The Mental Side of the WOD

Written by Nicole Kukieza (Coach Nicole!)


The physical challenges of Crossfit are pretty obvious– deadlifts, running, burpees– they are all physically demanding exercises that require a certain amount of strength and stamina to complete. What about the mental side of Crossfit though? We often times focus so much on the physical side of the coin, that we forget there is a whole other mental game going on that can make or break you.

Throughout my Crossfit experience, I have had my fair share of ups and downs. The “oh crap, I started this WOD way too fast” workout and the “yeah, I could have gone heavier on that” workout. I’m here to offer a bit of insight into how to mentally prepare yourself for any WOD that is thrown your way so you don’t have any sort of “post-WOD regret”.

When I see a WOD that I know I am going to do, I immediately start strategizing. “Can I do this RX?” “How should I break up these wall balls?” “Where will I catch my breath?” etc. etc. The first step in this is knowing what type of workout it is. Is it a chipper WOD where you are constantly moving for 25 minutes? Or is it meant to be a sprint that leaves your lungs burning at the end? Am I ready to move up 5 pounds in this lift? Or are there too many reps for me to do that? These are all questions that run through my head, as I begin my pre-WOD strategy.

Once I decide what type of WOD I am doing, it is time to strategize for the WOD itself. First I need to look at the reps and rounds. If there are a high number of reps, I know I will need to break them into sets. I personally don’t like to break things into “even” sets. By “even” I mean if I see 50 wall balls, I likely won’t do 5 sets of 10. I like to do more at the beginning when I am feeling fresh and smaller sets at the end. For example, I might do 15-12-10-7-6 or something similar. This works for me, mentally because I am able to see the metaphorical “light at the end of the tunnel” and know that I have less reps to do every time I pick up the ball. (Side note: I have a weird ‘thing’ about stopping at 13 reps. I will never stop at 13 reps in a workout. I either do 12 or 14, but never 13!)

Sticking with the 50 wall balls example, I will tell myself the rep scheme I am going to use before I start. I have a game plan going in, so there are no surprises. When the coach says, “3-2-1 GO” I already know that I am going to do 15 wall balls. If you think about the end game, (aka “oh my gosh, I have to do 50 of these!?!”) you are going to psych yourself out, which will in turn raise your heart rate even more than it is already raised, and it will be a miserable 50 reps.

SUMMARY: Have a game plan going into the WOD and stick to that plan. Break your reps up in a way that allows you to have less every time.

Another mental aspect of wodding that is worth mentioning is transitions, and how we can use them to our advantage. Transitions are the time in between movements when we feel like we can “take a breather” or “rest” for a few seconds. Transitions are also where you can pick up valuable seconds in a WOD.

Here’s the thing– the hardest part is the first rep of whatever the new movement is. Once you get that first rep in, you are golden. Your body has realized it is going to continue moving and therefore your mind moves on from being in it’s “resting” phase.

Let’s take an example WOD of:
400 m run
15 clean and jerks (65/95)
10 KB Swings (35/53)
15 TTB

The first thing that I think when I see this WOD is, “How long do I think this will take me?” So I break it down: 2 minutes for the 400, 1 ½ minutes for the C&J, 30 seconds for the KB Swings, and 30 seconds to 1 minute for the TTB or 4 ½ minutes per round. Multiply that by 3 and I end up around 14 minutes. (Side note: “time caps” are almost always in place for the WODS we do at CFNH and are a great starting point in determining how long a WOD might take you. If you are unsure of how long something should take you, that should always be your first stop.)

I finish the run and move right into the clean and jerks. TIP: ALWAYS RUN ALL THE WAY TO YOUR BAR. Gone are the days of stopping at the bottom of the hill and strolling into the gym. Run all the way to your bar every time and catch your breath there. I take 2-3 deep breaths. I give myself a “3-2-1 GO” and I pick up the bar. Now I would likely do two sets of C&J (8-7), but you might be different. Maybe you need to break your 15 reps up into a set of 6-5-4, or maybe you are a 9 and 6 kind-of person. (I also love this rep scheme.)

I see that the KB Swings are light, and there aren’t many of them. I take a deep breath, pick up the KB and do all 10 unbroken. The TTB are a different story though. 15 is just enough to give me some trouble, so I do a small set to start, even though I could do more. This is a movement that once gone is gone forever. Because of that, I know I need to conserve them. Therefore, I go 6-5-4 or maybe even 5-4-3-2-1, depending on how I feel that day.

Once that is done, I take a quick look at the clock and adjust my game plan as I start my run. Did I go too fast? How did it feel? Can I maintain this pace? Did I meet my 4 ½ minute goal? Can I do bigger sets of TTB? I use the first 20 seconds of the run to catch my breath before picking up the pace again.

Something to note: I often find myself in last place at the start of many WODs. You also will find that people will be starting very fast (faster than they can likely maintain). When I WOD I am in my own bubble. I don’t try and stay with other people or worry if someone is ahead of me because I have my game plan and I am confident with it. The second I start to worry about someone else I have stepped away from it, and no good ever comes from that. Ultimately I can only go as fast as I can go, and that has nothing to do with the person next to me.

SUMMARY: Once you have your game plan, continue to reevaluate and assess throughout your WOD, but always keep moving. Don’t let slow transitions get in the way of meeting your goal time. Always take a moment to catch your breath, but get the first rep out of the way. Finally, know your body and know what YOU are capable of. Don’t worry about the people around you.

Again, these are just a few insights that have worked for me over my years of Crossfitting. I have certainly had my fair share of misjudged WODS, but lately I have found that having a game plan and sticking to it makes them few and far between.

If you have any questions about how you can approach a specific WOD, or just mental strategy in general, you can always ask a CFNH coach for help!

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