Last year, five-time Games competitor Matt Chan earned the title 2nd Fittest Man on Earth at age 34. Now, he and his wife Cherie have embarked on a journey most of us could only dream about. They’ve given away their belongings, sold their home and are experiencing all that life and the outdoors have to offer, along with their two dogs, Bosley and Roxie.
Home is now an aluminum RV and there’s no telling what lies ahead. The two are even taking online suggestions from fans and friends as to where to get the best outdoor workouts in the U.S. based on an area’s geographic features. In our interview, Matt shares why he decided to take the road less traveled in a journey he’s calling the Eternal Pursuit, how he’s coping with his first ever athletic injury and details about the disciplined lifestyle that’s led him to where he is today.
You’ve decided to take a road trip most wish to make but few are able to. How’s your journey going so far?
MC: Things are going really well. We’re learning a lot and getting our act together to really experience this thing to the fullest. Prior to this trip, we had never spent a single night in an RV, so it’s entirely new to us. We’re learning a lot everyday about the upkeep and things like that, so we haven’t been very adventurous up to this point, but we’re looking forward to when we can be.
I called it a trip, but it’s more of a lifestyle change isn’t it?
MC: It is. We don’t have an end in sight. At some point in a couple of years, we’ll settle down in a house. But for now, we’ve decided we want to give this a shot. We want to see the country, the gyms and really enjoy ourselves outdoors.
What does the Eternal Pursuit mean to you and how does CrossFit fit into that?
MC: To Cherie and me, the Eternal Pursuit is the pursuit of excellence. What that really comes down to is that when we strive to be the best Matt and Cherie we can be, that’s when we’re the happiest – that involves anything and everything under the sun that we can possibly experience. The things that we fell in love with each other doing are things outside: skiing, mountain biking, climbing. Since we’ve gotten married, CrossFit came into our lives and filled a big gap, but we seem to have gotten away from some of those outdoor activities that we enjoy so much. Part of the Eternal Pursuit is us pursuing what made us the happiest. I think everyone can relate to that. They want to pursue the things in life that they deem make them happy. For some people, they think it’s money. For others, it’s experiences and that’s what we’re really after. We want to experience as much of life as we possibly can, while we can.
It didn’t take too long from the time you made this decision to the time it was actualized. How long had you been thinking ‘there’s more to happiness than what we’ve been doing’?
MC: Cherie and I had just finished the 2012 Regionals in Denver, CO and we went climbing to get away from CrossFit for a few days. While on our trip to Turkey Rocks, we decided that climbing is something that really made us happy and that we wanted to get back to doing things that truly made us happy. Right then and there is when we put the plan in action. We planned how we could do it, some obstacles and what we needed to line up to make this thing happen. We estimated it would take anywhere between six to nine months to make it happen and it took about seven. We did a good job at that and stayed on task, but also didn’t rush anything and didn’t leave anything untied at the gym.
One of the things you had to take into account was your training. How has it changed being on the road and how do you expect it to change?
MC: Training for the 2013 Games has been interesting so far. At the 2012 Games, my knees had both been hurting for a number of months, and after the Games they consistently got worse. After I finally went in for an MRI, it turned out that I had a torn meniscus on both of my knees. Many people live day to day with a torn meniscus and it’s not a big deal. Given the demand CrossFit athletes put on their bodies, those little tears add up to a big performance decrease. Over time I noticed that my numbers were going down, in addition to the pain. Over the last four months, I decided not to have surgery. Instead I went to a place called Regenexx and had my own stem cells injected into my knees. There’s about a 12-week recovery process. I’m at week 6 now. My coach has been training and programming for me with this stuff in mind, so my training is different this year than it ever has been before. The fact that I’m on the road has actually been helpful because it’s made me slow down a little bit. I intend to be at 100% in another six weeks and be ready for the Open. My training will have amped up and be at a very high level. This month I’ve been training at CrossFit Max Effort, Zach Forrest’s gym. And in February I’ll be in be in Northern California with Jason [Khalipa] and Neal [Maddox]. I expect to make a full recovery and my training will be at a high level very soon.
During this recovery period, how are you training?
MC: I’ve been doing a lot of upper body conditioning; as far as my lower body goes, it’s pretty limited. We just started adding straight legged deadlifts, kettlebell swings, some squatting to parallel, very little below parallel. I’ve been doing a little single leg squatting like Bulgarian split squats to keep my legs somewhat conditioned. We’ve also done some isometric work, high level, high skill gymnastics work. I’d say that my training is where it needs to be right now, where I’m just gathering more skills, strengths and body control so that when I am 100% controlling what comes next won’t be a big deal.
How have you dealt with your injury and what advice would you give other athletes dealing with injuries or who train through soreness when they know they should be resting?
MC: First of all, this is the first time in my entire athletic life that I’ve dealt with any sort of injury. This is completely new to me. I’ve been swimming competitively since the age of 5. I played water polo, done other random sports throughout my life and this is the first time that I’ve been truly injured to the point where I can’t perform. It’s a hard pill to swallow because you feel like you’re losing a step and you’re losing ground on where you need to be to be competitive with other athletes. I see workouts that guys are doing and the numbers they’re posting on CrossFit.com and it’s intimidating. I feel like I need to get back into it. I turn 35 in February and I realize that I have a shelf life and if I don’t allow myself to fully recover from this knee injury I’m cutting that shelf life much shorter than it could be. I keep that in mind every single day, of course with some encouragement from my wife and my coach to be smart and keep everything in perspective.
My advice to athletes who have been injured or are injured currently is to allow yourself to recover fully and realize that you can continue moving and improving various facets of your fitness. I have done things in the last six weeks that I never dreamed I’d be able to do. I got 20 muscle-ups. I’ve been able to do a front lever and a back lever where I’m actually able to hold that position for a long time. I can do a press to handstand from parolletes from an L-sit and I can actually link those things now. There are a lot of areas where you can improve your fitness while still recovering from your injuries.
You’re older than most other Games athletes. To what do you attribute being able to compete at that level at this age?
MC: I think there are a couple things. I’ve been doing this for six years, so I have a considerable time under tension with a lot of these movements. I feel like my head start on some of the younger athletes does give me a buffer to stay ahead of them. I feel like I’m pretty smart about recovery, including diet and I realize when to say when. I’m a one workout a day guy. I have been since 2007. I very rarely add in two to three workouts. The only time I do is when the Games are approaching and I need to prepare for the volume of workouts that I’m going to see at the Games. And even then, I only do it once or twice a month at the very most for just a couple months.
What I see happen is a lot of athletes start with a huge head of steam charging head long into the pursuit of achieving the Games, But, they burn out or overtrain or have to recover from injury or overtraining symptoms. I feel like people want to accumulate all that time under tension in just one year. They see individuals like Rich Froning who started doing CrossFit and qualified for the Games the same year. The same can be said for Scott Panchik. These guys are anomalies and they are not going to be a common occurrence. You must realize most athletes are going to have to spend a lot of time accumulating all that time under tension with these movements and that can’t happen in a short period of time.
So would you say it’s patience, knowing what your body can handle and knowing that as time goes on, you’ll get there what makes you ready for the Games?
MC: I’d agree with that. It’s patience and learning more about your body. Everyone recovers at a different pace. Some people are able to handle a very high volume of workload for a week, but then experience all the symptoms of overtraining the next week. Unless you’re really monitoring those things, you run the risk of digging yourself a hole that’s harder to get out of than you can imagine.
Last year you decided to get a coach, Joe Alexander. How did you make that decision and tell us about your relationship with Joe.
MC: Well, in 2010, I took 4th place at the Games and in 2011, I took 10th and I wasn’t happy about that. I realized that most likely it could be attributed to the way I was training. I found myself completely drained during some of the workouts and it was because I hadn’t put myself into the situation where I went longer consistently or ran longer consistently throughout the year. I approached Joe for the 2012 season because I knew he was a bright individual that had a pretty good head on his shoulders about programming and had a wealth of knowledge about exercise physiology. As far as making the choice, I knew he was a good friend, lived in the area and knew we got along well so it made sense to ask him. During that year, I did things consistently that I would have never programmed for myself. I attribute my success to Joe’s programming as well as the hard work I put in to follow his programming. I think there’s something to be said for having a coach that’s in your area, that can see you move consistently and has a good head on their shoulders. I think that’s the right combination, because it worked for me.
Did your coach help you realize things you didn’t know you were doing, or did he make you do things you didn’t want to do, or both?
MC: Both. I didn’t want to run long or focus on gymnastics. I didn’t want to do a lot of sub maximal lifting for a lot of repetitions but that’s what he programmed for me. We spent a lot of time going 20+ minutes consistently. I developed different metabolic pathways and gained greater capacity at longer durations. When it came time for the triathlon, I was able to hang in there. I would have died in 2011. I came in top 20 [in the first workout of the 2012 CrossFit Games] with a long run. In 2011, that would have been my nemesis.
Your strength numbers are still quite strong. How have you managed to keep your numbers and change the way you’ve been training?
MC: We still hit strength maybe once a week or at the very least once every ten days to maintain. That worked for 2012. I was able to maintain my numbers, a 340lb Clean & Jerk, a 275lb Snatch, for example. We got away with that. I built all that capacity in those short duration heavy lifts and I was able to maintain. I relied on just maintenance. Unfortunately, people are getting stronger and I need to follow the curve. This year there’s definitely going to be a refocus on getting stronger. Not crazy strong. I don’t need a 600lb Deadlift. I don’t need a 300lb Snatch. I don’t need a 400lb Clean & Jerk. But, I do plan on getting my numbers up about 10-15lbs each.