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When One Size Fits All Fails

by Diana Rodgers
Home/Blog/Protect Your Mental Wellbeing During the COVID-19 Pandemic

Like many people, shortly after I found the Paleo Diet, I also joined a CrossFit gym. For some of you, maybe it was the other way around, CrossFit then Paleo. I didn’t know much about lifting or metcons, but loved it all. The atmosphere of CrossFit was also really appealing to me. It was fun to workout in a group and I developed some nice friendships. But, when things start to unravel, it’s important to reassess both your diet and your workouts in order to find some balance. This is a little “duet” that I wrote with my trainer, Justin Keane of CrossFit Woodshed in Littleton, Massachusetts, which I’m hoping will help some other folks.

JK: The thing I liked about Diana when I met her is that she genuinely wanted to lift.  Well that and that she wasn’t barking-dog mad about food.  We must have talked for almost an hour the first day she came by the gym–about lifting, recovery, being okay with our kids eating Applegate chicken nuggets once in a while (they are delicious).  Anyhow, I get inordinately happy when I meet a prospective member who tells me she wants to get stronger and likes to lift.  So it was cool.  I liked her right off the bat and thought we’d be a good match.

Over the course of the hour we did talk a bit about how busy she was and that her workouts needed to feed her life.  I knew she got that, but I knew right away that it was going to be tricky because her schedule at the farm and at school was going to keep her from really getting into a routine here for a while.

DR: When I moved to this area 2 years ago, I was very cautious about joining a new gym. Having been a CrossFitter for a few years, and having visited so many CrossFits to do nutrition workshops, I’ve seen lots of crazy programming. I always look at the board and see what the WOD is when I’m setting up my projector. Talking to the coaches also gives me a good sense of the general attitude of the gym. I see so many that are overly focused on long, grueling metcons, which really wear me out. I was over the initial need to curl up in a ball of my own misery after every WOD. I was looking for a gym that was more centered on the individual and willing to tweak or remove entire movements instead of running one general and ‘scaled’ workout for everybody.

I like weightlifting, and I want to make sure I am doing it right and not hurting myself. I honestly don’t care how much weight is on the bar so long as I am making progress. I also feel best with shorter conditioners. When I went to meet Justin to talk about doing a workshop at his gym, I was a little nervous that this gym would be “one of those.”  But I loved the vibe of the place, the laidback atmosphere, the fact that it wasn’t a CrossFit factory, and that this gym was really client-focused. Even though this was 30 min from my house, and I knew there were closer gyms, I really didn’t feel the need to look around any more. I was going to give Woodshed a shot.

JK: We talked about how our workouts are programmed—we’ve always been a strength-biased gym (hate that term but it’s apt), and our conditioning to support that progressive strength training has always been primarily anaerobic within the confines of the one-hour class time.  Our thought is that if we can get you in here moving some weight and getting your heart rate up three times a week, we’re giving you the berth you need to recover and continue to make progress for a long time.  Some folks can do more, some folks need to do less, but three’s a nice starting point for general population clients—it’s a familiar number, it allows for a day off between weekday sessions, and we can wave the conditioning up and down over the course of the week, and then the month, pretty readily.  As a base, it works well for us and allows us to adjust on a number of different levels as we watch folks grow into the gym.  Diana definitely liked that approach and we established a pretty solid rapport right off the bat.

DR: Right after I joined, it seemed like the velocity of my life really took off. I signed a book deal, was taking multiple graduate level nutrition courses, running my nutrition practice, and oh yeah, I live on a working farm and have 2 kids. I have to admit that I was an intermittent crossfitter. I was coming in about twice a week to hit the WODs. There was no real strategy to my fitness. It all felt pretty random. I was sort of running on survival mode and just trying to do my best to keep all the balls in the air without letting them all crash down.

Well, last Spring all the balls came crashing down. I spent a week in Austin for Paleo f(x) with about 4 hours of sleep each night. This was my fault. I was up late gabbing with the folks I shared a house with, but then my body would wake me up at 4am, ready to go. When I came home, I was complete trash. I had this incredibly inflamed feeling all over my body. I couldn’t recover from my workouts, was exhausted, my joints hurt and I felt really depressed. My weight was also creeping up. Trying to address the weight, I tried a very low carb, ketogenic approach for a week. It made things much worse. Having no carbs just made my symptoms and weight increase. The same approach which had initially helped me lose a few pounds and balanced my blood sugar a few years ago was making me feel terrible this time.

I went to my doctor and all of my labs were in the normal ranges, although all of my thyroid levels were at the lowest possible levels of “normal”. I took an ASI (Adrenal Stress Index) test which revealed that my cortisol was not reflective of a normal pattern. It was spiked way too high in the morning, flatlined during the day, and went up high again at night. All the signs pointed to the fact that I really needed to change things in order to feel better.

JK: Watching Diana train last spring was tough. She was there physically, like she was in the building, but spiritually it was just not clicking on very many cylinders.  She was nervous about her lifting, scattered in her recordkeeping, hit-or-miss on conditioning (sometimes she’d start and not finish, sometimes look at the board and not want to start at all)–it was tough.  I felt for her.  Some days it looked like she was literally scared to start moving.

The thing is, we all have rough spots.  And with some folks it’s best to gently encourage them to stick to a routine in here because the routine’s the one thing keeping their head above water.  You know, you look them in the eye and you make them understand that you believe in them and all you want them to do is get in here and hit their baselines and then we’ll come out together on the other side.  But you have to know what works for different people.  It’s not a one-size-fits-all kind of a thing.

With Diana, my sense was that our workouts were straws that were breaking her back.  We talk until we’re blue in the face about planned strength work and sensible conditioning, but, you know, the body at Defcon Help! doesn’t make much distinction between a heavy set of squats and the 9 set of Fran.  We think we have the right answers, but sometimes we have to be humble and honest and say, you know, this thing we do that we think is flexible and planned and periodized enough to work for everyone just isn’t going to work for you right now.  So I told Diana I wanted her to try out a shorter workout we were piloting as part of an express class for local moms.  Some bodyweight stuff, simple calisthenics, crawls, animal walks.  I think I told her we’d let her listen to Dinosaur Jr. while she was training.  No weights to keep track of, no rounds to finish, just moving around like a kid for 20-30 minutes a few times a week.  She looked relieved.  Like, really relieved.

DR: At first, it was really hard for me to go down to these bodyweight workouts. I felt like a failure. I was once able to do CrossFit WODs several times a week and going down to these basic workouts was initially humbling. But, I trusted Justin and wanted to feel better. So, I stuck with them. I did them three to four times a week, sometimes in my backyard and sometimes at the gym, and slowly started to get happier again. The movements were easy and sort of fun. My lingering joint pains were vanishing. I didn’t want to die after the workouts.

I also focused outside of the gym on getting enough sleep (like in bed by 8:30) and trying to say “no” when my workload was piling up. I needed to chill out and recover. I tried incorporated a small amount of carbs at each meal with snacks as needed to try to compensate for the major hypoglycemic dips I was having, since the low carb approach didn’t do me well. My stomach was also sort of a mess, so I started taking some supplements to heal what all of this stress was doing to my guts. Finally, I added in additional DHA, which really helped clear the brain fog I had been feeling.

It took about five months before I felt better and stopped feeling so sore, exhausted and started to feel bright again. My blood sugar normalized and I returned to eating a low carb paleo breakfast, with moderate carbs at lunch and dinner. No need to snack anymore, I felt satiated and focused. My sleep got better, my stomach returned to normal. Everything started falling back into place.

At this point, I also really started to miss lifting and I also missed the community of group workouts. It can be lonely to workout on your own. I was nervous to rejoin the regular classes though, as I was scared that I might sink into a downward spiral again. I mean, I’m still in grad school, writing a second book, and still live on a busy farm and have kids. I’m taking on less side work, but I just didn’t need anything that would push me over the edge, so I wanted to be careful not to push it too hard.

JK: Diana did a ton of work to get herself better.  And you could see it happening.  Her color improved, she was moving better, she smiled a lot more.  She was definitely doing the stuff she needed to do to ‘work in’ to her workouts.  It was really cool to see.  I was really, really proud of her.  The bodyweight stuff was going so well that I was loath to suggest she change anything up.  She was getting stronger and her wind was the best it had been since I’d met her.  So I was going to leave well enough alone, but I knew it was a matter of time before she talked to me about coming to class to lift again.

So when she did, I had a ready answer.  I wanted to keep things super simple.  Did not want to have her doing a ton of tracking or percentage work from week to week, did not want her ping-ponging between bunches of movements.  We’d been having some real success stripping busy folks down to two workouts a week, with some pretty specific instructions for off-days.  I thought with Diana we might try stripping that down even further, to two lifts a week.  On one day she’d come in and bench press for five sets of five, adding weight as she was able and the reps stayed crisp.  Between sets, she’d do some upper body mobility work–mostly with bands.  On the second day she’d deadlift with the trap bar, also for five sets of five with some lower body assistance work between sets.  Some static ab work to taste, and if she felt great and wanted to hack at our conditioner on either day, that would be fine so long as we kept the volume pretty low and used equal parts rest to work.  On off-days I wanted her to walk, twenty or thirty minutes.  Just someplace to get some fresh air and get out of her own head a little bit.  It’s the middle of winter in New England, but we get a few decent days a week.  I also told her to eat some waffles, but I’m not sure if she took that part to heart.  (Lest ye judge: Trader Joe’s Gluten Free are phenomenal.)

It’s only been about 2 months, but so far so good.  The lifts are going well after an initial hiccup on the deadlift, and we’re seeing a nice side benefit: Diana’s been extending the walks, snowshoeing, doing a ton of stuff outside.  She knocked off a hell of an article over two days last weekend.  She’s happier in the gym, sure, but things are going a lot better outside which is really the name of the game.  Looking forward to a really solid year for her.  She’s earned it and blazed a bit of a trail in here: we’ve become a good deal more confident about pluralizing our approach during the confines of class time: during any given hour you might see folks doing bootcamp-type circuits, Olympic weightlifting, kettlebell/yoga hybrids, and of course our standard strength and conditioning work.  It’s liberating and incredibly satisfying to run a gym like this, where the focus has become finding the right program for each individual client.

DR: I’m loving that I only need to get my butt in the gym two days a week. The trap bar deadlifts are amazing for my proportionally long legs, which make regular deadlifts more difficult. I REALLY love the hiking and have been going for about an hour every day possible (when it’s not a 20 below windy day, which I then replace with a hot yoga class). The hiking and yoga have been incredible for my restoration and feeling more grounded. Somehow I don’t feel guilty taking that time since Justin told me to go do it. I tend to be a bit of an over-achiever, so taking time to myself is not alway easy. For nutrition, I’m keeping it very basic paleo and relatively low carb in the morning, with some starch at lunch and dinner, and this is working for me. I haven’t tried the GF waffles yet, but have been enjoying not tracking my food intake and just eating sensibly, without that tired and wired feeling I get on very low carb. I feel stronger, and more importantly, happier. The little bit of extra weight I’ve put on in the last year or so is slowly melting off as I keep the stress down and a smile on.

I think my big take aways are:


This post was written with contributions from CrossFit Trainer Justin Keane.


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Diana Rodgers 2017

Diana Rodgers

Diana Rodgers is a farmer and nutritionist, and the best-selling author of Paleo Lunches and Breakfasts on the Go.