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Becoming a Conscious Athlete

We’ve all seen it – the classic CrossFit athlete, slogging through the end of a workout, appearing to no longer even be aware of what they are doing. Having started the workout at maximal effort and somewhere along the way changing the strategy to “hold on for dear life,” he finishes (barely), crumbles to the ground, and is done for the day. This was (and sometimes still is) the common site at affiliates and, unfortunately, competitions. In some ways, these efforts are admirable – it takes a very mentally tough person to push their bodies to the limit. However, it could be argued that the scene we are imagining might actually be from a LACK of discipline, rather than abundance.

Enter the Conscious athlete – maybe it started with Rich Froning, or maybe it was a natural progression with the leveling out at the top of the sport. Either way, when it comes to the best in the CrossFit world, long gone are the days of going as hard as one possibly can and just seeing what happens. Listen to almost any post-event interview at the Games or Semifinals and you will hear the winners talk about “running their own race,” “sticking to the game-plan,” or “starting conservative and gradually reeling him/her in." You’ll often also hear the commentators mentioning, “So far the athlete that has been in the lead after round 1 isn’t the athlete that has won the heat."

So, what is it that these athletes have developed to be able to know exactly what speed they need to work at to stay just under their threshold until the end of the workout?

Answer: Consciousness - an acute self-awareness and connection to the systems of their body that are allowing for them to complete work and how the work they are performing is making them feel. In this article, we are going to discuss a couple of ways that athletes can practice developing this Consciousness in training.

Establish Intent in training

One of the most important things an athlete can do is know WHY they are doing something and HOW they should do it. Being disciplined enough to know that going as fast as possible shouldn’t always be the goal, but instead practicing movements or testing strategies can be a huge advantage for athletes. Here’s an example from a recent session in the Underdogs Rx Track:


  • 5 Devils Press @ 2x50/35lbs

  • 30' DB Front Rack Walking Lunge

  • 15 Toes-to-Bar

  • 30' DB Front Rack Walking Lunge

At face value, this workout is performed with the goal of getting as many rounds and reps as possible, obviously. What this would often look like for most athletes is a couple of quick rounds, where sets are performed unbroken, an athlete maybe goes directly from the last rep of Devils Press directly into FR Lunges, and big sets of TTB are performed. However, a conscious athlete may take a different approach, so let’s look at it through that lens. For example, let’s say that TTB volume is an area that you could use improvement on. You feel that sets of 15 are doable, but cumulative fatigue from the other movements may cause your TTB to break down, but you have the goal of performing bigger sets. Therefore, an approach with better intent may be to intentionally pace the other movements (by taking a rest after the Devils Press, taking a steady cadence on the Lunges, and being in control of transitions to not rush movements). While in the grand scheme of things, this may make your overall score worse than if you went hard on everything and just held on the best you could, it may set you up to work on those larger sets of the TTB. Having intent means knowing the difference between Training and Competing and having the discipline to stick to behaviors required to establish this difference.

Interval Training

The training benefits of Interval Training are obvious, and many athletes use them on a consistent basis – both in monostructural and mixed conditioning. Intervals can pack a potent punch in the way of developing capacity, can be a highly effective method for training skills, and athletes often enjoy the ability to push threshold with interval work. However, it can also be a great training method for developing self-awareness. The advantage of intervals is that, when repeating the same work sets, an athlete can get immediate feedback on how they have approached the workout. This can be highly effective for an athlete to develop Gears, or rates of work relative to time domains, movements patterns, and combinations of exercises. As mentioned, Rich Froning was often well known for appearing to be just barely staying under his threshold, allowing for everyone to work as hard as they could until he would just run away with an event. In modern times, we see the same thing with athletes like Mat Fraser and Tia Claire-Toomey. They can win an event by knowing the exact rate at which they can sustain, rather than going 100% all the time. This takes time and experience to develop – an athlete must both understand the event and themselves to know where this sweet spot is, and having self-awareness is the linchpin in implementing this strategy.

Let’s take a look at an interval workout from the Underdogs Rx track for an example on how to use intervals to gain self-awareness and develop these gears:

4 Sets:


  • 15/12 Cal Ski

  • 9 Power Snatch @ 75/55

  • 9 Box Jump CLEAR Overs @ 24/20"

  • 9 Shoulder-to-Overhead

  • Rest 3:00 between AMRAPs

This workout is not anything different from any interval training session one may see in their program (lightweight barbell movements, a dynamic gymnastics movement, and cyclical work). But it's how it is approached that can make a big difference in what one gets out of it. What this combination may spell for many athletes is a high rate of turnover and threshold pace very early, followed by 3 rounds of “hold on for dear life." However, if an athlete approaches this with Consciousness, they can manage fatigue, understand what speed they need to move at to stay under threshold, learn how to implement transitions strategically, and get faster and faster each round, rather than letting the breaks fall off. The athlete can use splits from each interval as feedback on how well they have paced each one, gain awareness on how certain movements affect their heart rate and breathing, and practice maintaining efficient, high quality movement as fatigue sets in – all while still getting an extremely potent training stimulus.

Tempo Strength and Accessory Training

This one may be a bit of a surprise, but it is my contention that Tempo training can be a great way for an athlete to gain Consciousness. We all know and hear about the importance of accessory work – joint health, strength, structural balance, etc –

all beneficial for CrossFit athletes that (obviously) perform a lot of contractions in a single plane of motion.

Furthermore, performing this accessory work with Tempo, a regulated rate of speed of each repetition, can be a great way to develop muscle endurance, induce hypertrophy, and strengthen tendons. However, on a deeper level, Tempo training can help to improve mind-muscle connection. We tend to think of muscles as being “stupid” – provide a stimulus and they should adapt (within reason). However, we tend to overlook the idea of the entire motor unit - the muscle AND the neurons which innervate it. In other words, every contraction that happens requires that the brain and peripheral nervous system work together to regulate it – the speed and intensity of the contraction. Performing these contractions with a high amount of control can help to improve this neuromuscular connection. This way, when an athlete is faster, they can, again, have a more acute awareness of how much fatigue they may have. As previously mentioned, this awareness can be beneficial in regulating that fatigue to more appropriately pace a workout and optimize output. Here’s a great example of how one may be able to implement Tempo training:

3 Sets:

  • 6-8/side Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat @30X1

  • Rest :45s

  • :30s AMRAP Strict Pull-ups @21X2

  • Rest :45s

  • 5-6/side Single-leg Dumbbell RDL @31X1

  • Rest :45s

  • 6-8 Dual Dumbbell Arnold Press @31X2

  • Rest 1:30-2:00

This is a great example of how, much like the others, an athlete can gain Consciousness WHILE also getting a great training stimulus (dare you to do this workout and not be out of breath – it feels like a metcon). Despite some of the elements of this style of training being very much like classic bodybuilding – rep ranges, controlled rest, and slow, controlled repetitions – this type of training can help an athlete gain great muscular awareness and control, along with improving overall quality of movement. Therefore, in addition to DEVELOPING capacity, it may even help to bring a greater sense of awareness and control to limitations – knowing WHEN your muscles are going to begin being limited, rather than pretending those limitations don’t exist.

Developing Consciousness can be the difference maker between a competitor and a winner – If you believe this could help you improve as an athlete, contact us today to speak with a coach.

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