One of the benefits of having been an Affiliate for almost seven years is experience with nutrition challenges. Our first nutrition challenge took place in 2008. The Gift of Fitness Challenge brought with it a benchmark WOD at the beginning, twelve weeks of strict Zone Dieting, food journals, before and after pics, and final benchmark WODs to document improved performance. We learned a great deal about nutrition WODs and how people respond both physically and mentally to these types of challenges, which led to more challenges and better designed challenges going forward.
Subsequent nutrition challenges incorporated many lessons learned. We added challenge partners, teams, weekly team WODs, weekly meetings, conference calls, more journaling, and posting requirements on the daily blogs, along with other incentives along the way to keep folks motivated to continue. We also varied the duration of the challenges and jumped into the Primal and Paleo diets as alternatives to Zone dieting. Some challenges were limited to thirty days, some eight weeks, but we never again stretched for a twelve-week challenge noting that after 10 weeks of strict eating and the demands of the challenge, people's motivation waned significantly - akin to doing an hour-plus beat-down workout.
Needless to say, there are several key factors that make nutrition challenges successful. First, the team concept is paramount. Teams within your gym make for helplines for folks who get to the edge of their eating cliff. Strong team leaders are essential for the success of their teammates. Knowing you're in this with someone else eases the mental challenge of sticking with it. A second key is journaling and having the journal reviewed by a team of knowledgeable coaches. The coaches can assist the challenger with dietary questions and keep people honest. Third is having a working understanding by all members of the rules of the game: i.e. what you can and can't eat; daily requirements, if any; and performance requirements, if any. We held several pre-challenge briefings and attendance was mandatory for participants. Everyone knew what the requirements were and this helped to overcome the mental aspect of commitment for the duration. No surprises, except for perhaps the performance challenges.
The final key to success deserves more indepth treatment. Performance on the workouts, usually in the form of benchmark WODs at the beginning and end of the challenges, are the truth tellers. Benchmarks are essential to measure improvement at beginning and end, while performance workouts done throughout the challenge help maintain motivation for all, keeping the challenge fun and inspiring. Let's look first at the hallmarks of successful benchmark workouts.
The benchmark workouts must be designed to test basic fitness levels and be measurable, observable, and repeatable for all. Like all true CrossFit-style workouts, the benchmark workouts need to be simple in design, yet crafted to elicit functionality, creative variance, yet still require realitive intensity. They cannot, and should not, be a beat down that sets the conditions for injury, nor should these benchmarks have a duration that precludes or inhibits successful monitoring by the coaches - either as to time domain or the ability to judge the movements. Single modal domain workouts are great ways to document benchmarks (i.e. 500m row), as are couplets and triplets. I cannot emphasize enough that the benchmarks must be scalable for each participant.
Benchmark workouts are often not enough to keep the challengers motivated throughout the duration of the challenge. Thus, intermediate performance-style workouts can be fun and rewarding as a means to bring participants together. Like the benchmark workouts, you just can't go crazy with these performance workouts. These intermediate, performance workouts must be designed along true CrossFit-style programming. Of utmost importance is the requirement, like the benchmarks, for these workouts to be infinitely scalable. Keep in mind that all of the challengers should be able to do all of the workouts, or scaled versions of them, for score or time that can be translated to the challenge. The performance workouts should never be written to challenge only the firebreathers in your gym or to simply keep people entertained, such as ridiculous chippers that only a few can complete or chippers done as AMRAPs. These types of workouts fail to test performance, yet they are very successful at crushing the motivation of the vast majority of those participating in the challenge. That and they're just poor programming all around.
Remember, one of the tenants of good programming is maintaining high-power output (i.e. intensity). Just because it's hard doesn't mean it's good programming. Crazy stuff (no need to enumerate here as you know it when you see it) can lead to unnecessary injuries and the feeling by many that they just shouldn't participate because the workouts are just too hard. Functional and varied movements are requirements just as much as intensity. Fail in one area and fail in the overall workout design. After all, a nutrition challenge is not and should not become a "Games" event. If your goal is to program "Games"-style workouts for nutrition challenges, you need to rethink your whole challenge.
It takes a lot to manage these challenges and without a computer platform for tracking, we were successful in every single challenge in managing the participants, maintaining motivation, and ensuring success for every person involved. Keep it fun. Keep it simple. Maintain journals. Program well. Overall, be the best coach you can to those who really want to make a difference in their nutrition, which in turn will have the desired effect on their performance. Finally, always remember that the nutrition challenge should be an all-inclusive event for those who want to participate and not an event for firebreathers to see how well they alone can perform. They get plenty of opportunitites to do that in the almost weekly events around the country. Your nutrition challengers are your everyday gym members who just want to look, feel, and perform better than they did yesterday. It's your job, as their coach, to help them get there.