Rhabdo – A First-Person Perspective

This last week we did “Grace” at our gym.

“Grace” is a nasty little workout where the athlete performs 30 clean and jerks as quickly as possible at a weight of 135 pounds for men and 95 pounds for women. It can be a slow grind or an unabashed sprint and I had every intention of achieving the latter. While I spent almost all day visualizing the bar moving up and down from the floor to overhead, I spent almost no time thinking about the possibility of “Rhabdo.”

Rhabdomyolysis or “Rhabdo” as the Internets likes to call it is the breakdown of muscle fibers that leads to the release of myoglobin into the bloodstream where it can wreak havoc on the kidneys and other parts of the body. It can be the result of dozens of causes, but for the purpose of this post, physical over exertion is one of them.

And here's a picture of Channing Tatum to keep this upbeat.

And here’s a picture of Channing Tatum to keep this upbeat.

During the workout, I tried so intensely to keep ahold of the bar that my forearms went from an aching pain to a dull numbness that screamed, “LET GO OF THE BAR.” Which I did, after 26 unbroken reps. I continued knocking out the last 4 reps as singles and ended with a time of 1:43, which was by far the hardest I’ve pushed myself in any workout ever.

Whatever fitness science/magic that needed to happen occurred about 15 seconds after finishing the workout as my body caught up with the unusual effort I had asked of it. Breathing was a chore and my arms felt likely useless weights attached to my torso. I was a mess.

After a few minutes, everything seemed to equalize and get back under control, I was able to break down my bar and head on home with my wife. I took a shower, had dinner, went to sleep, classic CrossFit stuff.

The next morning, I woke up with a strange sensation. I was tingly and lightheaded, I turned to my wife and yelled, “Yo, I CRUSHED that WOD yesterday!” Because that’s how I talk when nobody’s around.

But no, not with my flavor. That would be weird.

No, not with my flavor. That sounds terrible.

Everything was fine. I could still grab a knife to butter my Strawberry Pop Tart, I could still stand in the shower and ruin “Bye, Bye, Bye,” and I was still able to go work out at the gym. Later that day, I came across the article, “CrossFit’s Dirty Little Secret” serendipitously being shared via The Facebooks a day after I made my limit pushing effort during the workout. While I know everything that could be said has been said on the subject of Rhabdomyolysis and CrossFit, my overly-inflated sense of self worth says I should probably chime in with my take on “Uncle Rhabdo” as I’ve heard absolutely no one ever refer to it as.

1. Rhabdomyolysis will savagely rabbit punch everyone you know and care about.

I’ve been CrossFitting for about 16 months now and I have yet to hear a first hand account from anyone who’s suffered “Rhabdo.” I understand that’s a terrible population subset (anyone who’s gotten Rhabdomyolysis is unlikely to return to CrossFit), though I’ve also never met anyone with even a second hand account of anyone who’s gotten Rhabdo. This includes talking to CrossFitters who have 4+ years of experience coaching CrossFit, as well as long time members in multiple gyms in multiple geographical locations around the country. Yes, I asked. Awkwardly and mid-conversation.

This isn’t to say that Rhabdomyolysis is not a risk of CrossFit. It is absolutely a risk of CrossFit. Just like Rhabdomyolysis is a risk of Triathlons or High School Football. Just like Decompression Sickness is a risk of Scuba Diving. Just like Structural Damage is a risk of Thirst.

The Thirst Industry has been sweeping it under the rug for years.

He’s smart enough to use ice, but not smart enough to use the door?

And while an anecdotal story about a friend of the author certainly shows the ferocity of the condition and its terrible repercussions, I’d be cautious in making the jump that CrossFit causes Rhabdo. Much in the same way that I’d be cautious to say that Scuba Diving causes Decompression Sickness. It’s a risk, and based on my equally anecdotal experience, a starkly low risk. CrossFit is very up front about that risk and makes an effort to educate athletes and coaches. It’s an integral part of the L1 course and you can find plenty of articles (examples here and here) on the CrossFit Journal. It’s not a “dirty little secret” as the article describes. It’s a well documented and oft talked about subject in CrossFit, we’re not trying to spirit it away.

And while the terrifying reality of muscles breaking down and poisoning your body is certainly a jarring concept, the brutal nature of Rhabdomyolysis doesn’t somehow make it more common.

2. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. It’s not your fault. (Matt Damon cries.)

Eric Robertson wrote a follow up piece to his initial “Secrets” post, “I didn’t Shoot John Lennon.” In it, he mentions that a largely supported rebuttal to his first article is “personal responsibility,” the idea that many CrossFitters believe the athlete should have an understanding of the inherent risks of intense exercise and understand how to mitigate those risks through education and not letting their ego get the best of them.

While I agree that education on the subject is incredibly important and that athletes need to understand their limits, I also understand that I go to CrossFit to push those limits. I spent all day preparing myself for the devastation I would go through during “Grace” and I pushed myself harder than I can recall doing in my recent past. I also didn’t get Rhabdo. But maybe I could have. And then maybe I wouldn’t have suckered you into reading this post with its misleading title.

This bridge.

Or buying this bridge. Which by the way, is for sale.

Rhabdomyolysis can be the result of bad programming or poor coaching. It can also be the result of poor decisions made by the athlete. It can also be a thing that happens. Just a thing. That happens. Like Lil Wayne or the Teletubbies. Not anyone’s fault. Just the result of an athlete pushing themselves slightly too far during a workout that 99.9999% of the time would be perfectly normal and sane.

This happens all the time in normal non-CrossFit life. Driving is statistically a terribly dangerous activity to participate in. Especially compared to using public transportation (buses are 170 times safer than riding in a car according to the National Safety Council). But I do it literally all the time. I find that it fits my transportation needs quite well and despite the inherent risk I will continue to do it. I could certainly get into an accident. It might be the other driver’s fault. It might even be my fault. Or it could just be a thing that happens. And that would be terrible.

As I’ve shamelessly plugged on my blog before, CrossFit is not for everyone and if the incredibly small chance of Rhabdomyolysis is enough to turn you away from this particular form of fitness, that’s totally okay. I get it. There are other options available with perhaps less risk/intensity or that maybe fit your goals a bit better. If the level of intensity available to you through CrossFit is what you desire and you accept that Rhabdo is a thing that could potentially occur in the most minute of circumstances then that’s cool too. But let’s not pretend that this is something that I need to constantly be brooding over and concerned with every time I do 100 push ups and my arms get sore.

3. So wait… Did CrossFit break the Internet?

It’s incredible to me how excited the internet gets about CrossFit. I’m not sure everyone’s quite caught that Rhabdomyolysis is not a new disease invented by CrossFit. I used to run a few Triathlons and longer endurance runs and I never heard anyone talk about Rhabdo and its causes/symptoms. And not because it wasn’t a risk. It was just something people didn’t talk about. Though to be fair, I also didn’t seek out information on potential hazards of running Triathlons.

Risk.

Like getting my leotard all sticky.

CrossFit is exposing a larger population to a form of exercise that is much more “intense” than many of us are used to. Creating that level of intensity on this massive of a scale means that the larger population is not only able to reap the benefits of the program but is also exposed to some of the risk that is associated with that particular level of fitness.

The upside to all this online conflict is that more athletes are getting involved with the Rhabdo discourse, even when much of it is thinly veiled “I love CrossFit/I hate CrossFit” talk (present blog included). My wife is way more interested in reading about Rhabdomyolysis today than she’s been in the past year and that’s awesome. All CrossFit athletes (and athletes generally) should have a good understanding of Rhabdo and it’s causes, symptoms, and remedies. Just don’t make the assumption that if something can happen it will happen. It’s like the worst kind of lottery ticket.

Well, maybe the second worst kind of lottery.

Well, maybe the second worst.

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Three Reasons to Get Upset About CrossFit

About 13 months ago, I arrived home for lunch and found that all three elevators were out in my building.

I was living on the 20th floor at the time, so this was not soul crushing news. I grabbed my Hello Kitty lunchbox and plodded up the stairs, thinking that if anything this was an opportunity to burn some calories before gorging myself with mid-day pancakes and jelly beans. What I didn’t count on was months of lethargy and inactivity… I arrived at the front door soaked in sweat and ready to take a nap. I was only 28 years old.

I’m not sure when it happened, but at some point in my mid to late 20s I reached a state of general malaise. It was not a conscious decision, I didn’t wake up one morning and decide it was time to stop moving around quickly or throwing things on a field. It was just the result of months and months of stagnation and apathetic decisions.

And ding dongs. SO MANY DING DONGS.

And ding dongs. SO MANY DING DONGS.

Without action, my health was only getting worse. I had a vision of my sweaty, overweight, and out of breath self trying to keep up with my future unborn children and it was disquieting. My vision of the future would be an enormous disappointment to my childhood self, who had always planned on wearing jean jackets with Michael Dudikoff and staring handsomely at the horizon.

He could've snuck right in if just wore a red uniform.

He could’ve snuck right in if just wore a red uniform.

My brother had joined “the CrossFit” a few months previously and seemed to be in pretty awesome shape, so I figured I’d start taking a look at what this newfangled fitness regimen was all about. I knew it had something to do with doing 100 pull ups and throwing up, which was a fancy stretch from my normal 3 month stints of chest & tricep, back & bicep, and shoulders & legs. In the end, I signed up for an Intro course and jumped right in.

Now, I am by no means a trendsetter. I only just started wearing trucker hats; I have the musical taste of an impressionable 13 year old girl; and I did not join CrossFit before it was cool (I don’t even know what “cool” is anymore… Is “twerking” drugs?). Over the past year however, I’ve seen CrossFit mature into a much more mainstream fitness program. With that popularity, I’m starting to see more and more articles and resources popping up in crazy numbers on blogs, news sites, magazines, and newsfeeds. However, I’m also finding it harder and harder to distinguish between fact, opinion, and trolling when it comes to a lot of these pieces, especially when I consume most of my information in the madness that is the digital wild west.

WelcomeToTheInternet

I read articles with titles like “CrossF*cked” and “10 Reasons Why CrossFit is Not a Sport” and I have trouble taking them seriously.  I can’t tell if the authors are confused on the meaning of “edgy” or if they’re just replacing content with provocation. It seems as though the purpose of these articles is less to inform those that are trying to forge an opinion on the subject and more about driving as many shares, likes, and comments to the bathroom stall that is their comments section.

At times, the opposition seems no better… Both sides can tend to paint a very black and white portrait of the subject. The internet is no place for a grey thought.

My greatest fear is that people who are truly concerned with their fitness would read these articles and let them dictate their outlook on CrossFit without ever being exposed to a milder perspective that might shed some light on its value.

I also have an irrational fear of Liam Neeson.

My second, third, and fourth greatest fear.

I’m certainly no authority on the subject, but I’d love to address three of the more common issues and complaints brought up by some of these CrossFit articles and posts from a perspective of relative experience and critical thinking. Feel free to disagree in the stall below.

1. CrossFit Illuminati Serve Kool-Aid via Water Fountains

Let’s get this one out of the way early… Yes, CrossFit can be a bit “culty” at times. Just like owning a Harley Davidson, being a car guy, or having babies can be “culty”. It’s an activity that has its own vocabulary, encourages commitment from its members, and becomes a neighborly gathering place for those with like mind. CrossFit can be a very social activity… And while some members can take it a bit far by revolving everything they do around it, it’s up to you on how far you want to go down the rabbit hole.

TOO FAR.

TOO FAR.

My wife and I both do CrossFit, and we both enjoy it. We talk about WODs during dinner and have been known to be an annoying/overbearing CrossFit couple that posts too many workouts on Facebook (we’re working on it, really). We have tons of friends we’ve made through they gym (far more than I made at the gym during my bench and tricep days) but we’ve still managed to make and keep friends from outside the gym and not drive them off with talk of Heroes and Girls. People get excited about CrossFit just like they get excited about camping, or drinking, or their pets. Anyone can be high handed and overbearing regardless of the interest… Assholes in real life become assholes who like CrossFit, and awesome people in real life become awesome people who like CrossFit. Just be awesome. Always.

The word “cult” should not be used in place of a lack of understanding on why a large group of people are excited to workout together. A “cult” should really refer to a group of authority figures with no accountability, using subservience to force members to cut ties with family members to further their main goal of bringing in new members and money.

Yes. That.

Yeah, like that.

And on that note…

2. CrossFit Wants ALL Your Lunch Money

In a world of 99 cent apps and Walmart discounts, CrossFit can seem outright swanky. Relative to the price of a monthly membership at your local 24 Hour Fitness, we could be looking at a difference of eight fold or more. So yes, CrossFit costs more than a membership at your local gym.  My wife and I pay just short of a combined $300 a month for our current memberships and I find it extremely reasonable for the amount of value we get. On average I’ll spend anywhere from 8-10 hours in the gym per week and not only do I get instruction from highly qualified olympic lifting and strength and conditioning coaches, but I also get to train alongside former college level athletes, games athletes, and a wide array of friends and cohorts that are willing to push me during the workouts far harder than I’d push myself. All for less than $5 per hour. 

You can spend $20 a month on a gym membership and if you’re getting the results you want, awesome (I enjoyed this for years). If you’d prefer to build a garage gym and train by yourself or with a partner and that works for you, fantastic. Personal trainer? Great. I happen to prefer working in a social setting with the oversight and personalized training of my coaches. I don’t mind paying them the equivalent of a couple of fast food tacos per hour for that service either.

Only you can make a decision about what your personal finances can handle and how you’d like to prioritize your expenses.

I've made shrewd decisions on where I've put my money.

I’ve made shrewd decisions on where I’ve put my money.

Just remember that your health functions like any other investment, the earlier you start contributing, the more value and benefit you’ll be able to enjoy later. Siphoning your money into weekend binges or daily dinners is awesome and I’m certainly not one to tell you how to live your life. Just don’t convince yourself that your health is a financial priority that falls well below your cable bill and coffee allowance.

Speaking of health…

3. CrossFit Wants to Rip Out Your Knees and Break Your Back With Them

Before CrossFit, aches and pains were usually the result of “sleeping wrong” or turning my head too quickly. It’s easy to avoid injury when “intense activity” means yelling at 12 year olds when they end my killstreak.

I like to make sure they know Santa Claus is an elaborate lie.

I make sure they know Santa Claus is an elaborate lie.

Yes, you can get injured doing CrossFit. You can also get injured jogging, rock climbing, surfing, skiing, walking, or any other activity in the present progressive tense. While I have yet to have a serious injury, there are certainly days where something is aching abnormally, or I have a pain in a place I normally don’t. I consider this a side effect of being active and pushing myself physically. I take those days as indicators to slow down and let my body rest.

One of the major foundations of CrossFit is “intensity”, the idea of doing “more work in less time (without overdoing it)”. The competitive nature of CrossFit is where I can find myself getting into trouble, losing sight of the real goal of “fitness” and replacing it with “winning”. I’m fortunate to have incredible coaches that know how to teach the movements, but they can’t be by my side every second of every lift. I have to take some personal responsibility and understand my own physical boundaries and limits. If something’s too heavy, no one should know that faster than me. Your ego will get you injured quicker than CrossFit will.

On that same note however, each gym operates completely independently with very flexible standards of quality and training. Like any purchase, there needs to be a certain amount of research done on the background and qualifications of the gym you’re interested in joining. Not all CrossFit affiliates are created equal, so make sure to spend at least as long deciding on which gym is right for you as you do deciding on the right shampoo for your hair type.

Where's scraggly?

Where’s “Receding?”

Injury is a pretty broad subject, so my take is: Make sure your coaches know what they’re talking about. From there, make sure you understand what they’re talking about. Then, make sure you follow through and don’t let your ego get in the way of performing what they’re talking about. And if you’re doing it right, you’ll still get aches and pains.

But what does it all mean?

I’ve found that CrossFit is not for everyone. Just like basketball is not for everyone. Just like skiing is not for everyone. Just like black licorice is the worst candy ever created.

How terrible does your childhood have to be to enjoy black licorice?

Seriously, how terrible does your childhood have to be to enjoy black licorice?

For me, my CrossFit gym is a social gathering place. It’s a venue to enjoy the company of some seriously hilarious and ridiculous folks that I may have never met through any other means. In a world of work relationships and Facebook acquaintances it’s nice to find that kind of opportunity in a common interest.

It’s also a place I go to play around. “Play” is a thing so many of us have lost touch with that we forget how much fun it was when we were kids. Monkey bars are much more difficult than you remember. So is jumping rope, dodgeball, tag, and all the other physical activities we used to do in gym class. And while they’re much more labored than you recall, they’re equally as awesome.

It’s also a challenging environment. It’s a place I go to push myself mentally and physically, to limits I would never choose to go in any other comfortable setting. You quickly find out if you’ve gotten enough sleep or have been paying attention to your nutrition. I never truly understood the value of a good night’s sleep or a well balanced meal until I started recording my performance and quantifying what a weekend of drinking looks like during a workout.

Or a weekend of whatever the hell that is.

Or a weekend of whatever the hell that is.

And while CrossFit may not be right for everyone it may very well be right for you. You’ll never find out if you try and experience it through the twisted pages of the Interweb, so be wary of creating an opinion based solely on the belligerent works of Internet trolls and squabble peddlers. Find a qualified affiliate close to home and give it a shot. If in the end, you’re not a fan and dislike the approach, just make sure to write a combative and venomous post about it (I’d suggest a misleading title like the above). I’ll see you in the comments section.