Three years ago, Sam Dancer’s CrossFit Conjugate squad finished second overall in the team competition at the 2014 Reebok CrossFit Games. In the process, Sam made a name for himself by deadlifting 655 pounds.
The following season, Sam placed 10th in the individual competition at the 2015 Central Regional, missing the Games by just five spots. A year later, he made the top five and qualified as an individual for the 2016 Games.
Sam has the appearance of a Viking warrior, but on the inside he’s a puppy dog with a heart of gold. A quick conversation with Sam tells you so much more than you might expect from first glance at his gargantuan 210-pound physique.
He and his wife, Jennifer (who was also a member of the 2014 Conjugate team), own QTown CrossFit in Quincy, Illinois. They have a partnership with a local Special Olympics program to provide training for people with Down syndrome. One of these athletes has become Sam’s best friend, a young man named James Foster.
Sam says he wishes he could be more like James and love everybody, but it’s hard to believe that’s not already a staple of Sam’s character. He speaks with great passion and emotion about the things he cares about, in particular Jennifer. The two of them spend most of their days together–at work, at home, and even working out.
A clip from the Road to the Games series illustrates Sam’s morning warm-up routine, in which he “hits every isolated muscle group in his body.” It also includes commentary from Jennifer that provides a bit of insight into their life and relationship.
During the first event of the 2016 Games, Sam suffered a stress fracture in his fibula. He continued to compete and kept the injury to himself for the entire week. Amazingly, Sam still managed to finish 32nd overall.
With the emotional support from this beautiful woman @jennob7 and a liberal amount of pain medication I was able to manage the fibula injury all the way to the end. It wasn’t pretty and I most defiantly looked like a fool but I wanted so badly to finish. May not have been the best decision but I’m 100% sure it was the right one. #timeforabeer
Sam referred to the fracture in his leg as “annoying” and speculated that it might have been caused by overtraining prior to the Games. However, Sam is still extremely proud of his accomplishments after the injury, calling it a “podium finish” considering what he went through. To be able to push through the pain mentally and achieve the levels of success that he did is one of his greatest achievements.
In a 2016 Games Behind the Scenes video, Sam describes how he qualified a year earlier than he expected.
His analogy with the cups exemplifies exactly who he is–Sam cares deeply about many things and has a lot of cups to fill. You can see the pain in his eyes as he discusses the sacrifices it would take to win.
This year, Sam began using WHOOP as a tool while he trained for the 2017 Games season.
The first stage of qualifying, called the Open, took place over five weeks from February 23rd through March 27th. During that time, a new workout was released online every Thursday at 8 pm. Athletes had four days to complete each one, and they could do it in their own gyms on their own timeframe. The Open is a low-pressure situation–if you don’t nail a workout right away, you can keep trying until you get it right.
Sam told us that normally he tries to match his daily Strain with his daily Recovery, literally filling the two circle graphics on the WHOOP app equally (as pictured above). However, during the Open he said he wasn’t overloading his body with a lot of volume training, instead focussing on peaking specifically for each workout one at a time. He made his Open qualifying efforts his heavy workout each week, and primarily rested otherwise.
Sam’s upward trend in heart rate variability during this time looked very promising:
Following the Open portion of the competition, Sam had the 14th-best score worldwide, easily good enough to move on to Regionals. It was also the best Open of his career–he was 81st in the world after the Open in 2015, and 32nd in 2016.
Sam’s Regionals took place May 26-28 in Nashville, Tennessee. In the two months prior he did a fair amount of travelling, including a trip out west to California, and another east to Boston. Sam had a lot on his plate during what is an extremely demanding time for the athletes training for Regionals, both physically and mentally.
The workouts they’d be competing in were announced in early May, giving them very little time to prepare. And unlike the Open, they only have one shot to get it right. This scenario makes it very tempting for them to overtrain in an effort to perfect each workout as fast as possible. Imagine a musician trying to learn a new piece of music a few weeks before a performance, but every time he practices it it takes an enormous physical toll on his body.
For example, Sam and the other participants found out on May 8th that they would be doing an 80-pound dumbbell snatch in Regionals. A short time later, Sam posted this video on his Instagram account depicting him practicing with 120-pound dumbbells:
A glimpse at his daily Strain and Recovery metrics shows that while he was well-Recovered for two days when Regionals began, in the month prior he had several high-Strain days that his body likely was not prepared to handle. In fact, there were 16 occasions (the red X’s below) where Sam’s Strain was higher than his Recovery:
Sam finished a disappointing 18th at his Regional and failed to qualify for the Games. Again he was battling an injury, this time a tear to his pectoral muscle that he suffered two weeks before the competition started.
As you can see in the chart below, after his average HRV peaked in mid-April, it took an abrupt dive at the end of the month and into May:
Below is a nine-month trend graph of Sam’s resting heart rate. There’s a clear dip that corresponds with his increased HRV in March and April, followed by a significant spike in May:
The stress of training for Regionals, combined with his body trying heal itself from the torn pectoral muscle while simultaneously taking on large amounts of Strain, was likely more than Sam could handle. He also mentioned to us on multiple occasions that although he did not feel personally stressed about training for Regionals, he worried very much about the athletes he coaches (like James), and not being able to devote enough of his time to them.
When we showed all of this data to Sam after the fact, he was surprised by how clearly he could tell where things went wrong. At the time, he felt as though he was doing everything he could to best prepare himself for the Games. Looking back, he saw the signs of overtraining.
“It’s so easy to get suckered into the idea that you need to do more, do more, do more,” Sam said. “You think the only way to get results is to feel it–there has to be pain to have the gain. Then you see social media and ‘this guy is doing this’ and ‘that guy is doing that’ and you veer off of your plan because you want to keep up. You miss important windows of rest and Recovery. Once I started to overdo it with my training, that’s when injuries started happening.”
“Now more than ever, I realize the WHOOP results really will directly correlate to your performance,” Sam added. “During the Open, I was trying to prime it up and wait for that day that I woke up will full-green status–where my sleep was 100% and my Recovery was in the 90s. That’s when I knew today was the day [to do the workout]. The best WHOOP scores and results I’ve ever had we’re in the Open, and the best performances I’ve had to date were in the Open.”
Sam told us he that has many positive takeaways from his experience this season, and hopes use the knowledge he’s gained going forward.
“Every year, with every workout, with every injury, with every good performance, you come out of that with a little more wisdom,” he said. “It’s just a shame that it takes so many mistakes to learn your lesson. I’m finally getting better at learning what that recipe really looks like in competition. You don’t have to beat the piss out of yourself to do well, and I hope this story can draw people’s attention to that.”