Strength & Fitness

How to Pace Workouts

You are in round 4 of an 8 round workout and you’re completely gassed. All of those super-fast reps you were crushing earlier in the workout have caught up to you. You are now hoping to just be able to finish without melting down completely.

Many of you have probably felt this in any one of the workouts we do. You had good intentions going into the workout but you didn’t have a good strategy. This can be especially challenging when you first start CrossFit. It’s not easy performing new and challenging movements quickly and with great intensity.

If you don’t approach workouts with some basic kind of strategy, there are two potential outcomes. Either you wind up in the intensity trap described above, where you go as hard as you can and fizzle out quickly. Or you hide in the safety zone, choosing to move very cautiously and wondering why you aren’t seeing any gains.

If you find yourself going between these extremes, it’s a great time to think about balancing your effort. You need to understand when you should pace and when you should push.

How to pace a WOD

Pacing workouts takes good practice and understanding of what the stimulus should be. It requires you to think of your strategy before the timer starts, not during the workout itself. This will greatly influence your performance. 

One strategy for staying in control is to plan when you will be taking your breaks. It’s not always faster to perform movements unbroken. Timed breaks will keep you moving quicker in the long run. Examples would be taking 5 deep, controlled breaths during each break, or taking a 10-second break between movements. This kind of approach will keep you accountable, working hard, and allow you to move through the workout at a consistent pace. 

Another strategy is to start slow and build up intensity as the workout progresses. Let’s use a three-round workout as an example. The first round should feel easy - your heart rate rises slowly - you should feel like you are fighting the urge to go faster. The second round should feel like your perfect pace - you are working to your capacity, your heart rate is elevated but you remain in control of your breath. The last round should feel tough - like you are pushing your limits but barely holding on to your rep scheme.

Speaking of reps, it can be beneficial in certain workouts to have a planned number of reps you want to hit each time. Some guidelines you can follow are:

  • Descending sets are typically better than straight sets - 6/5/4 for 15 rather than 5/5/5
  • Don’t do more than half of your max set - if you can do 10 unbroken pull ups, don’t do more than a set of 5 in a workout
  • Always leave two reps in the tank. Hitting just one rep that’s “too hard” can push you over the edge and cause you to fall apart.

While also being helpful in the WOD, these strategies give you valuable information you can use in future workouts. If you find you had energy at the end of your last round, that might be a sign that you could go faster next time, which brings up the idea of pushing yourself.

When to push yourself

Pacing is connected to pushing yourself and once you begin applying it to your workouts, it will give you a better idea of when you are working hard when you could be working harder. 

Here are some ways to know if your effort is on the right track.

You’re in the “pain cave”

Pushing yourself to max effort can lead to a place known as the “pain cave”. It is a place where your body is fatiguing but your mind is telling you to keep going deeper into the darkness of the cave. (I am not talking actual, physical pain. If this is what you feel, stop. The pain cave is just a place where you dwell in discomfort from intense physical effort. “Discomfort cave” doesn’t sound as cool.) Being able to push through discomfort helps lead to greater improvements in strength and endurance. It also helps develop your mental toughness.

You’re daring to fail

Sometimes you need to push the redline level. This is how you determine your max effort, whether it be a max set of wall balls or a 1RM clean. These aren’t the times to hang back, but instead figure out what you are capable of. These moments where you aren’t afraid to fail will help you develop and grow.

You’re going to throw up

This is a complete redline in a workout - out of breath, dizzy, nauseous - definitely not ideal but it's not the end of the world either. This is part of how you learn what your limits are. You can’t pace or push yourself safely without experimenting a bit. 

Should you find yourself in one of these three categories after every workout? No. There are certain workouts where it’s appropriate to push and there are workouts where you should hold back. The coaches will always help with determining when it's the time and place to do this in workouts. 

Above all, be smart with your pacing and when you feel you can push it. Always maintain proper movement technique and form and make sure you are following the standards. And of course, have fun!!! If you have any questions about this topic, please let one of the coaches know and we will be happy to help.

Matt Kaitchuck

Coach/OnBoarding Specialist