Chris Spealler knows a thing or two about overcoming challenges. With the competition floor in the rear view, the CrossFit pioneer is now finding balance in his own fitness while being a gym owner.
Spealler started CrossFit in 2006. He competed as an individual in the CrossFit Games seven times, including the inaugural event in Aromas, California in 2007. In 2010, he made it to the podium. His final Games bid was 2017, competing in the men’s 35-39 division, where he placed third.
Now age 44, Spealler is the long-time owner of CrossFit Park City in Park City, UT, a new PushPress gym. It’s a different time and fitness landscape from where he started.
“Anyone who wanted to could just show up and compete,” Spealler said about the first CrossFit Games. He recalls that it was just a really cool vibe, almost like a backyard barbecue. And it finished with beer drinking, of course.
In other words, it was a care-free time when fitness was just plain fun. And that feeling is what led to Spealler choosing to become a gym owner.
Maybe you can relate. When training is fun, exciting and social, it’s the best part of your day. As a result, working out is easy and you’re excited to do it every day. You’re healthy and loving being in the gym. It’s almost like the high of being in a new relationship.
When The “New” Wears Off.
Not unlike a new romance, eventually the novelty of being a gym owner wears off. Suddenly, you’re left realizing gym ownership is more work than you initially anticipated. And oftentimes, the first thing that starts to slide is your own fitness.
You plan on working out daily. But leads reach out, your gym social media needs work and the toilet is overflowing. So you prioritize those things, thinking, ‘Screw it, I’ll workout tomorrow.’
Before you know it, you haven’t worked out for eight days.
With seventeen years of CrossFit under his belt, Spealler says you can find a healthy balance. He still genuinely loves working out, but doesn’t put pressure on himself. He respects how his body feels on any given day. And he’s at peace with training for one hour or less per day, five days a week.
However, Spealler also admits making the mindset transition wasn’t easy and came with a few growing pains. There was a time when training was all-consuming for him.
“It was a bit of a journey over two years, maybe even longer,” said Spealler. But today he he’s found a better way to approach training. In the process, he’s developed a healthy relationship with fitness and insists, “I still love working out.”
Finding Balance as a Gym Owner:
In an effort to help even one gym owner take care of their overall health while running a strong business, Spealler offers these seven tips:
1. Intensity in Small Doses.
If you don’t feel like working out hard, just do something.
While Spealler still occasionally trains at a high intensity, he said a fitness plan has to be sustainable. And when the focus is “lifelong,” you have to lay off the intensity.
“Intensity is good but, and I think we need it, but in the right dosing and the time,” he said.
The key is to auto-regulate, he explained, which actually requires a certain amount of maturity. On the days he isn’t feeling as spry as he’d like, he simply lowers the intensity.
“It’s something that has not been a part of the culture we have seen with programming in general,” said Spealler. “The culture is often (about) high intensity and throttling yourself every day.”
As a result, he said, “People feel like they have been chewed up and spit out by CrossFit. Because I don’t think they have been taught, or (they don’t) have the maturity, on how to self-regulate. To have longevity, you have to take a smarter approach.”
This pressure to be intense all the time is sometimes what leads a gym owner to start letting their own fitness slide. When you don’t feel like putting your body through the ringer, you simply bail altogether.
To this, Spealler offers you this reminder: “Something is better than nothing.”
2. Cut Movements that Don’t Serve You.
Unless you’re signed up for an upcoming competition, do you need to work on muscle-ups if they’re causing you shoulder pain?
Spealler admits this was an incredibly hard mindset transition to make. He recalls finding it difficult to “give myself permission to pull movements off the table.”
“They are great movements and they have great value to people and I still program them,” he said. “But for me personally, with injuries and things I have going on, the juice isn’t worth the squeeze.”
So for the most part, Spealler now chooses not to snatch or do much Olympic lifting. He also often replaces kipping movements with the strict version. And he doesn’t even run much anymore on the road, as it bothers his back or knees.
“It’s a daily assessment, for sure,” he said.
Ultimately, although he admits it’s a hard thing to do, but Spealler insists that, it’s important to be smart with our training. And it’s especially important as we age, so we can still be training when we’re 80 years old.
3. Get Out of the Gym.
As a gym owner, you spend a lot of time within those four walls. So if the idea of adding hours so that you can lift or train is taxing, simply get out. Find a way to move doing an activity you enjoy outside of your gym.
This has been huge for Spealler, who said he generally does outdoor workouts twice a week. Some of his options include mountain biking, dirt biking and skiing.
4. Learn to Delegate.
When you look at your daily or weekly task list, are you wearing all the hats? The incredibly time-consuming nature of entrepreneurship can often lead to gym owner burnout. There’s simply so much to do that they feel like they just don’t have time to work out.
“Start deleting real quick,” says Spealler. “Because if you are in that position, it’s a short-lived cycle and eventually you will burn out. And eventually your gym won’t be there for you or any of your members.”
Today, Spealler only coaches six classes a week. He knows that in order to take care of other people, you have to take care of your own health and wellness.
5. Attend Classes.
It’s become more rare these days but Spealler encourages you to take classes with your members. It’s an easy way to stay connected with the gym community and hold yourself accountable to a commitment, he explained.
First, if you attend the same class every day, members start expecting you to show up. This helps with your own accountability. Just because you’re a gym owner, you’re not immune to needing help with accountability, right?
Second, it makes it easier to create an automatic habit, rather than something you have to force yourself to do.
6. Enjoy the Benchmarks.
Remember the CrossFit benchmark workouts you found in the early days? “The Girls” WODs used to be fun. Or, at least it was fun to hit a PR every time you did them for the first two years. But how do you find the motivation as you get older, and know your best Fran time is behind you?
Spealler was 27 when he found CrossFit and doesn’t have the benchmark times that he used to. Gone are the days of training for six hours and topping the leaderboards. So why does he insist he still loves hitting a classic benchmark workout?
Because he has let go of the pressure to PR.
“I still do benchmarks, but I just don’t care (about the number),” he said. “I look at it for the value of the workout and not the benchmark. It takes a really mature mentality. But the reality is, no one is going to continue to progress forever. It’s just not the way our bodies work.”
However, he says he’s noticed people think if they’re not hitting PRs, their training isn’t working. And this simply isn’t true, he explained. The longer your training life—in his case, two decades —the harder it is to progress, from a numbers standpoint.
“It doesn't matter what you do,” said Spealler. “If you’re training for a marathon, if you’re a powerlifter, eventually your numbers will start to either plateau or decline. And that’s just normal. So understanding that and embracing that is really important. And it doesn’t mean that the program is bad.”
7. Track Success Differently.
Instead of looking at fitness performance data (e.g. times and reps) as a measure of success, Spealler offers a different approach. He says to try taking a more holistic approach to tracking.
He recommends asking questions like, “What’s my work-life balance like? Is the relationship with my wife and my kids really good? Did I get to go on that adventure that I really wanted to? It doesn’t have to be limited to your Fran time.”
For a man with a best Fran time of 2:04, that’s saying something. And naturally, we had to ask what his current time is.
“I could still break three minutes,” he said with a smile. Not too shabby for a gym owner who prioritizes his health, trains for one hour a day and actually enjoys it.