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Born to GO: Meet GO Sleeves Partner and CrossFit Champion Leka Fineman

Born to GO: Meet GO Sleeves Partner and CrossFit Champion Leka Fineman

Kate Reilley Kate Reilley
16 minute read

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In our Born to GO series, we highlight an individual who has gone above and beyond to achieve something remarkable, sharing their inspiring stories that speak to our mission: to keep every body in motion. From elite athletes at the top of their game to everyday people who stay active even in the face of adversity, they embody values we hold high—commitment and dedication—and serve as a source of inspiration to all. Join us as we explore their journeys and celebrate their achievements… and steal a few good tips they’re willing to share!

Leka Fineman grew up in Northern California, surfing, practicing yoga, and riding horses. In 2008, at age 40, her brother introduced her to CrossFit, and she immediately fell in love with the community and the variety and intensity of the workouts. Within five years, she started competing, making it to the CrossFit Games four times. She went from not being able to jump rope or do a single pull up to finishing 7th, 11th, and 8th, and 5th in the world in her division. At 56, she qualified for her 5th CrossFit Games and WON! Now, her passion is sharing her experience and knowledge with others, helping clients make sustainable transformations through healthy eating, movement, and mindfulness. Her goal is to help women feel confident, strong and empowered through all the different stages of life.

Read more about Leka's journey to becoming a CrossFit champion below:

Meet GO Sleeves Partner and CrossFit Champion Leka Fineman

Your bio mentions that you got into CrossFit in 2008. How did you find CrossFit? Who introduced you? Did you hit the ground running and fall in love immediately?

I've been doing CrossFit since 2008. I'm considered an OG. My little brother introduced me to CrossFit when he was in college in San Diego. He was hooked and could not stop talking about it. When I went down to visit him, he dragged me along to a class. I had always been athletic and was really into yoga and pilates at the time. I grew up riding horses, and being outdoors, but I wasn't necessarily a competitive athlete. He worked at CrossFit San Diego, the former Invictus Fitness, now a huge CrossFit gym. So, these were the early days of CrossFit. I walked into this warehouse without mirrors, which was so cool. And I met these awesome people, these really strong women, and I did the same workout as them. I immediately loved it. 

After college, my brother moved in with us, and we started doing CrossFit workouts together, so we built out my garage with equipment we started to collect. At the time, there was the CrossFit 'main site', which was just a blog, and they would post workouts that we would do at home. My brother eventually started coaching at CrossFit Oakland, so I started going there regularly. It was a gradual thing because I was still into my yoga. I still had that notion of not wanting to get too bulky; women aren’t supposed to lift big weights, and it was just kind of a different mindset that I had to break out of. But it was a gradual indoctrination into CrossFit that helped to dispel those myths.

Do you still practice yoga as well?

I do. I have been practicing yoga since I was a kid. It’s probably one of the things that has enabled me to stay in CrossFit so long because it helps me balance. Now, for me, yoga is not a workout. For some people, yoga is their main form of exercise, which is excellent. But for me, it's more of a meditative recovery activity. I love it and recommend it. It’s great.

Stretching is great. But yoga is also all about body awareness and connecting the breath to the movement of your body. Yoga provided a good foundation for me coming into CrossFit because I had body awareness and automatically knew how to connect breath to movement. So that's something that people are becoming a lot more aware of now, and breathing practice has become a key part of CrossFit, which is also great. But it's something that people are having to learn. 

That’s one of the key elements of CrossFit, right? Knowing your body, and mind, and when to stop and push through. I believe that, and I don’t do yoga, but I hear what you're saying, and it seems that yoga gives you the ability to control some of the things that prevent you from getting injured.

Yes. But yoga does go a bit deeper than just that. Yoga has helped connect to the mindset of being an athlete, focusing on what's in your control and what's out of your control, and being able to respond instead of react. So, doing practices like yoga, meditation, and breathing exercises help you control yourself so you're not just always in a reactive state. Then, when things get stressful in the heat of competition or in work or life, you have the tools to just take a pause and breathe and say, “Okay, wait, I'm in control here. I can decide how I want to react to the situation or respond to this situation rather than just going off an initial panicked instinct.”

One thing I have noticed about you as an athlete is your humility. Describe that mindset in terms of humility, especially now being a CrossFit Games champion.

I just posted about winning and having a winning mindset. Having the confidence in yourself that you can win and be a champion means you have to win unapologetically, knowing that you deserve to win. And that took me a long time to claim because I am humble. But it took me a while to build that confidence in myself, to say, “I can be the best, and I can win. Why not me?! I deserve it!” I think a lot of female athletes feel this way. We're taught to be humble or not be too loud. So it’s taken me a while to step into the confidence and say, “I deserve to win. I deserve to be a champion. I can be number one.” And without any apology, period. 

I also have a growth mindset. There’s always room for growth. And I'm always wanting to learn and do better. That’s one thing about CrossFit: there's always something new to learn. The sport is consistently getting harder. CrossFit is still a relatively young sport, but many of us athletes have been in this for many years, so we constantly learn as the sport grows. The women that I compete against have been competing alongside each other for over a decade now. And the bar has been raised so many times over the years. Now, just to stay in the game, you must constantly improve. I'm very self-critical and want to strive to improve by learning and practicing. 

I picked up surfing again, which I started doing in high school, and I stopped because CrossFit was taking up too much time. Surfing requires a lot of time and effort. Starting a new sport again and feeling like a beginner has been cool. Having a beginner's mindset is important. To start some with confidence, but feeling like you know everything all the time, because you don't.

One thing about CrossFit is that unlike basketball, volleyball, cycling, etc., you don’t always know what you're up against. You can always prepare by watching videos and practicing hours daily, but CrossFit competitions are a different story. They release the workout the day before the competition at the CrossFit games. How do you prepare for that?

Correct. At the CrossFit Games, sometimes, they'll give a hint. For example, this year, we knew everyone was running a 5k cross country, there would be a max lift, and there would be a gymnastics component. But other than that, we had no details until the night before. So you are training for everything. You must be good at all the Olympic lifts, gymnastics movements, running-endurance, swimming, everything. That's another reason I've stayed in the game so long as I have—because I'm not a specialist at any one thing. I'm good enough at everything. So you have to be very adaptable. You have to have a good fitness base, of course, but you have to be prepared to do whatever they throw at you and figure this thing out on the fly.

Meet GO Sleeves Partner and CrossFit Champion Leka Fineman

How do you mentally and physically prepare for that? Because, again, unlike any sport, if I know I'm running a 500 meter, I know how I am training and plan my meals accordingly. You're constantly being challenged physically and mentally, when you might have a workout coming up that you could be stronger at.

Training for the CrossFit Games is very different from what you would typically do in the gym. Games training takes on another level because you add the endurance elements. Generally, your CrossFit is in the gym: We do our workouts and maybe run, but we don't swim or train to do as many long-distance workouts. Games training adds in another couple of hours a day. The level of training and the time I was training each day was physically very demanding.

The nutrition piece becomes very critical. In years prior, I worked with a nutrition coach to figure out the nutrition piece because I needed to eat more. And now, I've learned a lot and have studied to become a health coach. I have a good idea of what I need, but you are always learning. For example, this year, I started getting tired and grouchy and realized I needed to eat more carbs.  I was doubling my recovery shakes because I did a whole additional training session each day. So the nutrition is huge. 

In regards to mindset, I have been working with a mental performance coach since 2017. And just like the physical training, you need to put your reps in for the mental training. It's just as important as physical training. I incorporate meditation, visualization, and language (how we talk to ourselves). It's all a combination of your thoughts, attitudes, and beliefs and how you put that into practice. I also do a lot of journaling. Especially when you can't do the physical training because you are worn down - those are the perfect days to put in the mental reps. Over the years, I've put so much time and effort into the mental aspect, and it's been a big differentiator for me. A few of the teen athletes withdrew this year. I think the mental pressure got to them. You see so many athletes identifying themselves as only CrossFitters. So if you have a bad day training, that will affect your whole being. I have my kids, my family, my life, so if I have a bad day in the gym, it affects me, but it's not like my whole world. It probably happens less to Masters because the Masters athletes have accepted that they got here for a reason and have the proper tools to push through. If something goes wrong, I just have to deal with it.

I'm just grateful to be there. I'm grateful that my body allows me to do this, and I have the time and space to do this. When I first started, I was in a different place in my life where my kids were still at home, and I was working full time, and it was very stressful. I didn't have very much time to train. So now I've set up my life around my training. I work for myself, my kids are out of the house, and it's not as stressful day to day. You will see us ladies in our division laughing and enjoying ourselves between workouts, and that is what it’s all about.

I want to get your take on between heats, when, as you mentioned, you guys are laughing, etc. But at the same time, I'm sure you're thinking about the next workout, right? How do you set yourself up for success with that kind of pressure?

There's always something! And I have been five times. This year, I had some little nagging injuries that were problematic. Getting to the games, I had been dealing with a nerve situation stemming from my neck that was affecting my elbow and down to my wrist, which was very painful. Leading up to the games, I couldn't really do any pulling, and in CrossFit, there's, we do so much pulling with the barbell, pull-ups, and rope climbs. I had been in therapy for the issue, and I got to the point where I was managing it, and I wasn't in pain going into the games. But I had to do a lot mentally and physically to be at a point where I was not in pain. My coach and I worked on having the mindset to show up and work hard because we've got a job to do. 

It’s intense when you get to the CrossFit games, and you're warming up—the energy level in the warm-up room. The gym is essentially two giant warehouses, and you're kind of in your little world, but looking around thinking, “How are they warming up? Who is that?” You're trying to put on blinders and stay focused while checking out the competition. And yes, we're all friendly, but as far as I'm concerned, I'm there to win. 

How have you been wearing your GO Sleeves in terms of recovery and preventing injury? I've seen you just do some crazy lifts with GO Sleeves on. 

I wouldn’t be where I am without GO Sleeves. Honestly, I was wearing them today during my workout. I've been relatively lucky that I haven't had any major knee issues. My right knee talks to me a little bit, so I have to be careful about warming it up and protecting it. But I will put on my GO Sleeves if any movement will require my knees to bend. So any type of squatting, lunging, pistols, which are one-legged squats, is a lot of pressure on your knee. So I won’t even do one pistol without my GO Knee Sleeves on. I love them because they provide a lot of compression, but they're not bulky, and don’t limit my movement. Plus, they don't move around, keep my knees warm, and protect me. I even wear them when I rope climb to protect my shins, which may not be the best use.

And this year, I tried the elbow sleeves during training because of my elbow issue. Especially when I was doing heavy overhead lifts like a clean and jerk or snatches, or when I was doing handstand pushups, I needed that extra support. The combination of the kinesiology strips and the compression has absolutely helped my joints and given me the ability to stay healthy. I always recommend sleeves to people! When I first met you guys, I was wearing different sleeves that kept bunching and falling. 

Doctors rarely talk about kinesiology tape and how it helps to open up the blood capillaries, helps with blood flow, opens up the highway for lymphatic fluid drainage, etc., and how we discovered GO Sleeves because I am always getting injured. I used to take ibuprofen a lot. And ever since I've invented GO Sleeves, I've never touched any anti-inflammatory. I'm proud of what we've done and the athletes we have helped, like yourself. At the same time, we are helping people with arthritis or seniors who are getting injured and need rehabilitation support to regain mobility. It’s not just about pro athletes, but also everyday people who just want their mobility back. 

Absolutely, you want to be able to do the things that you enjoy. My goal now is that I want to be able to play with my grandchildren when I have them. I want to be able to do things and be active as long as I can. CrossFit is hard on your joints, but wearing protection and being careful about recovery is important. I think about being a grandma doing handstand push-ups and being able to do handstand walks!

You just won the CrossFit Games, which is such a huge accomplishment. So tell me, what's next?

Winning the CrossFit Games is a Lifetime Achievement Goal for me. It was something I’d dreamed about for a long time. Now, I'm taking a little break from competing. I will do the CrossFit open again, but I took about a month off after the games ended. I'm just starting to ease back into it now. But I want to keep up my base level of fitness. And I have that competitive spirit, so if I do something, I want to do it well. And, as I mentioned, I'm just excited about surfing again. Surfing is purely for joy. 

I used to surf growing up in NorCal, and it was brutal! But here in Southern California, the water is warm, and these waves are so nice and easy. So it's a whole different vibe. I just want to be healthy and active and stay strong. I will continue lifting but spend a little more time focusing on my business, coaching, and leading women's wellness retreats and seminars. That's where my energy is going right now.

Meet GO Sleeves Partner and CrossFit Champion Leka Fineman

How do you fit all this in a day? CrossFit training, as you mentioned, is four hours every day, especially if you're competing, and then you're a parent, a business owner, and still managing a work-life balance—wow.

You know, you make time for things that are important to you. You have to prioritize between your family, your friends, the Games, all of it. Some of my friends haven't had much time with me lately. But it is a goal of mine to spend more time with my friends and family now that the Games are over, and spend less time training. 

The GO Sleeves team wants to help you succeed, so let us know how we can help! We'll be right behind you, supporting you.

Thank you! You guys have been great, and I super appreciate it. My knees and my elbows, thank you. My GO Sleeves are well-loved, for sure.  

You can find Leka Fineman on Instagram, or on her website.

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