Quitting competitive CrossFit has been one of the best decisions I have ever made.
Let me rephrase that – thinking carefully about the costs vs. benefits of training a crazy number of hours and putting my body through a daily beat down to try to maintain a spot at Regionals, and ultimately coming to a place of peace about letting go and “retiring” has improved my life in so many profound ways!
Quitting sounds too harsh, retiring sounds like a better fit for what actually happened.
I have been involved with CrossFit for a long time… almost 8 years now and counting. I started with an intro Bootcamp at CrossFit London back in 2008 as I was shifting gears from graduating university and leaving my varsity rowing and varsity hockey days behind me, and I haven’t looked back.
My competitive spirit loved that CrossFit workouts were physically and mentally demanding, that I could constantly measure my progress against myself and others, and that I could continue to grow as an athlete from beginner to advanced in a whole new set of skills I couldn’t yet do. I loved that this underground “CrossFit thing” (pre-Bok days, anyone?) was a new, fun, and challenging way to stay in excellent shape.
Enter Competitive CrossFit. I got talked into doing my first real CrossFit competition in Toronto about 3 weeks after learning how to do a kipping pull-up, which didn’t come easy for me after months of hard work. I almost backed out, I didn’t feel ready (who ever does?), but I mustered up the courage and went anyways. It was a game-changing weekend. I was hooked.
From there, I decided to give the CrossFit Open a try, and I went on to:
- Sectionals 2010 (finished 3rd as an individual)
- Regionals 2011 (4th as a team)
- Regionals 2013 (21st as an individual)
- Regionals 2014 (25th as an individual)
- And numerous other smaller competitions along the way
So at best, I was a mediocre Regional athlete that was certainly nothing to write home about, but I was happy to work hard to get there, and appreciative of each opportunity I had to perform in front of a bigger crowd and test myself.
In 2015 in the weeks leading up to the Open, I caught the worst case of the flu of my entire life. Struggling to breathe with asthma plus the flu, I was rushed to the hospital and admitted immediately for a breathing emergency, as well as treated for dehydration from throwing up. This was the first year of Super Regionals, and I had worked harder than I ever had to fight for one of those top 20 spots in Canada East.
As I lay in bed, weak, exhausted, and deathly sick, I had an epiphany about how silly I was being, stressing over each day of “lost fitness” as the Open approached. My anxiety about under-performing in the upcoming Open workouts and not making it to Super Regionals was very real, and very, very unnecessary. When I look back, what a waste of mental energy.
The only thing that mattered in that moment in time, was that I needed to give my body the time, space, and rest it required to fight off the illness. The Open didn’t matter. Super Regionals didn’t matter. The damn Leaderboard didn’t matter. Comparing my fitness to others didn’t matter. I just needed to get better… and suddenly, I was free!
I allowed myself to pour my heart out into a blog post I called Why I’m NOT Doing the 2015 CrossFit Open, and it was purely written to help me move on and find peace with my final decision to retire from Regionals.
The amount of private messages and outpouring of support I received once my post went public was overwhelming, and many people said that they too could relate to this feeling of being ready to put their life back into balance and leave a little piece of their “competitive athlete self” in the past. And like me, they needed to grieve leaving this part of their self-identity behind them.
In a way, it felt a bit like a break up. You know you have to do it, but you also know you’ll have moments of sadness reminiscing of what will no longer ever be. You are saying goodbye to a part of your life that was really special, full of amazing memories, lots of support and encouragement from others, and something that made you feel proud and accomplished of who you are as a person.
Who will you be if you no longer have this in your life? Will people still look at you as a health and fitness role model? How will you describe yourself to others now? Will your self-worth drop if you are no longer at your “maximum level” of fitness? How badly will your PR’s tank? Will you gain weight? Will you still like doing CrossFit workouts if you have nothing special to train for? Will you still have your community of friends for support, or will you be left behind, forgotten, and judged as “washed up” and obsolete?
These are questions I’ve grappled with from a place of raw vulnerability, and have had a few heart-wrenching conversations with close friends who have also competed at Regionals and are feeling ready to retire, but are struggling internally to be ok with their decision to walk away. The tears I’ve cried aren’t really about CrossFit, but are for myself and all people who recognize that they are ready to move on from something big in their lives, and are working up the courage to do so.
So, with a year of space to grow, reflect, and move on, here are:
10 Surprising Ways My Life Has Changed For The Better as an Ex-Competitive CrossFit Athlete
1. Less Outward Comparison, More Private Introspection
Although CrossFit is based around performance metrics and the ability to compare your performance against yourself in the past, or others at your level, I’m just not as interested in that anymore. I show up 6 days a week to my local box for a 1-hour CrossFit class, I give an effort between 70-100% depending on the day and based on how I’m feeling and what’s going on in my life, and I walk away feeling good that I got in my workout and I’m taking care of my body. I often don’t even look at the whiteboard to see how my score compares to others, and I’m finally free from checking the CrossFit Open Leaderboard. Thank god, that stupid Leaderboard was torture for 5 weeks of the year, especially as an athlete always on the bubble and never feeling safe.
Instead, this past year, I’ve really directed my focus inwards. I meditate daily now. I attended an awesome yoga retreat in the spring and followed it up with a cozy cabin rental in the fall to get away and reflect on what I really wanted in life. I take my dog for long hikes in the forest to connect with nature. I focus on being more mindful in the present moment, and I listen to whatever is coming up from the inside. If I’m sick, I give myself extra rest. If I’m extra energetic, I push especially hard in the workout that day. If I’m feeling creative, I stop and write down a bunch of ideas building up in my head so I can take action on them. If I’m really tired, overwhelmed, or just not 100% up for it, I’ll skip a day at the gym. And it all feels really good, because it’s usually exactly what I need.
2. Energy, Energy, Energy!
On that note, woah does your energy level ever skyrocket up when you adjust your training volume. I was always a high energy person, and I still am, but I feel even better than I ever could have imagined. That exhausted, drained, beaten down feeling at the end of the day is entirely gone. I have more energy to put into my small business, to tackle projects around the house, and to reinvest in relationships that matter most (my marriage, my family, and my closest friends). In a way, it kind of makes me sad that years of Competitive CrossFit stole a bit from the energy I could have given to the people I love most, but you have to be a bit selfish with your time and training, or you’ll never keep up with your competitors if you want to make it. Hindsight is 20/20 I guess.
3. Creativity Galore
This one really surprised me. Shortly after decreasing my training volume to a “new normal”, my brain went on fire with all of these creative ideas. Ideas to help my small business grow and improve. Ideas to be a better nutrition professor and make my university classes I teach even more fun, engaging, and educational for my students. Ideas for new blog posts, healthy recipes, and nutrition articles I wanted to write. Ideas to surprise my husband with fun things we could do together on weekends. On and on my brain went (and still does) with ideas I now have the energy to think up, and then actually act on. This was a surprising and very unexpected cool benefit of quitting competitive CrossFit.
4. More Income
Until I did the math, I had no idea how much income I actually lost each year (think “opportunity cost”) with being so involved with competing. It’s not actually about the obvious costs (competition fees, travel, training gear, physio and chiropractic appointments, and other things I spent money on that allowed me to compete, although they add up), but really the lost business I couldn’t fulfill because my energy and time was being spent elsewhere. In stepping back from training so hard, and giving more to my business goals, I saw my overall income level increase by 50%. What a welcome side effect to shifting my focus.
I feel like I can now travel spontaneously, wherever, whenever I want, with no concern for the CrossFit yearly training cycle. I can pop into a local CrossFit gym on vacation and join in on their programming for the day, I can exercise on my own, or skip working out for a few days because I’m on vacation! It’s really nice to not feel restricted from travelling because I might miss a heavy lift session, or worry that my metabolic conditioning may slip if I hike the West Coast Trail for a week (my summer vacation plans, yippie) instead of suffering through Airdyne bike intervals. I’m free as a bird to travel anywhere I want now on whatever schedule works for me, and it’s a relief to not feel guilty about missing tough workouts in exchange for a vacation.
6. Book Reading
I’ve read more books in the past 12 months than I have in the past few years of pushing myself with competitive CrossFit. See point #2, and with so much extra energy I’ve had a voracious appetite to read as much as I can, and I think it’s helped me become a better nutrition coach, teacher, wife, friend, and person in general. This pace and excitement to read has kept up, and I love the addition of so many more wonderful and inspiring books in my life.
7. Build a Life, Not a Résumé
I wasn’t sure what to call this one, but I read this cool phrase somewhere and it really resonated with me. Build a life, not a résumé. (Or… how to be a happier person.)
Essentially, in the last year, I’ve really pulled away from seeking external validation (Where did I place in the Open? Did I beat so-and-so on that workout? Did anyone like my clean PR video? Are my lifts keeping up with the other Regional girls?), and instead, I’ve been happy to build a life that makes sense for me and makes me happy.
I’m not trying to add more accomplishments to my résumé or do specific things to impress outsiders. I don’t need people to like my workout photos to bring up my self-esteem. I’m just following the beat of my own drum, letting go of things that no longer serve me, adding new opportunities that seem exciting, and building an amazing, fulfilling life. It is so freeing, and feels so good!
8. CrossFit is Really Fun Again
What makes me most happy is that I still love CrossFit training! In fact, more so than ever before. I now train exclusively with the “Health & Wellness” group classes at our gym (not the competitive group), I laugh more with my gym buddies, and I don’t take myself or my scores as seriously. I never stopped loving CrossFit when I competed (making it to Regionals is such an amazing high), but some days were really lonely training by myself in an isolated corner of the gym, and I definitely don’t miss the bleeding, torn hands!
9. I Learned to Unicycle
I wanted to experience something totally new again from a beginner’s mindset – so I learned to unicycle! What started out as an inside joke between my husband and I, next became a Kijiji search to buy a used unicycle, and then a reality. We both picked up the skill of learning to ride a unicycle this past fall by practicing at the gym, and oh my goodness was it ever funny to fall down and learn to ride on one wheel. You can see my unicycle riding progress here. I know I wouldn’t have taken this risk when I was competing (What if I injured myself?), so I’m glad I stepped outside of my comfort zone and had fun with something so random.
10. The Things I Feared The Most Did Not Come True
Without a doubt, stepping away from my identity as a competitive CrossFitter was scary. Two things in particular haunted me – would I gain a lot of weight, and would I be terrible at CrossFit going forward and completely out of shape? I like to think of myself as a healthy role model, and what if I lost some of that and couldn’t get it back?
I did not “get fat”, something I hate admitting that my mind feared just a little bit, especially when I know how important body positivity is and not tying your self-worth into your size or shape. In fact, I think I’m even more comfortable in my skin now than ever before, and my clothes fit exactly like they always have. I’m slightly less hungry than I used to be, but I listened to my body and adjusted my portion sizes accordingly, so things stayed in balance. And yes, there is still room for a delicious treat from time to time even though I don’t burn as many calories in a week!
Additionally, I do not suck at CrossFit as much as I thought I would. My deadlift PR has gone up, and I’m almost at my goal of lifting 350 lb so I can do a workout called “King Kong” Rx’d by the end of this year. My 500m rowing times are as fast as when I was a varsity rower. After taking some time off to properly rehab a shoulder injury and build back up progressively, I’m back to doing all of the fun higher level skills I love – C2B butterfly pull-ups, muscle ups, handstand push-ups, handstand walking, etc. My back squat, front squat, clean, and snatch are within 90-98% of my all time 1 RMs, and although I’m not setting new records on a monthly basis anymore since I don’t lift as frequently now, I’m happy with the programming that I currently follow so it’s no big deal.
In fact, I actually think my CrossFit training experience today is much closer to what Greg Gassman originally envisioned when he developed the CrossFit methodology compared to the “sport” of competitive CrossFit.
Nothing I feared actually happened, and life goes on as normal.
So, if you’ve made it this far reading this post, thanks for listening to me sort out my lessons from leaving competitive CrossFit behind. If you’re on the fence yourself about making a change that scares you, CrossFit-related or not, my advice is to trust how you feel and follow your heart. It’s ok to change your mind, your priorities, or how you spend your time and energy.
Do whatever brings you joy, and free yourself by letting go of what no longer feels right. In life, relationships, commitments, and love, you deserve nothing less than what makes you happy and makes sense for where you are today.
Wishing you health and happiness as always!