Rhabdo. Short for Rhabdomyolysis. In CrossFit, it’s like a dirty word. Adversaries of the CrossFit world like to apply blanket correlations between our intense workout regimen and regular occurrences of rhabdo, while CrossFit trainers and owners like to adamantly deny it’s existence in their gyms. The truth is, neither is accurate. Although rhabdo is a possibility with anybody in any physical endeavor, it is not a super common occurrence. Having said that, the more we know about it the more preventative we can be.
I’m a gym owner and trainer, and to be honest, the word rhabdo is scary because of it’s association with poor coaching or programming. And sometimes, poor coaching and programming are to be blamed. Programming that does not take into account volume, muscle groups and energy systems may be create environments with higher risk of rhabdo. And a poor coach may not understand or recognize scaled applications, but a good coach will understand the needs of the athletes and their recovery. Regardless of workouts or coaching, significant overuse, in conjunction with dehydration, recent alcohol use, or pre-existing inflammation, can create circumstances that lead to rhabdomyolysis in CrossFit, or any other high-intensity physical activity. I would consider our gym programming and staff top notch in every way, but even with a sterling reputation, we have had 2 athletes experience rhabdo in a 4-year period. And that’s 2 too many.
Here are some tips to combatting rhabdo.
Pick the right gym. You need to start with a gym where you have confidence in the programming, and coaching. You also need to be in a space where you feel heard, in the event that you do have a concern.
Beware of banded pull-ups. High volume banded pull-ups seem to be the primary source of CrossFit rhabdo instances. It is one skill that even in failure, an athlete can add more bands again, and again, in an attempt to forge on. Although there is a time and place for banded pull-ups, it’s important to know and utilize modifications like jumping pull-ups, ring rows, barbell pull-ups and more, and when your norm isn’t working well, there’s no shame in scaling back.
Dehydration doesn’t take a long time. One day with light fluid intake, can be all it takes. Be sure that you are conscious of your hydration throughout the day and even into the evening. For those who workout in the morning, you might not have the chance to gulp the good stuff before your workout, so make it happen the night before and post-workout. And consider your alcohol intake…sometimes I hear people say they want to “sweat” after a rough night of drinking. I fully support your need to move, but make it smart and safe with plenty of water included in your booze recovery.
Listen to your body. This is probably the most important tips I can give. Although programming and coaching and hydration all have the potential to impact your workout experience, at the end of the day, it’s all about you. Own your experience and your workout responsibly. Know your limits. Respect your body when it fails you. When something isn’t feeling right, speak up on behalf of your body. Fatigue is common, but extreme variances in abilities from one day to the next are not. Be preventative by paying attention to physical cues and acting appropriately by making modifications and alerting your coach.
Knowing when to go in. It’s in the nature of CrossFitters to go hard, and not quit until the job is done. And that can be a hard habit to go against, even when you’re having an off day. But if the impact of a workout leaves you with extreme symptoms (more than just some sore muscles), it might be time to see physician. Rhabdo presents itself through extreme muscle fatigue, extreme soreness and stiffness (progressively more painful), and is often accompanied with swelling. Brown colored urine is another symptom, but is not always present (you can have “blood” in your urine without the color changing).
Be sweaty, be badass, but also be aware, be smart and be safe.