Look around Crossfit NYC on any given morning and there is an array of constants we can always rely on. Weights, bars and kettlebells are stacked up in the usual spots ready to be picked up and put down. People are moving and lifting with intensity until they collapse on the floor. Stuff flies in and out of the cubbies every hour like clockwork as the gym goes about its day. But there’s always something…someONE actually, moving back and forth at the back of the room…almost like a clock keeping time for us as it’s an absolute certainty that she’ll be back there rowing when we look. It’s Jana Byron, a hardcore crossfitter whose dedication and relentless pursuit of fitness has more than earned her this week’s athlete profile.
When prompted for comment on Jana, coach Will’s compliments came back quicker than a out-of-office autoreply: “Jana commits herself 100% to her fitness. She has goals and attacks them from all angles to ensure her success. She has made great strides in strength and gymnastics over the past year or so of having her in my class. She’s also super Gumby flexible…makes me jealous.”
Jana has evolved into Crossfit’s every-woman…a strong, determined athlete who knows what she wants, and shows up for everything. We decided to get to the bottom of her Crossfit experience…goals, triumphs, pitfalls, and the roots of her motivation. The more we uncover, the more we realize that Jana’s story has a lot for us all to identify with, and there are lessons to be learned from her by athletes of every level.
OK Jana, let’s just get this out of the way. I’ve seen you at the gym over the past few weeks. I’ve personally witnessed you rowing probably about 50K between those times. Do you have Viking roots, or is something else afoot here?
Very funny! No, no Viking roots here. However there is a reason for the seemingly endless rowing. When I started Crossfit in November 2011, I noticed that I was putting on a lot of muscle, but as a result I was also gaining weight (i.e. the muscle wasn’t replacing fat). It was really frustrating because I was working hard at the gym and making some significant strength improvements but my clothes were all getting tight in the wrong places. I talked with some of the coaches about what I could do to tweak my training and one of the comments that made sense to me was, until you can do the WODs rx’d (or close to it), you may not be getting enough intensity in your workouts so you might want to supplement with running or some other cardio until things balance out. I have a life-long hatred of running (still do) so I decided to give rowing a shot instead and really enjoyed it. Because I’m not rowing at 100% effort, it’s a nice opportunity to space out or watch what else is going on in the gym (I’ve actually learned a lot from watching classes while I’m rowing – especially the competition team). I still don’t do sprints on the rower on a regular basis. I use the rowing as “active recovery” after a WOD to burn some extra calories.
Do you approach your rowing pace differently in WODs than when you’re rowing after a workout?
Yes, 100% different approach. In a WOD I will do max effort or something close to that, whereas after a workout it’s almost always a recovery row.
We’ve been through some testing in our most recent programming cycle. How have you done vs. months and years past in some of those tests?
I’ve had mixed results in the testing. On some lifts I’ve had PRs, on some I have been unable to match my old PR, but some have stayed the same. Because I can finally kip pullups and do big-girl pushups, some of the benchmarks I’ve been able to do rx’d for the first time…..but it seems it’s taken me twice as long as expected.
You’re someone I can count on seeing in the gym most days I’m there. Have you always had this level of dedication to your fitness practice?
For the most part yes, I’ve always been involved in fitness (though I have never been an early morning exerciser). All the credit goes to Coach Will for that. He’s the only man who I will wake up for on a consistent basis at 5:50am – at least to exercise. My friends at first were like, “Who is this woman getting up before dawn and what have you done with Jana?!?!” I never considered myself an “athlete” because (other than swimming when I was quite young) I’ve never really participated in organized sports. Instead I was either dancing (I have about 15+ years of ballet, jazz and some modern dance under my belt) or at the gym in group fitness classes…be it, yoga, pilates, step aerobics (which I still love), weight training or Intensati (which is what I did almost exclusively for seven years before I discovered Crossfit). For me, exercise (in whatever form) is necessary both physically and mentally. It’s an opportunity to do something positive for myself and my body, and it allows me to basically turn off my brain. In Crossfit I have found that especially true. When I’m lifting something heavy or trying to get through a WOD, it is simply impossible to focus on anything other than the task at hand (especially for heavy lifts because in my view, when you get distracted is when you get hurt). It’s almost like a moving meditation…coupled with a lot of sweating and swearing and panting.
The Open is coming up. Have you registered, and if so do you have any predictions for either WOD content or your performance in general? What would you LOVE to see in a 2013 Open WOD?
I signed up I think on the first day. Penalty burpees can be very motivating! I expect one of the WODs will include HSPUs or muscle ups because I think those movements (especially MUs) separate games level competitors from people like me who are just doing this for fun. As far as my performance goes, I’m not trying to compete at a Games level so I’m not really focused on it. My plan is to just show up, participate, do my best and have a good time with it. I wouldn’t mind seeing another Oly ladder like the snatch WOD last year. I like the Oly lifts. Here’s what I don’t like: burpees, pushups and wall balls.
The general trend in the gym is that people are trying to get themselves closer to the middle of the strength vs. endurance spectrum. Where do you find yourself between those two worlds?
I think I’m probably squarely on the strength end of the spectrum. I have some (asthmatic) physical limitations as far as sprinting for endurance training goes so I need to work around them. I’ve found that doing longer WODs at 85% on a regular basis yields improvements across the board.
Back in October, we were blessed with your namesake WOD “F*ck You Jana”. (12 minute AMRAP of: 50 Double-Unders, 7 Burpees + *Add 7 Burpees every round) Would this title still hold true now, six months later? I remember you originally didn’t show for this one. How did you eventually do once you made it up?
Ha! I loved that I got my own WOD! Yes, it would still hold 100% true. My burpees are usually completed at a glacial speed. And I still don’t have DUs (though it’s because I don’t try – when we are supposed to practice I hide behind something so the coach can’t see me, and skip rope like a 6 year-old. When they are in a WOD I do 2x single-unders. I guess everyone’s got their list of things they want to get better at and for me DUs are low on the priority list). I did make it up F*ck You Jana after a Saturday WOD. Don’t remember how I did, but I do remember thinking I was glad when it was over!
I’ve read about you participating in competitions recently. What was that like, and had you competed in Crossfit before?
I did my first competition, Hail to the Queen, in February. It was an experience! The bonding among the women who competed from CFNYC was something I will remember forever, and while I finished too close to the bottom for comfort, when someone mentioned putting together a team for the CMC on the Intrepid I signed up immediately. I also learned some things about competitions that I will share: Bring lots of extra clothes. It gets cold between WODs. Do not go out and get drunk with your neighbors the night before a competition – it hampers performance. Make sure you choose pants that don’t fall down when you do burpees. And the big learning experience for me: if you are chesty, make sure you wear a high-cut and supportive shirt/sports bra so that you can focus on the WOD instead of trying to keep your boobs in your shirt and prevent a wardrobe malfunction. I made all of these mistakes at my first competition…learn from them.
I’m guessing that out of the hundreds of WODs you’ve done, there are probably a few that make you cringe when you see them on the schedule. If there are WODs that trigger fear, are you more stirred up by burners like Fran and Elizabeth, or marathons like the Filthy 50 or Murph? What are your favorites?
Body weight movement WODs kill me for time (except for HSPUs – for some reason I really dig those and I’m pretty good at them) so my fear isn’t stirred by burner vs. marathon. It’s stirred by pushups, pullups and burpees. My absolute favorite of all time was “12 Days of Christmas” on Dec. 25, 2011. I also really like Fight Gone Bad, Grace and Isabel.
I’ve had more and more friends asking me about Crossfit after watching the Games on ESPN. Has Crossfit’s popularity made its way into your circle of friends and family?
Not yet and not for my lack of trying. A lot of them are interested but still a little afraid. I keep on telling them that if I can do it, anyone can. I’ll bring them around…eventually. I can be pretty tenacious.
What message do you have for Crossfitters who are just starting out and finding their way? Are there lessons you’ve learned that you can impart to them as you continue with Crossfit?
Oh boy. So much. In no particular order:
1. Compare yourself to people….but not too much. When I started I basically found a bunch of women who were around my general fitness level and I tried to make sure I kept up with them. We have branched out and some of us developed different strengths and weaknesses, but as a baseline I think it’s good to keep you pushing yourself.
2. No one is good at everything (even “The Fittest Woman on Earth” 2 years in a row struggles with Muscle Ups) and there’s no shame in that.
3. There is also no shame in finishing last…there is shame in quitting or cheating and it’s a slippery slope. I’ve only tried to walk out of one WOD without finishing. Thank god Coach Will basically blocked the door and said, “I don’t care what your problem is today you’re not leaving until you finish.” I say thank god because I KNOW that if I had quit once, quitting the second time would have been easier, and so on. Having had that experience, I realized how important it is to not even entertain the idea of quitting in the middle of a WOD.
4. I’ve never been a huge fan of splitting up beginners from experienced crossfitters. When I started, everyone was mixed in together. I learned so much from watching and listening to (and being really inspired by) the experienced people. About a month after I graduated from Elements I saw someone doing double unders in a WOD on one leg because the other was in an air cast. I was stunned, so I say as soon as you feel comfortable with the movements, start trying out different classes at the different levels. Each of the coaches brings something different to the table – some are sticklers for form, some push you to lift heavy, some push you to move faster. So don’t be afraid to try them out, regardless of what level they teach.
5. Speaking of being comfortable with the movements, don’t be too proud to take weight off the bar to work on form. I struggle with this all the time. One coach in particular, who I love, is always taking weight off my bar so I can focus on my form. I don’t like it but I know he’s right, and I am a better crossfitter because of it. For those of us in the (ahem) Masters Division, I think form is especially important because recovering from an injury when you’re over 40 is very different than in your 20s. I firmly believe that good form can save you.
6. Listen to your body. If something hurts in a good way, push through it. If it hurts in a bad way, stop. Listen to your body and learn the difference. And if everything hurts and you are tired and cranky all the time take a few days off (I went through a bout of overtraining and I didn’t get any better…I just got tired, sore and irritable).
7. Don’t be afraid to try and lift heavy shit. Worst thing that can happen is that you fail.