Photo Credit: ROGUE FITNESS
If you know CrossFit, you know Sam Briggs. Affectionately known as ‘the Engine’ due to her unstoppable endurance, Sam made the switch from triathlon and duathlon to CrossFit at the end of 2010 and within three years won the 2013 CrossFit Games. Oh, and the former firefighter is also an indoor rowing world record holder.
A few weeks ago I caught up with Sam at her box, TRAIN Manchester, where she and fellow CrossFit athlete and Fire & Ice teammate, Sara Sigmundsdottir, were warming up for their Team Series workouts.
Photo Credit: Reebok
Can you tell us about your sports background prior to CrossFit?
I played football. So when I retired from playing football, I was looking for something to do and I’d always done a bit of running, so I joined a running club here in Manchester – I joined Salford Harriers. And then I used to cycle to work. A few of the guys at work were doing triathlons and they were like, ‘Why don’t you start doing that?’
And was that while you were still working in the fire service?
Yep. And then someone recommended doing CrossFit to get stronger for my triathlons… and I discovered I was better at CrossFit than I was at triathlons!
How long until you gave up triathlon for CrossFit?
So I started CrossFit in 2009 and went for my first Games in 2010. At the same time, I qualified for the Age Group Duathlon World Championship in Edinburgh in the Sept 2010. So I did the [CrossFit] Games that July and absolutely loved it, but because I’d already qualified for the AG Champs, I thought I’d do this one last race and then concentrate on CrossFit for the rest of the season. To see whether it makes a difference. I came 19th in the 2010 Games, then 4th in 2011, so it was definitely the right decision.
Did you still go to Duathlon World Championship that same year in 2010?
I still went to the duathlon champs. It was hard because I’d been training more for CrossFit and hadn’t done many long runs. Yeah, it was hard.
Coming from endurance sport what did you find the hardest aspect of CrossFit?
I love it all, but gymnastics was definitely the hardest. I’d never done gymnastics as a kid so I had to learn from scratch. I’d never lifted as a kid [either], but gym was the hardest – learning to walk on your hands when you’ve spent all your life walking on your feet! The long CrossFit events that include running are the ones I’m built for.
As we talk Sam takes a post-surgery PB in her push jerk, lifting 93kg to everyone’s delight.
How is your shoulder now after last year’s surgery?
[Sam had surgery on her left shoulder to repair her labrum and bicep and remove her AC joint]
It just takes a while for it to come back – some things came back straight away, others take longer, like strict press and dips on that side, but that’s what I struggled with before surgery because of the injury.
Are there any CrossFit movements you don’t enjoy so much?
There are movements I’m not as good at. Obviously you don’t enjoy doing movements you’re not good at, but you’ve got to do them in case they come up in the Games. I have a fixed thoracic (bent over) position from cycling, so my hardest movements are overhead movements like handstands/overhead squats, because as soon as I start fatiguing my body wants to go back into that bent-over position.
Do you have a favourite WOD from this season’s competitions?
I really enjoyed the double Amanda or the Amanda .45 (muscle-ups + 95lb squat snatches for time) that was cool, I enjoyed that. At the Games this year there was nothing that really beat you up like in previous years – at the end, it would have been nice to have a few more workouts!
Sara Sigmundsdottir: – We’ve had 15 workouts, I think, for the last few Games, but this year it was only 13 workouts. It was 15 or 16 for the last few years…
Me: Why the change?
Sam Briggs: I think because normally it’s Wednesday (compete), we get Thursday rest, then it’s Friday, Saturday, Sunday (compete), whereas this year it was Thursday, Friday, Saturday, Sunday, so a different format.
So far, as Regionals go, my favourite [WOD] was probably the dumbbell squat overhead workout just because it was something I really struggled with in training. I got through it [at Regionals] and I think I took second in Regionals in that workout, so it was good that something that I’d struggled with practising, but worked on, paid off in competition. So I’d say for Regionals that sticks out.
And your least favourite workout from the Games?
Sara Sigmundsdottir: Hay bale
Me: Was that the burpee over the hay bale?
Sam Briggs: Yeah. I quite liked that one.
Me: Sam, you won that one didn’t you?
Sam Briggs: Yeah.
Sara Sigmundsdottir: The straw kept going in my mouth.
Me to Sara: Away from the Games, you’ve done some crazy burpees – 1000 burpees in 81 minutes?
Sara Sigmundsdottir: I just did it for fun [laughs]. My friend in Dubai did it, so I had to… it’s mental.
Did you like the obstacle course element in this year’s CrossFit Games?
Sam: I’m not really the most agile of people so the obstacle course was not really my favourite.
With you training so intensively, how do you ensure you recover enough to do it again?
Sam: I see guys like him (Sam points at Train Manchester’s physio) regularly, to keep my body in shape and stuff. The coach I’m working with now is a movement specialist, so sometimes it’s hard because he’s very controlling about what you can do, but this year at the Regionals and the Games I’ve felt the healthiest that I’ve felt in the last few years, so I credit that to moving better and being better prepared. Sometimes, it’s easy to do too much volume so your body starts breaking down, so it’s about finding that balance. As an athlete you feel like you wanna do more – you should be doing more – and then it’s the coach’s job to be like, ‘No’.
Do you do anything after training to recover? Like nutrition or having a bath…?
Sam: I don’t like baths. I don’t like being too warm… For me, it’s about making sure I get enough sleep, so I get like, 9-10 hours’ sleep a night, and that’s the biggest thing for recovery. I normally go to bed around 9-10pm.
Sara: I’m trying to start that. I’m a pretty opposite person to Sam.
Sam: She likes to stay up late. She’s trying to be better.
Sara: I’m trying to be better.
Me to Sara: Is it just that you’re not tired?
Sara: Oh yeah, I’m tired, but I just get distracted by doing stuff in the evening. I feel like this [points to the CrossFit box] is the ‘work’ stuff and when I finish it’s like 8pm/8.30pm and I want to have some time for me. So that’s maybe the reason I stay up so late. I want to reward myself for the day or something like that, instead of just going to sleep and it all repeats again [in the morning].
I’m trying to change it now because I feel such a difference just by sleeping more. Just the energy I have in training now.
Muscle-ups: Sam and Sara warm-up for their Team Series workout
How many hours do you train a day?
Sam: It depends on the day. So yesterday was my ‘recovery’ day and I had a 90-minute bike and an hour’s swim in the afternoon. The bike was 90 minutes because there was warming-up and cooling down. And then swimming was in the afternoon, so on my recovery day that was 3 hours of training. I train every day but have two lower intensity recovery days, which normally fall on a Thursday and Sunday.
What’s a typical training day then?
Sam: So today we’re in the gym for 9am/9.30am, and we’ll probably be finished for around 7pm. But we’ll take little breaks in between.
Do you actually have a day off where you don’t do anything?
Is that because you lose momentum if you take a rest day or because you have the energy?
Sam: Different people respond differently; you’ll find more powerful athletes will have to have the full rest day off, and then there’s others that are more aerobic-based and endurance-based and they perform better when the body’s in a state of fatigue. So if I take a rest day, my next two days’ training are actually worse than if I do, like, a 90-minute bike.
Me to Sara: Do you have a rest day?
Sara: No… similar [to Sam].
Sam Briggs: There’ll be days when there’s no real intensity, so you won’t be lifting weights, you’re not putting that stress on your body, but we’ll do movement mechanics so you’re actually feeling better for the next day’s training.
Do you ever have days where training is a struggle or you don’t feel like it?
Sam: Especially at the end of a hard week. Sometimes you don’t want to drag yourself into the gym but you always feel better once the workouts are finished.
Photo Credit: ROGUE FITNESS
Is stretching important?
Sam: It depends on the type of stretching. So you need range, but you need to be strong in that range, so I’ll have specific stretches that I have to do, but they’re not like static stretches where you’re switching the muscles off. You need to be activating – we achieve movement through movement as opposed to stretching.
Is there anything you’ve had to do more of since your surgery?
Sam: I’ve done a lot of shoulder rehab! Shoulder strengthening. I find I have more trouble with the other arm, so I’ve probably done a bit to overwork it while the left side was injured. Now the left side is fixed, the right side is needing some TLC.
Do you do any mental strength work or preparation?
Sam: I find that I’m pretty mentally strong already. I don’t know whether it was something that I developed through being a firefighter or whether the fact I had mental strength meant I was suitable to be a firefighter, but obviously I was in the service for 10 years and a lot of the time when you’re doing workouts it sucks, but I have that ability to just switch off and concentrate on the job in hand, which is what I had to do in my line of work. I had to just switch off to everything and concentrate on what I had to do.
Have you ever thought about going on Broken Skull Challenge?
There’s a brief interlude here while Sam and I explain to Sara what Broken Skull Challenge is.
Sam: I probably wouldn’t be very good at it.
Sam: I’m tiny! They do wrestling and all that… the smaller girls get knocked out and then it ends up being the bigger girls [left]. I probably weigh 61kg – if I were to wrestle someone else, I’ve got no bodyweight to push against them. It’s something that wouldn’t really suit my body type. As much as it looks fun.
Me to Sam: But there are endurance elements and a lot of challenges where speed’s involved…
Sam: I’m not that fast, though. No. I can just go at the same speed for a long time [laughs]. It would definitely suit someone like Sara though – she’s powerful, she’s got mass. I wouldn’t want to wrestle her!
Sara Sigmundsdottir: – I’d sit on you! [Laughs]
Sam, you used to eat three meals a day. Is that still your routine?
Sam: Now I tailor my training so I’m eating more regularly. I’ve got more sustained energy now – I definitely feel like I can put more effort into each session, as opposed to feeling drained towards the end of the session.
How long have you known Sara and did you enjoy working with her for the Team Series?
Sam: I always enjoy competing … it’s made even more fun when it’s with someone you get along with. I met Sara at [the CrossFit] Regionals 2014, then I competed against her at the ECC in Jan 2015 which was her breakthrough year. She then came out with some of the other European Games athletes to train with me in Costa Mesa before the Games 2015.
Which was your favourite Team Series workout
Sam: I think from week one our best performance was in the hang power snatch workout, and from the second week we both PB’d our Jackie times (1000m row, 50 thrusters, 30 chest-to-bar pull-ups).
How do you get fired up before an event like the Games – do you like to psyche yourself up or do you try and stay calm and focused?
Sam: I just try and stay focused. I love competing so this is the time I get to have fun after putting in all the hard work.
How does your training change in the off season?
Sam: This is when we assess how the last season went and what we hoped could be better. We then focus on trying to make improvements going into the next season. I do a few off season competitions so there isn’t really a true ‘off season’.
You recently won the Swiss Alpine Battle with Adrian Mundwiler as a mixed pair. How did you find it?
Sam: It was a really fun event set in the beautiful Swiss Alps. I’m an individual competitor at heart but it brings a different element to competing having a partner. Adrian [Mundwiler, Sam’s partner for the event] is a great guy so we had a lot of fun and worked well together. I’ll def go back to defend our title with him.
What are your favourite pieces of kit for CrossFit and lifting?
Sam: A decent pair of shoes, some thumb tape and the Rogue Olympic Bar is all you need for a good lifting session.
Photo Credit: ROGUE FITNESS