What Makes the Elite? Mixed Modal Aims to Conquer Competitive Fitness

What Makes the Elite? Mixed Modal Aims to Conquer Competitive Fitness

Few of us can say we’ve been in the CrossFit space as long as OPEX founder James Fitzgerald. The Fittest Man on Earth in 2007 — the first year of the CrossFit Games– Fitzgerald has been a sought-after fitness coach for more than two decades and founded OPEX to help spearhead the creation of a professional coach. A leader in education and individual design, Fitzgerald spoke to Athlete Daily several years ago about his mission “to have a severe impact on fitness.” 

That’s exactly what he hopes to accomplish with his new digital course, Mixed Modal. As CrossFit moves from a small cult to a booming fad and full-fledged competitive sport, Fitzgerald often wondered where all the research was. How does one get better?

What have we learned in the past decade about CrossFit, aerobic systems and different training? What will shock people? What will get them to the next level?

In advance of Mixed Modal’s launch this winter, Fitzgerald gave us a special look behind the scenes at a project years in the making.

Athlete Daily: What prompted you to create this Mixed Modal course

Fitzgerald: “It’s been over a decade, 13, 14 years [for me] of really ‘digging in’ to the sport. What it looked like initially has completely changed. The way we went about coaching and participating in it has changed. It’s 2018 and a lot of people are asking questions [about how to get better]. It’s still a burning question for a lot of people.

There’s not one way to improve within the sport and I don’t claim to have the only answer for that. But I’m going to damn well try to do a good job of pulling all the principles, stories and structure together, and say ‘These are the things possibly that can make you better in the sport’. 

There has to be some kind of structure going forward around the sport. I don’t think the sport has a structure, it runs a rape-and-pillage Wild, Wild West atmosphere. That looks entertaining. But I don’t think it’s successful for coaches and athletes long term. Someone needs to be put some wrapping around why things are the way they are, what makes people successful.”

Athlete Daily: You’ve never been afraid to speak your mind. What in this course will shock people? 

Fitzgerald: “Many things. One, the organization and structure of skills.  People think you lift weights and do a metcon and they will have success in the long run. But in reality they get better for 18 months to two years and then stagnate. Why? They didn’t do step two, three and four out of the 12-step program. A lot of people will read this and say, ‘Holy shit that’s me. I can’t get better.’ Because they time stamp that skill with shitty lactate based training and think they are getting better at it.

With a skill, you want to spend time in a very low or hardly any metabolic demand setting before you move it to a low metabolic demand or add [other] movements with it. Over time, you want to move that to a sustainable setting with little demand. Long term, you can put it into metabolic effort.

 

You can’t work against biology. One of the things a lot of people haven’t thought about is the full-time season. With the demands in the sport [of CrossFit], you just can’t be competing all year.

 

Second, female-specific training. The feminine aspect within the sport and what that means to performance and health and variances between the sexes between design and performance.

I don’t think it’s been even thought of. [In the past] it’s been a program that gets slapped out there and generalized for everyone. I don’t think the female and female hormone stuff has been organized appropriately at all and [Mixed Modal] gets into that.

Third, the structure around the competitive cycle. I don’t really think people understand the demand that goes into it. It’s not healthy [to train to compete]. The more you hang on to doing it for the wrong reasons such as health, it’s going to move you away from the goal. It makes people uneasy knowing you have to chose it as a sport and you have to pay the price of admission.”

What Makes the Elite? Mixed Modal Aims to Conquer Competitive Fitness

Athlete Daily: That skill stuff is interesting, and often butchered. Can you elaborate?

Fitzgerald: “People go, ‘Show me a burpee. OK, your burpee looks good, let’s do it for time. 50 burpees.’ They think they will just figure it out, by doing it extensively they will get better. They will get a little better at the burpee but long-term it will cause a problem. They never really moved into step 2 or step 3, with complementary exercises. That takes time. We use the beacon of the elite athlete and how well they do burpees. People don’t want to go back to the program and break down movements, but that’s the ‘Ah ha’ moment.

How did Mat Fraser get really good at burpees? You have to go back and look at how they organized those skills over time.

You can’t do toes to bar twice a month in a WOD and get better at it. And this sport is not just a burpee, you have to go through that skill process with so many movements.” 

Athlete Daily: Do the recent changes to the CrossFit Games structure (eliminating Regionals, hosting outside qualifiers) present a bigger challenge for competing? 

Fitzgerald: “The changes do make it more challenging but it will weed out the fact that you have to have some order, some organization [in your training] and you can’t just be burnt out all year.

You can’t work against biology. One of the things a lot of people haven’t thought about is the full-time season. [With] the demands in the sport, you just can’t be competing all year. What it does do with the new setup is if you don’t have any structure or don’t have the ability to organize your training to progress long-term, you are going to get burnt up in two years. 

You can only keep the brake and gas on for so long. It’ll probably take three or four years for people to realize, ‘Holy crap I don’t have an offseason and I probably should be dedicating one time a year to go all-in and whatever comes out of that comes out of it.'”

Athlete Daily: It seems like this course will delve into the not-so-glamorous side of competing?

Fitzgerald: “That story is well known but not told. It’s probably never going to be told by the governing bodies, but I think it’s important to recognize. In Mixed Modal there’s three chapters around this topic. 

This is a sport. This is not fitness. What’s well known, is that the search for elite fitness increases the speed of aging. That’s elite-level maximal potential of fitness. If you are searching for maximal potential, that’s not the sweet spot for hormone function or joint health. People that think that [it is] will figure it out eventually. That story is not told for obvious reasons. Who wants to say elite fitness leads to increased aging?

People who do fitness for health for eight to 10 years, it’s going to lead to longevity. If you are doing it for pain points and prizes, you are not going to be climbing a mountain at 85, having sex in the morning, feeling so fit and vigor that you’re doing pull-ups on a bar outside your cabin. That’s not the path you take.”

 

This is a sport. This is not fitness. What’s well known, is that the search for elite fitness increases the speed of aging. That’s elite-level maximal potential of fitness. If you are searching for maximal potential, that’s not the sweet spot for hormone function or joint health. People that think that [it is] will figure it out eventually. That story is not told for obvious reasons. Who wants to say elite fitness leads to increased aging?

 

Athlete Daily: We’ve talked a lot about elite athletes. But for those who want to compete on a smaller scale, in local throwdowns, how can Mixed Modal help them? 

Fitzgerald: “What I want to create is an idea about what indicates success in the sport: mindset, nutrition, assessment, coaching etc. I want Mixed Modal to transcend the sport, to be that book on everyone’s shelf to get some ideas and to continually go back to. 

For local competitors, this will No. 1, be helpful on behaviors and the correct alignment of why they are doing what they are doing.

Second, they would benefit from the lifestyle guidelines and nutrition sections that cover fueling around the competitive atmosphere. Third, they will benefit from structure.

They will look at it and conclude with their coach that they want to investigate what’s best for them in terms of skill progressions, creating phases and setting goals.” 

 

How did Mat Fraser get really good at burpees? You have to go back and look at how they organized those skills over time. You can’t do toes to bar twice a month in a WOD and get better at it. And this sport is not just a burpee, you have to go through that skill process with so many movements.

 

Athlete Daily: Obviously your name is synonymous with OPEX but, as you mentioned, you’ve been at this for much longer. How is this course different than other OPEX-based education?

Fitzgerald: First, I’m a former athlete as well as a coach, and have seen coaches used these methods to make others better.  When you see thousands and thousands of examples of that happening, principles arise.

But there has to be some education and background in a non-bias situation. I follow not just what you see on Instagram, but what happens in the trenches with coaches and athletes who aren’t [with OPEX]. I’m always trying to spend time with athletes not in my group, to ask some real deep questions. 

What exactly are they eating and what exactly is their mindset and what exactly is their training [like]? How are they self organizing? What makes them better than other people? 

Lastly, I have a background in science and that helps me create some structure to what is considered some truth [with research] in sports development. So the scientific background, being in the trenches and having a pulse of what happens in the fitness world is what separates Mixed Modal.”