Mental Game and WOD Strategy

Coming from a background of studying theology, when I started CrossFit I was immediately fascinated by the way the workouts made people feel. They did more than just make people tired; even beyond the euphoria after a really tough workout, there was a significant mental component to the WODs that I found captivating. I saw how people’s mental approach to WODs could lead to feelings of elation or frustration, and that these feelings were not always related to their objective performance on a given WOD.

Even if you are not particularly interested in theology or philosophy, you should give some thought to your mental approach to CrossFit. This holds true whether your interests tend toward performance or general fitness. This article will address coming up with strategies for conditioning workouts. Formulating a thoughtful strategy will allow you to maximize your potential and get the most benefit out of the workout.


CrossFit can be nerve-wracking!  Some people avoid looking at the WOD until they come in for class, while others check as early as possible and then spend their day thinking about it.  If you never get butterflies in your stomach when the clock starts counting down, you are probably not working hard enough and are most likely leaving fitness gains on the table.  Sometimes nerves might make you start a workout way too fast, only to come to a screeching halt a minute later as you run out of air; or they might make you go more slowly than you have to, because you are afraid of burning out before the end.

Regardless of how nerves affect you, having a thoughtful strategy at the start of each workout can help alleviate many of their negative effects.  Instead of thinking about how much the workout is going to hurt, you will be focusing on executing your plan as well as you can.  This often helps people push past negative thoughts and do better on workouts than they would otherwise.  As you come to know yourself, you will be able to come up with workable plans that both push your limits and help you progress toward your goals.

Many Questions, Many Answers

There are four main questions to ask yourself when you first start coming up with a strategy. Some of the answers will be obvious, while others might require more individual judgment and be less clear.


First, how long is the workout?  Without getting too complex, the two most simple categories to put conditioning workouts in are long and short.  The longer you will be working out, the more you need to think about breathing and pacing.  Sometimes you can figure this out by the time domain: a twenty minute AMRAP will require a slower pace than a four minute AMRAP.  The length of a workout should give you clues to how fast you should be moving in each piece, and what your effort level should be.  While a time priority workout (AMRAP, Tabata) makes it obvious how long you will be working, this can be more difficult with a task priority workout (rounds for time, chipper).  Think through the workout and imagine how long each movement will take you.  What about breaks?  Transition time between movements?  Combine all this information to estimate how long the workout will take you.  Then check your answer with your coach to make sure you’re on the right track.  


Second, what is the intent of the workout?  Are you supposed to be testing, or training?  If training, what are you supposed to be training?  Intensity is a major element of CrossFit: “CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at relatively high intensity.”  But this does not mean every workout should be a test.  In fact, a majority of your workouts should be used as training.  A conversation with your coach will be useful here, both to clarify whether a particular workout is intended to test or train, and to help you figure out what is most important for you to focus on.  If you go all out every workout, you will overtax your system and worsen your performance over time.  You will also miss opportunities for lower-intensity work that could help improve your efficiency and skills.


A third consideration is whether any movements will be a limiter for you. Does the workout involve a high-skill movement you find difficult? Is there a heavy lift that will slow you down? Maybe that means you should push harder on some of the movements that are less difficult for you. Or, maybe it means you should take down your speed as a whole so you will be fresher for the more difficult movement.


Last but not least, what do YOU need or want to get out of the workout? This is related but not identical to the point about intent. Think of each workout in light of your long term goals and training plan as a whole. Are you currently focusing on strength, on a particular skill, or does your aerobic conditioning need a kick in the pants? Be honest with yourself here, and strategize accordingly. If you need to work on strength, maybe it is okay to go heavier and more slowly. If you need to work more on your conditioning, maybe it would be better to use lighter weights so you will not have excuses for slowing down.

Now What?

So you’ve thought about the workout, asked yourself questions, and now have more information about what kind of workout it is and what you want to get out of it. Here are some ideas you can use to come up with a strategy that aligns well with your answers to those questions.

Fractioning Reps

The first consideration is to think about how you might break up your reps. Is the number of reps within reach for you to do unbroken? If not, what number will be achievable? If there are fifteen wall balls per round, maybe you will commit to doing them unbroken each time. This can be a great way to work on mental strength. But going unbroken is not always the best, or fastest, strategy. Maybe 9-6 would be more sustainable for you, or even 5-5-5. Starting off with your biggest set can often provide a mental boost, but some people prefer to be consistent across the board.

Keep in mind, there are more metrics to success in a CrossFit WOD than just going faster. CrossFit aims to improve your capacity across ten domains of fitness, and there is also a less-definable mental component to think about. Sometimes you might want to use the workout to improve your mental game, even if that means your time will be a bit slower as a result.

Where Can You Rest?

Once you have figured out how you plan to break up your reps, ask yourself if any of the movements could serve as your rest in the workout.  High skill or heavy movements that force you to slow down (“bottleneck efforts”) might give you a chance to catch your breath.  Those who are proficient at double unders can potentially use them as a chance to breathe.  Think about where you will be able to push hard in the workout, and where you will need to slow down a bit.  If there is a movement at which you are not yet proficient, go more slowly and use that part of the workout to focus on improving your technique.  Then you can pick up the pace on the other movements where you feel more confident.  

One cautionary note, from first-hand experience.  The first time I did “Jackie,” I was great at rowing and thrusters, and not great at pull ups.  So I figured I would go as hard as I could on the row and the thrusters, knowing I would be slower than most others on the pull ups.  This was a terrible idea.  I crushed the row, pushed hard to get the thrusters done unbroken, finished them before everyone else, then stood there gasping for air and ended up limping to the end of the workout doing painfully slow pull ups one at a time.  When I re-tested about a month later, I rowed a more manageable pace, broke up my thrusters, put together bigger sets of pull ups, and finished about two minutes faster than the month before.  Unbroken is not always better, and faster on one part of the movement is not always faster on the workout as a whole.  One of my rowing coaches used to say, “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”  Sometimes slow is fast, even in a CrossFit WOD.


A third way to approach the workout is to think explicitly about your pace. What will your pace be on the row? Your 500m split will be different if the workout lasts five minutes, versus thirty minutes. How many seconds will it take you to do a burpee? Ten burpees? One squat clean at 80% of your max? How much transition time will you need between movements? If you plan to fraction your reps, how much rest will you give yourself between sets? How much do you think you will slow down as the workout progresses? Try to figure out how much time each set and each round will take you. Set that as a goal for yourself. Then do your best to execute that pace. Your mind will usually tell you to stop long before you physically have to, so planning these sorts of things out in advance will help you push past feelings of fatigue once the workout has started.

The flip side to thinking so much about pacing is that sometimes this will make you go too slowly on a workout relative to your capacity.  You might get comfortable with certain rep ranges, or with a certain pace, and never push yourself enough to benefit from CrossFit’s intensity.  The line between intelligent pacing and “sandbagging,” aka making the workout too easy for yourself, can be very fuzzy and hard to discern.  One thing that might bring clarity is to ask your coach!  She will often have a more objective view of your capabilities than you do.  If you feel comfortable with your strategy of ten wall balls in each set but your coach tells you to go for fifteen, listen to her!  Don’t be afraid to try it out.  Commit, then see what happens.  Chances are you will surprise yourself.

Successful strategy requires thoughtful, authentic discernment and a willingness to be honest with yourself.  If this discussion of over-pacing resonates with you, you might benefit from taking a week to throw all thoughts of fractioning reps and pacing out the window, and instead go as unbroken and as hard as you can in every workout.  Take note of how many reps you were able to do when you went all out, and use that information to inform your pacing strategies going forward.  Sometimes you need to be more modest in your efforts, and sometimes you just need to lay it all out on the line.  

mike-tyson-on-strategyTest and Re-test

Make sure to record your workouts, using either an online system such as Wodify or a written workout journal. Include notes about your strategy and how it went. This will allow you to look back and see notes about whether a particular rep range or weight felt too easy, too hard, or just right. Then you can learn whether your strategies are working, and adjust for next time. A useful practice is to include in your notes an actual prescription for the next workout, such as “Next time, do sets of fifteen,” or “Next time, push the row pace to 2:00.” If you do not record your workouts, you will not remember their details in the long run, and will be unable to learn from your successes and mistakes.

Even when you carefully plan your strategy, some workouts will not go to plan. Instead of you crushing the workout, the workout will punch you in the face! Use these instances to help you learn about yourself and refine your strategy. CrossFit is highly physical, but it is not only physical. Use your workouts to hone your mental edge, and your physical self will become sharper as a result. Remember: knowledge = gains, and who doesn’t want gains?!

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