Optimal Nutrition for CrossFit Athletes
CrossFit has been around since 2000, so the odds are good that you or someone you know has tried it. With its explosion into a branded fitness movement came certain beliefs about what CrossFit athletes should eat to support their performance.
What’s the truth about fueling this kind of high-intensity regimen? Let’s examine some of the current thinking and what optimal CrossFit nutrition should really look like.
What is CrossFit?
CrossFit — short for “cross-discipline fitness” — is a branded fitness routine that took the nation by storm in the early 2000s. Headquartered in California, CrossFit-affiliated gyms started popping up everywhere, becoming one of the biggest fitness chains in the world.
The CrossFit brand is marketed as an exercise philosophy as well as a competitive fitness sport based on high-intensity interval training and strength. Its movements are inspired by gymnastics, powerlifting, calisthenics, strongman, plyometrics, and Olympic weightlifting. The daily workouts in CrossFit gyms are known as WOD or “Workouts of the Day” and include things like burpees, kettlebells, box jumps, wall balls, and jump ropes.
What Does the Typical CrossFit Diet Look Like?
Many people who do CrossFit follow a Paleo diet approach, so the two are often associated as going hand-in-hand.
This means lean meats, vegetables, certain fruits, nuts, and seeds while excluding dairy products, grains, legumes, certain fruits, and ‘man made’ foods. CrossFitters assume this diet pattern helps them maintain a healthy weight, reduce the risk of injury, and support optimal athletic performance.
According to the official CrossFit website, it states participating athletes should eat “meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, and no sugar.” Furthermore, while there are no specific calorie recommendations, athletes are advised to “keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
Generally, the CrossFit diet plan is relatively low in carbohydrates and prioritizes lean proteins, healthy fats, and certain whole plant foods. Though there are variations, many members of the community abide by a carb-restricted diet pattern. Let’s talk about why this isn’t the best approach, and something we don’t recommend to our CrossFit athletes.
Rethinking CrossFit Nutrition
CrossFit is a strenuous and highly exertive form of exercise and therefore needs to be supported with evidence-based nutrition for athletes. It’s important to provide the body with the fuel it needs to do what CrossFit requires of it.
The primary and preferred fuel source for the body (and brain) is carbohydrates. Unfortunately, over the last decade, carbs have received a negative connotation as an entire nutrient category. When the misconceptions around carbs have also infiltrated large fitness communities like CrossFit, the untruths spread like wildfire.
Rather than demonizing carbs as a whole, it’s important to distinguish between the types of carbs that do or do not provide nutritional value and performance benefits. For instance, high-quality carbs include things like whole grains, fruit, starchy vegetables like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and legumes like chickpeas and lentils.
Without carbs, you can experience inadequate glycogen repletion and decreased performance capacity as you compete at high intensities. In other words, your body uses up any quick fuel sources it has available right away and then has no remaining stores to pull from when it needs it the most. Inadequate fuel or underfueling leaves you with reduced energy and less ability to continue performing.
What Should a CrossFit Diet Plan Look Like?
When designing a CrossFit diet plan for you, it’s important to consider adequate macronutrients for this type of exercise.
There’s no need to fear carbs, especially when you’re an athlete. While there are no specific guidelines for daily carbohydrate intake, we can consider the requirements of general strength athletes. This falls between 4-7 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of body weight. For a 180-pound athlete, this would come out to approximately 327-572 grams of carbohydrates per day. Carb needs increase as training load increases.
Protein needs fall between 1.4 and 2 grams per kilogram of body weight per day in order to optimize muscle recovery, repair, and growth. For a 140-pound athlete, this translates to approximately 89-127 grams of protein per day.
Recommended total dietary fat intake for these athletes is between 0.8 and 1 gram per kilogram of body weight per day. For a 160-pound athlete, this looks like 58-73 grams of fat per day. Prioritizing fat sources that are also rich in omega-3 fatty acids, such as fatty fish, walnuts, hemp, chia, or flaxseed can help provide both cognitive and cardiovascular health benefits.
Other Nutritional Considerations for CrossFit
People participating in strenuous and high-intensity strength activities like CrossFit may also benefit from other nutrition and diet-related considerations.
First, certain types of supplements may help support the high activity level as well as recovery. Some examples include:
Creatine: Creatine is a molecule synthesized in the body by amino acids such as glycine and methionine. 95% of creatine is stored in the muscle as phosphocreatine, which provides the energy to recharge ATP stores during an explosive or highly intense workout. It can improve focus, strength, and muscle mass and support muscle recovery. The recommended daily dosage for creatine is 5 grams per day as creatine monohydrate. See more in my Athlete’s Guide to Creatine.
Beta-Alanine: Beta-alanine is a nonessential amino acid that can boost carnosine stores in your skeletal muscle. This helps increase endurance during high-intensity exercises that are generally 25 minutes in length or less. The general recommended daily dosage for beta-alanine is 2-5 grams for 8-12 weeks.
Caffeine: Caffeine is an ergogenic aid found naturally in cocoa, tea, and coffee and is best known for its ability to enhance focus and alertness by stimulating the central nervous system, as well as boosting athletic performance. Consider ingesting caffeine within the hour before exercise, as this is when your blood levels will peak, providing the most benefit for your workout. Caffeine appears to be most effective in doses of around 3 mg/kg body weight.
Tart Cherry Juice: Tart cherry juice is full of polyphenols that have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits for athletes. Research has found that tart cherry can help reduce pain and blood markers of oxidative stress after exercise as well as accelerate strength recovery. While the dosages vary in studies, many use 8-12 ounces twice per day.
Another consideration is the consumption of polyphenols in the diet. These are plant compounds found in foods like fruits, vegetables, tea, dark chocolate, herbs, and spices. They have been associated with improved muscle recovery and reduced inflammation, two things that often result from high-intensity workouts, possibly by acting on the gut microbiome.
Proper hydration is also key for any active lifestyle, but especially one that places the body under periods of high physical demand and stress. Furthermore, just a 2% loss of body weight during a workout is defined as dehydration, and a 3% loss will significantly impair your ability to perform. In order to ensure you’re staying hydrated and preventing dehydration, keep a full water bottle with you throughout the day and during your workouts.
Rather than chugging it all in one sitting while you’re working out, prevent dehydration by sipping water regularly as the day goes on. High-intensity athletes may also benefit from added electrolytes, like sodium and potassium, as well as carbohydrates to replete energy and what is lost in sweat. I have a few homemade sports drink recipes in my cookbook for more.
Final Thoughts on CrossFit Nutrition
CrossFit is highly strenuous and requires adequate nutritional support, including getting enough carbs. If you do CrossFit, make sure you’re eating enough fuel, staying on top of your hydration, and consider the supplements mentioned above to further benefit your performance and recovery.
If you are a CrossFit athlete and need help structuring a personalized nutrition plan to fuel your workouts, contact our team today to get on our waitlist.