“The best CrossFit athletes in the world are never going that hard!” - James FitzGerald on what separates the top athletes in the world from the masses

2007 CrossFit Games champion and the founder of Opex Fitness in Scottsdale, Arizona James FitzGerald is hands down one of the most well-known, knowledgeable coaches in the sport. A true scientist, FitzGerald is the guy who is constantly researching and analyzing data about all things fitness.

Speaking to a group of coaches and athletes at the Cascade Classic in Seattle last weekend, he made it very clear what he thinks is the biggest separator between the top athletes in the world and those who are chasing them:

“They’re master pacers,” he said. “The most talented pacers, and the people with the best personal tempos, win." 

He added: “CrossFit has been marketed as a sport where everyone’s so intense all the time, but the fuckin best CrossFit athletes in the world are never going that hard."

The room was silent.

“That might have just ripped some people’s souls out,” he laughed.

 James 'OPT' FitzGerald

James 'OPT' FitzGerald

What is a master pacer?

Being a master pacer means you don’t ever push the intensity to a place that will ruin your ability to recover for the next movement, the next round, the next workout, or the next day of competition, he explained.

Being a master pacer means you're never in a totally miserable place physically, like most people assume you need to be. 

"They're not suffering out there very much," FitzGerald said. And if they are, it's because something went seriously wrong with their pacing strategy.

There’s no better example of this than Rich Froning, FitzGerald said—a man who always looks like he's going at about 80 percent intensity. Because he probably is, FitzGerald inferred.

 About as tired as Froning has ever looked...

About as tired as Froning has ever looked...

“Rich Froning has an unbelievable willingness to understand pace. He knows exactly when to go, when to stop, when to push and when to pull. He knew what he needed to do on Friday night to save himself for Sunday and exactly what he needed to do in every workout in the first round to pace for the last round,” FitzGerald said.

The best of the best know not only how to pace themselves, but they are what FitzGerald called “early adaptors,” meaning they can adapt—and figure out their pace—very quickly to a new stimulus. So for example, if a workout is announced at the CrossFit Games and they have 10 minutes to prepare, the best know exactly how to approach it before they even begin.

“Within 30 seconds of a workout starting, Rich (Froning) knew exactly how fast he needed to go to pace for himself for the 6th round,” FitzGerald said. This allowed Froning to get through each round, each workout, and each day of an event like the CrossFit Games in a way that kept his body as fresh as possible, he added. According to this logic, it's no surprise that on Sunday at the Games Froning always made up ground on the rest of the field: He paced himself the best on the previous days, FitzGerald said. 

FitzGerald’s hypothesis isn’t just anecdotal evidence from watching Froning compete for a few years. He and his team of researchers at Opex Fitness have studied tons of data in recent years from various high-level CrossFit athletes—as well as data from the CrossFit Games Open—to reach their conclusions. One of these conclusions suggests that the athletes who are most consistent in their pacing (in other words, those who maintain a consistent, steady pace through an entire workout) tend to be the most successful.

When it comes to single modality workouts, FitzGerald said people are better at finding a consistent pace, but all that changes when we put together workouts people have never done before, like almost everyday in CrossFit.

“Imagine you just had a rower and your coach asked you to row for 12 minutes. You wouldn’t give it all you had and just go as had as possible and be as intense as you could the whole time…But we seem to forget (that concept) when we do multi-modal training,” he said.

Then he looked over at seasoned Games athlete Marcus Filly in attendance in Seattle.

“If I gave Marcus Filly a task, he would probably study that task for half an hour to figure out, 'How am I going to do this with absolute perfect precision?’” FitzGerald asked. By absolute perfection, he meant at a perfectly consistent pace.



One of the main reasons perfect pacing is so crucial is how it helps recovery, FitzGerald said. And recovery is truly the name of the game. When FitzGerald talks about recovery, though, he isn’t just talking about recovery between days of competition: He means recovery even during and between workouts.

“It’s not just the speed of the work that matters, but the recovery between movements and workouts that matters, too,” he said. And a perfect pace for any given individual’s physical abilities is the best way to ensure recovery happens as effectively as possible.

 Recovery isn't just about Normatech after an event...

Recovery isn't just about Normatech after an event...

FitzGerald admits for some athletes, pacing comes naturally. Some people can just trust their instincts, like Rich Froning, he said.

“Others need to be taught,” he added. That’s where the coach comes in.

When you’re coached properly, all your workouts will have prescribed intensities and paces that reflect your current fitness level, and that will help you adapt and gain fitness the most effectively, FitzGerald explained. 

This is why he believes individual program design—one of the things Opex Fitness is known for—is so important: To help each person become the absolute best he can be.