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How CrossFit Prepared Me for Medical School

A few years ago, I found CrossFit. Since then, I have spent a large share of my free time training and  improving my health and fitness. As with any sport, there was a large learning curve. However, as I trained, my mind and body adapted. I made strides both athletically and mentally that I never thought were possible. I never imagined that this preparation and development would translate to a seemingly opposing task: medical school.

The Triumph of the Generalist 

No one will deny that specialists are important. You don’t want a general surgeon performing surgery on your high grade astrocytoma. Specialists spend decades of their lives honing in on the very specific and detailed task they perform. As a result, they push the boundary of human capabilities and are no doubt the best at their specific task.

CrossFit is different. It is centered around constantly varied movements. Unlike the three point shooter who can rely on his shot or the offensive lineman and his strength, to succeed in CrossFit one has to be good at many things. It combines Olympic weightlifting with running, gymnastics with swimming and demands such a breadth of training and talent that it defies specialization. Given this, an athlete cannot rely on their strengths to push them to success, but has to instead focus on their weaknesses. In order to be successful, one cannot shy away from their weaknesses — they must attack them.

When I began medical school, I quickly saw the similarities. Students are thrown into such a breadth of content that there is no way to be an “expert.” In our short pre-clerkship years, we have to learn the anatomy, physiology, embryology, biochemistry, pathology, genetics and the pharmacology of one of the most complex machines in the universe: the human body.

As I began my studies, I quickly found that although it was easier to study the subjects I was already competent in, this is not what would help me improve. If I wanted to really move the needle on my academic success, I would have to instead make the choice to lean into my weaknesses. For me, this was my clinical skills and comfort in a medical environment. Because of this, I tried to gain extra hands on experience as soon as my school’s curriculum allowed. Just like getting extra “reps” in the gym, I knew the more times I practiced, the more comfortable I would become.

In medical training, we work to learn about the big picture before we can narrow in. We have to spend our time taking lessons from the generalists of the world and lean into the skills that we struggle with. This is the way to improve and have a well-rounded medical education. While my time may come in the future to specialize, I’m going to spend the next few years chipping away at my weaknesses as I know it will make me a better physician no matter what specialty I enter.

Being Comfortable with Being Uncomfortable 

As a sport that prides itself on pushing the body to its physical limits, CrossFit athletes have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable. The hours spent at the gym, track, pool and lake are draining. The workouts where your legs are screaming and you’re gasping for any breath of air to fuel your body are daunting, pushing your body to the brink of its capabilities.

As CrossFit athletes push through the pain, the body adapts in many ways, from the muscles to the lungs. In science we call this “hormesis,” or an organism’s ability to adapt to challenges and improve its fitness. The most important adaptation, however, happens “between the ears.” In Alex Hutchinson’s book Endure, about the physical limits of performance, he says that “the body sets the limits, and the brain dictates how close you can get to those boundaries.” It is the mind that ultimately leads to success.

While there isn’t the same level of physical pain preparing to become a physician, the mental toughness required is equally as daunting. As medical students, we spend years working to learn all we can with the end goal of helping patients live better lives. We sacrifice and study when we don’t want to. We miss out on enjoyable experiences. But each of us has the power to adapt and thrive in times of discomfort.

Channeling the Voice in Your Head

In every CrossFit workout, there is a moment of time when your brain says to stop. As the body pushes itself to its limits, a voice in your head says that you’re pushing too hard. It will use scare tactics to tell you that you’re not in good enough shape or that you can’t continue to push on. Even though these thoughts are not wanted, they continue to flood into our minds. In these moments, you have to make a decision. Do I stop? Or do I keep going?

When Dr. James Gills, a renowned ocular surgeon and endurance athlete who has completed six Double Ironman Triathlons was asked how he keeps his mind strong enough to endure such lengthy competitions, he responded by saying that, “I’ve learned to talk to myself instead of listen to myself.” What Dr. Gill means is that when we are left to our own thoughts, we hear the voice in our head that says we aren’t good enough — that we don’t have the skills or the motivation in order to be successful. While we would not willingly choose to have negative thoughts, they often flow effortlessly into our consciousness. We can try to suppress them, but ultimately they continue to win. However, trying to suppress them is not our only method of defense. If we choose to talk to ourselves with positive affirmations instead, we gain back some of that control.

Research is now being conducted on the benefit of positive thoughts and affirmations. Self-help experts have even begun to suggest exercises such as gratitude journaling and positive affirmation walks. We are beginning to realize that we have the power to combat our negative thoughts by consciously speaking out against them.

In medical school, there are many pressures placed on us, and it is common to have self-doubts. Imposter syndrome is endemic and if we don’t take an active role in working against our thoughts, they can easily take over our consciousness. This is where we can begin to talk to ourselves instead of just listening. By doing this, we can begin to recognize how our negative thoughts distort our thinking, and work to change the narrative we tell ourselves each day.

The Power of Habit  

Change doesn’t happen overnight. As much as we want to be the person that bursts onto the scene and immediately succeeds, more often than not, it takes years of continual effort and dedication to reach your goals. This is true in CrossFit, and even more so in medicine.

Social reformer Jacob Riis once said, “When nothing seems to help, I look to the stonecutter hammering away at his rock, perhaps a hundred times without as much as a crack showing in it. Yet at the hundred and first blow it will split in two, and I know it was not the last blow that did it–but all  that had come before.” In order to be successful, we must give continual effort for sustained periods of time. We might not get immediate feedback, but we must continue to press on.

Whenever we begin something new, we are flooded with motivation and energy, but that inspiration only lasts so long. Soon, we settle into the mundane and begin to struggle to put consistent energy into being successful. This is where the power of habit comes in. In James Clear’s book, Atomic Habits, he explains that, “you do not rise to the levels of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems.” As humans, we are habitual creatures. We build routines that can either propel us to success, or leave us always wishing we could be more.

As soon as you receive your white coat as a medical student, the motivation to become the best physician you can be is at an all-time high. Unfortunately, the long days of studying begin to wear on us. Reading textbooks becomes mundane and motivation begins to dwindle. This is where we need to build habits to stay on track. Whether it’s setting a block off each day to study, or placing your phone and distractions in the other room, building habits when motivation begins to fail is how we will continue to move towards our goals.

When I began CrossFit, I always heard people talk about it being a transformative experience, but I now know first hand that the lessons I have learned from this sport have improved my ability to weather the storms of a career in medicine. Something that began as a way to stay fit and enjoy my free time, has altered how I experience the world around me. I now have a unique frame to face the challenges and opportunities that medical school brings.

Image Credit: Photograph provided by Caleb Sokolowksi.

Caleb Sokolowski (21 Posts)

Writer-in-Training and Columnist

Wayne State University School of Medicine

Caleb Sokolowski is a second-year medical student at Wayne State University School of Medicine in Detroit, Michigan. In 2018, he graduated from Michigan State University with a Bachelor of science in Human Biology. Caleb is interested in medical ethics, policy, and education. In his free time, Caleb participates in number of activities including sports, CrossFit, paddle boarding and cycling.

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