Cool Crossfit lingo (to toss around to let people know you’re fit) following in the paragraph below.
Fly and Die. Fire and Tire. Crash and Burn. The Thin Red Line. These are all fun little terms for redlining, the phenomenon in fitness where an athlete begins a workout at an explosive pace, and then suddenly is completely void of oxygen, muscular endurance, an the overall will to continue. Let’s investigate a workout in which I redlined, and then discuss what physiologically happens to the body during a redlining occurrence.
Go Hard. Go Fast. And Last. Or, exactly what I didn’t do, and yes, that’s what she said.
17.1 was an ascending ladder of dumbbell snatches penetrated by burpee box jump overs. My first attempt at it was during a Friday Night Lights event full of a roaring gym, tough competitors and a whole lot of adrenaline. My first round of snatches and burpees was finished in sub 1:30. In the moment I felt fine, and was impressed with how well I had breezed through. My second round of increasing snatches and standard burpees also finished decently quick. I had completed two full rounds in under 4 minutes and with a whole of arrogance. Round three seized me quickly, deflating my lungs, my back strength and my ego. I finished my third round in the same amount of time it took me to complete my first two rounds. That’s not a good omen of things to come. My last two rounds took me nearly twice as long to finish as my previous three rounds combined, leaving me time-capped for the workout.
I’m sure this story is familiar. You start off doing a tabata workout and crank out 16 pushups in the first 20 seconds of work. You finish the last cycle grinding out 3. You start off at a blistering 6-minute mile pace only to finish the mile in 10 minutes. The first round of a barbell complex you do unbroken, never letting the barbell down. The last round of the same complex has you doing singles, guzzling water and grabbing chalk in between each rep.
What’s the cause for this?
Thresholds and Maxes
There is a limit to your metabolic capacity or the ability for your muscles to perform work under duress. The amount of oxygen that your body can effectively and efficiently inhale, absorb, and metabolize while undergoing endurance activities is referred to as VO2 Max. An increase in intensity for extended durations (see: I=P=work/time) over this max is short lived and rarely enjoyed. The science behind it is jargon-y and unessential to our comprehension of the scenario (who really cares about your muscle cells in/ability to clear carbon dioxide when you are wondering why you're staring through a tunnel of pain?), but basically your body is in need of more oxygen than it is capable of providing. Partnering with this is the lactate threshold point. The lactate threshold is the point when you begin to accumulate lactate and/or lactic acid (a chemical compound) in the muscle faster than it can be removed (usually in oxygen-flooded muscles). When these two team up, you experience redline. This is felt with by a super high heart rate, weakened and weary muscles (because they are void of oxygen) and of course, lack of breath.
To quote Shakespeare, “Ay, there’s the pace…er…rub.”
There is a tension we must keep as athletes and as coaches regarding pacing. One perspective is all out intensity and the other is lackluster intensity. What we are striving for is intentional intensity.
When we first begin in CrossFit we usually have the mentality of “all out, all the time”. Our coaches are yelling at us to go faster and do another rep. We hear that workouts are “for time” meaning the faster the time the better. We are taught that higher intensity will produce greater results, which is true. This is well-meaning, but may not be the most productive or helpful in accomplishing a workout or specific goals.
"It's all good, bro. I'm pacing," he said as he heads for the water fountain.
The converse is a very different approach, yet one we’ve all had on some workouts. It is easy to exert little effort, take unneeded rests, and exercise at a lower intensity and call it “pacing”, or "being cautious about redlining." This isn’t pacing. This is an unwillingness to challenge oneself.
Intentional intensity is about pushing your intensity to a difficult and challenging level, but not to the point where you are unable to continue in a workout. It's about having a game-plan for breaking up sets of reps, a determined goal pace, and a strategy for keeping that pace. This usually comes about through experience, discussing the workout with your coach or another athlete, and as always, knowing your own body and boundaries.
The good news is we can train ourselves to have a higher threshold as well as grow our wisdom in approaching workouts (good news!). A well-trained, strategic and intentionally paced athlete will be hard to beat. With that said, stop reading and get to class for today’s WOD!