This post was written by Jeremy Cronon.
I don’t have enough fingers or toes to count the number of times someone has sent me a meme to the tune of:
Hilarious, right? For the purpose of this article, I must talk about both.
I officially became a walking stereotype when I paired my veganism with CrossFit in the fall of 2013. Despite a strong fitness background, I started from scratch, taking the week-long Foundations class for newbies and using beginner’s tools like a PVC pipe to ease in and learn proper form for many of my workouts.
Over the next two years, I became stronger, more flexible, healthier, and more coordinated than I had imagined possible. I also discovered that I had an alarming appetite for sweet potatoes.
That journey taught me that, despite what everyone seems to think, plant-based athletes can not only survive in a CrossFit gym, but thrive as part of the community.
Don’t Let Them Scare You Away
For the uninitiated, venturing into a CrossFit gym may conjure intimidation, angst, and even a little fear.
You might be envisioning a cave-like, spartan warehouse populated with savage, overbuilt brutes, grunting and gnawing on slabs of meat as they lift draconian objects cast in cold, unforgiving steel and iron.
Hardly a positive learning environment for your average plant-based athlete, or anyone for that matter.
Though hyperbolic, that vision speaks to some of the reasons why someone might dread experimenting with CrossFit. Trust me, you aren’t the first person to ask yourself:
- Will my plant-based diet be adequate?
- Will they laugh at me and call me “herbivore”?
- Will they force me to do things I don’t feel ready for?
- What if I get hurt?
- Will they say that eating meat would solve all my problems?
- Am I too weak to even try CrossFit?
- Am I too skinny or too overweight?
Don’t let your imagination get the better of you. CrossFitters are all human, just like you. They all started where you are now, strangers both to CrossFit and its community.
When I began my CrossFit career, I started with a week-long introductory course. There were only three people in the class, including the coach. That week focused on the fundamental movements, training strategies, nutrition advice, and gave us ample time to ask all our questions. When I broached the subject of plant-based nutrition, my coach barely skipped a beat, instantly tailoring her information to fit my needs. She even lent me her copy of Brendan Brazier’s Thrive: The Vegan Nutrition Guide to Optimal Performance in Sports and Life.
I don’t generally broadcast my veganism, but it didn’t take long for the word to get out. After all, I was the only plant-based practitioner at the gym. There was an initial surge of questions, predominantly about my protein intake, and there was some thinly veiled skepticism about my dietary choices. They had every right to be curious, even cynical; it’s not like there were many vegan athletes in eastern North Carolina.
Undeterred by the questions, I kept at it, showing up everyday without fail. By the time I traded in my PVC pipe for a barbell, the people surrounding me weren’t strangers anymore. They were some of my best friends. Even though we ate differently, we still respected one another.
I never did escape the lighthearted vegan jokes and I doubt I ever will, but I knew that their initial skepticism had been replaced by appreciation.
That was enough for me.
CrossFit, an Introduction
At a fundamental level, CrossFit is constantly varied functional movements performed at high intensity. But for someone new to CrossFit, that doesn’t tell you much. Here is what you can expect:
First of all, going to CrossFit is taking a “class,” not a workout session on your own. This means there will be a coach working with a group of athletes, generally for one hour. That coach will begin by leading the class through a warm-up meant to target the muscle groups that will be used later on in the class.
This is generally when you start sweating.
After that, you dive into the skills portion of the day. Whether the focus of the day is a powerlifting movement like the back squat, an olympic lifting movement like the power snatch, or a gymnastics movement like the pull-up, this segment creates structured time to improve your capacity with that skill.
By this point, you’re really sweating.
Last, but not least, comes the Workout of the Day (often shortened to “WOD”). These can come in all shapes and sizes, flavors and colors, but will generally fill the last three to thirty minutes of class with a high intensity pandemonium. Every athlete can modify the WOD to fit their ability, but you’re all focused on the exact same workout.
And … you’re soaked.
That, in a nutshell, is what you are likely to experience at a CrossFit class. Every day will be different, but the variety should be contained within that familiar framework.
4 Steps to Thriving Within the CrossFit Community
Being successful with CrossFit is about much more than just having strength. It’s about understanding (and pushing) your limits, building community, and constantly learning.
As a plant-based athlete, there are a few strategies I follow to thrive not only within the sport, but also the community.
1. Check Your Ego
Whether you’re attempting your first 5K or kicking off your CrossFit membership, ego represents your greatest risk factor. We can blame our coaches, programming, or lifestyle choices, but we’re often personally responsible for pushing ourselves over the edge into injury.
There’s no denying that CrossFit fosters a competitive environment. At some gyms, it is palpable. At others, it is an afterthought. And it’s that competitive nature that, unfortunately, has led to CrossFit’s storied relationship with injury.
Competition does not, however, inherently generate dangerous situations. I truly believe that removing ego from the athletic equation would reduce the risk of injury across the sporting spectrum. Sadly, we can only expect so much from our species. You, on the other hand, can make a concerted effort to manage its impact on your life.
And CrossFit can help.
CrossFit is known for its “high intensity” workouts. That phrase, however, has infinite interpretations for all of us. CrossFit solves this problem by providing options for athletes to scale workouts that they cannot effectively complete as originally programmed.
Which means, no matter if you’re brand new to CrossFit and these exercises or a diehard CrossFitter, every athlete in the gym will be exhausted by the same type of workout, even if their skill levels and strengths vary significantly.
So how do you know when and how to scale? Your coaches, an active a part of every class, are there as a resource whenever you need them. Every workout is an opportunity to attack your weaknesses and to grow as an athlete, whether or not you modify the workout doesn’t change that.
Quick Tips for Staying Injury Free
- Start slow. Most CrossFit gyms offer introductory classes for new athletes to learn the movements in a smaller class size. Take it. Building a strong foundation will pay huge dividends later on.
- Don’t add weight or try a movement just because everyone else is. Modify each exercise to fit your ability, even if that means using a PVC pipe. It may not be glamorous, but the PVC pipe is easily one of the most important pieces of equipment at the gym. Spend as much time working with the pipe as you can.
2. Allow Yourself to Learn
From olympic lifting to bodyweight gymnastics, from powerlifting to metabolic conditioning, CrossFit employs diverse movements that each present both challenge and opportunity for growth.
Achieving efficiency and stability in each movement is undoubtedly a lifetime pursuit, something that Games’ (the CrossFit competitions you see on TV) athletes and beginners face together.
CrossFit tackles this complexity by providing qualified coaches who instruct, encourage, and monitor your development. They are there to support you through the final seconds of a workout and to intervene when they see you putting yourself at risk. Those coaches will be your lifelines when you have movement-related questions, need help setting your monthly fitness targets, or want some advice on maximizing your recovery. The more your coaches know about what you want to get out of CrossFit, the better they can help you achieve those goals.
Communicate with them. Listen to them. Utilize these coaches as your main resource.
But, as much as CrossFit is about your own fitness, camaraderie is part of what keeps people coming back.
The athletes working alongside you each and every day will often be your loudest cheerleaders, representatives of a supportive, nurturing community. Moreover, they can often provide insight and instruction gleaned from their own experiences with CrossFit. Cultivating relationships that allow you to learn from your peers only strengthens the community that proves so fundamental to CrossFit.
But even with coaches tweaking your body position and fellow athletes pushing you through an exercise, ultimate responsibility still falls on you.
You must listen to and learn from your body. The diversity of movements that CrossFit employs can tax muscles that you may not have known you had, and uncover physical and mental weaknesses, and nutritional deficiencies. Pay attention to what your body is telling you, adjust, and learn from it.
Quick Tips for Learning with Each Workout
- Keep a journal. Having a record of your lifts and workout scores will help you track your progress and highlight strengths and weaknesses. Not enough CrossFitters log their workouts; you should.
- Don’t be afraid of complex movements with intimidating names (or acronyms) like the Sumo Deadlift High Pull (SDHP) or Handstand Push-up (HSPU). Instead, work with your coaches to identify progressions and scaling opportunities that will help you achieve your goals.
3. Embrace Your Common Purpose
It’s no secret that many CrossFit athletes adhere to the paleolithic or Zone diets, where meat is often a primary focus. So many, in fact, that Paleo and CrossFit often feel like twins conjoined at the Neanderthalic hip.
But even though it can sometimes feel especially primal and carnivorous, plant-based athletes need not feel neglected in the CrossFit universe. In the end, no matter your diet, following any dietary program demonstrates a willingness to make intentional decisions about the way that you eat.
You may eat different foods, but you are working towards a similar goal. In fact, once we got past the labels, some of my vegan recipes became crowd favorites among my paleo peers and I adopted a few paleo recipes that happened to be vegan into my arsenal.
Fitness communities and dietary programs of all flavors and persuasions often share a foundational goal: to strengthen and nurture your body. Whether you are a paleo cyclocross enthusiast or a raw vegan powerlifter, a gluten-free triathlete or a carnivorous kick boxer, those principles hold true.
That is the bedrock of the CrossFit community.
Quick Tips for Connecting with the CrossFit Community
- Not everything has to be about CrossFit all the time. There are plenty of ways to test your fitness or grow friendships that can happen anywhere, whether at a backyard bonfire or through an intramural volleyball league.
- Consider signing up for a team competition. This may seem like a long way off, but team competitions (which can be scaled, just like workouts) are a great way to work together with your fellow athletes towards a common goal. Plus they’re a ton of fun.
4. Eat to Perform
Not all plant-based diets are created equal. Oreos, after all, are vegan.
When I graduated from college, I understood plant-based diets and vegan nutrition at a basic level. I had figured out how to stay lean, while prioritizing muscle growth. That diet, however, proved wholly inadequate once I started CrossFit.
CrossFit’s intense focus on pairing metabolic conditioning with heavy lifting propelled my metabolism to stratospheric heights. I was always hungry and noticed that certain workouts left me completely drained. I immediately bumped up my caloric intake, devouring massive portions of roasted vegetables with homemade seitan.
More importantly, though, I started to work with my coaches to tailor my intake for athletic performance. If I was going to overhaul my diet, I figured I should target any imbalances or deficiencies that might be affecting my performance in the gym or my body’s ability to recover.
I spent countless nights poring over resources about supplements vs. whole food approaches, the impact of branch chain amino acids on recovery, omega-3 absorption, and vegan sources of creatine, before discussing my findings with my coaches, all of whom had both personal or professional backgrounds in nutrition.
In the end, I figured out what worked for me. And so can you.
All it takes is a little time and a willingness to learn both from yourself and those around you.
When I think about the ways that CrossFit has changed my life, I think about the people who have become family, the body awareness I have gained, and the nutritional consciousness that now governs my day-to-day choices.
It has made me a healthier and happier person in every aspect of my life.
Quick Tips for Maximizing Your Plant-Based Diet
- Try new things. Don’t just toss in a few exotic recipes every now and then, test out entirely new ratios of macronutrients or a dedicated meal vs. grazing approach. See how your body reacts and adjust accordingly.
- Prep your meals beforehand. Having a stockpile of healthful meals in the fridge ensures that you always have the right food to eat, even if you don’t have time to cook that night.
Now the Hard Part … It’s Time to Show Up
When you walk into your first CrossFit class, you automatically have something in common with everyone in the room:
You showed up.
CrossFit claims you did so to improve your capacity for work. I don’t necessarily see it that way.
Instead, I see CrossFit as way to improve your capacity for life, whether that means climbing mountains, playing with your grandchildren, or landscaping your backyard. The simple act of showing up makes a statement that everyone in the room hears loud and clear. Despite the myriad other things going on in your life, you’ve made your fitness, and your health, a priority.
That merits not only respect, but admiration from the entire group.
By attending a class, you’re celebrating the commitment of those around you, which is why every CrossFit class ends the same way … with sweaty high fives for every single athlete in the room.