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Intensity – The Key to Improving Your Physical Fitness

CrossFit is “constantly varied, high intensity, functional movement.”  Intensity is also the ‘secret’ sauce of CrossFit.  Intensity is probably the single hardest thing to learn in CrossFit, and also the most important element in obtaining the full benefits of your effort.  With the CrossFit Open starting this week, it’s time to take a look at how we can improve our ability to access the intensity that can unlock our true potential.

Related: Why CrossFit?

Recent developments in sports psychology emphasize the athlete’s perception of effort – perceived intensity – as the critical factor in athletic performance. This model also gives us tools we can use to reach new levels of performance.

In English, this means that how hard you push yourself depends on how hard you believe you’re working, how motivated you are to work hard, how long the effort will continue, and how experienced you are with pacing.

It’s called the “psychobiological model of endurance sports performance” (“PBO”).  Don’t turn away just yet!  “Endurance” here means efforts lasting 30 seconds or more – basically anything other than weightlifting, field events or pure sprints, so it definitely applies to your Fran time.  It focuses on “endurance” performance because efforts shorter than 30 seconds don’t require the pacing of effort on which the model focuses.  So we’ll need other tools to improve our max snatch and clean & jerk.  But for everything over 30 seconds, Benjamin Pageaux describes the PBO this way:

“The psychobiological model is an effort-based decision-making model based on motivational intensity theory, and postulates that the conscious regulation of pace is determined primarily by five different cognitive/motivational factors:

  1. Perception of effort

  2. Potential motivation

  3. Knowledge of the distance/time to cover

  4. Knowledge of the distance/time remaining

  5. Previous experience/memory of perception of effort during exercise of varying intensity and duration.”

Sports Med DOI 10.1007/s40279=014-0198-2, May 14, 2014.

Related: How Do You Manage the Risks of High Intensity Exercise 

In English, this means that how hard you push yourself depends on how hard you believe you’re working, how motivated you are to work hard, how long the effort will continue, and how experienced you are with pacing.  These elements interrelate, and we can use each of these to help us unlock our potential:

  1. Perception of Effort: How hard you believe you’re working.  Notice it’s how hard you BELIEVE you’re working.  Your brain interprets the signals your body sends it. You are able to alter your interpretation of these signals, especially through experience (see #5) and positive talk.  Often, the positive talk will involve #’s 2, 3, 4 & 5 – increasing your motivation, telling yourself there isn’t much left to go, or comparing it with other efforts.  This is the key element, and should be the focus of your mental training efforts.

  2. How motivated you are.  Big race or solo workout?  Family and friends watching or quiet streets?  The more motivation you have, the easier it is to push your limits.  The presence of such stimuli also gives your brain something to do besides focus on how bad the effort feels.  You can make your workouts more effective by imagining you’re in a race, that family or friends are watching, or thinking of what your coach would say if you backed off right now.  Imagining their presence can help you find a similar boost as if they are actually present.

  3. How far or how long the effort will continue (#s 3&4 above).  The less time you’ll be suffering, the more suffering you’re willing to inflict upon yourself.  You can use this to improve performance by (a) getting experience (#4 here) with the effort and knowing how long it will take, (b) by breaking the effort into smaller chunks – “just finish the thrusters” while ignoring the pull-ups that come next, for example, and (c) when all else fails, lie to yourself – “just finish the thrusters,” then, before you have the chance to take a break, go right to “just finish the pull-ups.”

  4. How experienced you are with pacing and effort.  This is a big reason why it’s hard to teach intensity – you need to experience the discomfort and discover what you’re capable of.  This takes lots and lots of practice, especially in CrossFit, where you’re constantly faced with new combinations of moves that can create different patterns and problems with each other than you’ve experienced before.  This is where a background in sports is extremely helpful.  You can add to your background, or start to gain more experience, by signing up for events like the CrossFit Open.  No matter how many workouts you do at the gym, you will find another level in an event like the Open.  5k’s, triathlons, and the like also provide the opportunity to gain experience.  The more practice and experience you have, the more you understand what a true maximum effort feels like, and the more you can try to re-create that feeling in your next workout.

–John Bryant

Founder & Head Trainer

john@crossfitslipstream.com