Podcast: How the CrossFit Games Are Changing with Tim Paulson

For most competitive CrossFit athletes, just making it to the CrossFit Games is the dream. Going back year after year? Only a select few can say they’ve done that. Tim Paulson is one such repeat-qualifier. Based out of Ithaca, New York, Tim has been in the CrossFit world since 2012 and at the sport’s highest levels since 2017, when he first qualified for the Games. Now a three-time CrossFit Games athlete, Tim is in some very rare and elite company.

Tim joins The BarBend Podcast to chat on everything from training volume to the changing landscape of CrossFit Games qualifiers. Spoiler: Tim thinks the new sanctioned events can be great for the sport if a few new parameters are put in place.

Want to go even more in-depth on our conversation? Check out the full podcast transcription below on this page.

In this episode of The BarBend Podcast, guest Tim Paulson and host David Thomas Tao discuss:

  • Tim’s training this season and perspective on staying at the top of CrossFit’s elite for several years in a row (01:20)
  • What top CrossFit athletes are doing to extend their competition careers (04:32)
  • Why competing in CrossFit is a full-time commitment (07:25)
  • If (and how) anyone can beat multi-time defending champion Mat Fraser (12:05)
  • Training volume for some of the sport’s top athletes (and where Tim falls on that spectrum) (17:25)
  • Tim’s road to qualification for the 2019 CrossFit Games (25:40)
  • Special Icelandic training techniques (and how poorly David stacked up against some of Europe’s top athletes) (31:00)
  • Training for outdoor events (34:30)
  • Why Tim thinks the new sanctioned qualifiers will be good for competitive CrossFit, but the important things that need to change first (37:10)
  • Tim’s CrossFit Games podium predictions for 2019 (40:40)

Relevant links and further reading:

Transcription

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Today on the BarBend podcast, we have a special treat. We have CrossFit Games athlete, Tim Paulson, and I’m really excited to be talking to Tim today, especially because we are in ultimate prep season for the 2019 CrossFit Games. Tim, thanks so much for joining us today.

Training for the 2019 CrossFit Games

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Thanks for having me, man. I appreciate it.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Excellent. First off, I just got to ask, we’re just a couple months out from the CrossFit Games when we’re recording this, this podcast will be released a little bit closer to the Games. How are you feeling? What’s training been like? How is your training going to change leading up to the Games?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Training’s been going really well. My body feels great. I dealt with a little bit of a setback when I was in Iceland a couple weeks ago. I was able to heal up completely from that. Took a few weeks relatively easy in training just to rebuild some foundations and things like that, focus on some basics.

We’ve been going at it pretty hard for just about a week now. We’re going to train full on for just about eight weeks leading up to the Games, take a week off to make sure everything’s good to go, reset, then we’ll get after it.

Competing in the CrossFit Arena

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Just to take a little step back, Tim, how long have you been competing in CrossFit? What is your CrossFit Games history been as a competitor so far?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I started CrossFit in early 2012, and I actually did my first open a couple weeks after getting started, which was a lot of fun. Then I got really serious about it later that year, because I was done playing hockey. I went to regionals for the first time in 2013 and then went every year since and until they wrapped up. Then I’ve qualified for the Games 2017, ’18 and then this year 2019.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Excellent, you’re officially, as of the first event in Madison this year, you’re a three-time CrossFit Games athlete.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Correct. I like the number three so that’s good.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

[laughs] That’s a pretty exclusive club. There are the Rebecca Voights of the world, the Ben Smiths of the world, the Chris Speallers of the world, who put up 8, 9, 10 CrossFit Games appearances, but because the Games are so competitive, just qualifying is really a lifetime goal for a lot of athletes, these days.

Being a three-time Games competitor, it’s the exception now, it’s not the rule anymore.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah, definitely. I mean, occasionally it has the moment where I take a step back and realize that, it’s pretty, pretty awesome ride to be able to stay at the top of the sport for the last three years or so.

I mean, it’s taken a lot, but it’s been a lot of fun and it’s been a this journey that I really enjoyed, and I think that’s a big piece of what allowed me to stay at the top of my game for the last couple years now.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

We cover a lot of different spring sports at BarBend, and I’m really fortunate to talk to you. Weightlifters power-lifters, strongman athletes, those are sports that have longer lineages. We know generally, how long athletes stay active in those sports over the decades. We generally know what ages people peek at.

Competitive CrossFit, competitive fitness, it’s still really new, I mean, it’s been around for just over a decade. We don’t really have a great sense yet of, how long that competition lifespan is, how long can people really stay at the top of their game.

I think of the “Annie Thorisdottirs of the World”, who, she burst onto the scene in 2009. Here a decade later, she’s still at the top of her game, unclear, how long CrossFit athletes can really stay at that elite level? What are your thoughts on that?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I think it’s definitely becoming harder the bigger the sport is, obviously, there’s a lot bigger pool of athletes to draw from now. Obviously, it’s getting more competitive. So it requires a lot more fine tuning and intelligence on the athlete side.

I think, now we’re starting to see these professional coaches develop — who run programs that are very well founded — they focus on the big picture of fitness, so recovery, just the entire picture that goes into being an athlete.

I think people are starting to take that more seriously, will hopefully allow athletes to stay at the top of their game for…I mean, I guess I would probably look at it as maybe like, an NFL career timeline, three to five years at the highest levels of CrossFit. I feel that’s…it’s asking a lot of your body.

I mean, speaking personally, I’ve been training competitively since 2013, so it’s been about six years now and with three years of the Games, I feel better than ever, I feel fitter than ever. But I don’t know, I’m curious how long I can hold on to this as well. The question is very much unanswered.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

That NFL analogy is really good, would you like in being an elite CrossFit athlete to being like an NFL quarterback or like an NFL running back when it comes to the toll on your body?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I would definitely…I mean they’ll get hit a lot but because our training is so…training at the highest level is so high impact and there’s so much volume going on, you’re putting a lot of stress on your body and a lot of stress on your central nervous system. It’s definitely tough because I played hockey for a long time, so I know what physical sports feel like.

There are definitely days where CrossFit feels like a physical sport, not in the sense that I got hit so hard that I have bruises all over my body and I can’t get out of bed. But that soreness in your body, it’s very real. I would definitely say an impact player in football, so either sounds like a linemen or running back is going to feel that because our bodies are dealing with a lot of stress on a regular basis.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Yeah, that makes a lot of sense. You got into CrossFit after a hockey career. How old are you now and if you had to guess, and obviously you’re going to be a little biased, how long do you think you can stay at that top level, taking into account that you feel better than you probably ever have in the sport?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I’m 29 right now. [laughs] I’m turning 30 next year. I’ve been competing in CrossFit since I was 22 or 23. I definitely think I’ve got a couple years left, I think I can go into my early 30s. A lot of it just comes down to how long you’re willing to prioritize this lifestyle, this high-intensity training.

The six days a week we’re training takes the focus and a lot of other things take a backseat. For me I’ve been able to strike a really nice balance in my life, at home, my family life, my business and my affiliates, my training. I think that balance is what allowed me to feel better than ever, along with getting smarter over the years.

When I was younger, I did a lot of dumber stuff like not taking rest days and over-training and just kind of not eating right, all those things. Now I think I’ve got a really good handle on the big picture of what it takes to compete at a high level and be an athlete. I definitely think I’ve got a couple more years in me, as long as it stays something that I love and something that I want to keep pursuing.

CrossFit as a Career

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

We saw this transition at least when I really started following the Games very closely around 2012. You start to see this transition from hobbyists competing at the Games to people who were really treating it as a career. They were spending not only the hours in the gym but the hours doing recovery mobility. It became more of a full-time focus for them to stay healthy and at that top level.

Now I’d say we are 100 percent there in that most of the top athletes, you’re not going to see them working 50-, 60-hour work weeks outside of the gym. They’re going to be focused on whether it’s coaching to supplement their income, but really focusing their entire lives around being competitors. That’s something that doesn’t happen immediately for people.

I know it didn’t happen immediately for you, so is that a lifestyle you had to ease into? How did that become a greater part of your week?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Part of it is definitely you have to go all in, especially now. You used to be able to train as a hobby and be able to make it to the CrossFit Games. Those days are definitely far behind us. Now it has to be a full-time endeavor and something that you’re willing to commit all of your resources to, and all of your time to. I don’t know.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

[laughs] it’s a big question. I’m basically asking, “How has your life evolved over the past six years?” There’s not like a concise answer to that certainly.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

The biggest thing is that early on I was training CrossFit as a hobby. When we opened our gym, my business partner and I, we were still in grad school so we were finishing up our master’s degrees.

We were coaching 20-plus hours a week each, so there was just an awful lot on our plate. As the affiliate has matured and as we’ve brought on more staff, we have more supporting staff that are helping with day-to-day operations and things like that. It’s allowed me to take a little bit of a step back so that I can balance that training load and that recovery load a lot better.

For me personally, just being able to dedicate more hours while still maintaining a lifestyle that I’m happy with, an income that allows me to live my life the way that I want to. That’s a really hard thing for someone just getting into the sport you do because when you don’t have sponsors or when you don’t have a source of income, it is really hard to train for three, four hours a day.

And then also focus on recovery to still have all that energy to dedicate your training, if you’re working full time somewhere else. It’s definitely a big barrier to entry to the sport now, I would say.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

It’s almost a chicken-and-egg situation, right? To be at that top level, you need to go 100 percent and really dedicate your life to it. In order to have the financial freedom and flexibility to do that, things like sponsors help. Already being an established athlete, who brands are willing to invest in. Which comes first?

Oftentimes, I find it difficult to see how new people can really burst on the scene and give it that same level of dedication, when they don’t have those sponsorship opportunities, when they don’t have that income from having the supplement sponsor, or the apparel sponsor, the shoe sponsor.

That barrier to entry, I mean, from my perspective, from a non-CrossFit Games athlete perspective, it’s probably higher than ever, but curious as to, if you think that barrier is going to change over the next few years.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

onestly, I don’t think so, because athletes, like the athletes who have already established themselves are only getting better. For an athlete to break onto the scene, they either have to be a phenomenal athlete coming from another sport, or they have to have a lifestyle that somehow allows that.

What I mean is, whether that’s a job that allows them to work from home, or work remotely or things like that, or you have a really flexible schedule. It definitely requires a very specific…I guess it really specific lifestyle.

It’s only going to increase. Someone honestly, you look at someone like Mat Fraser, he was able…and Rich Froning, they were able to perfectionalize themselves before anybody else.

That’s one of the reasons that they progress — one of many reasons — leaps and bounds so much over the rest of the field is because they were professional athletes long before a lot of other people could.

They were putting in more hours, they were focusing more time on recovery, they were training more, they were doing all these things long before anyone else could afford to, because they were working other jobs or things like that. That’s one of the reasons that Mat’s so dominant right now.

He’s that much far, like further ahead of the rest of us, and we’re all trying to play catch up now.

Competitor Weaknesses

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

OK. I got to ask. This is skipping ahead of a few other questions I wanted to ask, but you bring up Mat Fraser, you competed against him, maybe more than almost anyone at the regional end of the Games level. You really started making your Games debut right as he was becoming the truly dominant force on the men’s side of things.

What are his weaknesses? You have definitely thought about this long and hard. [laughs]

You’ve competed against Mat, maybe more than anyone. What are his weaknesses? If anyone’s going to take that crown, if there’s any confluence of events, movements, modalities, time domains, it’s going to trip him up, what do you think those might be?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Man, at this point, again because he’s such a methodical professional in the way that he goes about how he approaches the sport. Any weakness that shows up again, he has the resources and the time, and the mentality to just hammer it away over the course of a year, so it’s gone before anybody can really capitalize on it.

As far as what needs to happen is, the rest of us need to get some… [laughs] We need to get better, so that multiple guys are beating Mat inconsistent events. There’s actually becoming some point differential. I think that’s something that we haven’t really seen yet, because Mat is so well rounded that it’s hard to pick up points on him.

It’s like he does poorly in one event, but he does so well in all the others, and there’s only a couple guys up there, beating him, or close to him. You need to really capitalize on those. Right now, I don’t think there is not a deep enough midfield to really see that happening.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

It’s not going to be one person necessarily beating Mat in order for Mat to be beaten, it’s going to be a few different people who beat him in the right order of events, and that place them in the right order of events to where the points work out, such that he might not win overall. Is that what you’re saying?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Exactly. We all need to band together to try and really agree to be better, because that’s not what we’re doing right now. We’re obviously not trying so hard enough, we need to make a make an agreement among all of us to just get so good that we can finally take him down.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Not to get too nerdy on this, is Mat Fraser Thanos and the Avengers have the team up in order to take him down? Is that what this is?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

It sounds like it, yeah.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

He’s that unstoppable right now?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

OK. If Mat Fraser is the Thanos of the CrossFit world right now least on the men’s side, which Avenger do you see yourself as in this ecosystem?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Oh, man, honestly, I have not watched enough Avengers to give myself an adequate assessment of…I would just make an idiot out of myself. I can’t answer that question. [laughs]

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

You’ve got a great beard. Maybe we can go with Thor, that’s always a good one.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I would definitely…Yeah, if I could pick one, Thor will be my go-to. That would definitely be my guy. A little bit of Viking, a lot of…just generally trying to be a badass, so I would definitely go with that one.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Unclear if you can wield the axe or the hammer like that, but maybe that’ll be an event of the Games this year. Who knows? You never know what’s going to happen.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Hammer-throw. Hammer-throw would be fun.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Axe or a hammer-throw, I like a hammer-throw for distance, axe-throw for accuracy. That…

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I do actually have throwing axes and throwing knives. It’s something I enjoy doing in the off-season when it’s nice out. I wouldn’t be terribly upset by something like that. [laughs]

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Now, that’d be great. At the Rogue Invitational, they had…shooting was part of an event. Axe throwing is definitely not crazier than that, it’s certainly…Someone argue as good test of fitness, if not better, so why not? If you can add one event, what would it be?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Oh, man, one event, I mean, honestly, I would love to put my background as a hockey player to use. I would love to see any…We have things…A lot of people are going to hate on me for this, but we’ve done biking, we’ve done all sorts of various obstacles running events, so they expect us to be able to ride a bike.

I would love to see some blading event, not necessarily full contact as much as I would love that.

Something like a roller, like in my hockey skating event or something like that. It’d be a lot of fun, it would be very different, and it would definitely throw a lot of guys for a loop. I definitely don’t think inline skating is not seen as cool as biking, so I don’t think that will go over very well.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

If it was the mid ’90s, it’d be even cooler than biking, but I feel it’s fallen a little out of style. I remember rollerblading was like the thing growing up, if you could rollerblade. You were like the man.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

No, I’ll say I grew up on roller. Obviously I was a hockey player. I grew up on roller skates. I barely rode a bike. I rollerbladed everywhere when I was a kid when I was growing up.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Careful what you wish for though, because if you add a skating event in there, it’s easy to forget Mat Fraser. His parents were both Olympians in figure skating in pairs. That might just give him even more of an advantage just feeding the beast.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Let’s hope not, let’s really hope he didn’t learn how to ice skate when he was a kid.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

[laughs] I think he did, but that’s neither here nor there. OK. Getting back to the training, aspect of prep a little bit more, look, training volume, I’ve noticed talking to a lot of CrossFit Games athletes, it varies just incredibly wildly.

We see some folks like years ago, Matt Chan, who was a little on the older side when he pulled into the CrossFit Games. He was working out for an hour a day, like four or five times a week keeping volume pretty low.

You compare that with some of these days like Jacob Heppner, who’s just…He’s probably working out right now, and has been for the past 12 hours. Where does your training volume fit in on that spectrum? Is that something that’s changed over the years?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah, so honestly I don’t know how Jacob Heppner is not dead because if I trained the way he did, I would have crumbled into a million pieces years ago, so kudos to him.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Yeah, Jacob, if you’re listening to this, great job not falling apart is what we’re saying.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Exactly, yes. Way to hold yourself together for so long. [laughs] We’re very impressed, all of us. Our programs definitely evolved over the years. I’ve been with the same coach since 2014, I think it is now. My coach is a good friend of mine, we have a great relationship and we’ve developed a program, symbiotically together over the last couple of years.

It’s definitely eschewed more toward the endurance side of things for sure because endurance is becoming so prominent and they’re becoming such a big aspect of CrossFit, especially in this new qualification system.

Honestly, probably 50 percent of my training volume every week, maybe even a little bit more, is endurance-focused. Swimming, biking, running, rowing, ski, all that stuff. As far as the level of training that I do in terms of any given day, leading up to the Games, close to four hours over the course of two sessions with one of those being a 90-minute plus or minus endurance session.

The other one being a main CrossFit session of about call it two hours or so. It’s definitely very endurance-focused and then, a lot of percentage lifting and a lot of skill work. A lot of time really honing root quality. We really don’t do a ton of classic Metcons. I do one a day, maybe two.

We accumulate a lot of our volume through endurance-style events because they’re lower impact on the body. You still see a lot of those aerobic and anaerobic Games depending on, obviously, what it is that day.

Endurance-Focus Comes into Focus

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Great. Now, when you talk about really having that endurance focus, and we have seen Games events move toward more of an endurance-focus, a lot more mono-structural events than we saw maybe four or five years ago I would guess. When it comes to actual strength training, you’ve spent six years building your strength base.

Max dash, max clean and jerk, or at least high percentages of those. On the power lifts as well. Do you think there’s a prerequisite base of strength, at least on the men’s side? That CrossFit Games athletes need to have and anything above that is gravy?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah, to an extent, there’s definitely a base level strength because obviously, the lighter a load is as a percentage of your owner max, the easier it is to move the less energy you expend moving it, assuming your technically precision. There’s definitely a base level of strength there.

One thing that we learned especially, I would say three years ago or four years ago when I failed to qualify for the Games for the last time, we realized that at a regional level especially because of the way the point structure works, you have to win events.

In order to qualify not only do you have to do consistently well, but because of the way the point system is laid out now you have to excel in at least one if not two events over the course of the regional weekend, so six events.

I think there’s definitely a place in CrossFit where you can’t favor your strengths too much but you definitely need to continue to develop them because you can’t give up on those home run swing events. Last year the Games for me was a prime example, I had two or three home run swing events but I just wasn’t consistent enough across the rest of that.

We are trying to train in a way that allows me to maintain those strengths, those really good events and then obviously bring up the level of my not so good events as well.

Strengths Going Into The Games

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

What are your home run strengths right now? Going into the 2019 Games, where do you see yourself as top or definitely in contention for the top on those particular events?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

My running feels really good right now. I’m really excited and hoping that we see some events that are a little bit more running focused. The last couple years of the Games, the running events, they’ve been well-littered with other things that help you back.

For instance a run swim event or run swim paddle, things like that where the run becomes such a minimal part that you can’t really showcase your ability to run.

Something like last year like push puller, where a run assault where I can flip forward. That was something where I could really allow my raw capacity to shine and my ability to run and use a machine. So that’s definitely a strong suit of mine and then basically, I’ll go ahead and say anything overhead.

If we’re looking at like handstand walks, handstand push-ups, overhead lunges, jerks, kind of anything in that realm is definitely a really strong suit of mine. Those would be events in that style that would definitely suit me for a home run swing and obviously the heavy lifting. Kind of depends on what it is.

We’re all… Last year the clean and jerk ladder, it was more about lifting heavy quickly than it was about necessarily how heavy you could lift. Actually, luckily, I spent a couple years doing this thing grid that kind of disappeared, but that was really a lot about moving heavy loads quickly. I’m actually proficient with quick sit-ups and things like that.

I actually hate clean and jerks. I don’t find myself very good at it but just so happened because it was more about speed than it was about the actual max lift, I was able to do very well on it.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Gotcha. Now, this game season is, we can guess as much as we want about what events we’re going to see at the Games. The thing that we definitely know is different than it’s ever been is qualification. When you and I last chatted was for a BarBend video we were doing about Games predictions for this year, which you can find on BarBend’s YouTube channel, if anyone’s curious.

Tim’s got some really cool insight there. The qualification system is crazy this year as compared to previous years. I notice that they’ve created a lot of ambiguity for you, maybe not necessarily knowing that you had your spot secured until pretty late on.

Has your opinion on that evolved at all, and basically, what did that do for your stress levels this year, your goals this year, and how does it changed your outlook or approach to the sport?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

As far as stress levels, I’ve spent a lot of time developing a mentality of control the controllables and just focus on very minute steps to the process at a time. After the initial shock and awe of, “Oh my God, what’s happening to my life?” we reoriented, talked to my coach, and spent some time soul-searching and making sure I was in a good head space going into this season.

Once we got that all taken care of, it was definitely a huge learning curve because these sanctions of events, it’s so unlike the regional format where you knew, for the most part, what you were getting into.

You knew you were going to show up to regionals, there were going to be a lot of moderate to heavy barbells, moderate to high-skilled gymnastics, there was going to be six or so events, maybe one more, maybe one less. Last year, they threw in the endurance events for the first time, which was really cool to see.

Now, these sanctioned events have so much autonomy over at the programming and what goes on, you’re also as an athlete looking at, OK where is this event located geographically? What events are we likely to see that are outside of the gym? Are we going to see an ocean swim? Are we going to see a mountain run? What’s the flavor of this event going to be?

How is that going to determine what events you go to? Also, how remote is the event? How likely is it that there is going to be a deep field, a shallow field? All of these things go into it now and I didn’t really understand or grasp just how important that was going to be in our selection process for the year.

As far as how we went about collecting sanctioned event this year, we selected a few early on that were probably more convenient than my current travel schedule than they were smart choices. I think that’s going to change a lot going into next year.

Now that we have the whole season laid out before us and I know these things, we’re going to be able to game plan my sanctioned event pathway for the year a lot better.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Now, for context for readers who might not have been following all sanctionals season yet, or sanctioned events season. I’m not even sure the exact correct way HQ wants us to say it. Which events did you compete in? How did those work out for you? I know you ran into a setback in Iceland, so maybe you can chat a little bit more about your experiences at the events you competed in this year.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah. I actually did Wodapalooza was my first one and I did that on a team just as an experiment. I had a couple good teammates that I was really excited to compete with. I did that for fun. Hindsight being 2020, I should have done that as an individual because I was top five at Wodapalooza last year and I was top 10 the year before that I think.

Just because of how Wodapalooza shook up this year, it would have been a great event for me individually, so I wish I did individual there. Basically, I went right from that and I flew right to Africa and I was hosting a training camp there. I went to host my training camp for a long weekend and then went down to Cape Town and competed there. I came in 5th or 6th. I actually forget.

It was a really hard event for me because there was a lot of out-of-the-gym style fitness. We had ocean swims, we had a mountain run, we had a full ninja warrior style obstacle course. Those are three things that, historically, I struggle with. We didn’t know that going into it, but we selected an event that, basically, some of the events couldn’t have been worse for me.

Then after that, I did the Open, and then I had planned on doing Iceland, I had planned on doing the Netherlands, and I had planned on doing the French Throwdown, all with the means of qualifying after the Open, if the Open had to go with the plan. The Open ended up shaking out and I got my invite through there while I was in Iceland.

I got lucky because I had to pull out of Iceland due to injury and I was basically just getting healthy enough to train normally again when the Lowlands Throwdown happened. If I had not qualified through the Open, I would have been going to the Netherlands on very minimal training just because I had taken some time off to heal my back.

Injuries and Setbacks

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Gotcha. If you don’t mind, I know it wasn’t a great experience what happened. Give us the rundown of what happened with your back in Iceland, how you felt leading up to the event, what the event was, and what went down there.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yes. I’ve had SI joint issues over the years like a hip imbalance, something that’s pretty common with athletes to struggle with. It’s taken me out of training a little bit here there for a couple days at a time. I’ve had some issues, little more severe, some less and that’s basically what it was.

It was just, my hips got really out of whack and then the series of events that came up in Iceland just couldn’t have been worse for my back issue.

Sunday morning, we started off with a handstand push-up, pistol, heavy overhead squat event. Pistols definitely fire up my back, so that combined with the overhead squat, put a lot of stress on my hip flexors. My lower back, it was in really rough shape and then the event right after that about an hour later, was a full-on sprint with some dead lifts.

They were heavy enough that you were trying to cycle a heavy dead lift quicker than you really would have liked to. I got one round to do the workout and then was a quick little three-rounder.

On the second set of dead lifts, I still wanted to come up and I felt my back go and that was it. I couldn’t really move, couldn’t really walk. It was just a spasm that was so epic, in a not good way. I was out of commission for the next kind of like 24 hours and had a lot of trouble moving.

My wife’s physical therapist, she was able to work on me when we were there and I was able to get myself back to a livable condition over the next couple days. That was about it. Just a back spasm of epic proportions.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

That’s got to have been a bittersweet experience because at the same time as you experienced that injury, that aggravation of something you’d experienced before, you find out that you do qualify for the Games out of the Open. That’s a mixed bag certainly.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah, things couldn’t have turned out better because it made the decision to withdraw from the competition a little bit easier on me mentally because as hurt as I was, if a game spot was on the line for me, I probably would have done something really stupid. I would have tried to continue to compete and I might have seriously put myself further in the hole and really hurt myself.

Luckily, I found out, I think it was Thursday morning, the leader board became final. I woke up, looked at my phone and went, “Holy crap.” This little scenario that I never thought was going to happen, actually happened and I ended up getting my invite to the Open. It was definitely a very happy set of circumstances in what could have been a very rough set of circumstances.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

It’s definitely a mixed bag. I got to ask. I believe that the competition in Iceland, it started with a mountain run, right? You ran up Esjan. Was that correct?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Oh, yeah.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

I actually did that back in 2013 with Katherine David’s daughter when I was visiting Iceland for the first time, and went with her. It was me, a buddy of mine named Bo and then the rest. He was pretty fit. He was a regionals level competitor, I certainly was not.

Then there were like 10 other people and they were all Games athletes, either team or individual running up the mountain. As you might predict, I finished dead last but it was still one of the coolest things I’ve ever done — running up this gorgeous mountain. Tell me about your experiences there.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Honestly, it was a really cool event. I love out-of-the-gym tests. I love these tests like that. As much as I didn’t do well, as an event it was a lot of fun. At the time, it was also an event that I underestimated severely because everyone, they kept calling it, “A mountain run, a mountain run” and I’m like, “All right, run. Cool, you gotta run.”

Like five minutes into the run I was like, “You have made a very big mistake.” I definitely came at that, like it was going to be a run and it was much more of a power-hike with some jogging. Hindsight 2020, I wish I had approached it differently and I think I could have done a lot better because I blew up really hard.

10 minutes into that, my hips had exploded, my lower back was on fire. It was a very poorly executed event on my part.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

I remember when I did it. I knew I was outclassed. Literally, just me and these Games athletes and like one other individual who’s much fitter. He was actually a triathlete at the time so it was like Games athletes, triathlete, me. I remember them just pointing to the top of the mountain and being like, “Well, you run pretty much all the way up.”

I kept up with the pack for like three-and-a-half minutes before I was so winded, I was doubled over and you’re like a 10th of the way up at that point. I don’t know how long it took you but this is like, 29- to 30-minute plus just like, “Get up, scramble, run, jog as fast as you can.”

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Oh, yeah. It ended up taking, I think I was like low to mid 30s, something like that. I severely underestimated that. My wife and I love to go hiking so we go to Adirondack’s in Upstate New York all the time so I know what hiking steep mountains look like. I should have known better. [laughs]

I love my competition. My competition, “You go get the best of me.”

Training in Different Places and Regions

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

I thought it’s a pretty cool insight to you talking about training outside the gym. Every country or every location has its advantages, right? You’re in New York State. There’s lots of great hiking in New York State. I live in New York City, so I don’t take advantage of it as much as I should. There’s like a ton of natural beauty in New York.

Same goes for Iceland. When you get out there and you see training, like running up this mountain, which is a very common thing for athletes in Reykjavik — they do it a lot — you really get a sense for how athleticism is baked into the culture there in a sense, and it’s not super surprising why CrossFit has just completely taken off and is all over Iceland.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Without a doubt. Obviously, everything required skill so the more you run them out, the more you know what it feels like, the way your body becomes accustomed to it. My buddy, Lucas, and I were joking, we need to run more mountains because if we ran more mountains, we’d probably get much fitter, and a lot of other ways too.

There’s no way it could be bad for us. It’s a tough thing because the Adirondacks are four or five hours away from us. Where I live, there’s a lot of rolling hills and trails, stuff like that so I do a good amount of trail running and things like that, but very different than running the mountains. Very, very different. Can’t emphasize that enough.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

It’s not something you can replicate in the gym. You can’t like, tilt up a treadmill and then put random obstacles and rocks on it. There is no substitute for doing it and the thing about mountain running too is, as you continue the air gets gradually thinner, and it might not be like a ton of elevation but you start to feel it after a few thousand feet if you’re really pushing yourself.

It’s a tough thing to replicate, but definitely something that I underestimated. It actually makes me feel better that you underestimated it too, I don’t feel so stupidas like a hobbyist athlete. Beyond that, what are some of the other events that you saw at the sanction competitions? In general, how was your experience because this is the first year we really saw those sanction competitions as sanction competitions, right?

The Dubai fitness competition has been around for a while, Wodapalooza have been around for a long time. Obviously, athletes have had those experiences before, but this year they are sanctioned, they are qualifiers for the game, more is on the line.

As a competitor in those, what was your general takeaway — could be everything from the standards of judging to your experience in the recovery services and hospitality provided — what was your sense there?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Honestly, on the whole, all the sanctioned events that I went to were ran beautifully. Fittest in Cape Town was great. Wodapalooza obviously is a stunning event. Reykjavik…Annie and Fredrick and their team did an amazing job.

All the sanctioned events I went to, I was really impressed with both from the programming standpoint and athlete services standpoint. Just a general execution and timeliness, all that was pretty incredible.

It’s also in the long run I’ve come to the conclusion that this will be good for the sport but I think it’s really important that some things are hammered out and there’s some level of consistency put across.

A governing body of sorts needs to be established to just lay some ground rules for all of us. The hope from a lot of athletes is that CrossFit headquarters would do that. They will have a committee who have a little bit of a hand in these sanctioned events, albeit a light one.

It doesn’t seem like CrossFit is very interested in playing that role so someone is going to have to because I think, as it stands right now, 28 events over a seven-month season happening basically back-to-back weekends. It’s a lot. There needs to be some level of regulation around the qualifying process and things like that but that’s a very lengthy conversation we can get into, if you wanted to.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

What are some of the SparkNotes version of that? What are some of the big questions that you feel are maybe not adequately or not fully answered right now that you as a competitor want some more clarity on.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I think the biggest thing is the qualification process for sanctionals. As an athlete, I’m lucky to have a good degree of credibility behind me as far as Games appearances, regional appearances. I’ve made a pretty solid name for myself, so getting into these events, the ones that do invites, for the most part I’m able to get an invite. If I work and want to go that route.

A lot of events do qualifier only, so you end up having to do this endless series of qualifiers. That creates a lot of problems as far as actually training, having time to get better and peak and prep for these events. I think that’s the biggest thing in my mind that’s a problem.

The other thing is, at some point the system needs to be weighted for the depth of the field that you see at a sanctioned event. You look for something like Wodapalooza in Dubai where there’s 10, 15, 20 individual Games athletes in the field and other events where there’s maybe one.

A win is a win so it doesn’t really matter, all that matters is whether or not you win. There needs to be some level of standardization, whether that comes in the form of these events. Whether we have first and second tier events.

Where our first tier event, the top three qualifies or something like Wodapalooza in Dubai, where you know there’s a very deep field and the person that comes in third could easily win 25 of the other 28 sanctioned events but they chose through here.

Something like that is going to become important as this sanctional season really develops.

Predictions

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Gotcha. The last question I have for you, Tim, before I open it up. Last time we chatted was months ago, it was cross at Games predictions. I think we were chatting back in March about that. Now we know the field much better than we did back then. The Open is over, I think we chatted during the middle of the Open.

Especially on the men’s side since that’s your field and that’s who you’re competing against. Who do you think is looking really strong? Obviously we talked about Mat Frazer a little earlier in this conversation. How are your predictions rolling out as far as who you see really vying for those podium spots in Madison?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

The men’s field is going to be very deep in competitive this year. A lot of the guys who did well in the Games last year managed to make it back and there’s going to be a solid deep field of men this year.

The guys that I know and communicate with, I think Pat Vellner, he’s done school now so he’s going to able to train full-time uninhibited for the Games which is something he hasn’t really been able to do in the past.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

We’ve been seeing a limited Pat Vellner? We’re going to see full Pat Vellner this year?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

I think so and that could be scary for everybody. He’s definitely a threat and a lot of the other guys, honestly, I figure over the course of the Games weekend you see guys have good events, have bad events. There are only a handful of guys who are very consistent, who are top 10 across the board, couple good finishes here and there.

With this elimination-style tournament that seems to be happening or that’s what everyone thinks is going to happen, a lot of it depends on the program being a series of events. If you have one trip up early on, you might not even make it to day two or day three or day four.

You could have someone who is really fit who could possibly podium or come top 10 in “normal Games year” who win this new format because of one slip up they end up getting cut early. It’s going to be really interesting to see what the programming looks like over the first day or two to establish that tighter field towards the end of the weekend

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Definitely. As of this conversation when we’re talking right now still a month-and-a-half, two months out still a lot of ambiguity and questions to be answered regarding what those cut-offs look like, the criteria for those and how athletes are going to be measured probably in more of a head-to-head fashion than they ever have before.

I’ll be interested to see that and I know for sure you will be too. Tim, I really appreciate you joining the podcast today. It’s always fantastic to chat with you. I’ve been a big fan of yours since I first saw you at regionals. Your first regionals was 2013?

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Yeah, correct.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

I saw you at that Regionals. I think it was the first regionals I ever went to so it’s been fun to follow your career since then. Where can people keep up to date with what you’ve got going on with your training and with your Games prep, if they’re listening to this podcast after the 2019 Games your continued career in the sport?

Keeping Up With Tim

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

My Instagram is the biggest one. I have a Facebook as well but my Instagram is trexpaulson, T-R-E- X and then my last name and that’s where I post. I try and give an honest a feed as I can on my training and what a real day in the life looks like. I post basically all of my training from start to finish pretty much every day, my recover, all that stuff.

Give people an honest glance on what it looks like to try and train for the Games, and try and stay at this high level for hopefully many, many years. It’s definitely the best place to follow along. Like I said, I have a Facebook as well, Tim Paulson, but I only post mostly personal stuff there. Unless you’re interested in photos of cool stuff when I travel and my family and my dog then that may not be the best spot.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

And you can see a lot of those on Instagram, too. [laughs]

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Oh yeah, 100 percent. You can definitely see plenty of my dog and my family on Instagram too, but it’s mostly training.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

The only thing fitter than Tim Paulson might be Tim Paulson’s dog. That’s what…

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Oh yeah, no, she’s awesome.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

That’s what I’ve learned here.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

She’s a five-year-old heeler. She’s got more energy than I ever could. She definitely outruns me. She goes and runs with me. We take her hiking all the time. She could probably beat me in I’d say at least a handful of events of the Games.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

She would’ve done the Icelandic mountain run in about 20 minutes flat is my guess.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Exactly. She definitely would have beaten me up there for sure.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

As long as she was incentivized.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Exactly.

David Thomas TaoDavid Thomas Tao

Well, Tim, thanks so much for joining. We’re really, really excited to see how you do this year and beyond and as always, thank you for joining us. Really appreciate you taking the time.

Tim PaulsonTim Paulson

Thanks for having me.

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