Peaking for the Games

As you read this, the world’s fittest athletes are preparing to descend on the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., for all-out war. The Reebok CrossFit Games is the culmination of their journey,
By Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW,

As you read this, the world’s fittest athletes are preparing to descend on the Home Depot Center in Carson, Calif., for all-out war. The Reebok CrossFit Games is the culmination of their journey, the pinnacle of their training and preparation. Every one of those athletes possesses exceptional genetics, strength, endurance, skills, mental toughness and coaching. When you look at the performance differences among the top 20 athletes in each category, those margins are so small, even the slightest influence can reshuffle the medal winners.

Truth be told, who wins in each category is not influenced as much by their general preparation as it is their preparation for that specific week. Any good CrossFit coach in any box can prepare you to compete, but that’s very different from preparing you for a specific competition on a specific date. Here’s your guide to doing just that.

Planning Your Competition Schedule

First, a good competition-preparation plan requires you to look ahead an entire year. How many competitions do you have available to you? Are there times during the year when you won’t be able to put the time and effort into adequate preparation? Which competitions are most important to you personally?

Second, make the call on which competitions will fill your schedule. Certainly, there are a few competition series, such as the Garage Games, that require regular competitive weekends, but the vast majority of competitors do well to select two or three major competitions per year.

Third, block off a four-month time frame immediately before each competition. During this period, you will manipulate three variables:

  1. Resistance-Based Movements. These exercises are primarily strength/power movements. Think of back squats, clean-and-jerks, snatches, overhead squats, bench presses, deadlifts and strict pull-ups.
  2. Skill/Metabolic Movements. These movements require some learning but also are commonly used to push the anaerobic threshold. Thrusters, box jumps, push presses, kipping pull-ups, wall balls and double-unders come to mind.
  3. Aerobic-Based Movements. These exercises are designed to improve your VO2 max (your maximal aerobic capacity). Examples are long-distance rowing, cycling, swimming and running.

Below is your four-month guide to adjust these variables based, in large part, on Matveyev’s “periodization” model — generally considered the best overall plan to prepare athletes for high-intensity performance.

Four Months Out

The focus of your resistance-based training four months before a competition is to build the necessary muscle tissue to withstand the high power outputs required later. That is, the primary goal at this point is to spend a month establishing or re-establishing muscle mass in what is called the “hypertrophy” stage. And yes, that means you should be training with weights in a gym setting in addition to doing your WODs.

The work on your resistance-based movements should be geared around the eight- to 12-repetition range with moderately heavy weight. This does not mean you load a bar with a weight with which you can perform 15 to 20 reps and you stop at 12. But it also doesn’t mean you use a weight at which you can perform four reps and have a spotter help you finish reps five through eight. It means the weight on the bar is a 12-rep-max weight; you shouldn’t be able to get 13 reps at that weight.

You’ll feel more soreness than you normally do. That’s expected. Keep your protein intake high, and make sure you’re sleeping and resting well.

Likewise, the primary focus of your skill/metabolic movements should be on developing and/or refining the foundational biomechanics and energy systems used in these exercises. That means you should be working with high volume and low intensity. In order to get the high number of repetitions necessary at this stage, you may need to use assistance bands, a lighter ball or a lower box. The point here is to build the basic mechanics of the movement and a sufficient metabolic capacity so you can withstand the higher-intensity training to come.

At this point, your aerobic-based movements should focus on LSD — long, slow, distance. Avoid road races during this period. The intensity of your aerobic training ought to be between 70 and 80 percent of VO2 max. (You also can assess your intensity in beats per minute by calculating 70 to 80 percent of your maximum heart rate, which is determined by subtracting your age from 220 beats per minute.)

Last, at four months out, you should take a good look at your equipment. Are you in need of new Olympic-lifting shoes? A lighter rope? Order them now so you have time to get used to them before your competition.

Three Months Out

With your resistance-based training, begin to shift toward higher-intensity (heavier load) training, bringing your weights down to the five- to seven-RM range. You are now working on what is called “basic strength” rather than muscle mass.

Likewise, your skill/metabolic movements should be more focused and shorter in duration. You can continue to use bands and other aids at this point if you need to, but the emphasis should be on good strict reps. Become more aware of your technique and crank out as many good reps as you can before your technique fails.

In your training for aerobic fitness, increase your intensity to 75 to 90 percent of your VO2 max. Remember, CrossFit competitions rarely have events with running distances longer than one mile or rowing distances more than 2,000 meters. The focus should now move from longer distance and lower intensity to moderate distance and moderate intensity. 

Additionally, at this point, you should be planning your workouts around your weaknesses. Did you compete in the Open last year? If so, think about which WODs you excelled in and where your weaknesses are. The Open is an excellent benchmark for showing you where you are in your CrossFit development compared to everyone else in the world. Do an honest self-evaluation.

It’s important that you take responsibility for your weaknesses. In other words, if you know one of your weaknesses is double-unders, don’t wait until your box happens to have them in a WOD; work on them systematically. Commit to doing double-unders every other day for 20 minutes, for example, until you get them down.

Two Months Out

At eight weeks out, all training should shift to an emphasis on high power outputs — fast and hard. Resistance-based work now moves from the basic-strength stage to the “power stage.” Your weight training ought to revolve around two- to five-RM weights, with a planned max attempt no more than once during this month. (Of course, sometimes they are unplanned; at this stage, that’s fine.) Training volume for your resistance work — namely, your total reps and sets — should be low.

Your skill/movement training should emphasize technique. Volume now should be low and your reps deliberate and focused. Have your coach videotape your movements (it’s simple with many applications, such as Coach’s Eye) for you to review. This refining, in combination with the shift to power, is critical in helping you apply that power in the right biomechanical pattern. Have you ever performed a set of toes-to-bar when your shoulder and hip movements are out of sync? Then you know how exhausting poor biomechanics can be.

Aerobic-training intensity two months out should move to 80 to 95 percent of VO2 max. With the shift to higher-intensity resistance training and skill work, it’s important to be careful that your aerobic exercise doesn’t lead to overtraining syndrome. So keep your rowing, running, cycling and swimming training brief but hard. Remember, when you train with high intensity in resistance and aerobic exercise, it’s the strength/power movements that suffer, not the aerobic work. Because a competition is so heavily laden with strength/power movements, this should be something you always keep in mind.

Begin to try different pre-WOD nutritional regimens. Some athletes perform well with a Paleo regimen; others find a diet rich in complex carbs, such as whole-wheat pasta and brown rice, benefits them the most. This is a good time to assess which pre-WOD diet results in your best performance.

One Month Out

Within the last month, your resistance-based work should reflect pure power. Rep ranges should be one to three RM, with planned maximum attempts every 10 days. (Naturally, ascending sets to get to your rep range and intensity goal would have higher reps but not high intensity.) Overall volume of your resistance exercises should now be at its lowest. It’s important to ensure your warm-up is adequate because this stage puts a great deal of stress on tissues.

Skill/movement-based work should now reflect perfect technique. If you allow poor technique — even as you fatigue — that poor technique will show up in your competition. It is also important at this point to begin to assess how your body adapts to multiple WODs in one day. (Most competitions run three WODs in one day, spaced roughly two hours apart.) This is especially important in skill/movement-based training.

At this point, the focus of your aerobic-based training is threefold: First, you should minimize overall duration and frequency of training to ensure adequate rest. Second, when you do train aerobically, your intensity should approach maximum. Do not go out and just jog; there is simply no physiological benefit at this stage. Third, your rowing, cycling and running should be specific to possible WODs you might encounter in your competition.

This is also a good point at which to try different recovery and relaxation techniques you could employ between WODs, such as carb and electrolyte replenishment, varied temperature baths, massage and stretching.

The Last Two Weeks

Maintain a focus on high intensity, high power, excellent technique and low volume for all training variables. The goal here is to maintain your muscle power and metabolic/aerobic conditioning while allowing for enough rest so your body is not trying to adapt to new stresses immediately before the competition. On rest days, at the most, work on skills that do not cause delayed onset muscle soreness.

When choosing WODs, look up the events from your pending competition the last time it took place, if you can. Hit those workouts — and any other high-intensity WOD you need to focus on — in order to improve your weaknesses.

In the last two days, do not train. Stick to the nutritional and recovery techniques that work best for you. Just rest and mentally focus. No matter your nutritional regimen, keep your total calories high. That not only will help maximize glycogen stores (which ensures you will have plenty of fuel to perform on game day) but also will make up for the increased caloric expenditure your jangling nerves will cause.

One last thing: At the competition, remember: Pain is temporary. Quitting is forever. And good luck.

Bob LeFavi, Ph.D., CSCS, USAW, is a professor of sports medicine at Armstrong Atlantic State University in Savannah, Ga

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