The CrossFitter’s Guide to Nutrition
I’m sure you’ve heard this time and time again, but the most significant fitness gains are made in the kitchen not in the gym. Of course, training hard is important, but your efforts can all too easily be undermined by a poor diet. Put your hand up if you’ve ever though to yourself “I don’t get it, I train all week, I eat pretty decent, so why don’t I look like a CrossFitter?!” ??♀️
If you are constantly bouncing from fad diet to fad diet, it’s pretty unlikely that you’ll get the results you want. After all, results require consistency. However, knowing where to start with your nutrition can be a bit confusing, so let’s break it down for you!
First things first. Make sure you are eating the right amount of food to support your training, in the right macronutrient breakdown and that you’re doing so consistently. How do you figure this all out? Well to start you need to be tracking your food and reviewing how consistent you’re being. If you are drastically under eating during the week only to double your caloric consumption on the weekends, then you need to reign that sh*t in. The body’s ability to metabolize our foods into energy is best performed when that fuel is consistent. Then, you need to assign yourself a daily set of goals for your macronutrients. A breakdown of 40%-30%-30% of your daily caloric intake for carbohydrates, protein and fat respectively, is a good place to start. For more on calculating your daily caloric needs check out our BMR calculator.
If you’re doing all this already and you’re not seeing much improvement in performance or changes in your body then there are several things that you could be doing to improve your results:
- Eat more – your body may be ready to reverse diet or you’re in too much of a deficit to support your training, either way, getting some expert advice about your numbers would be a smart idea. We’d also recommend getting your body fat percentage analyzed by either using a dunk tank or something like an InBody.
- Increase Micronutrient Intake – are you getting enough fiber and consuming up to 800 grams of fruits and vegetables a day?
- Supplementation – could you benefit from some additional supplements? We don’t advocate blindly hedging your bets, but there are a few supplements that most of us could benefit from.
Before we dive any deeper, let’s first take a moment to understand what’s happening to our bodies when we train as CrossFit athletes.
1. How Training Affects Your Body
Glycogen is the storage form of glucose which predominantly comes from carbohydrates. Glycogen is stored in the liver and in our muscles and is the primary fuel source used by our bodies when we train anaerobically. Glycogen is partially broken down into glucose and utilized to create ATP (energy) allowing our muscles to contract. Working out therefore depletes our bodies’ glycogen stores. Additionally, because of the chemical reactions taking place during physical activity, some of the proteins in our muscles get broken down and damaged.
After you work out, your body rebuilds it’s glycogen stores and repairs your muscles. The breaking down and repair of muscle proteins is how you gain muscle. This happens most optimally if you provide your body with the right nutrients following your workout and allow your body time to recover.
Eating the right foods post workout can:
- Decrease muscle protein breakdown;
- Increase muscle protein synthesis (growth);
- Restore glycogen stores;
- Speed up recovery so you’re ready to hit another workout!
2. Maximizing Your Workouts
We need all three macronutrients to live and to be able to enjoy life like normal, social human beings. That being said, the two most important macronutrients for a CrossFitter are protein and carbohydrates. Ensuring you’re meeting your daily macronutrient needs and getting them from good quality food sources is paramount in supporting your performance and in turn, that much coveted CrossFitter’s physique. We’ve touched on the effects of training on the body and why these two macronutrients are so important, but let’s dive even deeper! We’ll also consider the quantity and sources that are most optimal for each of these macronutrients.
Protein is crucial when it comes to repairing your muscles and speeding up the recovery process. Consuming an adequate amount of protein after a workout gives your body the amino acids it needs to repair and rebuild these proteins.
Protein also helps you build and retain muscle. So how much protein should you be eating post workout? Well, you should generally try to aim for between 25 – 50g post workout depending on your size and caloric needs. Of course, you still need to make sure you’re staying within your daily protein goal which should be calculated at 0.7-1.0g per pound of your goal lean body mass. For example, if my goal weight is 120 lbs. and I want around 15% body fat (healthy for an athletic woman or crossfitter), then I would need anywhere between 71g and 102 grams of protein (85% x 120 lbs = 102 lbs. lean body mass).
Although there are plenty people in the world not consuming enough protein, most crossfitters tend to be guilty of the opposite behavior and consume far too much! Protein is not well-utilized as a fuel source by the body, so any excess consumption of protein that cannot be used by the body, can lead to fat storage, just like any other macronutrient. If this subject is of particular interest to you, then check out our article on how much protein you should be eating.
Some valuable protein sources include:
- Whey protein (try mixing with water, milk, coconut water or coconut milk)
- Egg whites
- Fish & shellfish – salmon, tuna, halibut, shrimp, crab
For vegan sources, check out our Vegan Protein Guide. Try looking up some recipes that incorporate these protein sources for a delicious post-workout meal.
As mentioned above, your body’s glycogen stores are depleted when you work out. So how can you help your body replenish these stores? Well, the answer is actually pretty simple – Carbs!
Carbohydrates provide the body with glucose, which is either converted into energy right away, or its converted into glycogen and stored in the liver or our muscles. Carbohydrates are not only a crucial part of a healthy diet but for CrossFitters they are essential! CrossFit metcon style workouts predominantly have athletes performing in an anaerobic capacity – activity that lasts between 30 seconds to about 2 minutes 30 seconds. This glycolytic pathway creates energy in the absence of oxygen, by utilizing stores of carbohydrates.
Stored carbohydrates can sustain about 90 minutes of moderate activity and about 20 minutes of high intensity activity before needing to be replenished. These are just ball park figures. You’ll know when you fully deplete your glycogen stores when you hit a wall in a workout. This is also known as “bonking”. With improvements in your fitness and strength, you can also expect to improve your body’s capacity to store more glycogen in your muscles and extend that work capacity period – a CrossFitter’s dream come true when every rep counts!
But how many carbs should you be eating post-workout? Well, the answer isn’t quite as straightforward as protein.
The number of carbs that you need to eat is determined by how long and intense that workout is. While it can be a bit difficult to determine this, here is a rough breakdown:
- 4 – 8 mins: aim for 20 – 30g
- 8 – 12 mins: aim for 30 – 40g
- 12+ mins: 40g+
Some good quality sources of carbohydrates are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Squash – winter and summer squashes
- Fruits – Banana, Berries, Pineapple
- Corn on the cob
- Cous Cous
3. The Timing of Your Post Workout Meal
While we don’t stress about getting a full meal in immediately after we work out, it’s commonly thought that your body is in a heightened (anabolic) state to replenish its glycogen and take up protein after you exercise. How long this anabolic window is open for is always in hot debate. If you notice feeling sore often, then when not try to get your post-workout meal in a little sooner? A well-rounded meal of primarily carbohydrates, some protein and a little fat within the hour or so following your work out certainly won’t do you any harm, but it could do you a tremendous amount of good.
We don’t believe that the difference in results yielded from nutrient timing is significant enough that it’s worth the time or additional stress for most CrossFit athletes. If you would like to learn more about nutrient timing though, you can check out our article Pre and Post Workout Nutrition Simplified.
4. Increasing Micronutrient Intake
Although the verdict is still out as to how significant meal timing really is, one thing we know to be true is that a healthy body provides an optimal environment for all your bodily functions and processes to happen effectively and efficiently. To keep our bodies at their healthiest, we need to consider what we’re eating beyond the macros. We need to pay attention to our micronutrients too!
Exercise creates oxidative stress on our bodies. Although it causes damage in a good way, it’s important to remember to consume good quality whole foods in abundance to provide your body with plenty of vitamins and minerals and an additional resource of antioxidants. Antioxidants inhibit the oxidation process that creates free radicals (substances that cause damage to our cells and DNA and are responsible for causing things like cancer). Ever wondered why some fruits and vegetables are so colorful? Well that’s just nature’s way of enticing us to eat them and for good reason! The bright colors are often indicative of their high antioxidant properties. To start, we encourage clients to eat what they enjoy when it comes to fruits and vegetables, because they’re more likely to eat more of it! Once fruits and vegetables are being consumed in optimal quantities, we then start to look at variety.
Here’s a list of some of the best natural sources of antioxidants that you should think about including in your diet if you’re not already:
- Berries – Blueberries, Goji berries, Cranberries, Elderberries, Grapes, Strawberries & Raspberries
- Dark chocolate or Cacao
- Nuts – Pecans, Walnuts & Brazil nuts
- Dark leafy greens – kale, broccoli, collard greens, spinach
- Orange vegetables – sweet potatoes, carrots, orangetti, butternut & acorn squash
- Green Tea
- Herbs – Ginger, Turmeric, Oregano, Cilantro
We help clients balance their micronutrient intake by giving them tangible goals like consuming 800 grams worth of fruits and vegetables every day. We also provide plenty of ideas and delicious recipes for those who don’t like to eat their veggies!
Like we mentioned before, we’re not huge advocates of blanket supplementation. Even though some supplements are considered safe, if you’re body doesn’t need whatever extra you’re giving it, you could be interfering with the bioavailability and uptake of other key vitamins and minerals. Not to mention, you could be wasting your money on a supplement your body doesn’t really need! If you’re concerned that your diet may not be covering all your bases then get some bloodwork done to find out exactly what it is you’re in need of. Our friends at Inside Tracker provide a phenomenal service with different plans available according to biomarkers that you would most be interested in as athletes of varying ages and abilities. Check them out here and use our code ACKERMAN for a great discount on your service.
Here’s our thoughts on the most common supplements and what we sometimes take ourselves:
One supplement in particular that tends to be over consumed is whey protein. If you seriously struggle to hit your daily protein needs, then consuming whey protein after you work out is a smart choice, however we definitely encourage you to tweak how much protein you eat throughout the day so that you can consume as much real food as possible. Getting a head start on your protein early in the morning by having something like an egg white omelette is an excellent idea. Try limiting your protein supplement intake to one shake or bar a day.
Caffeine works on the central nervous system by promoting spinal cord excitability and muscle fiber recruitment, while decreasing perceptions of fatigue and muscle pain. Research has found that 3mg of caffeine per kilo of bodyweight can improve endurance and significantly lower your pain threshold. In fact, caffeine works so well as a performance enhancer that up until 2004 it was a banned substance by the World Anti Doping Agency. It’s been demonstrated to improve physical performance in all manner of sports while also delaying mental fatigue.
Based on fulfilling a need of 3mg / kilo, that would mean that a 150-pound person would want to consume around 210 mg caffeine pre-workout. A 20 oz Starbucks coffee contains about 200 mg; iced tea has about 40 mg; diet soda about 50 mg. Caffeine levels in your bloodstream peak approximately 60-90 minutes after consumption. So there’s no need to stress over whether your pre-workout contains some FDA banned substance or icky artificial ingredients and flavorings. Just pop an espresso 60 minutes or so before your work out and you’ll likely find that extra gear you need mid-workout.
Caffeine is a completely legal stimulant and readily accessible. We recommend consuming caffeine in beverage form to avoid any side effects you might experience from a more concentrated pill form, such as jitters or dehydration.
If you’re struggling to build muscle or strength then taking 3-5g daily of creatine monohydrate would be a good supplement for you to test out. What is creatine? Creatine is an amino acid that exists naturally in our bodies and helps to fuel our muscles. It improves our bodies ability to rapidly produce energy which is why people take it as a supplement to boost their performance in the gym. Creatine isn’t only available in supplement form, you can find it naturally in foods like beef, pork and salmon.
There is a lot of mixed research about creatine’s ability to improve muscle strength, but for the most part it is shown to be effective in strength improvements as well as sports that require a high power output like rowing, soccer and sports with vertical leaps.
Despite people who say that creatine is unsafe and potentially harmful to your kidneys, there are no published studies or reports that support this. Just like some people don’t tolerate nightshades, or gluten or dairy, it’s possible that you may experience a mild reaction to taking a creatine supplement. For most people though, creatine is safe and unlikely to cause digestive discomfort.
The Key Takeaway
To maximize your fitness results you don’t need hours in the gym, a complex nutrition plan or a pharmacy of supplements. Understand that sound nutrition practices are the foundation to improving your gym performance and overall gains. It’s not only important to eat the right amount of food to support your training, but also to get the right balance of macronutrients primarily from whole food sources. Not all this has to happen overnight. You can start by tracking your calories, once you are being more consistent with your fuel intake, then bring your focus to your macros as you slowly improve the quality of your food choices. Start with fruits and vegetables that you enjoy eating and then slowly over time, branch out and test foods that you might previously have turned down. Our taste buds can adapt and evolve to enjoy foods that we once hated so don’t be afraid to go back and try something that you might have swore off a year ago. The big picture is that no different to your training, you’re keeping track of what you’re doing so that you can continue to make progress and improvements over time.
We can help you reach your performance potential! Whether you’re into CrossFit or not, we know how to help people implement changes to their nutrition that suit their lifestyle. You can read more about our coaching services and our Lifestyle programs on our site or feel free to contact us with any questions.