Save me from my workout: CrossFit's dangerous, life-changing appeal

Save me from my workout

Save me from my workout

Converts to CrossFit, the extreme exercise craze, swear it’s life-changing and take pride in their self-inflicted injuries. I was a true believer—until one punishing session landed me in the ER with a shattered leg and a dislocated ankle. I still couldn’t wait to go back

Save me from my workout
Lauren McKeon’s CrossFit injury left her with a spiral fracture—like someone had grabbed her foot and knee, and twisted them fast in opposite directions

In early fall 2013, my husband, Andrew, and I joined a popular CrossFit gym in the city’s east end. Our first class consisted of an intensive hour of non-stop sit-ups, push-ups and squats. It left me riding an adrenalin high—I could practically feel my biceps moulding into hard nuggets. Andrew, however, threw up as soon as we got home. As he staggered out of the washroom, I danced around him, bouncing on the balls of my feet. He had barely finished telling me he felt a little better before I said, “We’re still going back, though, right?”

Like thousands of others in the city, I was hooked. Toronto is a trend-obsessed place: we gravitate toward the new and cool, tend to exhaust it into ubiquity and then move on to the next thing—be it Canada Goose parkas or gluten-free cookies. In recent years, the Instagramming generation latched onto the CrossFit motto “Strong is the new skinny,” incessantly posting workout details and close-up photos of impressive new chiselled quads and six-packs. As we encourage ourselves to live longer and stronger, CrossFit has become king of the “fitspiration” movement. Of all the trendy workouts, from booty boot camps to hot yoga, CrossFit is the one that fulfils extreme get-fit dreams best—not a slow progression toward moderate health and average bodies, but a breakneck pace to the exceptional. Joining CrossFit is like making it into the A-list world of fitness.

To an outsider, a CrossFit workout can look nuts. Participants heave 60-pound kettlebells high over their heads in repetitions of 50, slam medicine balls at a 10-foot-high target on the wall, pull themselves in a swinging arc above the bar of the CrossFit rig—a metal structure that resembles a jungle gym on steroids. Then there are the Olympic-style weightlifting movements, like the snatch (lifting a weighted barbell, up to 300 pounds, from ground to overhead in one explosive motion), the clean-and-jerk (raising a barbell to shoulder height, then overhead as legs spring forward into a lunge) and the dead lift (fast and controlled, hoisting barbell from floor to hips and back). Oh, and the intervals of intense running. CrossFitters pride themselves not on a singular expertise, like, say, mastering a marathon or becoming a rep-level hockey player, but on general physical preparedness. The regimen is designed to make everything your body does better, from stamina to strength to flexibility. If there is ever a zombie apocalypse, CrossFitters will be the ones who survive.

Andrew and I reorganized our lives around CrossFit. Each Monday, Wednesday and Friday morning at 6:50 a.m., we’d arrive at our rough, utilitarian CrossFit gym, or “box” in CrossFit parlance, swathed in layers of sweats and spandex. (It was winter, and the gym managers rarely turned the heat on.) The hour’s agenda would be scrawled on a whiteboard near a set of rowing machines. It always included, in order: a warm-up, stretching and skills improvement, then the Workout of the Day, or WOD, ending with a cool-down and the posting of your numbers (times, weights, reps) on another board. Guided by the coach, everyone followed the same workout—whether you were a 250-pound tank, like one intimidating class member, or a 165-pound, five-foot-eight woman (me).

As a newbie, I wasn’t strong or skilled enough to do everything the agenda prescribed. What the strongest man or woman in the box could lift got posted too—so you could see how far you had to go.

As a teen, I’d competed in kick-boxing fights but had slowed down after I’d popped ligaments in my left knee. I was wary of reinjuring that same knee in CrossFit and had to remember not to push myself too hard. For upper body exercises, I didn’t have any such excuse. Our workout almost always included at least 30 pull-ups (the chin-up’s slightly tougher cousin) but more often double or triple that number, which turned my arms and shoulders to jelly. When it came to weights, I fell even further behind.

Some coaches were great; others seemed unsure of how much weight I should be lifting. At times, the workouts made no sense to me, more a random testament to machismo than a targeted program. People occasionally complained when a WOD felt particularly cruel—like the time we had to run 800 metres, then do 30 ­kettlebell swings, followed by 30 pull-ups, five times in a row—but not very loudly and usually with a tacked-on chuckle. As long as we were killing it, most of us didn’t care. There was a cultish groupthink at work: I was caught in a flux of being cheered on and trying to beat the person next to me so I wouldn’t finish last in a timed WOD. After class, we’d all collapse on the black rubber floor, sweating and utterly spent.

My love affair with CrossFit ended abruptly on January 6. That day, we had one minute to do 12 burpees, hitting the bar of the CrossFit rig. Next came 12 box jumps—launching yourself onto a wooden box from a two-footed stance, no running starts allowed—also in one minute. We had to do both over and over again, a dozen times. I’d waffled over what size box to use, and was unhelpfully instructed to try “whatever felt comfortable.” I chose a two-foot box—slightly smaller than everyone else’s. Midway into the workout, my left knee began to feel wobbly every time I landed on top of the box. When I told the instructor, he swapped it out for another that was four inches lower. I should have stopped—but stopping was unthinkable. Two sloppy jumps later, my left knee gave out and I fell. I could hear my leg bones shattering—it sounded like gunfire.

Save me from my workout
Surgeons put McKeon’s leg back together with a metal plate, and 18 screws and pins that will never come out (Images: courtesy of Lauren McKeon)

CrossFit, like other fitness fads, seemed to come out of nowhere. But a former teenage gymnast named Greg ­Glassman had been developing and testing the workout as a gym trainer for years. He officially incorporated CrossFit in 2000, and opened his first affiliate gym in Seattle. It took five years for the company to hit 13 affiliates—then suddenly, its popularity exploded. In 2010, Reebok signed on as the lead sponsor for the CrossFit Games, which were founded in relative obscurity in 2007; the 10-year deal is rumoured to be worth $10 ­million and has led to a lucrative Reebok CrossFit apparel line. In 2011, ESPN further legitimized the sport when it began airing the finals of the newly rebranded Reebok CrossFit Games. This year, more than 200,000 people signed up for the qualifying rounds, eventually moving up through the ranks of regional competitions, all fighting for the “Fittest on Earth” title this month in Carson, California.

It’s surprisingly easy to become a CrossFit-affiliate gym. Potential owners must first pass a two-day CrossFit Level 1 certification course, then fill out a short application form, including an essay on why they want to affiliate, what they hope to achieve and what CrossFit means to them. If approved, the new affiliate pays an annual $3,000 licensing fee to use the name. That’s it. Good CrossFit gyms won’t let their coaches stop at Level 1, but there’s also nothing to stop people from teaching at a gym the day after they receive their certification.

CrossFit Toronto, the city’s first affiliate, opened in 2006 in Leslieville. In 2008, one of its participants branched out and opened Toronto’s second box, Academy of Lions CrossFit, on Ossington. Now, there are 67 CrossFit-affiliate gyms in the GTA and dozens of other gyms incorporating ­CrossFit-type workouts.

High-intensity fitness regimes seem like a natural fit for people who are already ripped, but they also appeal to those of us who spend our days in front of a computer—and feel guilty about it. My CrossFit box had your expected heavily muscled, zero-fat dudes; plus a couple of elderly men and women, their shorts hiked high and grey hair dripping sweat; hipsters with thick-rimmed glasses and full-sleeve tattoos; and even a blind man whose guide dog often sat by our gym cubbies, tail wagging. There were tall and squat women, skinny men, and more than a few balding heads. A lot of us, including me, were former competitive athletes who wanted to regain our peak fitness. CrossFit promises to turn people into an ideal version of themselves, so long as they’re willing to work really, really hard.

This transformation is often so intense, CrossFitters can’t shut up about it. We’re like the Jehovah’s Witnesses of the fitness world—like we’ve found the best thing ever and genuinely believe you’ll be saved if you find it, too. The CrossFit community made me ecstatic about what my body could do.

But as much as CrossFit has created a legion of healthier, stronger people, its ranks have also suffered numerous injuries and ER visits. CrossFit’s safety first came into question in ­earnest in December 2005, when the New York Times ran an article headlined “Getting Fit, Even if It Kills You.” The story described the ordeal of a 38-year-old former army ranger named Brian Anderson who ended up in the emergency room after his first CrossFit class. Anderson was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis, a rare condition in which your muscle fibre breaks down, is released into the bloodstream and then poisons your kidneys—sometimes resulting in the need for dialysis and occasionally causing permanent damage. He spent six days in intensive care, even longer in physiotherapy, and then returned to CrossFit.

At the time his case made the news, it was one of six reported incidents of CrossFit-induced rhabdomyolysis. The uptick caused panic in the fitness industry: doctors were more accustomed to seeing the deadly condition in serious burn victims and people with crushed limbs. That same year, a former U.S. navy tech­nician named Makimba Mimms won a $300,000 lawsuit against a Virginia gym when he developed ­rhabdomyolysis after having participated in CrossFit-type training.

In 2011, the American College of Sports Medicine released a research paper noting a “potential emerging problem of disproportionate musculoskeletal injury risk” in extreme conditioning programs such as CrossFit, especially among newbies. It concluded that such workouts can encourage participants to push themselves too far, too fast. The group atmosphere, it added, fosters a potentially dangerous “keep up” attitude: participants abandon sensible pacing and progression because they don’t want to appear weak. A 2013 study conducted by Ohio State University and published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research largely endorsed CrossFit’s exercise methods, though it also reported losing 16 per cent of its research subjects to injury. The Journal published a second article showing the results of an anonymous online survey of British CrossFit participants, in which 73.5 per cent of survey respondents reported injuries, seven per cent of them requiring surgery. The article concluded that CrossFit injury rates—3.1 per 1,000 hours trained—were similar to sports such as Olympic weightlifting, power-lifting and gymnastics.

The debate over the safety of CrossFit got louder last ­January, around the time of my injury, when Kevin Ogar, one of the top CrossFit competitors in the world, dropped a bar weighted with 240 pounds on his spine in a snatch gone bad. He’s now a paraplegic. The safety debate has been fuelled by CrossFit headquarters itself, particularly by Glassman, who considers injuries a badge of honour. When the Times asked him to comment on the sport’s safety for the 2005 article, he responded that CrossFit “can kill you. I’ve always been completely ­honest about that…. If you find the notion of falling off the rings and breaking your neck so foreign to you, then we don’t want you in our ranks.” A year later, he wrote on the company’s online message board, “We have a therapy for injuries at CrossFit called STFU.” (Translation: shut the fuck up.) As for Mimms, the man who won the rhabdomyolysis lawsuit? Some gyms renamed the workout that injured him the Makimba and then re-categorized it as a workout for kids—so, like, STFU, ya baby. We’re elite; you are not.

The CrossFit company lashed out at the Ohio State academics who raised concern over the injury rate, publicly accusing them of fabricating data. And the Ohio gym where the study was conducted sued the academics for damages and a retraction. (The case is still before the courts.) CrossFit has spun the criticisms into positive PR by branding the naysayers as weaklings, which, so far, has only increased the ranks of true believers. CrossFit participants proudly wear T-shirts depicting a mascot they call Pukie. Another shirt features Uncle Rhabdo, a clown with his bloody guts falling out.

I can understand why CrossFitters resent academics scrutinizing their injury rates. Injuries, even serious ones, are not uncommon in sports. Couch potato–ism endangers a person’s overall health, too. For this story, I spoke to physiotherapists and athletic therapists, professional sports trainers, the chair of the Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology’s gold standard certification, and ­McMaster University’s ­Martin Gibala, one of the world’s leading experts in high-intensity interval training. They all agreed the principles of CrossFit and ­CrossFit-style workouts were sound: varied, full-body targeted movement, all done at high-intensity intervals. As the CSEP chair Bart Arnold told me, “There’s no such thing as a bad exercise.” But a workout culture that obsessively charts personal records and constantly encourages you to one-up yourself quickly erodes your judgment, morphing it into a constant refrain of “just one more.” We push ourselves beyond our natural limits, because we want to believe we have none. And we tell ourselves that we can trust our coach to save us from ourselves, because we want to believe that, too. This is where extreme fitness is on shaky ground.

Save me from my workout
Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s founder, has said, “We have a therapy for injuries called STFU.” Gyms sell T-shirts with the CrossFit mascot Pukie (Image: courtesy of CrossFit)

The moment I fell down, both Andrew and our coach dashed to my side. I remember grasping for Andrew’s hand, meekly telling him I thought I’d broken my leg. I started shaking as my body went into shock in response to the searing pain. Andrew tried to calm me by suggesting it was “maybe a sprain.” But I couldn’t move my foot, which lay eerily parallel to the ground. The class formed a semicircle around me. One of my fellow CrossFitters suggested we forgo the ambulance and instead lift me up into our car. The coach, eyes pinballing from my foot to my face, called 911, then went out into the street to flag down the ambulance.

As I was carted out on the stretcher, I saw everyone resume the WOD. I felt bad for interrupting them.

The parts between my fall and the hospital are fuzzy to me. I’d gone into full shock, my body a cold, vibrating container of adrenalin and pain. I remember being grateful that the paramedics didn’t have to cut off my new neon pink Reebok shoe. I wasn’t able to correctly recall my address or home phone number. If you asked me now what the inside of the ambulance looked like, I couldn’t tell you. At the hospital, the adrenalin disappeared and was replaced by a ferocious raging agony that I would rate an 11 on a scale of one to 10.

Initial X-rays revealed my lower tibia and fibula bones were broken, but it was hard to tell how badly: my ankle had dislocated, obscuring the break lines. The ankle also accounted for the incredible vise-like feeling in my leg, as though it were being squashed between two concrete slabs. I kept telling myself not to scream, stuffing the hospital blanket into my mouth as a DIY gag.

Because they had to keep me conscious to set my dislocated ankle, the doctors were holding back on the morphine. I hadn’t had any when Andrew arrived at the hospital. By that point, I’d also taken off my glasses to stop from staring at the way my foot was starting to tilt backward. To see Andrew at all, I had to put my face very close to his. I tried to distract myself by counting the various shades of blue flecks in his irises. Barely 15 minutes had passed before I pleaded with him to find a nurse who would give me something, anything for the pain.

Eventually, my doctors decided I needed surgery—a simple set and cast would not do the trick. My bones were broken into multiple pieces near the ankle; one fracture line ran up my shinbone. I went into surgery that night and came out three hours later with a metal plate, and 18 screws and pins holding me together on the inside. The hardware, which will never come out of my leg, is meant to keep my bone together as it regenerates and knits itself back into place. My break was both bad and intricate—in med-speak, a spiral fracture. Think of it as wringing a wet towel, like someone had grabbed my foot and knee, then twisted them hard and fast in opposite directions.

The next afternoon, I went home with a 120-pill bottle of Percocet. And so began the two-month period I came to call Broken Leg Life. In the early days, I could barely move at all; I needed help getting out of bed, help to sit on the toilet, help to get off the toilet, help to wipe my ass. The moment I became aware of my inability to perform that last task I broke down into big, hiccupping sobs. Honestly, crying became a more regular part of my life than it had ever been. I cried before I had to go to the hospital, a week after surgery, to get my temporary cast opened and my 36 staples and four stitches yanked out. I cried the first time Andrew and I cleaned my leg. Even the slightest touch was agony. My own helplessness was worse. I would put off cleaning it for hours on shower days, all so I’d never have to see the mess it had become.

I took a short leave from my day job editing This Magazine, and Andrew did everything around the house while I stayed in bed with my leg elevated. After a week, I started working from home during the day and marathoning Dr. Who after dinner. Friends visited on Thursdays and family on the weekends to give Andrew a break. Once a week, we removed the cast and Andrew washed my leg. With my glasses off, it looked like I was wearing a knee sock of bruises. (I put them on once and fainted after becoming convinced that the inside of my ankle had moved to the front of my leg; it was just the swelling.) And yet, whenever people asked me how I broke my leg, I’d minimize it, casually saying “Oh, I’m clumsy” or “I fell off a box and somehow exploded my leg”—like it was an unsolvable mystery. In reality, a physiotherapist later told me, even falling a foot or two can be like launching off a roof for people with prior knee injuries.

I was utterly in denial. I would pester Andrew to go to CrossFit. He was reluctant, but I was determined he had to continue training. I wanted to go back, too. Entirely delusional about the length of my recovery period, I’d fantasize about doing modified workouts. Andrew started going to the box again, and I’d ask him to report back on the workouts.

At night, the pain became worse. I’d down foul-smelling valerian pills to help me sleep but still lie awake for hours, my mind replaying my fall again and again in a macabre loop. The sound of my bones breaking haunted me the most. Thinking about it still makes my stomach lurch.

I spent months like this—failing to confront too deeply how I broke my leg, what role I played in it, what role CrossFit played in it. Even now, I can’t lay the blame in any one place—I genuinely liked my coach that day, a nice guy I believe simply didn’t know how far to push me, especially when I wanted to be pushed, and especially when the goal is to be pushed. I didn’t want either of us, or the larger CrossFit movement, to have to accept blame. Rather, I wanted to believe it was some freak accident. Like a true devotee, I wanted to power through it.

I stayed in this irrational state until March 11, when I went to the hospital for a checkup, and the doctor told me I’d need three months of physical therapy just to relearn how to walk. Trying to digest this news on the way home from the hospital, I confessed out loud to Andrew for the first time: “You know, I knew something bad was going to happen.” And then in a whisper: “But I jumped anyway.”

On my first day of physiotherapy, on March 13, I had trouble breathing. I’d worn my favourite workout clothes, the same outfit, I realized too late, that I’d worn when I fell off the box. After more than two months of barely moving, I’d lost most of my muscle mass. It was especially noticeable in my broken leg, where my thigh tapered into a shocking, twig-like girth below my knee.

Learning to walk again has been both excruciatingly slow and just plain excruciating. I’ve spent a lot of time on the parallel bars, trying to take real steps. In the beginning, I could barely put my foot down. My tendons were so tight, and my muscles so small, I couldn’t even make the heel-to-toe motion, tending instead to slap my foot flat on the ground, then quickly launch off it in a jerky, straight-legged motion. I practised on a wobble board, a circular wood platform that, as the name suggests, wobbles, forcing your foot out of its tight right angle. After each workout, my leg, ankle and foot were iced. Then, manual therapy: a 10-­minute massage during which my physiotherapist would try to break up the scar tissue and “glide” my joint back into movement.

For the first month, the swelling refused to leave my foot and ankle. Andrew nicknamed my foot Sideshow Bob after the Simpsons ­character, because it was cartoonishly unreal. My physiotherapist told me to massage the swelling out each night, like squeezing a tube of toothpaste. The nerve damage in my foot was strangest to me. It formed a narrow Bermuda Triangle, with points at my big toe and either side of my ankle, where all feeling was lost. More problematically, it stopped me from being able to bend my toes. It could take a year or two for the nerves to heal. I’m supposed to float a tissue on my foot for 20 minutes each day, trying to coax the nerves into reawakening.

As I began to leave my house more, I kept encountering people who had their own CrossFit cautionary tales. One night, I called a concert venue to ask if there was anywhere I’d be able to sit, and the doorperson told me how she ripped her Achilles tendon at CrossFit and will never go again. My friends ask me if I’ll go back, expecting a firm no. Yet, even now, there is a small, persistent part of me that doesn’t want to give up the thrill of a session at the box.

This is the strange alchemy of CrossFit. If you get all the elements right—good coaching, proper skill progression and the iron will to abstain from the pressure to go too hard—it can be golden. Yet, if any of them are missing, like they were for me that day in January, well…I’d already exploded one leg.

As I write this in mid-May, I’ve only just begun to walk without crutches. I have a drunken-pirate limp. To help get rid of it, my physiotherapist has me doing lines of “dynamic lunges” up and down the office’s small gym space. It’s a movement I first learned at CrossFit, and each time I do one I can’t help thinking of the way my knee used to dip much lower—to the floor, smooth and strong as I completed 15, 20, 30 lunges in a row. Suddenly, I’m back there again, the movie reel winding up in my head. But there’s something else, too: an urge to push my knee further down each time, past the flare of pain, just a little bit, just to see if I can.