If you don’t think auto racing is a physically demanding sport, just ask a member of a team’s pit crew. This high-stakes job requires strength, speed and precision, as workers change 90-pound tires in a matter of seconds. We asked Christmas Abbott, 32 and one of the first women to become a full-time member of a Nascar crew, to take us through the pit crew workout.

Ms. Abbott, who stands just 5 foot 3 and 118 pounds, can change two 90-pound tires in 14 seconds, but her goal is to shave that down to 12 seconds flat. A native of Lynchburg, Va., she stays in shape for the job by doing the high-intensity strength and conditioning program known as CrossFit, which employs a grueling combination of exercises and weight lifting. She regularly takes part in CrossFit competitions, owns a gym in Raleigh, N.C. — called CrossFit Invoke — and signed an endorsement deal with Reebok this year.

Recently, we caught up with Ms. Abbott to talk about her career in Nascar, why she talks to herself during workouts and her views on cupcakes. Here’s an edited version of our conversation.

How did you end up working in a pit crew?

A friend of mine that I met through CrossFit called me one day and asked if I wanted to try Nascar for a day. I showed up and they were doing a sponsorship recruitment, and I was the token CrossFit girl that was there to compete against the guys. We did three tire changes and I beat all the guys. Afterward, I got a call from Turner Motorsports. Q.
Were you a racing fan growing up? A.
My family is very big into Nascar, and we grew up watching races. But when I got into this I was very surprised by the level of athleticism and the technical difficulty it involved. Q.
Physically, what’s the most difficult part of your job? A.
You have to have the consistency to hit the lug nuts at a certain level of intensity every time. It’s a fine combination of strength and precision. Not to mention the other variables with people running around you and cars flying by.

Everyone in the pit crew is either a former pro athlete or a collegiate athlete. They’re all incredibly skilled. It used to be that they recruited fans to change the tires. But it’s now so competitive that every second counts. They have the speed and consistency of each stop dialed in to a tenth of a second. Talk about pressure.

How does CrossFit help you with your job? A.
Competing in CrossFit is very similar to the pit crew experience, where you have tens of thousands of people watching you and you have to perform precisely without messing up. It prepares me physically for the actual task, but it also prepares me for the performance pressure.

How did you get into CrossFit? A.
I was on a military base in Iraq, and I saw a video of three girls my size lifting crazy weight and doing things like power cleans, muscle ups and squats. I’d never seen girls do that kind of dynamic lifting. I said whatever it was they were doing, I have to try it. So I tried CrossFit. and I’ve been hooked ever since. Q.
How often do you work out? A.
Generally I do three days on, one day off. Q.
What are some of your favorite exercises? A.
That’s like asking a kid what their favorite candy is. As far as my favorite movements, people are going to think I’m crazy, but I love the thruster. That’s where you take a barbell and you go from a front squat into an overhead press in one movement. I love Olympic lifting, specifically the snatch and the clean and jerk. Q.
What do you do for cardio? A.
I don’t do a lot of isolated cardio, but you’d be surprised how lifting weights can give you a cardiovascular response. We train anaerobically most of the time, so you get a cardio benefit but without decreasing your muscle mass. So even though we don’t train for it, we’re able to run long distances, and short distances quickly. Q.
Can you give us an example? A.
There’s one workout that we call Grace, as in Grace Kelly. It’s just 30 reps of clean and jerk — lifting the bar from the ground to your shoulder, and from your shoulder above your head. The weight for guys is 135 pounds, and for girls it’s 95.

For a high-level athlete, it takes two to three minutes to complete. You have to be pretty strong to do it. But when you’re done, you’re gasping for air. There are several workouts like this that just gas you. But there’s no running at all, it’s just lifting.

Do you adhere to a special diet?

Talking diet is like talking politics. It can be dangerous. So I put this disclaimer out there: Experiment and find what works well for you. What has worked well for me is the Zone Diet, which is a balance between carbohydrates, protein and fat at every meal. I do 40 percent carbs, 30 percent protein and 30 percent fat.

As far as carbs, I eat them at every meal. I stick mostly to vegetables and fruit. But I will deviate to quinoa or another good grain. I try to stay away from processed foods altogether. So I try to avoid things like bread and pasta. I’ve gotten the best response in my training and emotionally with Zone. It gives me a lot more play in what I can eat.

Do you have cheat meals? A.
I allow myself one a week for sure. But if I need more, then I take more. I just listen to my body. If I’m at a point where it’s between me freaking out or having a cupcake, I’m going to have a cupcake. Q.
How has your approach to exercise changed over time? A.
I used to think negatively about myself when I worked out. But then I got tired of listening to that little voice inside my head. So I started talking positively to myself, and it’s transformed my workouts. Q.
Can you give us an example? A.
If I’m fatigued and I have to lift the bar again, I used to say to myself, “Come on, why can’t you just do it?” Or, “What’s wrong with you, you should have been able to do that.”

But now I quiet that voice and I stoke my own ego, even if it’s a lie at the moment. I’ll tell myself: “You’re the baddest person in here. All you have to do is take a step back, breathe, and now let’s lift it.” I just tell myself that I’m the best in there and I’m rocking it and nobody can touch me.

What are some healthy habits you keep outside of working out? A.
I’m a big advocate of sleep. If I get less than eight hours, I’m grumpy. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when I do get eight and a half or nine hours of sleep, then the next day is awesome.

What is your next competition? A.
Right now I’m competing in an Olympic lifting competition and I’m hoping to become nationally ranked. The competition is in December. It’s the American Open for Olympic lifting. So hopefully, I’ll be a top 10 weight lifter in my category, which is 53 kilograms. Q.
What are some of your fitness goals? A.
I always want to be stronger and faster. It’s a goal on the horizon that you just never reach. You’re never strong enough and you’re never fast enough. But it’s a beautiful thing to always have that goal.

Source: The New York Times
November 25, 2013
By Anahad O’Connor