TJ Murphy: How an Endurance Athlete Learned Not to Specialize

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What is your view of fitness now, both from a CrossFit and a running perspective?
[Glassman] explicitly says he’s not making a judgement with this perspective, he’s just suggesting that if your primary goal is health and fitness (as opposed to, for example, making the Olympic team), then you probably shouldn’t be training the way specialists do. So that was a turning point for me in terms of how I thought about training.
When I’m asked that, I usually suggest that my experience was similar to when Neo took the red pill. And I’d say the most critical element of seeing things differently is the principle of defining fitness that was the foundation for Glassman’s program. There’s video of the first certification held in Santa Cruz in December of 2002, with Glassman speaking to the two (!) participants. He’s talking about the differences of aerobic training versus anaerobic training, and makes the point that for most of us, if health is the overall goal, we should adopt a more generalized approach to training. That running 100 miles per week in pursuit of a sub-4 minute mile is classic “specialist” training. And that’s fine if that’s what you’re out to do, but he makes the point that specialists — be they sub-4 minute milers or powerlifters with 800 pound back squats — are ultimately making distinct sacrifices in terms of health and fitness for the sake of elite performance. He explicitly says he’s not making a judgement with this perspective, he’s just suggesting that if your primary goal is health and fitness (as opposed to, for example, making the Olympic team), then you probably shouldn’t be training the way specialists do. So that was a turning point for me in terms of how I thought about training. As someone in his 40s and already mired with the residue from years of overuse injuries, it didn’t make sense to adopt a training plan based on how Alberto Salazar trains athletes in the Oregon Project. Become a healthy, all-around athlete first and then go run some races. And do other things too. And not be injured all the time. If my job was to run a sub 2:10 marathon, that’s a different story. And MacKenzie’s CFE approach takes things a step further — chasing running performance and injury prevention with a combination of CrossFit, speed endurance work, mobility and nutrition.
I was quite grateful that I had tried CrossFit as opposed to leaping onto an operating table.
The first six weeks I was a member of CrossFit Elysium in San Diego, and it sold me completely on these ideas. The very first workout included overhead squats, which I could barely do. Yet two coaches, Leon Chang and Stacie Beal, helped me leave the workout having made progress. I was just a new guy at the gym, yet they painstakingly taught me the movement. In the ensuing six weeks, most of the classes I went to were taught by Paul Estrada, another great coach. I remember how much improvement I made in just six weeks with the overhead squat. Relative to others (if not most) in CrossFit, I was still compromised by range of motion problems. But I’d made a startling improvement. I was quite grateful that I had tried CrossFit as opposed to leaping onto an operating table. When I was just getting into CrossFit, a colleague of mine in the endurance world told me over and over about how I was going to get injured doing CrossFit. That argument didn’t hold much sway with me because conventional running and triathlon training was injuring me at every turn. And my experience in CrossFit has been absolutely counter to his predictions.
It’s also provided me an education — particularly what I’ve learned from Kelly Starrett and Brian MacKenzie — about the movement patterns and habitual positions of the way I’d been running for 20 years, and why I was in a perpetual state of injury. I’ve become so fascinated with this that I can’t help but notice how people walk, run, sit, ride a bike, and seeing how they’re slowing grinding up the soft tissues of their joints.
I had a phone conversation once with a CFE coach in Boulder. He told me that of the runners who came into his gym and tried CrossFit, those who stuck around for more than a month always seemed to say the same thing: “I would never go back to the way I trained before.” That’s how I feel.

Finding CrossFit: TJ Goes Inside the Box

So out of this transformational experience, you have written and recently published a book. Tell us about Inside the Box. When did it come out and what is it about?
…Considering how many runners and triathletes were as frustrated with injuries as I was, I felt a book that told the story I was seeing might be of value. Perhaps it comes off as a promotion of CrossFit, but it was an honest account.
It came out in September of 2012. I was at the Hawaii Ironman as a journalist in 2011 when editors at VeloPress books called me and asked if I was interested in writing a book about CrossFit. I was editorial director of Competitor Magazine at the time and was in the process of putting Annie Sakamoto on the cover, with an article on CrossFit that included a story on Greg Amundson. And we had MacKenzie on the cover a few months before that, and also a big story on Mobility WOD and Kelly Starrett. So my interest had been noticed. The editors at VeloPress, I should mention, had just joined CrossFit Julia in Boulder. It wasn’t immediately apparent what the book was going to be about.

A recent review posted about Inside the Box on Amazon.com criticized my book for being a “CrossFit promotion.” I think that’s a fair criticism. But from what I was seeing, most of the mainstream journalism concerning CrossFit — from The New York Times, Men’s Health, etc. — was negative. From many angles, what I was seeing in CrossFit –not just at CrossFit Elysium but at other affiliates I had visited, including CrossFit Bloomington in Indiana, CrossFit Cedar Rapids in Iowa, CrossFit NYC, CrossFit Virtuosity in Brooklyn, CrossFit Kona, CrossFit Southie in Boston — was vastly different than the negative descriptions of CrossFit I had found in newspapers and magazines. And considering how many runners and triathletes were as frustrated with injuries as I was, I felt a book that told the story I was seeing might be of value. Perhaps it comes off as a promotion of CrossFit, but it was an honest account.

The book’s subtitle is How CrossFit Shredded the Rules, Stripped Down the Gym and Rebuilt my Body.  What are some of the key discoveries you made in your transition from endurance sports to CrossFit?
I’m almost certain that most specialist runners, even younger runners, are not going to blow your mind with their box jump ability.
I found that although there were countless things I wasn’t very good at at first, from pull-ups to snatches, for some reason I was relatively good at burpees. I wonder if that’s a shared experience of those migrating from traditional endurance programs to CrossFit.

Box jumps: I’m almost certain that most specialist runners, even younger runners, are not going to blow your mind with their box jump ability. I remember the first time I was being taught box jumps — a 12-inch box looked formidable. For some reason I think high-mileage running drains the body of what is needed to leap up in the air. But like the overhead squats, that capacity came back pretty quickly, even for someone who is in his late 40s, like me. But eventually I got a 30-inch box jump. Which absolutely stunned me.

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