Out of all the CrossFit Hero WODs, ‘Murph’ stands alone.
It is brutal in its simplicity, utterly daunting and yet remarkably approachable, a drill sergeant’s fever dream. All you need is a pullup bar, a pair of sneakers, and one helluva cardiovascular system.
The workout: A 1-mile run, followed by 100 pullups, 200 pushups, and 300 unweighted squats, followed by another 1-mile run. In its most elite form, athletes complete it while wearing a 20-pound weight vest, and they must do each set of calisthenics consecutively—all 100 pullups first, then the pushups, and so on.
In a nod to the workout’s military roots—it’s named for Lt. Michael P. Murphy, a Navy SEAL killed in action in 2005—CrossFit boxes around the U.S. host a Murph every Memorial Day.
But before you go crashing headlong into this buzzsaw of an endurance WOD, know this: Murph demands a smart strategy and a level-headed approach. To get the best mental and physical tactics for this particular WOD, we polled a panel of experts from both in and outside of the CrossFit world:
– Dan Wells, C.P.T. (NCSA), CrossFit Level 2 trainer, veteran of the 2015 CrossFit Games, owner/coach at CrossFit Horsepower in L.A.
– Ethan Baum, C.P.T. (NASM) and Level 1 CrossFit coach, who introduced Murph to the New York Sports Club in Astoria, Queens
– Dr. Michael Joyner, M.D., specialist in endurance exercise at the Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota
Here are their pro tips for surviving Murph—and maybe even running, pulling, pushing, and squatting your way to your best time yet.
1. Avoid the five rookie mistakes
Wells says he sees first-timers make the same errors each year. If this is your first Murph, make sure you:
– DON’T sprint the first mile. “Imagine trying to PR your mile, then having to finish a 10K race,” he says. “It’s like a living nightmare.”
– DON’T sprint the first five rounds of calisthenics. “You need to start with a measured pace out of the gate.”
– DON’T wear the weight vest. “It feels like a suffocation device in the last mile.
– DO break up the sets. Pro CrossFitters might tackle all 100 pullups at once, but first-timers should try to do supersets of each exercise to avoid fatiguing so fast. (More on this in a bit.)
– DON’T go all out on each rep. With this much volume, not every squat needs to be ass-to-grass. (That said, form is key. Don’t sacrifice quality for speed!)
2. Rehearse the workout
“It’s incredible what people can do with practice,” Joyner says. “People who do lots of high-volume exercise develop a mindset. It’s a little like leaving your hand in hot water for as long as possible: You have to know when you need to take your hand out, and prepare yourself to endure that pain without panicking.”
Several days before the workout (so you’re not sore for it), practice going through mega-sets of light exercises. The volume will help prime your mind and body to endure such a large workload.
But on the day before, keep your workload mostly mental. “I’m not sure I’d take the day before [the workout] completely off, but I wouldn’t do anything very heavy,” Joyner says.
3. Hydrate like hell
Because Murph is often held on Memorial Day, it’s all too possible that this workout will follow several days of boozing, sunburn, and hot dogs. Bad combination.
“At the 2015 CrossFit Games, hydration was absolutely the biggest problem with Murph,” Wells says. “Folks were just not adequately hydrated for it. We all think we’re invincible athletes because we train, but when the machine runs empty on fuel—water in this case—then it does it, in fact, break down.”
Start hydrating two days beforehand. Not only will it get you through all those barbecues, but it’ll pay off when you set foot on the starting line on Memorial Day.
4. Don’t run on an empty tank
Approach Murph as you would a 10k or a half-marathon: fuel up with carbohydrates and electrolytes well beforehand.
“Don’t run on an empty stomach—that’s a recipe for passing out—but don’t run on a full stomach, either,” Wells says. He mixes a shake of easily digestible carbohydrate supplement mixed with protein powder.
5. Think bite-sized sets
Top-notch CrossFitters do each calisthenics set in sequence, but everyday athletes typically break things up into mini-sets.
“An athlete who is relatively fit and has some experience with Crossfit workouts, but is worried about the large sets, will be able to complete the workout in smaller sets, like 5 rounds of 20 pullups, 40 pushups, and 60 squats,” Baum says.
Another option, Wells says, is to do 20 sets of 5 pullups, 10 pushups, and 15 squats, which CrossFitters call “Cindy,” after the WOD with that rep scheme. If you have trouble with pushups, try splitting the set of 10 into two sets of 5: 5 pullups, 5 pushups, 15 squats, and 5 pushups.
However you break things up, Joyner says, “do sets to almost failure, and then take a rest.”
6. Scale it to your ability
Before embarking on this huge endeavor, do an honest assessment of how well you can handle this workload, and scale the exercises so you can get through the reps appropriately.
“If an athlete can’t perform a movement, we’ll provide a scaling option that will allow them to participate safely and effectively,” Baum says.
To scale pullups, Baum recommends banded pullups; Wells suggests jumping pullups or ring rows. Instead of pushups, you can do incline pushups by propping your arms on a box or a barbell positioned on a weight rack.
Pro tip: Assess your ability a few days before the workout, rather than on the day of, so you’re not tempted to let the collective hoorah atmosphere push you further than you’re capable. There’s nothing worse than getting to pushup 73 of 200 and realizing you can’t move your arms.
Don’t feel pressured. Any good trainer or CrossFit coach will recognize that every athlete has his own limits, and that starting off sane will lead to bigger gains down the road.
7. Save energy on each rep
We get it—you’re a hardass, and nothing but perfect pullups and pushups will suffice for you. But just because you can do each rep well doesn’t mean you have to wring every watt of power out of your body—in fact, shaving a little bit of effort off each rep will translate to huge energy savings down the line.
“There are ways to save energy,” Wells says. “Air squats need to go below parallel, but you don’t need to bounce your butt off the ground. Eliminate the eccentric phase of the pullups and pushups—just drop to your chest if you get tired on the pushups.” That said, be sure you don’t sacrifice form. Quality is always better than quantity and speed.
8. Keep it cool
Like any tough endurance workout, Murph demands a smart strategy to prevent your engine from getting too hot. “With any severe exertional stress, you have to worry about the environment—especially overheating,” Joyner says. “There’s also the potential for skeletal-muscular injury, or even rhabdomyolsis,” when muscle breakdown becomes so extensive that it leaks potentially toxic levels of myoglobin into the bloodstream.
Simple solution: “When it comes time for the calisthenics, try to get in the shade and get where there’s a breeze,” Joyner says. If you’re inside the box, try to be close to the fan or AC unit.
9. Gear up
No matter how you slice it, 100 pullups is a lot of wear and tear on your hands. Wells recommends gymnastics-style hand grips, which can help protect your skin from ripping painfully mid-workout.
For shoes, find a balance between a cushioned, flexible running shoe and a shoe with a stable, supportive heel for the squats. Take a look at some of these popular cross-trainers for reference.
10. Remember: Mind over matter
It’s surprisingly common for athletes to get halfway through the workout, realize how winded and tired they are, and then panic. But rather than feeling overwhelmed by the huge number of reps you have to ultimately do, focus on the one rep you have to do next.
“Each rep is just a step,” Wells says. “Remind yourself that nothing is really a big deal. You can confidently continue moving forward. Lean forward and expect to keep moving and slow down.”
Wells recites a mantra: All day. “Remind yourself in your mind that you’ve got this all day,” he says. “You don’t have to sprint until the last 200 meters. The rest of it is all manageable.”
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