preparation phase task—will ensure your “muscle memory”, as well as your nervous systems’ other functional responses, will react the ways they are supposed to when your blood is full of adrenaline and your mind is stimulated with nervous energy.
The secret to competition preparation lies not in any single one of these tasks, but in their combination. Timing may, under some circumstances, make rigid adherence very difficult, but this approach is deliberate in its application, supported by theory and experience, and flexible enough to account for many eventualities. Give it a try!