Merrill Mullis: Defying Age

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In How Julie Foucher Became Julie Foucher we examined the habits of a, then, 25 year old perennial CrossFit Games athlete. We dove into the training habits and history of a CrossFitter in the prime of her athletic potential.  But what about the more “experienced” crowd? 40+ year-olds love CrossFit too, and, with the introduction of Masters categories at the CrossFit Games, there are now more opportunities than ever for them to demonstrate their abilities.

Meet Merrill Mullis. She’s a 42 year old mother of 2, a buyer at the University of Michigan, and a CrossFit badass. According to Beyond The Whiteboard’s Fitness Level feature, she’s a Dragon (level 96). How is it that somebody nearly twice the age of Julie Foucher is able to achieve such a high level of performance? In addition to analyzing her BTWB numbers, we talked to Merrill about her experiences and training habits with the goal of enlightening the community on exactly what it takes to battle, and help defy, father time.

Athletic Background

Merrill’s athletic background goes way back. She played a slew of sports as a youth. In high school, her focus turned to basketball and volleyball. She eventually went on to play volleyball at the University of Illinois. It was at the age of 37 (June 2010) that Merrill found, and began, CrossFit. As with most life-long athletes, the desire to compete and stay fit was too strong for her to ignore. After a tip from a couple of her friends, she decided to give it a try. She says, “My youngest son was 2 years old and I was looking for something to improve my fitness and strength that didn’t require a lot of time.” Little did she know where the experience would take her.

Different Age, Same Story

“Think of Julie – now think of a taller, older version” – Doug Chapman

Most successful people are found to have similar habits. The same can be said of athletes. In How Julie Foucher Became Julie Foucher we determined that 3 main factors attributed to Julie’s massive success in CrossFit. Predictably so, Merrill shares those same components. First, she has a long athletic background. Not only that, she was good at what she did. No one becomes a collegiate athlete because they have “some” ability. Second, she’s coached by a tremendously well respected and acknowledged coach in Doug Chapman. Doug has a long history of developing top notch athletes that go on to achieve big-time success at the CrossFit Games. While many top-notch athletes seek out the best coaches, Merril’s encounter with Doug seems to have been a classic case of “right place, right time”. When recounting her discovery of Doug, Merrill says “HyperFit was the first gym that popped up when I googled ‘crossfit Ann Arbor’“. If only we could all be that lucky. Finally, Merrill is incredibly consistent. She’s been recording her CrossFit journey on Beyond The Whiteboard from day 1, and the numbers don’t lie. Since 2010 she’s amassed over 4,200 logged results. That comes out to about 841 sessions per year, or about 16 sessions per week. Do the math…that’s a lot of work.

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*2015 numbers from January to March

Humble Beginnings

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As with most people first starting CrossFit, it wasn’t always rainbows and butterflies. Merrill’s first recorded Fitness Level was a 14.  4,200 logged results later and those days are long gone. With the help of Doug Chapman’s programming, which focuses on consistent and frequent exposure to varied skill sets, believes in aspiring Games athletes working side by side with soccer moms, and holds firm to the GPP (general physical preparedness) philosophy of CrossFit, Merrill has reached the upper echelon of the CrossFit world.  Below is a table of some of the progress she’s made over the course of 5 years.

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The Turning Point

Merrill first realized she was capable of more than just a CrossFit participation medal when she qualified for Regionals, from the Open, as an individual in 2011…it was her first Open. Even more impressive is that she’d only just begun to get her feet wet with Doug’s competition training in January of that same year. Merrill’s been “following Doug’s competition training ever since”. The additional workload appears to be paying off. Merrill’s qualified for Regionals as an individual for every year she’s competed in the Open, including in 2013 and 2014 when she first became eligible for the Masters 40-44 division. 2013 and 2014 each culminated in a CrossFit Games appearance.

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In How Long Does It Take To Improve At CrossFit? we discovered that, on average, until level 80, it takes about 5-6 months to improve one’s Fitness Level by 10 levels. Merrill went from a 15 to an 81 in 10 months. That’s 10 levels every 1.44 months. We also found that it takes 19 Months to improve from a level 50 to a level 80. Merrill did it in 4 months. After level 80, things become more difficult for the average CrossFitter. An additional 8+ months is required to get from level 80 to level 90. Here’s where Merrill begins to show some of her human side. It took her about 10 months to go from an 81 to a 92.

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Training Volume – How Is She Doing It?

Each year the Open has drawn more and more participants, and, yet, each year Merrill continues to qualify for Regionals in the Individual Women’s category. She’s getting older but her Open percentile placing keeps getting better and better.  Here’s what a typical week of training looks like for Merrill (this particular week is 2 weeks out from the 2015 CrossFit Games Open).

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It’s okay if your jaw just dropped. Merrill is doing more at 42 than most twenty-somethings. The rest of her year, and each of the years prior to 2015, look exactly the same. How is such a grueling schedule possible, especially for a mother of two with a full-time job? The answer is an understanding family, a flexible job, and an awesome coach. Merrill admits “it is really tough to balance everything. However, my family is extremely supportive and my job is very flexible. I am fortunate to be able to work out during the day Monday-Friday so that I don’t miss any time at home with my family during the week. Also, Doug has given me access to the gym whenever I need it, which makes things easier to manage“.

It’s clear some of the external elements of Merrill’s life have helped her along the way, but what about the intrinsic motivation to keep up with such a high volume training schedule? Where does that come from? She mostly attributes that aspect of her personality to her history in athletics. She comments, “I have been an athlete most of my life so I understand how important it is to be consistent in my training. I also feel better in general, physically and mentally, when I am consistent. For me it’s an easy choice now“.

Was her training always this tough, though? Of course not. Well, at least not for the first 6 months. Remember, Merrill isn’t normal. After only 6 months of CrossFit did she dive headfirst into Doug Chapman’s competition training. Each year after, her workouts per day, week, and month steadily rose. When reminiscing about her increased volume, Merill is particularly cogniscent of the greater focus on gymnastic skill work, as well as on Olympic Weightlifting. The graphs below dive into the evolution of some of her training over the years.

Monostructural Cardio

Merrill has gradually reduced the amount of her running, while simultaneously increasing her rowing volume.

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Gymnastics

Merrill’s pull-up/C2B pull-up history shows, precisely, the shift towards focusing on more highly skilled gymnastic movements.

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Weightlifting

Both Merrill’s Snatch and Clean & Jerk numbers have been steadily rising. We’re only half way through 2015 and Merrill has already accumulated more than half the amount of the most Clean & Jerks she’s recorded in a single year.

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BTWB’s Role

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Merrill’s progress in a nutshell. Her very first Elizabeth score back in 2011 was 15+ minutes. In 4 years she got that score down to sub 6 minutes. We’re able to tell an awful lot about Merrill’s fitness journey because she’s recorded all of it via Beyond The Whiteboard since she started. In fact, she credits some of her success to BTWB’s tracking and analyzing features:

“Beyond the Whiteboard has definitely played a role in helping me to be successful. I track all of my workouts there and rely on it as a reference for my previous performances for wods, strength, Olympic lifts, etc. I also try to keep notes on my workouts when I do them – my rep scheme, how I felt, etc, and I find that they are helpful to me the next time I do the same workout.”

Nutrition & Recovery

We all know about the importance of nutrition and recovery, but how many of us actually devote the necessary time both deserve? Remember, things don’t get easier with age. We saw that in How Does Age Affect Improvement In CrossFit? However, there are exceptions to the rule, and Merrill appears to be that exception. For example, Merrill rarely ever takes full rest days. You can see that from the sample week image posted earlier in the article. Instead, she partakes in 2 “active rest days” per week, which usually consist of mobility and either a 10k row or a 5k row.

Her diet appears fairly standard (as far as CrossFitters go). She “started doing the paleo diet about 3 years ago and a couple of years ago [she also] added a whey protein recovery drink after workouts”. What isn’t so standard are her cheat meals, which is code for “she doesn’t really have them”. Merrill finds that she just “feels better when [she] keeps [her] diet consistent”. Does her age play a role in her nutritional decision making? Absolutely.

“I also think this has become much more important for me to do as I’ve gotten older.”

As for the specifics of her recovery, Merrill’s routine is on point.

“I roll out and work on mobility almost daily, take a Progenex recovery drink after every workout, take Pure Pharma’s O3 and M3 every day, and I go to the chiropractor weekly. During the competition season I get massages pretty regularly too.”

What about sleep? I’ve yet to meet, or hear about, a Games athlete not prioritizing sleep. It just doesn’t happen. Merrill shoots for a minimum of 8 hours of sleep, nightly.

Even with all of the attention to nutrition and recovery Merrill does admit that the amount of volume demanded of her does become an issue at times. Her experience, though, has taught her to listen to her body.

“It is sometimes hard for my body to handle the training volume, especially when it increases quickly from one week to the next. However heavy volume is what I know and it has worked for me, so I don’t always feel great when I back off of the volume. I have learned over the years though that I need to listen to my body and cut back on a particular day if I’m not feeling great. I do sometimes feel limited by my age. I don’t recover as quickly as I did when I was in my 20s and early 30s and I think strength gains are harder to come by as you get older.”

Weaknesses

As good as Merrill has become, like every CrossFit athlete, she still has weaknesses she’s trying to address. BTWB’s Weaknesses feature gives each athlete valuable insight into some of the holes in their fitness game. As an example, the chart below shows Merrill’s Olympic Weightlifting ratings paired with their respective squat ratings (shoulder press is paired with jerk). From this chart we can tell that her Clean ability, though very good, may be hindered by her relative weakness with the Front Squat.

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When asked about her biggest perceived weakness, Merrill talks mostly of gymnastics. She specifically cites handstand push-ups, toes-to-bar, and pull-ups as problem areas she’s made big strides with, but that she still has a long ways to go to mastering.

2015: More of the same

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2015 is shaping up to be another fantastic year for Merrill. She finished the CrossFit Games Open in 44th place in the Individual Women’s division and 2nd place in the Masters 40-44 division. She also finished 23rd in the World in the 40-44 Masters division during the recent Masters Qualifiers, enough to earn her an invite to the 2015 CrossFit Games. It will be her 4th appearance at CrossFit’s biggest stage.

It wasn’t without some scares though. Everything was going exactly as planned until the final event of the 2015 Masters Qualifiers, where she took 109th place on Event 4, forcing her score from a 55 after 3 events to a 164 when all was said and done. The culprit? Handstand push-ups.

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Handstand push-ups are the one movement Merrill would have told you she didn’t want to see show up, let alone 45 of them. In addition to being tall, with long limbs, shoulder mobility issues have limited Merrill’s abilities with the HSPU. It hasn’t kept her from prioritizing them, though. As you can see via the chart below, she’s made HSPUs a priority ever since 2010 (she didn’t perform a single HSPU in 2010). Each year thereafter the volume has dramatically increased, peaking at 2,266 reps in 2014. She’s already logged more than half of that (1,330 reps) in 2015 so far. Even the best have their setbacks. Fortunately for Merrill, all of her hard work over the years on HSPU has helped to minimize that setback.

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Imparting Wisdom

Another year, another Games appearance, and even more wisdom and experience gained. Merrill takes from each of her Games seasons and adds to her arsenal of experience when it comes to training and recovering as a Masters athlete. When asked about the advice she’d give to older athletes looking to stay competitive in CrossFit, she emphasized recovery. Merrill strongly suggests “really [paying] close attention to getting enough sleep, and eating in a way that’s best for your body“. She also encourages older athletes to take advantage of self-recovery mobility tools, as well as services offered by chiropractors and masseuses. Remember, Merrill mobilizes daily.

Her advice to the younger crowd is equally as wise. When asked to offer words of wisdom to the younger crowd intent on competing well into their older years, Merrill talked about patience. She recommends “being patient [because] building strength and developing skills takes time“. “Enjoy the ride“, she says. She wishes she’d been fortunate enough to find CrossFit while she were still in her 20s or early 30s. In true veteran fashion, even for the young bucks of the world, she still places a premium on recovery. Merrill says to “treat your body well and to be sure to take care of any minor injuries before they turn into anything major“. She also encourages taking “a few weeks [off] to heal an injury“. She feels it’s smarter to take time off now, than to be nursing a nagging injury for months, or even years, at a time.

Training for next year’s Open won’t begin for Merrill until August, but she still has awesome advice for other Masters athletes who have goals for the 2016 Open. Merrill has a history of doing incredibly well in the Open, in both her Masters division and the Individual Women’s division. For Masters athletes looking to advance from the Open next year, Merrill finds that she “usually [improves] the second time because [she learns] a lot about how to approach the WOD after doing it once“. She doesn’t like doing them more than once, but the score improvements are well worth the extra effort. Not to be forgotten, and perhaps most important, is her recommendation to always “have fun” doing it. Sure, the best CrossFitters in the world have very intense workout routines, schedules, and eating habits they’d rather die for than deviate from, but the one thing they also seem to have in common is that they legitimately enjoy, and have fun being a part of, the fitness journey.

Tune into this year’s CrossFit Games July 21-26 to see Merrill Mullis in action.