Team Talks: Zack George on Coming Back From Injury To Totally Dominate the NFG

·9-min read

Zack George last competed live in January 2020. Then the world spiralled into the COVID vortex that is only just slowing down. The events and competitions that are the motivational lifeblood of elite CrossFit athletes all moved to online formats, with Zack and his fellow competitors performing workouts in their own gyms and submitting videos for official review. Many top athletes have reported that, as you can imagine, it simply wasn't the same.

Zack stepped foot on the floor of a live competition for the first time since pre-lockdowns at the National Fitness Games earlier this month. He won in dominant fashion, which is even more notable following a hip injury that saw him retire from the online CrossFit semi-finals in May this year.

The Men's Health SQUAD team were there to see Zack crush the first two workouts on his way to the title and spoke to him a few days after for his thoughts on the events, how it felt to be back doing what he loves and his crucial advice for getting the most out of your performance if you're taking on your own first competition.

Read the full exclusive interview and then find a workout from Zack at the bottom, so you can start training like the champ.

MH: How is the body feeling?

ZG: Quite good actually. I thought I’d feel a lot more sore. To be honest, I’m a bit surprised how fine I feel.

When we chatted on the Friday night, you had just won the first two events of the weekend. How many did you win in total?

I managed to win five out of six, so I was bit gutted not to win all of them. I came second in the deadlift, bike and power snatch event. I thought my judge gave me two no reps and I didn’t question it at the time but when I asked her after she said I didn’t have any. So she’d miscounted my reps. So Reggie [Fasa] won that one.

This was your first time competing live for how long?

A year and a half? Maybe longer, actually. I went to Strength In Depth as an individual well before COVID. So that feels like a lifetime ago.

How much did you miss it?

It’s one of those things that you don’t know how much you’ll miss it until it’s gone. Like when the gyms all shut during lockdown, people suddenly realised how much they depended on the gym for mental health rather than just physical health.

After that long doing only online competition, you forget what it’s like to compete in person. It’s a weird feeling. You don’t know if you actually miss it or what it feels like to be in front of a crowd or against other athletes in the flesh.

Going into this competition, it was a little nerve-wracking just because I’d not done it in so long. I made me realise how much I had missed it. It’s what spurs us on as athletes and drives us. It’s our passion to compete live in front of a crowd and you push so much harder when you’re on the main stage. It’s given me a great motivational boost.

Do you consider yourself a ‘gamer’ who thrives in live competition?

Yeah, definitely. I think I’m quite an intelligent athlete who knows how to pace workouts properly and hit it right first time. Take the first workout at NFG, which was rowing and running. Because I was in the last heat, I had the benefit of watching everyone else go in the earlier waves. So I knew what the current fastest time was and worked out the splits. I needed to do each round in 2 mins 50 seconds and to get me in under the time.

I like that quick strategy element most of all. When you’re competing online in the Open, for example, it doesn’t matter if you mess up three times as you can repeat the workout. But when you’re competing live you have to hit it bang on first time. And I love that pressure.

You did look incredibly relaxed for those first two events, considering it was your first time competing live in that long…

Having been in the sport for such a long time, I always practice my pacing in training and making sure that my rounds are consistent. You could see who the people are that don’t compete that often, as they flew through that first workout trying to win it. But then they totally die off and each round takes them longer and longer. They can’t recover.

I’m lucky enough to be sponsored by G-Shock, so I set my watch with the intervals that I knew would win me the workout and as long as I was into the next round before it beeped I knew I would be on track. I’m always checking my time but it’s a great feeling to get that buzz on your wrist when you’re already well into the next round. It’s such a good tool to use.

Am I right in thinking that you set a new PB in the squat clean event?

Yeah. It was an 8kg PB and I felt like I had a lot more in the tank. My PB clean was back in 2018 and it’s not because I didn’t have the strength to beat it since. But because if I’m in a competition I know I need 155kg to win, I’ll just lift 155. If don’t need to push for a new PB then I won’t. I don’t max out unless I need to and in training, I don’t like to go to 100% because of the risk of injury and the tax on your joints.

At NFG, Dan Tai hit 165. Reggie failed 165, so he logged his good lift of 160. I had lifted 157.5, so going into the last lift I knew I that, with two events left, if I came third or above I had mathematically locked up the competition win. Which with my second lift I had done.

So, I thought I’d jump to 168 just for the hell of it and then managed to hit it quite comfortably. If I’d felt a twinge in my hip or my knee on my second lift I would have called it day and been happy with the third place but everything felt great. So I think a 175kg clean is in there in the future.

How much of a confidence boost that your hip was fine?

It was huge. I’ve not lifted more than 140kg in training for the last three months, so to hit a new PB was very rewarding. Both that all the accessory work I’ve been doing has paid off in terms of strength and also that my body can handle that load.

The whole competition was very leg-dominant. It was brutal on the legs. Rowing and running, then Wattbikes and deadlifts, Assault Bike and thrusters, wall balls…it was all leggy. To go thought that much volume on my lower body and feel fine was a huge confidence builder.

What was the hardest workout for you?

The first two events were back-to-back with a five-minute rest between. After the running and rowing of workout one, I thought I’d gone out too hot and my legs felt battered. But that five minutes was enough time for me to recover. In the second workout [rowing and sandbag carries] it just came down to mental strength. It’s not like that sandbag weighed so much that you physically couldn’t run. The only reason people were walking was that their legs were burning so much. But you can mentally block that out. For me, once I got that sandbag on my shoulder, the only reason why I’d start walking was that I’d mentally broken. And I wasn’t going to let that happen.

Do you feel like the win has set you up well for the season?

It does. It give me confidence going to my next one, which is the Madrid Crossfit Championship in October and knowing that my body can handle the load. It’s a massive thing mentally - being sure of your ability to cope with the volume.

What advice would you give somebody competing for the first time?

The first thing would be to make sure you actually enjoy the weekend. A lot of people put a lot of pressure on themselves and take it all far too seriously. If they make a mistake, they dwell on it and by the end they’ve not enjoyed any of the experience. Nerves are normal but don’t be too hard on yourself.

Secondly, try and come away having lots of things that you’ve learned. Perhaps it’s a weakness that you’re excited to go away and work on. Or maybe it’s something that you’re much stronger on that you thought. You could find that you need to pace longer workouts better or that you need to be able to push harder in sprint events. Putting those lessons into your training is the key to improving for your next comp. It's half the point of competing.

Thirdly, consider your nutrition. It’s so important and lots of people get it wrong. You need to pack enough easily-digested and simple-to-eat food. I always aim to have one proper meal throughout the day and then snack on gummy sweet and malt loaf, with loads of hydration.

New competitors can often end up doing four workouts in a day and not eating anything. You can get so wrapped up in being in the right place at the right time for each event that you forget to eat. You need food if you want to be at your best. So eat, eat, eat!

THE WORKOUT

Within one minute, complete a 20-calorie assault bike and a 20-calorie row. Then rest for three minutes. Perform six rounds in total.

"I managed to complete 5 out of the 6 rounds getting the reps under the minute," says Zack. "Get the tunes going and send it!"

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