How Mat Fraser Plans to Outdo Himself At This Year’s CrossFit Games

At last year's Reebok CrossFit Games, Mat Fraser's performance was the most dominant in the 10-year history of the competition. Of the 15 events, which included an ocean swim, handstand walks, suicide sprints, and plow pulls, Fraser finished in the top ten for all but one. Before the final event had started, he'd already beaten the previous year's champion and eventual second-place finisher, Ben Smith.

A few weeks ago, 225,000 men around the world competed in the CrossFit Open, a series of five workouts spread over as many weeks. Again, Fraser seemed untouchable. His two first-place finishes, along with a third, a 15th, and a 20th, earned him 40 points. The runner-up had 118. May 19 – 21, he’ll compete at North East Regionals, and barring a stunning upset or catastrophic injury, he’ll move onto the Games the first week of August.

Fraser’s runaway score this year is somewhat surprising considering that, unlike in 2016, he didn’t train specifically for the Open. Almost every day, he’s been training for events, like running and swimming, that appear only at the Games. Also unlike other years, Fraser’s been focusing on when to dial back his workouts – not how to push harder.

Because the Games are five days and fifteen events, even a minor injury can become a fatal liability. “Before,” Fraser says, referring to his previous career as an Olympic powerlifter, “if it was written on the piece of paper, I'd follow it blindly.” That kind of overtraining led to a broken back, and over the past year, Fraser has worked to recognize the line between desired exhaustion and potential injury.

“I have one rib that dislocates fairly easily,” he explains, “and over a couple days of heavy training, I kind of feel it and back off. But then other times, I get bull headed and do the movement. And sure enough, there's the click, and for three days I can't really take a deep breath.”

Thankfully (if, like Fraser, you’re trying to train three times a day, every day), CrossFit training includes so many movements that he can work around a wrist that’s sore from cleans or hands that are torn from ring muscleups. But, that flexibility isn’t a free pass to skip an unpleasant workout.

He tells me: “You can't get that into your mind of — ‘Oh, this is sore. I have to stay away from it’ because that might come up at the Games. You can't go up to the director of the competition and say, ‘I know you just released that, but I'm really sore. Can we do it tomorrow?’”

Fraser used this year’s Open to prepare for that scenario. Each week, the workouts were announced on Thursday, which most competitors took as a rest day. They’d do the workout Friday, train lightly Saturday and Sunday, and then re-do it on Monday, the last day to submit scores. Not Fraser, who would do the workout only on Friday afternoon – after he’d already trained that morning. Endurance, he’s learned, is essential.

When he first started CrossFit, Fraser would stop a workout when his lungs started to burn. After one competition, where he was the last athlete on the floor, he vowed to build his engine and rowed every day for a year. At the 2016 Games, the only event Fraser won was the first, a 7k trail run. He’d accomplished his goal of turning a weakness into a strength, only to discover a new weakness: In the second event, a deadlift ladder, he’d placed 23rd out of 40.

Though Fraser had been deadlifting since he was 12, he reached out to Chad Wesley Smith, a powerlifting coach in California. For six hours a week, Fraser lifted, practiced technique, did accessory work, and reviewed film for that one movement. Three months later, his PR had improved from 505 to 535.

I ask whether his goal this year is to win the deadlift ladder, should there be one. He laughs. “I think I’m still a hundred pounds behind the top guy. No, my goal is not to be in the bottom 50 percent.” For the Games overall, though, he’s a little more ambitious: “Would I love to win by 200 points? Of course, but if I attack each event as hard as I can, I’ll be happy.”

While deadlifts are likely to show up at the Games, it’s impossible to know in what form. “Constantly varied” is a central tenant of the sport, and organizers relish creating new ways to test athletes’ fitness. However, Fraser is running out of weaknesses to train into strengths. On top of his aerobic capacity and improved deadlift, he has a 315-pound snatch, a pullup record of 50, and a 1:18 Grace time, meaning he could be even more dominant this year than he was last year — as long as he doesn't dislocate a rib along the way.