‘Crossfit is hard, but so is life’: Lana Whiunui’s grueling workouts are as mental as they are physical
When this athlete decided to ramp up her exercise regime, she never envisaged the impact a new sport would have on her physical and mental wellbeing.
Words: Heather kidd
“The journey gets a lot of airtime these days; a buzz-term for anything to do with self-discovery. Yet, despite being an overblown and overused phrase, it sometimes sums up a situation perfectly. Enter Lana Whiunui.
Lana’s journey is mental and physical, a personal voyage of discovery that has pushed her to her limits. Three years ago, she was a relatively fit 46-year-old who enjoyed running and playing touch. Now, she’s a CrossFit ace, ranked sixth in New Zealand, 18th in Oceania and 269th in the world in the female 45- to 49-year-old category.
She admits being addicted to the sport, which originated in the United States in 2000 and involves high-intensity workouts known as WoDs (Workouts of the Day). “I’d been going to the gym for 14 years and doing normal workouts, but they no longer appealed. I needed to be challenged. I was also looking for something so enjoyable it would get me up and going in the mornings no matter what,” she says.
Because she spent a lot of time in a gym environment, she’d heard plenty of chat about CrossFit, and after attending just one class, she was hooked. “I loved it from the first day. It was incredible.”
Lana had found not only her sport but also her tribe, something she had been seeking since her youth. She grew up in Huntly, a sporty kid in a sports-loving town. Netball was her first-choice sport, and she was good enough to make rep teams in her early teens. She also played softball, basketball and hockey.
“Sport was everything I did; it was who I was,” she says. But in her late teens, she left Waikato and moved to Auckland, eventually settling in the central city where she lives with her husband, Wayne. The couple has a son, Chris, and during his childhood, Lana did as many mothers do — juggled work with family life — which meant she had less time to indulge her love of sport.
This piecemeal approach to exercise bothered Lana, and although as Chris got older, she took up running, played touch and went to the gym, she hankered after the part of her identity she felt was missing. In the shadows of her mind lurked the “shy, small-town Māori girl” she had once been. Lana wanted to banish her and reclaim the persona that was her sporting self. “I always felt I belonged in sport; it drove and inspired me.”
Lana’s emotions run close to the surface when she talks about her CrossFit journey. While at times it moves her to tears, she also shows a pragmatic side. “CrossFit is hard, but so is life. If you can get through a tough WoD, you can get through anything. Knowing you can push through the pain gives you a backbone.”
There is a weird synergy between sport and pain, the effort required of athletes often pushing them to their limits and beyond, with pain as mental as it is physical. “You go to some dark places — we call it the ‘furnace of adversity’ or ‘deep in the pain cave”. The only thing you want to do is give up. You’re in so much pain you feel as if you can’t breathe, but you keep going. At the end, when you’re on the floor in a pile of sweat, the pain disappears, and you feel amazing. It’s like childbirth. There’s all that pain, then as soon as the baby’s born, it’s gone, and you’re happy.”
Lana’s version of happy involves five CrossFit sessions per week and one of gymnastics (which she terms a rest day). She’s out of bed early on gym days, arriving at the gym just before 6am and getting in a half-hour warm-up before the session commences at 6.30am. Each workout is a mix of cardio, gymnastics and weightlifting. The prescribed dumbbell for someone of Lana’s age is 15kg, but she likes working with 17.5kg weights. (In the 2022 World CrossFit Open, she did workouts using 22.5kg dumbbells.) What sort of things might she be doing? Deadlifts, bar muscle-ups, ring muscle-ups, handstand push-ups and snatches (a weightlifting move) are all in Lana’s lexicon.
Workouts last up to an hour, and Lana is generally home before 8am. She’s fortunate to live in an apartment directly above the company where she is office manager, so after a quick shower, she is dressed and heading downstairs to start work at 8.30am. Come evening, she checks up on the following day’s workout before heading to bed and mulls over how she will tackle it.
The results of her hard work have been profound; everything about her is different: body shape,
weight — she is heavier due to increased muscle mass and eating habits (she says that to train well, you must eat well) and mindset. The former small-town girl is happy in her own skin.
“Instead of feeling that I need to belong, I choose to belong. I choose to belong to the CrossFit community. I choose to get up in the morning and go to the gym, not because I must or feel I have anything to prove, but because it’s where I want to be, doing what I want to do.”
Lana’s CrossFit journey is far from over. She has already gained her coaching qualification and sees coaching CrossFit in her future. And there is always next year’s world champs — her goal for 2023 is to make the top 30 in her age group, which means ramping up her training regime.
Lana is aware she’s pushing herself to her limits physically and emotionally, but she’s at peace with that. CrossFit has given her the confidence to be comfortable being uncomfortable.
CrossFit, described as “varied functional movements performed at high intensity”, has become a worldwide phenomenon and is equally popular with women and men. Its central point of difference compared with other gym-orientated regimes is that CrossFit workouts are made up of exercises and moves that are applicable to everyday life, such as squats and bends.
According to Lana, the most challenging aspect of any workout is doing technical movements under fatigue. “Doing bar muscle-ups, ring muscle-ups, snatches and handstand push-ups are particularly difficult under such circumstances. If you’re ending a workout with any of those, it’s very tough. I do extra training so that I can do the movements correctly when I’m under fatigue.” She stresses that knowing how to do movements correctly is essential in minimizing the risk of injury.
YOU’RE NEVER TOO OLD
Lana says exercise is all about movement — specifically, the need to keep doing it. “What’s important is to find something you love because that will inspire you to get up and do it, and as long as movement is involved, anything works.”
Retaining or building muscle is a critical component of exercise because it’s muscle that helps bones.
“There’s nothing to say you must use weights such as dumbbells; you can improve your strength using your own body weight,” says Lana. While CrossFit is renowned for its high intensity, workouts can be scaled to suit all age groups. The Masters League Games caters for men and women over 60. The oldest competitor at the 2022 games was 82-year-old American Jacinto Bonilla. The three-times games competitor took up CrossFit when he was 67.