CrossFit is an incredibly demanding sport and taxing on the body. A combination of pure strength, olympic lifting, gymnastics, and endurance, tackling CrossFit workouts means you have to be ready for the unknown and unknowable. One way to ensure you are consistently prepared for whatever goes up on the whiteboard tomorrow is to fuel your body with the proper nutrition.
What’s the best nutrition protocol for a CrossFit athlete? It depends… (Everyone is different, so click here now if you’d like individualized guidance on your nutrition). But avoiding these common mistakes I see with CrossFitters and their nutrition is a good place to start!
The Top 7 Nutrition Mistakes CrossFit Athletes Make:
1. Having Conflicting Goals
A very common problem I see among CrossFit athletes is that they have conflicting goals. They want to enter an upcoming competition, but they also want to lose ten lbs. Or they want to PR their squat, but they also want to get a six pack in the next 60 days (don’t we all?!). Unfortunately, these goals are not in line with each other.
Improving performance requires eating at your maintenance level calories or even a slight surplus. If you want to gain strength or compete in CrossFit, you need to be continuously upping your carbohydrate intake and focusing on proper fuel and recovery. Here you should be focusing on increasing power output and not concerned about the number on the scale.
On the other hand, if you are cutting for fat loss and a leaner physique, you need to tone back workout intensity as you cut calories. Going into a calorie deficit for fat loss is a major stress on the body and is not a good time start ramping up workouts and adding further stress.
Periodize your training and your nutrition. Periodizing means splitting up your overall, long-term goals into smaller blocks of focus. You aren’t (or shouldn’t be) going for PRs in the gym every day the same way you shouldn’t be cutting for fat loss constantly. Instead, you should dedicate certain time periods to strength and gaining, other times for physique, if you are so inclined, and other times for sport/competition. These different time periods all require different recovery protocols and different calorie and macronutrient intake.
All periods of your training are important and you need to have organization to your nutrition, too. Having a periodized plan for your training and nutrition will allow you to maintain your results better and manage hormone balance and recovery better. Instead of trying to compete year-round or rushing towards a three month deadline, we recommend having one time per year that you are going all in on performance or all in on aesthetics. That way you can plan the rest of your year accordingly and keep working towards your long term goals.
2. Not Eating Enough Protein
If calories are king and macros are queen, that makes protein the prince or princess. Eating high protein is our best friend for nearly any diet goal. Studies show that eating protein increases your metabolic rate, helps restore and repair muscle, and keeps you satiated, all of which will help you stick to your nutrition plan.
Adding protein to your diet is a simple and effective way to manage your weight and ensure muscle recovery. Unfortunately, the federally recommended daily amount of protein is extremely low and is more for preventing a catabolic state than reaching your optimal health and body composition, leading to many people, athletes especially, dramatically under eating protein. The protein intake you require depends on a variety of factors like your activity level, age, weight, and goals, but we recommend about .8 – 1.2 grams per lb body weight.
Eat a variety of high quality, organic meats. Animal protein provides all of the essential amino acids you need in a bioavailable form. Not sure if you’re eating enough protein? Track your food for five days. Divide your average protein intake by your body weight. Do you fall within the .8 – 1.2 guideline? If not, try adding a little protein to each of your meals throughout the day until you get within the specified range.
3. Not Eating Enough, Period.
Unfortunately, this might be the number one mistake I see athletes making. They are simply under eating, day in and day out. Then they are frustrated that the hard work they put in at the gym doesn’t show on their body, when just eating more food could help their performance and their aesthetics.
This is because when we live in a calorie deficit, our bodies go into starvation mode and store everything they can. You will reach a point where you can’t take anything else out of your diet. Now, you can’t lose any more weight, your metabolism is running at a snail’s pace, your workouts have likely plateaued, and your body is stressed out.
Fat loss phases should always be temporary. You should not be living in a constant calorie deficit, especially if you have any performance related goals. In my experience, many people don’t actually know they are under eating and might be in a 500 calorie/day deficit and think they “eat so much.” This is where hiring an expert coach can seriously improve your lifestyle as well as your WOD scores (helloooo more carbs).
This one’s pretty simple… eat some food people!! Reverse diet up to your maintenance level calories. Reverse dieting can be very mentally tough so if you don’t know how to increase your calories or are nervous about gaining weight, I urge you to hire a coach. And remember, nobody ever got on top of the podium at a CrossFit competition because of their body fat percentage.
4. Skipping Carbs Post-Workout
Carbohydrates are the main fuel source for glycolytic exercise like CrossFit. Carbs are not essential to our bodily functions, but they are essential for performance. Carbs are stored in the body as glycogen, which is our most readily available source of energy when doing high-intensity physical activity like CrossFit. Yes, your body can learn to convert fat into ketone bodies and use those for energy during a workout (keto diet; <50g carbs). However, this process is less efficient than using glycogen and also takes time for your body adjust to, frequently up to six months. This means your WOD times will suffer, at least for a period of time, if you choose to do a keto-style diet.
Athletes should also embrace carbs because they help you recover. Tough workouts stress your nervous system and spike your fight or flight hormone, cortisol. Not addressing this cortisol spike can lead to muscle breakdown and you not recovering before your next WOD. Consumption of carbs post-workout increases insulin which decreases this cortisol response so your body can start rebuilding the muscle you just worked.
We recommend consuming both protein and carbs immediately post workout. After finishing your WOD, consume about 25g of BOTH carbs and protein, little to no fat. Some people cannot stomach a meal at this time, so if you cannot, I recommend 25 g of organic/grass-fed whey protein and 25 g of Highly Branched Cyclic Dextrin (HBCD). If you want to eat this meal, pick a lean meat such as chicken or egg whites and then a quick carb such as rice or sweet potatoes. This is one scenario where nutrient timing really does matter. The carbs are going to calm the stress response from training, start replenishing your glycogen stores, and, along with protein, will jumpstart the muscle repair process.
5. Going Overboard with “Paleo Desserts”
So you cut all sugar, grains, and dairy from your diet – nice work! But, wait, you just made your second batch of paleo brownies?
Cutting out or even cutting down on processed foods is awesome, but so often I see people replace the “bad” grains and refined sugars with paleo versions of the same foods. Often times these paleo desserts will not satisfy your cravings and will actually lead to more intense cravings later. Additionally, the nutrition facts might not be any more macro-friendly than the processed version so while your quality might be better, quantity is the same or even worse.
Instead of labelling foods as “good” and “bad” try to think of all food just as it is, food. All food is consumable, some foods just fuel our bodies better than others. Restricting entire food groups or types of food is not a sustainable way to eat and live. Eating a Paleo diet can be a great way to kick your processed food addiction, but might not be sustainable for you long term if you’re performing rigorous exercise multiple days per week (see mistake #3 above).
If you enjoy eating healthy, nutrient-dense foods – that’s great! But you should never make yourself feel guilty for having a dessert one night on the weekend or a glass of wine on date night. Try to find a balance for your lifestyle that allows your to reach your goals and also live the life you enjoy. That’s how you will see lasting changes.
6. Plan Hopping
Keto, paleo, carnivore… If only consistency and adherence sounded as cool as these popular diet trends. The truth is it’s nearly impossible to see results, or know what led to those results, if you are continuously switching nutrition protocols. For example, it can take 6 months for your body to adjust to Keto. And the carnivore diet makes you feel good, but in reality it might just be because it’s a hardcore elimination diet. What if only one food irritates you but you cut out fifty other foods for no reason?
It’s OK to experiment as you get to know your body as an athlete, but don’t be distracted by shiny, new fad diets. Learn what foods your body digests well. Learn what meals make your training feel great and help you recover. Then repeat those.
Finding what nutrition plan works for your lifestyle is key for your success by making sure it’s something you can stick to long term. Most often it’s going to be as simple as eating high quality protein, lots of veggies, and easily digestible carbohydrates. Don’t go looking for quick fixes, the patient dieter always wins in the long run.
7. Trying To Out-Train a Poor Diet
It’s true, you can’t out train a crappy diet. Doing back-to-back-to back girl WODs won’t make up for eating pure junk. In fact, eating a diet high processed foods will likely hurt your workout performance and cause you to plateau or burn out faster.
Think about the last time you had an absolutely killer workout. What did you do before that workout? I’m guessing you had a semi-relaxing week, slept soundly, and hit your macros most days before that workout. Now picture the opposite, a day you felt out of gas right when the workout started. Maybe you were up all night with the kids and before that didn’t have time to eat because work was so crazy. Sound familiar?
No fancy supplements can make up for a poor diet, either. Supplements are exactly what they sound like, supplemental to your diet, not the main source of nutrients. If you are filling most of your macros with shakes, bars, and other supplements, you are probably lacking fiber and various other vitamins and minerals. You might also be consuming artificial sweeteners and other additives that could be doing more harm than good to your body.
Instead of trying to “earn” food by killing yourself in the gym, think about earning your workouts by feeding your body high quality foods. Limit your protein powder to one scoop post workout and try to have bars as a last resort/on the go option, not a daily staple. This is especially important if you are in a fat loss phase because the more whole foods you eat, the more satiated you’ll be and the easier it will be to stick to your plan.
Did you hit your macros the day before and get a good night’s sleep? Awesome, go crush your WOD. Did you have one too many beers, hardly get any real food in, and only slept five hours? Maybe do some LISS today instead of CrossFit. Listen to your body. You probably already know what foods make you feel good and what foods don’t.
Are you dedicating as much time to your nutrition as you are to your WODs? If not, you should be! Work with a coach or start tracking your food intake on your own to make sure you are eating enough nutrient-dense foods to keep crushing it in the gym and helping your body recover. Want to know more about how to fuel performance in your sport? Connect with me on Instagram and let’s make a plan!
This is a guest blog written by Caroline Ofenstein. Caroline is Certified With Precision Nutrition Coach, NCI, CrossFit, and also a Boom-Boom Performance Nutrition Coach. Caroline is our go-to source for CrossFit Nutrition AND bridging the gap between Aesthetics and Performance, which is where she has recently pushed her focus into learning exactly how you can achieve both performance and the lean physique we all strive for.