The PR Paradox

Aug 5th, 2015

Category: Community

The PR Paradox


Let’s get this out of the way:  PRs are a wonderful thing and something you should be proud of when they come along.  Let’s also get this out of the way:  PRs come rather easily when you first start training and get harder to come by as you progress in your training.  This is known as the law of diminishing returns; this is a law that can be observed across many disciplines, not just exercise-related stuff.  For a nice example of the law of diminishing returns in action, as it applies to the CrossFit world, check out this Beyond the Whiteboard analysis of Games athlete Julie Foucher.  In particular, it’s this paragraph that’s relevant to our discussion here:

A good way to see Julie’s progress in a nutshell is through the lens of her “Fran” history. She has completed Fran a total of 21 times in her CrossFit career, which is pretty impressive (and masochistic). The first time Julie attempted Fran, she did it as Rx’d in 4:58. This was after she had been crossfitting for about 6 months. Keep in mind that it takes years for most women to complete a sub-5 Fran as Rx’d. It took her an additional 13 months to get her first sub-3 Fran. During that period she did Fran 10 times. On December 13th, 2010, she completed Fran in 2:52, which is an incredible milestone especially for a female athlete. 7 months later, on July 18th, 2011, she got her first sub-2:30 Fran, at 2:29. Just last month, almost 3 years later, she set a lifetime PR with a time of 2:13 [Emphasis mine].

(Click here for a cool graph of Julie’s Fran performance over time:

So here’s Julie Foucher, one of the top CF athletes around, and it took her 3 years to PR her Fran time (from July 2011 to June 2014).  This is not surprising, though.  Because her Fran time was already excellent, it was going to take a lot more work for her to be able to PR her Fran time (an example of that law-of-diminishing-returns thing).  So next time you have a personal pity party because you haven’t PR’d your clean in the last two weeks, understand that it’s part of the process and that given enough time and enough training, the PRs will come.

So if PRs are a good thing, and at the same time, we know that their frequency can diminish over time, then what more do we really need to know?  This is where the paradox part comes in.  And the paradox isn’t about the PRs themselves, it’s about the mentality of constantly chasing PRs and evaluating your training based on whether or not you PR.  Once you’ve been training for a while (and this is especially the case in the world of CF training because we’re training so many different aspects of fitness), chasing PRs constantly can actually backfire and lead to stepping backwards performance-wise.  One of the great ironies of PRs is that often times it will be the fairly mundane, sub-maximal work (no maxing out) that you do that leads to performance breakthroughs, and yes, PRs.  Sometimes it seems like the PR will come out of nowhere, because all of you’ve been doing are lots of sets of three, four, five, and six (using strength work as an example here, but similar examples can be given for endurance/stamina-related scenarios).  As an aside, I’ve got to also make a plug here for improved skill as a driver of performance.  By improving skill in movement (technique), we’re setting ourselves up for PRs down the line, even if the payoff isn’t immediate.

Detach yourself from the notion that PRs are the only determining factor when it comes to evaluating progress and performance.  Celebrate PRs when they come, but don’t chase after them.  And embrace the sub-maximal work.  It’s the bridge from present day to better performance in the future.