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Save me from my workout

Converts to CrossFit, the extreme exercise craze, swear it’s life-changing and take pride in their self-inflicted injuries. I was a true believer—until one punishing session landed me in the ER with a shattered leg and a dislocated ankle. I still couldn’t wait to go back

Save me from my workout

Lauren McKeon’s CrossFit injury left her with a spiral fracture—like someone had grabbed her foot and knee, and twisted them fast in opposite directions

In early fall 2013, my husband, Andrew, and I joined a popular CrossFit gym in the city’s east end. Our first class consisted of an intensive hour of non-stop sit-ups, push-ups and squats. It left me riding an adrenalin high—I could practically feel my biceps moulding into hard nuggets. Andrew, however, threw up as soon as we got home. As he staggered out of the washroom, I danced around him, bouncing on the balls of my feet. He had barely finished telling me he felt a little better before I said, “We’re still going back, though, right?”

Like thousands of others in the city, I was hooked. Toronto is a trend-obsessed place: we gravitate toward the new and cool, tend to exhaust it into ubiquity and then move on to the next thing—be it Canada Goose parkas or gluten-free cookies. In recent years, the Instagramming generation latched onto the CrossFit motto “Strong is the new skinny,” incessantly posting workout details and close-up photos of impressive new chiselled quads and six-packs. As we encourage ourselves to live longer and stronger, CrossFit has become king of the “fitspiration” movement. Of all the trendy workouts, from booty boot camps to hot yoga, CrossFit is the one that fulfils extreme get-fit dreams best—not a slow progression toward moderate health and average bodies, but a breakneck pace to the exceptional. Joining CrossFit is like making it into the A-list world of fitness.

To an outsider, a CrossFit workout can look nuts. Participants heave 60-pound kettlebells high over their heads in repetitions of 50, slam medicine balls at a 10-foot-high target on the wall, pull themselves in a swinging arc above the bar of the CrossFit rig—a metal structure that resembles a jungle gym on steroids. Then there are the Olympic-style weightlifting movements, like the snatch (lifting a weighted barbell, up to 300 pounds, from ground to overhead in one explosive motion), the clean-and-jerk (raising a barbell to shoulder height, then overhead as legs spring forward into a lunge) and the dead lift (fast and controlled, hoisting barbell from floor to hips and back). Oh, and the intervals of intense running. CrossFitters pride themselves not on a singular expertise, like, say, mastering a marathon or becoming a rep-level hockey player, but on general physical preparedness. The regimen is designed to make everything your body does better, from stamina to strength to flexibility. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, CrossFitters will be the ones who survive.

Andrew and I reorganized our lives around CrossFit. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at 6:50 a.m., we’d arrive at our rough, utilitarian CrossFit gym, or “box” in CrossFit parlance, swathed in layers of sweats and spandex. (It was winter, and the gym managers rarely turned the heat on.) The hour’s agenda would be scrawled on a whiteboard near a set of rowing machines. It always included, in order: a warm-up, stretching and skills improvement, then the Workout of the Day, or WOD, ending with a cool-down and the posting of your numbers (times, weights, reps) on another board. Guided by the coach, everyone followed the same workout—whether you were a 250-pound tank, like one intimidating class member, or a 165-pound, five-foot-eight woman (me).

As a newbie, I wasn’t strong or skilled enough to do everything the agenda prescribed. What the strongest man or woman in the box could lift got posted too—so you could see how far you had to go.

As a teen, I’d competed in kick-boxing fights but had slowed down after I’d popped ligaments in my left knee. I was wary of reinjuring that same knee in CrossFit and had to remember not to push myself too hard. For upper body exercises, I didn’t have any such excuse. Our workout almost always included at least 30 pull-ups (the chin-up’s slightly tougher cousin) but more often double or triple that number, which turned my arms and shoulders to jelly. When it came to weights, I fell even further behind.

Some coaches were great; others seemed unsure of how much weight I should be lifting. At times, the workouts made no sense to me, more a random testament to machismo than a targeted program. People occasionally complained when a WOD felt particularly cruel—like the time we had to run 800 metres, then do 30 ­kettlebell swings, followed by 30 pull-ups, five times in a row—but not very loudly and usually with a tacked-on chuckle. As long as we were killing it, most of us didn’t care. There was a cultish groupthink at work: I was caught in a flux of being cheered on and trying to beat the person next to me so I wouldn’t finish last in a timed WOD. After class, we’d all collapse on the black rubber floor, sweating and utterly spent.

My love affair with CrossFit ended abruptly on January 6. That day, we had one minute to do 12 burpees, hitting the bar of the CrossFit rig. Next came 12 box jumps—launching yourself onto a wooden box from a two-footed stance, no running starts allowed—also in one minute. We had to do both over and over again, a dozen times. I’d waffled over what size box to use, and was unhelpfully instructed to try “whatever felt comfortable.” I chose a two-foot box—slightly smaller than everyone else’s. Midway into the workout, my left knee began to feel wobbly every time I landed on top of the box. When I told the instructor, he swapped it out for another that was four inches lower. I should have stopped—but stopping was unthinkable. Two sloppy jumps later, my left knee gave out and I fell. I could hear my leg bones shattering—it sounded like gunfire.

  • Sean Manseau

    Tl;dr: I was overweight and deconditioned, I got all hyped up on intense exercise, I ignored an old injury and consequently hurt myself. That was bad! However, by writing an article that implies CrossFit was to blame, instead of my own poor judgment, I got published! And that’s good! So I guess I’ve managed to make lemonade out of lemons after all.

  • Brian MacDonald

    Great read. Thanks for taking the time to share your experience. Cross fit is a unique cat, but not so different from other high risk sports. As a downhill mountain biker and marathon runner I’ve had a legion of injuries from the worst impact, car crash breaks to stress fractures. It’s simply a part of going over your handle bars or running 90 km weeks.

    What is different about Cross Fit is the weird trash talking and one-up man ship. In biking now one belittles you into hitting a jump you aren’t comfortable with. Rarely do I see mocking someone for dropping out of a 30 km run because their IT band is flaring. The reality is that we are all trying to keep doing these high risk activities while actively trying to avoid injury.

    I get the intensity. If you are an endurance athlete you understand interval, hill work etc. Same with martial arts (try kendo some time). Cross fit has nailed a fantastic point in the exercise continuum, perhaps the attitude will mature as well.

  • Sean Manseau

    One upmanship? Belittling? I can’t imagine a more opposite description of what goes on in the average CrossFit gym. Have you ever actually stepped foot in one? If you have, and witnessed firsthand what you’re describing, I assure you that’s a far, far outlier. Even at the highest level of competition, when there is serious cash on the line, CF competitors cheer each other on.

  • Brian MacDonald

    It’s the HTFU, posted WOD, us versus them culture thing. It’s not unheard of in road racing or other sports, it’s just a bit more front and center with cross fit it seems. I’ve watched the qualifying run-up to the games and past events, so yeah I get the team and personal support.

    The point of the article is that possibly, just possibly the culture of pressure is a contributing factor to the higher than necessary injury rates. I’m saying I don’t see it in other high risk sports. Perhaps I’m wrong, perhaps it’s just a part of the game.

    If I had an infinite amount of time, cross fit would be on the list of to do activities.

  • Kayla

    I am also learning how to walk again after a similar “Clumsy” accident in my boxing class.
    I broke my ankle and ended up being on crutches for well over 2 months. It has been a long and steady recovery and I don’t wish these accident’s on anyone. Not having the ability to cook or clean or get around the city to do errands was very frustrating as a single person living on their own.
    I believe that the trainers of the classes should have more of a safety discussion as to how to know when you’ve pushed yourself too hard and when to take it easy.

    Good luck with your physio! No Pain No Gain!

  • Joe Tory

    TL;DR: I am a wuss.

  • JAMeech

    This story reminds me of an injury I recently suffered falling off my couch. Like the author I can’t wait to get back on my couch.

  • JeffBain

    Crossfit. It’s like normal exercise, but crazy, because it’s designed to appeal to people with no patience for natural progression and who don’t understand that fitness is a process. Exercising until you’re depleted is way less effective than just getting a reasonable amount of exercise followed by recovery + repeat consistently.

  • toronto_dude

    I’m curious to know if Lauren is taking proton pump inhibitors for acid reflux/GERD. I’ve heard they can cause a calcium deficiency and, after years of use, vulnerability to bone injuries like the one she experienced at a surprisingly young age.

  • Collins311

    TL:DR I’m an a**hole.

  • Ally Gobi

    Great article. I’m prone to punishing myself and overdoing it with exercise… having sustained my fair share of injuries over the years I’m starting to ease up. For me it’s a matter of patience and how little I often have.

    I hope your recovery helps you find magic where you couldn’t see it before. Sometimes being humbled by our own mortality is a blessing. Maybe you could learn a new instrument? The concertina would go well with your drunken-pirate limp.

    Sending kind thoughts to you!

  • Gaetan Le Brun

    Thanks for sharing your story.
    It looks like you experienced a syndrome named “the female athlete triad”.

    I wish you all the best for a rapid recovery.

  • Brooklin10

    Really…fool. There are so many ways/so many classes to stay in great shape. Why risk further injury that can come back to haunt you. Don’t get it!

  • Shelly Giggey

    You said it Jeff!
    I’m a Fitness Instructor and I wouldn’t even jump into that kind of workout. My shoulder isn’t the strongest right now and there is NO way that I would pick up a 50lb Kettlebell…!

    I’m trying to start up an outdoor Bootcamp for ALL levels regardless off their fitness level. Not “Kid Gloves” but not throwing an exercise at someone who clearly isn’t ready for it (yet). In other words, safe progression. <<Key Words..! <<

  • CraigSilverman

    This injury sounds like a horrible thing to experience, and to rehab. Really sorry to read this.

    I did wonder in reading this piece why there wasn’t more discussion of whether the injury at CrossFit could have been related to the author’s years competing in kick-boxing, which caused her to pop ligaments in the exact same knee/leg.

    Would someone who hadn’t previously participated in competitive kick-boxing and injured that same knee have had a different experience? Is it possible the kick-boxing injury and the box jumps injury are connected?

    People should absolutely be aware they can be injured at CrossFit, but having someone shatter a leg on box jumps seems pretty remarkable.

    Just to speak from personal experience, I did a bit of boxing before taking up CrossFit. I hurt my left elbow in a fight and certainly had to make an effort to be aware of that when dealing with relevant CF exercises. It is tempting to push too far.

    So, yes, I CrossFit and find it works for me. But people should be warned about the need to scale their workouts, and to be aware of possible injury. I’ve been to different CF boxes in different countries and the coaching and warm ups vary. So be aware of that, too. (But I find a really big improvement now from 5 yrs ago. Way more training and coaching and requiring people to learn the movements correctly.)

    All that being said, it just seemed really strange to not do more in the piece to explain if the knee injury and the leg injury might be connected.

  • Kokeshi

    While I am very sorry about your injury and wish you a complete recovery, I am a little disappointed in the finger pointing of most of the comments. First, like any broad categorization, saying CrossFit is to blame or that it is inherently dangerous is a little ridiculous. I once saw a seasoned triathlete drop dead in the middle of an event. Is the sport to blame or was it just something that happened?
    I have been through my own injury (knee related) while wake boarding and was not able to walk for nearly 2 months. While not nearly as bad as the authors experience, it was a long road to recovery. Was the sport to blame or was it me? It was me.
    I do have to agree with author when she says “If you get all the elements right—good coaching, proper skill
    progression and the iron will to abstain from the pressure to go too
    hard—it can be golden” I have been a member at 3 different CF boxes. The first was a little too macho for me and were more interested in putting up big numbers than the correct form. The second box I was at had quality coaching, were concerned with safe workouts, but the culture was off (too many college kids and no community). The third, and my current box, has quality coaching (some of the coaches have advanced degrees in exercise sciences, chiropractic medicine, etc.), and puts safety over big numbers every single day. Just last week we were doing a WOD of jump rope double-under, box jumps, and 400 meter runs. 5 rounds for time. The first thing the coach said was if you feel unstable or are not confident at all do not jump on the box but do controlled step ups. This is how all potentially risky movements are addressed at my box.
    Like most things in life, it is your personal responsibility to put in the effort, control your ego, and ensure your own safety. CrossFit can be intense, many would say too intense, but it does offer results that are hard to find any place else. I have spent most of my life participating in sports or working out and it is impossible to make gains in anything without breaking through what you perceive to be your limits. CrossFit helps many find those limits and exceed them.

  • meanie

    How can you break your leg from doing… box jumps? Must have had a pre-existing condition.

  • Kelly Fitzsimmons

    Why is this woman wearing a shoe in her aircast?

  • Electron Red

    Tough to read. That’s a gruesome fracture. Anyone who’s an a debilitating injury knows how this young woman feels.

    To the author: there are many ways to get fit – to get really fit. Crossfit does not have a monopoly on getting in shape, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

  • Skepti-Cal

    People break their legs skiing. Most of them don’t just give up on skiing. Why would you just give up on Crossfit?

  • Richniques D

    Until you do a Crossfit workout and understand more than this one sided piece there is not much to talk about. Maybe you have and it’s not your cup of tea but I really would like to see the numbers on the injury numbers in comparison to Running , football and even Dancing.

  • Murktastic

    I’m a physical therapist and almost all of my clients now are due to (A) really fat people deciding to take up running and injuring their knees and ankles and (B) crossfit. The main problem as I see it is the foolish focus on speed and time and not proper form.

  • Murktastic

    The whole “no pain, no gain” is a common misconception. Sure you’ll be sore after a hard workout but you should never be in pain. If you’re in pain while working out (excluding the very temporary burn from lactic acid build up) then you’re doing something very wrong.

  • TheMagMan

    What ever gets people off the couch right? Why does everyone have to take sides and argue over what works and doesn’t. The only thing that works is consistency, crossfit, walking, olympic lifts etc, keep doing it and change will happen. If you crossfit, good for you, but you’re no better than anyone else, same goes for the bro split guys. Now don’t get me started on the paleotards ;).

  • Ronan Eustace

    This is a pretty common story in the crossfit community. A person, who had too much ego and who thought they were fit (usually a former military person or competitive athlete with a long standing previous injury–her knee in the author’s case), joins a crossfit gym and goes too hard, too fast, and gets injured.

    My concern with this article is the lack of personal responsibility by the author. She seemec to lack common sense. If I had a bad knee, I would modify the workout to choose an exercise that would put less stress on my knee or modify the rep scheme (for example doing step ups instead of box jumps or fewer box jumps). Crossfit is an infinitely scalable workout. Every WOD lead by an instructor that I have attended begins with the instructor asking if anyone has any injuries or questions about scaling (i.e. modifying the workout). Scaling a workout is widely done and not frowned upon. This author let her ego run rampant and she got injured as a result. I do not think that crossfit should be demonized as a result.

    I’ve doing cross fit for 4 years and, like most things worth doing, crossfit takes multiple years to learn the movements and to build up the necessary strength to do many of the movements. Even after 4 years, there are still days that I will scale a workout if I need to. This is just common sense.

    Each crossfit session is a challenging mentally and physical effort–this is why crossfit is appealing. I get bored in a regular gym doing arm curls, bench press, rack squats and running on a treadmill. I like competing and I like having a place where I can feel part of a community. That is what most crossfit gyms offer and what they foster. Like any sport or training endeavor, there are risks. But if you approach the WOD in a reasonable way, the risk are minimal.

    The best crossfit gym have a 2-3 month intro program where the class are separate so new athletes can spend more time learning how to do the workout movements and so athletes can spend some time building up strength.

    My advice to anyone would be to drop in and watch a WOD at a crossfit gym before pre-judging the sport as a whole. If it is something that you might want to do, find a gym with a beginners class (even if you are fit) and spend a few months getting comfortable with the movements and building up your strength. Most “fit” people in regular globo gyms do not do full range of motion multi-muscle movements at high intensity intermixed with skill exercises.