The Challenge of Masters

masters

I was 60 when I first walked into a CrossFit Box. The oldest athlete in the room, I was there to earn my CF-L1. My introductory workout was “Fran,” a terrorizing choice for one who’d never done a pull-up or a thruster.

It’s an experience most athletic 35-year old Coaches cannot comprehend. I struggled with PVC overhead squats, panicked at 10-pound wall balls and dreaded being the obvious person to “fix” during training drills.

I might have bailed, had it not been for the encouragement of legendary CrossFit Games athlete Chris Spealler, one of our trainers. I reminded him of his mother, so he wasn’t about to let me forget why I was there.

“CrossFit is not about the Games,” he told me. “CrossFit is about health, fitness and longevity.”

I earned my CF-L1 that weekend, and in the nearly seven years since have coached dozens of masters while struggling with my own limitations as an aging athlete. My husband is a gifted CrossFit Coach and competitive athlete, the fittest 60+ man in Wisconsin, while I am content to compete in the scaled division of the Open.

Between us, we’ve developed a coaching philosophy whose success is mirrored in a strong, fit membership that includes dozens of athletes aged 50 to 76. Six members are over 70.

Our own ages may initially attract master athletes to our Box, but they stay because they see results.

Coaching master athletes isn’t easy. They come with years of wear and tear, past injuries, artificial joints, compromised movement patterns, and imperfect memories. They take twice as long to master half as much, and need frequent reminders. They have strong opinions about what they’re capable of, and those opinions are often misguided. Half recall their younger, stronger selves and overestimate their capabilities. The other half underestimate themselves, thinking they are too old to master skills younger athletes pick up so easily.

All fear loss of dignity.

Add to that a lengthy list of high-skill CrossFit movements that are particularly challenging for masters, and it’s no surprise most Boxes have few athletes over 55.

While we encourage all ages to attempt and master double-unders, handstand pushups, overhead squats, squat Cleans and Snatches, muscle-ups and more, we also offer practical alternatives for older athletes whose movement faults are unlikely to ever get much better.

We routinely stress high value functional movements for those particularly vexing high-skill movements. A workout with overhead squats may be scaled for mobility with PVC pipes or light weights for those who can do the movement with integrity, if not weight. Back squats are the alternative for those who don’t have the mobility required for overheads. Power Cleans sub for squat Cleans, strict pushups for handstand pushups, single-unders for doubles — the list is long.

We are sensitive to the challenges masters face, but we don’t coddle them. Newcomers quickly learn the daily whiteboard is an integral part of CrossFit, and completing a workout RX is the sought-after goal.

Reaching the standard RX, however, is a goal few master athletes are likely to achieve. We decided early on the best way to motivate our 55+ masters was to add MRX standards to our workouts. Weights, loads and movements are changed so they’re challenging but attainable by the fittest 55+ athletes.

If an athlete completes the daily WOD to the standards for their age, their score is shown as RX on our whiteboard. We know we’ve maintained the appropriate stimulus for the workout when the best athletes, no matter their age, are competing for the top spots.

The addition of the MRX standards has not only fostered greater competition among the over-55’s, but greater respect for all the older athletes in our community as well. It’s not uncommon for 30-somethings to come into afternoon workouts with a goal of bumping a 60-something from the top of the whiteboard.

No matter who ultimately ends up on top, they know they’ve earned the honor.

Darlene Prois
Darlene Prois, 67, has co-owned CrossCut CrossFit with her husband Dave, 63, since 2012. She moved to the resort community of Hayward, Wisconsin, after a 30-year career as a Minneapolis Star Tribune photographer, reporter and editor. Her inner-athlete was dormant before meeting Dave, a former detective sergeant and training supervisor, in 2002. Their short courtship included 400-mile bike trips, inline skate racing and wilderness camping. The couple started a kettlebell club for fun in 2008, which eventually morphed into their current business. Contact Darlene on Facebook @CrossCutCrossFit or by email at deprois@aol.com.