Alex Hajduczok, MD is a doctor in cardiology training with a passion for fitness. He shares with Men’s Health what kept him going as he spent a whole month in 2020 pushing himself through CrossFit’s infamously exhausting Murph workout, and how tracking his own heart rate led to new insights about how the human body adapts to training.
When the pandemic hit back in March last year, I decided to channel all the craziness going on in the world into a personal challenge: completing the Murph workout every day for 30 days. First and foremost, I wanted to see if my body could physically hold up. It’s a pretty brutal workout to even just perform once (usually taking 45 minutes to an hour to complete), and sometimes it takes the body several days to recover. I thought that maybe after several days or after a week that I would just feel so beat up that I wouldn’t be able to continue. Deep down I told myself that even if I got to this point, I would try to push through and still make it happen regardless of how sore I was.
Named for the late Navy SEAL Lieutenant Michael Murphy, CrossFit’s Murph is a workout traditionally performed on Memorial Day to honor the service members who lost their lives in the line of duty. It consists of a 1-mile run, 100 pullups, 200 pushups, 300 air squats, and another 1-mile run, all performed while wearing a 20-pound weighted vest.
I was initially worried that I would rip my hands with such high-volume pullups with a vest day in and day out. After about 5 days and no ripped hands (grips definitely helped), I felt a lot more confident about finishing. In fact, the pullups and pushups actually got a lot easier as I progressed. It was the air squats—all 300 of them—that were the worst, as they felt very monotonous.
The biggest mental hurdle was doing such a grueling workout day after day, but partitioning the workout a different way each day made it feel slightly different, or at least not 100 percent repetitive. My favorite was 25 rounds of 4 pullups, 8 push-ups, and 12 air squats. Sometimes I would try to keep on an EMOM (every minute on the minute) pace for each round, to maintain some structure, and keep the intensity up.
Cranking up the volume on my headphones during the runs and blasting music in the (unfortunately) empty gym was also crucial in keeping me motivated. It helped me drown out everything else going on around me, most notably the pandemic, and just try to put my best foot forward. There never came a point when I considered quitting. In fact, as my times improved, I became more motivated to try to do it faster and faster.
I tried to make sure that I was regularly stretching to stay loose, especially keeping the hips nice and mobile. But I think what helped more than anything was a well-balanced and hearty diet, with a lot of protein and carbs. I was burning about 3,200 to 3,500 calories per day, so staying nourished was key. Same goes for hydration. I learned how to really optimize my recovery to improve training, how to dial in to a rather strict routine, and most importantly, I proved to myself that I could accomplish a pretty crazy challenge.
In addition to a marked improvement in cardiovascular endurance, my performance in pullups and pushups also got better. On day 31, I attempted and completed a pushup challenge that NFL fullback Dan Vitale posted online: 60 minutes of 20 pushups per minute, totaling 1,200 reps. I will say that I wouldn’t have been able to do that prior to doing all the push-ups in a month of Murph.
I tried to stay on top of my regular CrossFit training, mixing in two-a-days several times per week. My strength in the squat, deadlift, clean and snatch stayed consistent, which was nice. I lost about 10 pounds over the course of the month, dropping from 195 to 185, so it felt good to maintain my lifting numbers at a lower body weight. My running also improved tremendously.
If you plan on doing the Murph next Memorial Day, or any day in between, the data is pretty compelling to support doing it in 20 rounds of 5 pullups, 10 pushups and 15 air squats, or 25 rounds of 4, 8, 12. This allows for optimal muscle recovery and still lets you keep the pace up. I recommend trying to keep an EMOM (every minute on the minute) pace if you want to try to push yourself a bit more.
Overall, the thing that slows people down the most are the pushups. Believe it or not, 100 pullups aren’t as bad as you may think. And the 300 air squats won’t really get to you until the next day. But the 200 pushups will give a lot of people trouble. So if there’s one thing to work on ahead of time, I recommend adding in a decent amount of pushup volume, at high intensity if possible. 50 to 100 reps about 4 to 5 days per week should do the trick, and it may be worthwhile to practice them in a weighted vest as well.
Having tracked all of my workouts via my WHOOP device, I found that my average Murph time improved in the second half of the month, from 45:57 to 41:24. Additionally, the time in the 80 to 90 percent of max heart rate went down from 55.1 percent to 47.6 percent, while time in the 70 to 80 percent range went up from 34.8 percent to 45.6 percent. What this means is that for a fixed output (the workout was the same each day), the myocardial oxygen demand was less in the second half of the month, corresponding to less of a compensatory HR response (less time at higher HR even though I was working harder and finishing the workouts faster). This was really cool to see; a quantifiable improvement in fitness.
I think this helped re-emphasize and solidify a lot of the things that we learn in medical school and residency about cardiometabolic health; specifically how the body adapts to training. Seeing firsthand how a regimented training plan affects physiology and hemodynamics in myself was an eye-opener and has led to several other research endeavors in the realm of heart failure, including one using the WHOOP device. We are also using physiologic data collected by WHOOP in an ongoing clinical trial studying medical resident wellness and burnout, and I am very excited to share these results with the scientific and medical community.
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