TJ Murphy: How an Endurance Athlete Learned Not to Specialize

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Check out TJ Murphy’s blog, Inside the Box, to learn more about his book and read his musings on CrossFit. Click here to buy his book.
If you come from an endurance training background, you probably already know who TJ Murphy is. If not, then you should know that TJ Murphy is a veteran marathon runner and triathlete, as well as former editorial director of TriathleteInside Triathlon, and Competitor magazines. After decades of being an endurance specialist, he re-invigorated his injury-ridden body in 2010 by taking up CrossFit and revised his understanding of and approach to health and fitness. He recently published a book about his experience, titled Inside the Box: How CrossFit Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym, and Rebuilt My Body. Here he shares where he came from and what he continues to learn.

Getting to Know TJ Murphy

Give us a little background on you and who you are as an athlete.
I loved all sports, but football was my thing as a kid. It was 1974 and I was 11 years old when I played my first season of organized, full-contact football in the Cedar Rapids, Iowa “Metro Youth” league. We ran a half a mile and did calisthenics to warm-up, and then just about every practice I remember was a full-tilt scrimmage with raging coaches and the occasional broken bone. We just kicked the shit out of each other. I was a skinny kid, so for a time my nickname was “Sticks.”
There was a period when I did heavy squats, but I’ll bet my knees were way out over my feet and caving inward in an ugly, soft-tissue grinding way.
So to jump right into a discussion significantly related to CrossFit, weight training was immediately appealing. By the time I started high school, Hayden Fry had taken over the University of Iowa football team and installed a strength coach. This strength coach paid visits to local high schools like ours, and we adopted the high-intensity circuit training system. It was something like 15 exercises where you did one set of each exercise to failure targeting 8 to 12 repetitions. Most of the exercises were isolated movements on a Universal machine: chest press, calf raises, pull-downs, leg extensions, tricep press downs. It was a 35-minute workout max, with the only rest allowed being how fast you moved to the next station. I honestly don’t recall this workout producing any of the fantastic results that had been so dramatically promised. How interesting it would have been if the movements had been compound movements like you see in CrossFit… It might have been a whole different story. I should mention this was considered a fairly radical program at the time, but it didn’t last long; it got dropped and high schoolers around Iowa returned to what they could pick up out of Pumping Iron. Myself included. A sort of scattershot mix of bodybuilding and powerlifting. Form didn’t seem to matter much, as I recall. There was a period when I did heavy squats, but I’ll bet my knees were way out over my feet and caving inward in an ugly, soft-tissue grinding way. At any rate, I didn’t play football in college, which was probably a good thing because by the end of my high school years I had sustained one major knee injury: shredded cartilage in my right knee.
I ran the Big Sur Marathon in 1989 in a time of 3:24 using this program. In 1991 I ran the Cal International Marathon in 2:38 using essentially the same program. For the next five years I raced everything from the marathon to the mile. I was mad for running. 
I resumed sports at about the age of 25 when I got the marathon bug. This was inevitable since I came from a running family: my dad, my mom and my brother. Dad was a classic running boom guy who went from being 230 pounds or so to 160 and ran the Boston Marathon. When I got the bug, I was living in San Francisco and bought a book called Galloway’s Book on Running, which presented basic schedules that were 32-week program derivatives of the Arthur Lydiard approach: build up an aerobic base, add a hill training phase for strength, and then a speed and racing phase. I ran the Big Sur Marathon in 1989 in a time of 3:24 using this program. In 1991 I ran the Cal International Marathon in 2:38 using essentially the same program. For the next five years I raced everything from the marathon to the mile. I was mad for running. I worked at a running shoe store and began writing for Triathlete Magazine.
Injuries had always been a part of the game, but they started to become more frequent. In 1996 I did what a lot of runners who were frustrated with injuries did: I migrated into triathlon. In the following decade I would do the occasional short triathlon and the occasional Ironman triathlon. In 2005 I had become enmeshed in what can best be described as being permanently injured. Knee, back, feet, Achilles.
Clearly you have been an athlete your entire life. When and why did you start CrossFit?
In the fall of 2009 my health was in free fall. I was overweight, depressed and spiraling downward. In terms of weight gain, a poor diet can be kept at bay with enough running mileage. If you aren’t running though, the tide turns. I was editor-in-chief of Inside Triathlon magazine at the time, so the new image didn’t square well with the job.
The back spasm lasted about two weeks. At work I learned to use the tops of cubicles as one might use handrails on a staircase. I can only imagine what my co-workers were thinking: “This guy has done the Ironman?”
One day in the San Diego office, I recall having a quick meeting with our art director, sitting on a stool next to her as we looked at layouts on a computer. When I went to stand up, my back locked up. For what seemed like 30 seconds I was frozen in a bad quarter-squat position, which was bad but not nearly as terrible as the embarrassment I felt in the design room as folks began to notice that I was frozen in space. It’s one of those weird deals where your well-meaning friends are asking, “Are you OK?”  over and over, and you’re not answering because you don’t want to admit that you’re not OK. But it took me a while before I could figure out how to generate locomotion and get back to my office where I could hide and begin dealing with yet another back problem. After work I somehow got to my car and drove to a Rite-Aid. I was able to somewhat disguise I was injured by leaning my weight over onto the shopping cart to push it around the aisles. I bought everything I could think of: ice bags, heating pads, Advil, Doan’s Pills. Anything and everything. The back spasm lasted about two weeks. At work I learned to use the tops of cubicles as one might use handrails on a staircase. I can only imagine what my co-workers were thinking: “This guy has done the Ironman?” After the spasm ceased, I decided to go for broke: I adopted a vegan diet and signed up for an online running service that cost about $125 per month. It was another version of Lydiard training. It built up to 50-60 miles per week and added a variety of tempo and sub-tempo training runs. I lost weight and improved for a while but then hit a plateau. For months I just couldn’t get any faster. I did the core strength training thing that was advised and never missed a workout. But my times stopped improving. For the record, I don’t blame the program; rather, I’m sure it was that my body was unable to digest the program. The goal was to run a decent time at a half-marathon.
In October of 2010, I ran a half-marathon in Los Angeles. I remember how both of my knees felt like they were on fire after I crossed the finish line. I sat on a curb and just felt them burn. Two weeks later and my knee went out in the funkiest way it had ever gone out on me. I tried to run through it, but it just got worse and worse.
Oddly enough, I had been working on a story for Triathlete Magazine on Brian MacKenzie and CrossFit Endurance. My initial reaction to Greg Glassman and MacKenzie was one of anger. It appeared that they were attacking the high-mileage work ethic of runners and I took it personally. But in researching the article, I started to listen to what they were saying and if you listened to all if it, the entire construct from which Glassman defined and delivered CrossFit, I couldn’t build a very persuasive argument against them. Particularly since the approach I had put so much time, energy and money into had rendered me a broken mess.
I felt trying CrossFit was the one thing I could do before I could just imagine what was waiting for me through the HMO health care plan I was on: a couple of referrals and then knee surgery or even knee replacement.
I watched dozens of the lectures on the CrossFit Journal. Particularly those with Glassman, MacKenzie, Kelly Starrett, Dr. Nicholas Romanov, Mike Burgener and Barry Sears. I also talked to runners and triathletes that had been traditionalists, like myself, and were finding success through the CrossFit Endurance program. So I still had that funky knee thing going on and I couldn’t shake it. I would walk two or three steps and it would just collapse beneath me with this stabbing pain thing. I felt trying CrossFit was the one thing I could do before I could just imagine what was waiting for me through the HMO health care plan I was on: a couple of referrals and then knee surgery or even knee replacement. It seemed logical to at least give CrossFit a try.

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