“I just smile.”
It’s not what you’d expect the two-time Fittest Woman in the World to say in response to how she gets through her toughest CrossFit workouts, some including hoisting 240 pounds of iron overhead and flipping tractor tires through the quiet streets of Rekjavik, Iceland.
But Annie Thorisdottir isn’t most athletes. And while CrossFit may be her livelihood (as a coach, competitor and owner of CrossFit Reykjavik), she hardly considers six-day training weeks and four-hour workouts a job. The gym? “It’s my happy hour,” she says.
What would make her happiest, of course, would be another world title. After back-to-back wins at the 2011 and 2012 CrossFit Games, Thorisdottir was sidelined in 2013 due to a back injury. Today, the 24-year-old competitor is training harder — and smarter — than ever in the lead up to the 2014 Games. But will her back hold up? And will the self-imposed pressure — heavier than any load on the bar — make or break her? DailyBurn caught up with “Iceland Annie” to talk training, nutrition, body image and why it’s finally OK to lift with the boys.
How did you first discover CrossFit?
I was in gymnastics for 10 years, until I was about 15. Then I moved on to ballet and dancing, then pole vaulting. After that, I started signing up for some different fitness competitions. One day a friend of mine signed me up for the first CrossFit competition in Iceland, in 2009. I decided ‘why not,’ and started competing. I actually won that competition, and that year Iceland got a wild card for the Games. So by winning I got a spot at the 2009 Crossfit Games. I only had about two months to try out this CrossFit thing and see if I wanted to compete. But I fell for it, and I’ve been at it ever since.
Describe your first WOD.
I used to take a lot of bootcamp classes, but my first real CrossFit workout was probably the 2009 qualifier for the Games in Iceland. It was an AMRAP of kettlebell swings, burpees and pull-ups. I remember later seeing a video of myself doing the kettlebell swings and it wasn’t good: The kettlebell was falling back on my hands every single time I swung it up, which is very wrong. But I muscled through that workout and thankfully everything was very lightweight or just bodyweight. I was able to do pull-ups thanks to my gymnastics background, so they weren’t that difficult for me. It was pretty much the perfect first workout.
Did you always gravitate toward weight training?
When I was pole vaulting I lifted, but it was more about doing the extra exercises I needed to do to get better at my sport. It wasn’t until CrossFit that I fell in love with the Olympic lifts and started liking those movements so much more because it is really easy to see your progress.
“I never dared to believe I would actually be able to do it. But if you don’t believe in yourself then who will?”
When you started out you weren’t working with a trainer. What inspired to you get more serious with your training?
The first year-and-a-half, almost two years, I wasn’t working with a trainer. I had a training partner and we would go to see an Olympic weightlifter in Iceland. That was pretty much the only extra set of eyes on us every one or two weeks. When I realized I wanted to do this professionally, I knew it wasn’t really smart just to show up at the gym and take turns deciding which workouts we wanted to do each day, or look up workouts online. I needed more structure with my training. So I got in touch with coach Jami Tikkanen and I’ve been working with him ever since.
What does a typical week of training look like for you?
Off-season, it’s two sessions a day. The morning session is technique followed by one, two or three workouts, depending on where I am in the cycle. And then in the afternoon it’s usually heavier lifting and fine-tuning whatever I need to work on.
Mondays and Thursdays are heavy days. Tuesdays are a bit lighter but still lifting. Wednesday is active recovery, so I do a longer row or jog and work on mobility. Friday is usually a longer workout day of some sort. Saturday is Olympic weightlifting, and Sunday is a rest day.
What’s your training philosophy?
Make sure to always have something you enjoy in your training every day. Of course, you need to work on the things you need to work on. Not everything is always going to be fun. But if you’re going to get through those tough days, you need to make sure there’s always something you look forward to. For me, that’s usually something with a technical gymnastics piece, or the heavier, more explosive, Olympic lifts.
Due to its scalability, CrossFit is unique in that men and women can compete on a more even playing field than in many other sports. How are women like you embracing that opportunity?
It’s something I think we all enjoy. You can finally compare yourself to the guys. Of course, we’re not lifting the same weights; they’re scaled appropriately. But my boyfriend and I can train together and it’s a competition every time we go to the gym, which is pretty special. In other sports you can’t really do that in the same way. Plus, most of my training partners are male — I’ve never had a female training partner for that long for whatever reason.
And for the normal members of the gym, it’s fun for everyone to be doing the workouts together on an even playing field. You see whole families going together to CrossFit. It’s pretty cool watching them in the stretching area together, being excited about doing a pistol squat or a handstand push-up for the first time.
You and your boyfriend working out together — does it ever get too competitive?
No, not yet at least! I’ve heard some couples have a hard time when they get to this level of training together. They have trouble listening to criticism from their significant other. But we work really well together. Plus, we follow the same programming so we can watch each other and help each other out during all the technical and strength training. It’s a perfect win-win set-up.
And speaking of winning… Did you ever think you’d hold the title of the fittest woman in the world — not once but twice?
It was my dream, especially after 2010, to win the CrossFit Games. There I saw that it was possible. But of course I never really dared to say it out loud; I never dared to believe I would actually be able to do it. But if you don’t believe in yourself then who will?
After I won, it was incredible. It was really hard not to want to win again, because it felt like anything else would have been a setback really. But I decided I would just do as much as could possibly do, and hopefully that would get me the title again. And thankfully it did. After the first day of the competition I stopped thinking about winning and focused more on just enjoying being there and being able to compete. That’s when I get good at CrossFit — when I can just enjoy it.
“This is the body that’s helped me do well in sports, so I’ve always been thankful for it.”
How has the sport changed you?
The sport has helped me to get to know myself — and my body — a lot better. The sport has also really shaped my life. I’ve grown so much since starting CrossFit. I’ve gotten the opportunity to travel, meet so many new people and help people who want to get in better shape or better at CrossFit or recover from similar injuries.
I met my boyfriend through CrossFit. My family is doing CrossFit. I own a CrossFit box in Iceland. It’s changed my life in so many different ways.
As you’re making all these incredible gains have you ever worried about getting too big?
Of course, in certain situations. Sometimes a dress I’ve wanted doesn’t really fit because my chest or my upper body is too big. But it’s never been negative for me, though. I’ve always had muscles — since I was 7 years old. This is the body that’s helped me do well in sports, so I’ve always been thankful for it. And my friends are all very similar. Most of my girlfriends have all been involved in sports, like most kids in Iceland. Thankfully I’ve never really been unhappy about anything. I can always just take that dress to someone and have it altered — so my problems aren’t really bigger than that!
You’ve become a role model to girls in many ways. Did you ever expect that for yourself?
I just think it’s great that they’re not afraid to become strong and independent — in every way possible. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with being skinny, as long as it’s healthy. I’m hoping I can be a healthy role model in that sense.
How does nutrition factor into your training?
I try to eat as clean as possible, so I try to make my own food, and eat as little processed food as I can. That means a lot of veggies, eggs, and I eat chicken probably once a day. When I’m in Iceland I also eat a lot of dairy because we have good, high-quality dairy there. I don’t eat a lot of bread or pasta — not because I’m against it — but I feel better and less bloated without it, so I keep it out of my diet. I try to just be aware of what I’m eating, and then it gets pretty easy.
And your go-to indulgences or cheat meals?
I eat dark chocolate. That’s healthy, right? I also eat fajitas and wraps every once in a while.
Pre and post-workout, do you opt for protein shakes or whole food?
I do shakes. I use pre-workout [supplements] from NutriForce Sports, and I use protein from them as well. During longer sessions, I drink clean, natural aminos.
What would you say is your favorite exercise?
I have trouble picking a favorite exercise because there are so many I enjoy! I would say the Olympic lifts and then technical gymnastic movements — like learning new bodyweight skills, handstand push-ups. The power clean is probably my favorite lift right now.
What exercise do you dread most?
It used to be muscle-ups, and I’d like to say it’s not those any more… But right now I would say heavy back squats or front squats, just because I feel like my legs aren’t strong enough at the moment. I haven’t been able to train my lower body as much as I’ve wanted to, due to injury.
As a coach or a competitor yourself, what are your tips for new lifters or those just getting into the sport of CrossFit?
First and foremost, work on technique — before adding weight. It’s going to be so hard to fix bad habits after you’ve been doing them for too long. So technique first, and then it’s going to start being fun once you’ve got that down. Same goes for the bodyweight movements. Get those down, and then you can start adding volume.
You’ve been coaching for a few years now. What do you hope to achieve coming to CrossFit Union Square here in New York?
I’m just looking forward to being a part of a new gym, and helping to get things started. It’s so much fun to be a part of something from the beginning. I’m really looking forward to meeting new people and coaches, and just helping to make the gym as great as possible.
And for your own training: What’s your biggest goal right now?
Right now my sights are set on the Games. Since I was out last year due to injury, I’m just looking forward to being a part of this year’s season. Hopefully I’m going to do well — that’s the goal. And I’m really excited about the National Pro Fitness League, where I’ll be competing with the New York Rhinos this year.
We’ve talked about your training philosophy — what about your philosophy for life?
You can do anything you want if you’re willing to work for it. There are people who might train more than I do, but I like to think I’ve worked really hard to get where I am.
Want to train like Iceland Annie? Try her favorite Chipper WOD, from the 2009 CrossFit Games: