On July 24 in Carson, Calif., Colchester native Mat Fraser, 26, entered the final stage of the CrossFit Games with 39 of the fittest men and women in the world. In the five previous days of sun, sweat and brutal competition, he had quickly separated himself from the pack. Now, this was the moment Fraser had been waiting on, his chance to finalize a title he had sought for three years: “Fittest Man On Earth.”
He entered StubHub Tennis Center for his last event, called “Redemption.” To claim the top spot, plus $275,000 in prize money, Fraser needed to complete a rotation of pegboard ascents (a pull-up-type obstacle course in which the athlete climbs up a wall using only pegs) and thrusters (CrossFit’s name for squats with barbells). Fraser powered through a total of six pegboard ascents and 45 thrusters and sprinted to the finish line, taking first.
With that, Fraser had won the CrossFit Games by almost 200 points, the largest margin in history.
Arms pumping in victory, he lapped the stadium while the crowd exploded in cheers. The one thing that was going through his head then? “It was a huge relief,” he said.
This wasn’t Fraser’s first go-around with the CrossFit Games. An unknown rookie, he snagged second place in 2014, losing only to Rich Froning, a legendary CrossFit champ who was taking his fourth first-place win. “I couldn’t have been happier,” he said. “I was the unknown. There were no expectations.”
Fraser’s confidence soared in 2015. A heavy favorite going in, he wanted to win—and badly. He adjusted his training by focusing most of his energy on his weakness: cardio. With an accomplished weightlifting background (he came into CrossFit with a 315-pound snatch), he figured he didn’t have to worry about strength. But while his cardio training paid off, he fell behind in strength performance and took second place again in 2015—this time to Ben Smith, a professional CrossFit athlete from Virginia, and the same athlete Fraser beat this July. Smith has competed at the Games every year since 2009.
“It was the biggest disappointment I’ve ever experienced,” Fraser says. “I had expectations built up, so when I came up short, it was just devastating. (Second place,) in my eyes, was the worst place to be. I was the number one loser. I tried to convince myself to start training again, and it took a long time. I was (messed) up. I didn’t want to train, didn’t want to come to the gym, didn’t want to face my friends, didn’t want to do anything.”
It may have taken some time, but when Fraser did get back to the box (a CrossFit gym), he made a few simple changes in his training.
To take the 2016 Games, Fraser approached the entire CrossFit lifestyle more seriously. Looking back, he says, it’s probably the simple changes that helped him soar into the number one spot.
“The big thing I changed during the 2016 season was the regular sleep schedule—not staying up until 2 a.m. watching Netflix, not eating trash,” he says. “I always felt like you could out-train a bad diet, so I was eating donuts, ice cream, anything I wanted. And it was enough to catch up with me.”
Leading up to this year’s Games, Fraser stayed on a consistent sleep schedule, going to bed and waking up at the same time every day whether he was training or on vacation.
He also radically changed his eating habits. While he’s test-driven CrossFit’s prescribed Paleo diet (which typically includes vegetables, fruit, nuts and meat), he veered elsewhere when he didn’t see the results he wanted. Instead, Fraser has gone back to the basics: he cut out desserts, now drinks plenty of water and eats big breakfasts. His rule of thumb: if it feels good, stick with it.
“One thing I’ve found that I really love is I eat rice at every meal. Plain, sticky white rice. I’ll put it in my eggs in the morning. At lunch or dinner, I’ll usually have a meat over a pile of rice. It felt great, so I just incorporated it into everything.”
In training, Fraser works heavily on his weaknesses. He often asks himself, “If I went to a competition, what workout would they release that I would place dead last in? I think about what workout that would be and how I would fix it.”
But, as Fraser learned in 2015, it’s important not to over-train in one area. Fraser excels at weightlifting—so much so that he was invited to the Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs in 2008 and 2009. But he had to drop his training after a back injury required surgery.
He now understands that his fitness routines need to be all-encompassing. His daily regimen contains the same cardio, strength training, gymnastics and metcon (a CrossFit term that’s short for metabolic conditioning) combinations you would come across in a normal CrossFit class. The schedule helps him focus on weak areas, then to switch to something else, so he doesn’t miss a beat. He’ll start with 20 minutes to an hour on an air bike or a Concept2 indoor rowing machine. Then, he’ll move to weight-lifting, where he does mostly deadlifts and squats.
“There’s usually some kind of gymnastics component,” he says, “whether it’s up on the rings, doing muscle-ups and flying around up there, or doing kipping pull-ups.” (In a kipping pull up, you swing your legs and snap your hips to help get your chin over the bar. They’re done quickly with a high number of repetitions.) Handstands and handstand walks are some of Fraser’s regular tricks.
From gymnastics, he heads into metcon that includes “As Many Rounds As Possible” (AMRAP) of any given skill.
“That’s the generic CrossFit thing: pick a set of reps and do it as fast as you can,” Fraser said. “Pick a time domain, like 10 minutes, and do as many as you can.”
A couple of times a week, Fraser works on specialty skills. He’ll hit the pool with a swim coach or weight train with the same local Phys Ed teacher, Chris Polikowski, who got him into Olympic weightlifting when he was a teenager.
“A buddy and I were seeing how much weight we could put over our heads, and one of the coaches saw us and was just like, ‘Please stop. That’s awful,’” Fraser said. “He told us if we wanted to learn how to do it properly, there was a guy in the next town over, in Essex. The elementary school teacher ran an after-school weight lifting program. He’s still there. I started going over there every day after school, and started doing it with football, and then it started taking over football.”
A huge part of Fraser’s progress, he says, is doing whatever it takes to learn. “I find an expert in each area,” he said. “This year, after the Games, my lowest-placing event was deadlift. I wanted to find a specialist in the deadlift, so I contacted a guy out of California who’s the world-record holder, and I was like, ‘Hey man, teach me how to deadlift.’”
Fraser’s wellness regimen continues after he leaves the box, the pool or the track at the end of the day. Every night, he stretches for an hour and spends another rolling out. He also gets weekly massages.
“I wasn’t stretching in 2015—doing any body work, nothing. I would come in, train my heart out, really give 100 percent in training. Then, as soon as I left the gym, I was done putting effort in.”
And that might be another reason why Fraser didn’t see the gold that year. Studies show that stretching reduces muscular tension, which stunts muscle growth. Stretching also helps with muscular efficiency, meaning your muscles require less energy to perform at a higher rate or, say, do more reps. Stretching is an important component in blood flow, too, which circulates important nutrients to your muscles.
Fraser’s approach is all-inclusive, and engrained in every part of his life. He’s walking proof that true fitness involves much more commitment than a few hours at the gym. But when it’s all said and done, Fraser says, the most important thing is having a good time.
“You see the people who, in two months, lose 50 pounds and then you see them two months later and they’ve put it right back on,” he says. “That’s probably because they weren’t enjoying the process of losing the weight.”
Though Fraser graduated from University of Vermont in 2015 with a degree in engineering, the fitness lifestyle is turning into a successful career. Despite that, he says he’s not in it for the glory of winning or the prize money.
“I like the life I’m living,” he says. “Even when I do well and get a nice paycheck, I just say, ‘Okay, I got a nice paycheck.’ I’ll put it aside or put it in savings, and keep living the life that I’m living. I try to live simply in terms of where I live and the car I drive.”
Fraser says that besides travel, (he’s been all over the States—not to mention Switzerland, Italy, Australia and Dubai) his life hasn’t changed all that much. And his favorite people, including his sponsors, are the ones who haven’t looked at him differently since he acquired the title “The Fittest Man On Earth.”
“They’re the ones who support me, and when I got second place, they treated me the exact same as when I got first place. They’re just good people.”
For those looking to take their training to the next level, or for those getting heavily into fitness for the first time, Fraser has some advice. Don’t buy thousands of dollars of equipment, he says. Don’t complicate your life with machinery you don’t know how to use. Simplify your workout, and enjoy it.
“If you’re done in 20 minutes, good. Be done,” he says. “Don’t dread going into the gym every day, because then you’re going to do it for a month, and as soon as you take the weekend off, you’re never going to come back. Build on it gradually, take your time, keep it simple, and just make little changes.”
If you’re looking for Fraser, you’ll find him at Champlain Valley CrossFit in Williston. Staying true to his roots, Fraser trains in his hometown box almost every day, and he’s not going anywhere anytime soon.
“The fact that this actually turned into a career that I can live off of is mind-boggling to me. So I’m going to do this as long as I can. I get paid for just hanging out in the gym all day and having fun.”