Fitter Than Ever: CrossFit Games Masters Champion Ron Mathews

Ron Mathews has done a bit of it all over the course of his length fitness career. He’s a celebrity trainer, author, fitness model, and competitive fitness athlete, most recently taking home 1st place in the Men’s 45-49 year old division at the 2016 Reebok CrossFit Games. A four-time Games athlete, Mathews has improved on his placing every year, a consistent climb that eventually led to a championship.

The LA-based Mathews has also taken a few noted turns as an actor, appearing in movies like Daredevil and as a “Jacked Priest” on the hit show Arrested Development. Chances are you’ve seen him on TV or in print as a personal trainer and friend to some of Hollywood’s fittest stars.

Arnold Schwarzenegger (left), Joe Manganiello (center), and Ron Mathews (right)

I’m particularly lucky to call Ron a friend and mentor. A few weeks ago, I caught up with him to gain some insight into how his training and training philosophy has evolved over the years.

1. What is your athletic background?

I was a 5 sport athlete in High School and went to the University of Utah where I played football and ran track. I have been an athletic trainer for over 20 years.

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2. How did you find CrossFit?

My wife and I were working with Reebok, she created a Cirque Du Soleil inspired group class and I was creating personal training applications for their other group classes. We wanted to open a studio and were talking to Reebok about their possible involvement when they asked if we had ever heard of CrossFit. I had been hearing about it but knew very little so they sent us to CrossFit Football where Andy Stumpf gave us an abbreviated level 1 seminar followed by my first CrossFit workout…Fran with burpees.

Evil. I had never kipped before so they showed me how and I picked it up right away. I went unbroken on the 21 thrusters, the 21 pull-ups, and the 21 burpees, then straight into the 15 thrusters, I broke the pull ups into 5’s and started the 15 burpees. Not exactly sure what happened but I basically passed out in the bottom of the burpee face down on the floor. I was lying there for 30 or 40 minutes and then I coughed for 3 days.

It was a real eye opener since I considered myself to be in great shape. I started CrossFitting full time and haven’t looked back.

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3. How many times have you been to the CrossFit Games?

I have been to the Games four times: 11th, 10th, 3rd, and 1st. There is a real learning curve to the Games. I don’t care who you are or where you train, when you are in a heat at the Games every single person there is legit and if you aren’t ready physically and mentally you are going to get beat. In CrossFit, even if you are as ready as you can be you might still get beat. Not to mention the WODs tend to be a lot harder than the Open and Regionals (qualifiers).

4. How has your training philosophy changed over the years?

I train a lot smarter than I used to. CrossFit does tend to work in the same movement patterns over and over so I am very good about taking 2 days off per week. One fully off and 1 with mobility but no lifting. I personally don’t do well with high volume.

It is such a badge of honor in CrossFit to train 4, 5, or more hours per day, but I found that strategy not to work for me. Less volume but high intensity, a strength piece, skill work, a timed WOD and then a second workout a few times per week to work on running and pure cardio is the ticket for me.

5. What does your nutrition look like?

My nutrition is very strict. I was a fitness model for 15 years so I tend to over diet. If anything, I have to make sure I eat enough to maximize my training. I follow a Zone based diet, mostly Paleo but I do have to make sure I get complex carbs for energy.

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6. Do you have a coach or follow a program ?

I have followed a few different programs but found that programming for myself worked the best. Last year one of my clients bought me a membership to Ben Bergeron’s Masters Program. After checking it out I decided to jump in with both feet and follow it to the letter. As a coach and programmer myself I was temped to add in other things but didn’t. Turned out it was a great decision as it really improved my fitness.

7. What did you do differently this year to win the Games?

As I have said already, I trained less and rested more. In years past I limped into the Games, overtrained and battling injuries. This year I felt the best I have for a long time on the first day and got stronger as the week went on instead of physically falling apart like in past years.

8. You own a gym, work at an art gallery and train celebrities. How do you balance your time?

My day is scheduled down to the last minute. The up side is that I have to do what is next on the agenda when it comes up, regardless of how I feel about it. So procrastination is not an option. The down side is that I am not always ready to train when I have to so I have to mentally push myself past the fatigue of my day as well as the fatigue of the workout.

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9. Masters have often stressed recovery in their training. How important is it to you? Do you have any secrets to help you recover?

I would say that recovery is very personal. My recovery is just as fast as it has ever been, but that speed is just average, as it was when I was 20.

In my opinion, most CrossFitters overtrain. I feel it is important to train the optimum amount for your body. This is what I feel I have dialed in over the years, the optimal amount of training for me. I perform better on less training so I am not afraid to dial back my volume if my body is not feeling it. Lastly, I have to be diligent on my food and hydration. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that “other guys are out there doing more so I have to push myself past where I think I should be.” What works for Rich Froning may or may not be what works for you.

10. Is there anything that you want people to know about you, that most wouldn’t ?

I play a few musical instruments, love crosswords and sci-fi books. I am never afraid to try something new.

Featured image courtesy of Ron Mathews.