When to pace and when to push yourself

You’re in round four of an eight-round Tabata and you’re completely gassed. All of those super-fast reps you were banging out at the beginning have caught up to you and now you’re just hoping to get through the workout without melting down completely.

Welcome to CrossFit, where the learning curve is paved with good intentions gone bad, especially in the beginning when you’re being asked to perform challenging movements quickly and with great intensity.

If you don’t approach workouts with some basic form of strategy then you’ll fall into one of two camps. Either you’ll wind up in the intensity trap described above, where you go as hard as you can and fizzle out quickly, or you’ll hide out in the safety zone, choosing to move at a more cautious pace and wondering why you aren’t seeing gains as quickly.

If you find yourself going back and forth between these extremes then it’s probably time to start thinking about balancing your effort, i.e. understanding when you ought to pace yourself and when you ought to push yourself.

How to pace a WOD

Pacing a workout takes some strategic thinking before the timer begins, but it can have huge benefits, especially in terms of performance.

One strategy for staying in control is to plan for breaks in your effort. (Don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need to do a WOD unbroken. Timed breaks will actually keep you moving faster in the long run.) For example, take 5 deep, controlled breaths during each break, or take a 10-second break between movements. This kind of approach keeps you accountable, i.e., working hard, and it allows you to move through a workout at a consistent pace.

Another strategy is to start slow and build up intensity over rounds. Let’s take a three-round workout by way of an example.  The first round should feel easy—your heart rate should elevate slowly— and you should feel like you’re fighting the urge to move faster.  The second round should feel like your perfect pace—you’re working to your capacity, your heart rate is elevated but you’re in control of your breath.  The last round should feel tough, like you’re pushing your limits and barely holding on to your rep scheme.

In addition to being helpful in a WOD, these strategies give you valuable information you can take forward in to your next workout. If you had energy at the end of your last round that’s a sign that you need to go faster next time, which brings me to the idea of pushing yourself…

When to push yourself

Pacing is connected to pushing yourself and once you start applying pacing to your workouts you’ll get a better idea of when you’re working hard and when you’re not working hard enough.

Here are some ways to know that you’re on the right track, effort-wise:

You’re in the pain cave

Putting in maximum effort will lead you to the place popularly known as the “pain cave,” which is that dark and dreary locale where your body is fatiguing but your mind is still pushing you to go deeper into the darkness. (Pain is a bit of a misnomer—if you’re feeling pain, stop. The pain cave is really just the place where you dwell in the discomfort of intense physical effort. ‘Discomfort cave’ just doesn’t sound as exciting.) Being able to push through discomfort will result in greater improvements of strength and endurance overall. It will also develop your  mental toughness.

You’re daring to fail

The only way to truly know your max is is to push yourself to the redline level.  Whether it is a max set of wall balls or a clean-and-jerk 1RM—don’t hang back but actively try and figure out where you can go. It’s in the moments where you dare to fail that you see how much further you can grow and develop.

You’re going to throw up

Completely redlining in a workout—getting out of breath, feeling dizzy and nauseated—isn’t ideal but it’s not the end of the world either. In fact, it’s all part of learning about where your limits are. And you can’t pace properly or push yourself safely without experimenting a bit.

Above all else, whether you are pacing a workout or trying to push through it, maintaining proper movement standards should be your top priority. Oh, and it never hurts to have fun either.


Broder McNeill is a coach and co-owner at Alchemy CrossFit.

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