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5 Reasons to Train for Murph

On Memorial Day every year, CrossFit boxes across the country join together and perform the same workout, in memory of Lt. Michael Murphy, whose heroism was immortalized in the film, Lone Survivor. The workout is not only named after him, but is reputedly a workout that he did himself: run 1 mile, perform 100 pull-ups, 200 push-ups, and 300 squats, and then run another mile. Wearing body armor. For time.

Some CrossFitters adopt the mindset that one should not intentionally prepare for Hero WODs. Their explanation is that the more one suffers during the WOD, the more one honors the person after whom the WOD is named. While I cannot refute this opinion — the Latin phrase “de gustibus non est disputandum”  (in matters of taste, there can be no disputes) comes to mind — I also do not share this opinion.

To begin, if performing the workout is one way of showing our respect to an American hero, then dedicating one workout per week, for eight weeks, shows at least as much respect and also provides more opportunity for introspection than one workout on one day. Philosophical arguments aside, following are five reasons why Murph can be thought of not as a challenge to conquer, or as a metaphorical sacrifice to be endured, but as an opportunity to add structure to your training.

  1. Murph is a benchmark WOD.

Because Murph is performed on an annual basis, it allows you to gauge your progress. Because Murph was a CrossFit Games workout in 2015 and 2016, it allows you to gauge your fitness against the fittest athletes in the world. Be aware, however, that Dave Castro announced before the Games began that Murph would be a Games workout, so those athletes trained for it specifically.

Murph is somewhat unusual as a benchmark, however, due to the variety of ways to divide the reps. Athletes performed all the reps as a ‘chipper’ (finishing all 100 pull-ups before moving to the push-ups, and performing all 200 push-ups before moving to the 300 squats) in the 2015 CrossFit Games, however in 2016, athletes performed five rounds of 20 pull-ups, 40 push-ups, and 60 squats. To perform Murph for the first time or for your fastest time, you can perform the workout ‘Cindy’ style: 20 rounds of 5 pull-ups, 10 push-ups, and 15 squats. Spending eight weeks training for Murph allows you to explore the different options.

  1. Develop your aerobic conditioning.

Most metcons are short and intense; this is one characteristic that attracts a specific type of athlete to CrossFit. If you inspect the 2014—2016 CrossFit Open workouts, you would find ‘AMRAP’ workouts of 7, 8 (twice), 9, 10, 13, 14 (twice), and 20 minutes, or ‘for time’ workouts were capped at 9 (twice) or 20 minutes.

As workouts exceed 60 seconds, they draws increasingly on the aerobic energy system. Even the shortest and most intense WODs such as Grace (30 clean-and-jerks), Isabel (30 snatches) and Fran utilize aerobic energy production. Boxers and mixed-martial artists compete for 3- and 5-minute rounds, respectively, and therefore rely mostly on their aerobic energy system.

The aerobic energy system has far greater capacity for energy production, but because it is dependent on oxygen supply and a larger number of chemical steps, it cannot generate ATP at the same rate as our anaerobic energy systems. But, as Joes Jamieson describes in his unparalleled book, Ultimate MMA Conditioning, you can “crank up your aerobic power production” through appropriately-chosen workouts. While high intensity determines mitochondrial function, duration and volume are important determinants of how many mitochondria a muscle contains.

  1. Train your mental game.

Because of the volume of work in Murph, even elite athletes have to take brief breaks during the pull-ups, push-ups and squats. We all face decisions of how soon to stop and how soon to start working again. Training for Murph gives you the opportunity to identify and practice methods for avoiding red-lining.

In the book, The Power of Full Engagement, Jim Loehr describes research he performed on professional tennis players. He found that what differentiates top-ranked from lower-ranked players is not what they do during points, but what they do between points. Champions have rituals that they perform that help them reset and get mentally and physically prepared. He found that champions could lower their heart rate by as much as 20 bpm between points, whereas lower-ranked players had much more stable (and high) heart rates; he found that the variability of heart rates was significantly related to champions’ superior performance.

During eight weeks of training, you might be able to identify a sweet spot, where you rest long enough to be able to recover but not so long that you become uncompetitive. This knowledge should transfer over to other workouts such as Karen (150 wall-balls for time).

  1. Cultivate grit.

Grit is a personality trait associated with hardiness, resilience, and tenacity. A study conducted at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point found that cadets with more grit were more likely to survive the intense, 7-week long, 17-hour per day, training program named Beast Barracks. Grit also predicts which soldiers make it through the nine-week Special Forces Selection Course for identifying Green Berets. According to psychologist Angela Duckworth, our accomplishments “depend more on our passion and perseverance than on our innate talent.”

Fortunately, grit is not genetic. Every time you get knocked down, and then get back up again, you grow grittier. You learn that you are not helpless. Endurance workouts provide you more opportunities to grab the barbell, or the pull-up bar, and choose to get back to work.

Because Murph training involves bodyweight exercises, the skill level required to finish the workouts is not high. Consequently, athletes typically take breaks due to fatigue or fear rather than a breakdown in technique. Eight weeks of consistent work is long enough to build both the physical strength to fight off fatigue and the mental strength to fight off fear of failure.

  1. Strengthen ties to your community.

The late Dr. George Sheehan, pre-eminent philosopher of distance runners, identifies “competition, contemplation, conversation, and companionship” as four benefits of exercise beyond the physical benefits. Many CrossFitters are drawn to the box by the first element, but ultimately find that they keep returning to the box for the last two elements.

There is a clear analogy in the central nervous system. Cognitive scientists have discovered that, “neurons that fire together wire together.” Keep doing CrossFit long enough, and the power clean becomes automatic, even though it once might have seemed so difficult and complicated. The same principle applies to social networks: groups of people that work together, struggling towards a shared goal, grow closer.

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