CrossFit has been around a while now, although the name CrossFit was originally branded in 2000 its origins are said to have begun at a Gym in Santa Cruise, California back in the 70’s. Since then it has grown and grown. But this article isn’t a history lesson, this is about how to improve physical performance for the sport of exercise.
The style of training is a little different to most other popular forms of exercise. CrossFit carries a multi-sport dynamic that hits different energy systems and muscle groups, often in one workout. At the higher end CrossFit athletes perform 2,3 and even 4 workouts a day which places the body under huge stress. Therefore, it’s really important to ensure that you are recovering well between workouts.
It goes without saying that to get good at CrossFit you must practice, just like with any sport. According to the boxmag.org the men’s snatch topped out at 240lb during the 2009 CrossFit Games. Currently it’s not unusual to see lifts far in excess of this at regionals and this just highlights how the athletes are developing their practice. Treat the exercises as skills and aim to improve your technique, after-all poor technique will not only affect your performance but will increase the risk of injury too.
We have all seen the video compilations of CrossFit gym fails but if you fancy a laugh check this out. Clearly, some of these ‘athletes’ are aiming for a Darwin award. Our advice is to do your homework, research Boxes is your area and pick the ones with the best reputation and the most experienced coaches. There’s good and bad in all walks of life and a good CrossFit coach/Box is worth its weight in gold, especially if you want to avoid finding yourself being shared by Lad Bible in a compilation like the one above.
A good coach will schedule your training in a safe and progressive manner, will set you mobility and pre-hab routines as an accessory to improving your primary exercises and reduce your injury risk.
Female Athlete Triad
We’ll get deep into the diet side of things shortly but suffice it to say that if you aren’t eating enough you won’t recover adequately and this can lead to exhaustion, fatigue, soreness, injury and overtraining syndrome. For females this can lead to a condition known as the female athlete triad (1). There is also a high prevalence for disordered eating among group exercise instructors (2) with females (59%) being more prone than males (22%) so it’s highly likely that CrossFit coaches can find themselves among the female athlete triad. As coaches we have come across numerous female athletes who have brought this on themselves through poorly programmed training and excessively low-calorie intake, this seems a little more common at entry level in CrossFit than one would like. Unfortunately, CrossFit has often associated itself with various ill-advised dietary approaches including Paleo, particularly in its low carb form and The Zone Diet. A highly active female athlete who is restricting calories and carbohydrates to an excessive degree (female athletes often feel under pressure to maintain an idealized body composition and disordered eating is well documented) will put their body under immense stress and this can lead to many of the problems associated with the female athlete triad. These include:
- Low bone mineral density
- Premature ovulation
- Stress related illness
For more on the female athlete triad read this guide from the ACSM.
Traditionally CrossFit has had a love affair with the Paleo diet, often in its purest low carb form which excludes all grains, potatoes and pulses. Most of the claims made in favour of the Paleo diet have been proven false by evidence (3). However, if you enjoy a Paleo style approach to eating and let’s face it, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to an exclusively whole food diet, you really ought to include whole grains, pulses and tubers if for no other reason than their high fibre and micronutrient content.
More recently CrossFit has embraced the Zone Diet and even recommends it as part of the CrossFit level 1 certification. So, let’s take a little look at that shall we?
The Zone Diet aims to create a balance of all macronutrients and strives to make the implementation easy by placing the macronutrients into what they call blocks. This is fine, control is necessary and the less complicated you make that the better but the main issues with the Zone Diet is that it is just too low in energy density and too low in carbohydrates to be efficacious to good CrossFit performance.
Research has shown that many of the claims made within the original Zone Diet book are bogus (4) and that claims made in most popular fad diet books are not based on peer reviewed data (5). It’s highly unlikely that any elite level CrossFit athletes use the Zone Diet and if they do use a variation of it you can guarantee that they are adding extra calories and carbs. But, the guidelines for the Zone Diet aren’t actually that simple, it’s a portion control system not a million miles away from the Weight Watchers points system or Slimming World’s syns system. If an exponent of this diet has a propensity for obsessive attitudes around food this type of approach is likely to lead to disordered eating (see the female athlete triad) and we want to avoid that.
Rich Froning was quoted saying this when asked about his ‘diet’;
I don’t have much of a diet. I eat a lot of peanut butter and drink a lot of whole milk. And protein shakes are my thing. At night, I will eat whatever I want, but through the day, I don’t really eat that much.
Does that sound like the Zone Diet or Paleo to you? No, it doesn’t.
Evidence based performance nutrition
Fad diets aside there are governing bodies who employ scientists to do research and to compile reviews of the available data to come up with tried and tested recommendations that are safe and effective. Such as the ISSN guidelines for sports nutrition (6):
1.4-2g per kg of bodyweight. During times of high volume training or hypocaloric dieting this may increase to as much as 2.5g. This is necessary to avoid reductions in muscle mass and to provide adequate growth and repair to stimulate muscle recovery.
05.-1.5g per kg of bodyweight. The recommendation here is to consume enough fat to regulate hormone production and allow for the absorption and transportation of fat soluble vitamins. This is roughly a minimum of 25% of total calories for most highly active athletes.
3-5g per kg of bodyweight for moderately active people and 5-8g per kg of bodyweight for highly active athletes. Seeing as CrossFit has a highly glycolytic physical demand on the athlete and at the elite level a CrossFit athlete will be training multiple times per day they should aim for the upper end of that scale and, in fact, high volume and high intensity training may require as much as 8-10g of carbs per kg of bodyweight. This flies in the face of traditional CrossFit nutritional guidelines. Let’s not forget, also, that glucose is necessary for rapid replenishment of intramuscular glycogen so being told to avoid sugar makes no sense at-all.
If you have been eating a low to moderate carbohydrate diet to this point and you aren’t hitting any more PRs, aren’t recovering and aren’t maintaining the body composition you want then it’s highly likely that your diet needs addressing. Of course, having been conditioned to believe that insulin is making you fat and that whole grains are causing all kinds of acidosis and inflammation you will feel some resistance to changing this. If you don’t know what you’re doing get in touch and we can recommend a performance nutrition coach to help you but here’s a good starting point to aim for.
Example: Meet Melissa, she’s a 70kg CrossFit athlete in her twenties, she used to do the Zone Diet and Paleo before that but has found that she doesn’t feel great and is struggling to recover between her twice daily workouts. Using the above ranges, she set her macros like so:
Protein: 2g x 70kg (because she is already quite lean. If she was overweight she might choose to use her target bodyweight instead) = 140g x4kcals = 560kcals
Fats: 1 x 70 = 70g x9kcals = 630
Carbohydrates: 8 x 70 = 560g x 4kcals = 2,240. Total kcals = 3,430kcals per day (Probably double what the Zone diet would have her on).
From here she will record her workouts, track her recovery, sleep and body composition and adjust accordingly. It might be that she needs fewer carbs and higher fats. It’s likely that much of her carbs will come from simple sugars in liquids and gels in and around her workouts to optimize that previously mentioned intramuscular glycogen.
If you find this intimidating the sudden increase in food volume and, especially, all those carbs, might cause you some anxiety so, instead, increase this gradually. Therefore, once protein and fats are set the carbs will be increased each week until you find your ‘carb ceiling’. Or just get a nutrition coach who can work it all out for you.
A good coach will schedule your training in a safe and progressive manner
If you have another workout that day, then make sure you have a recovery solution with a ratio of 3:1 carbs to protein, rehydrate with some electrolytes and then have a good balanced meal, leaving enough time to digest it before your next workout.
The total protein you eat will remain consistent each day and mostly consumed every 3-4 hours where possible. This stimulates muscle protein synthesis and will ensure that your muscles have the best chance of recovering. Fats don’t really play a role in performance so just make sure that you are hitting at least your minimum requirement through the day. Carbs will vary, depending on workout intensity, volume and frequency.
As a rough guide you will have about 50g of simple carbs about 30-minutes before exercise and, if the workout is longer than an hour, have some carbs in your water bottle to keep you going. This is important because CrossFit is a glycolytic stimulus and your muscles can’t perform to their best potential if they aren’t adequately fuelled. On rest days, if you are understandably sedentary then you may choose to have a low carb day and if you enjoy fatty foods this is a good time to have those. But this may depend on what you were doing the day before and will be doing again the following day. If you are hitting a hard session the next morning you should ensure you have some carbs in your evening meal at least.
If you aren’t recovering you won’t perform well. A good litmus test for how well recovered you are is how well you sleep. The Sleep Council UK recommend 7-9 hours of sleep for adults between the ages of 18 and 65.
In the 1950’s this was met by most healthy adults, by the 1980s this had dropped below 8 hours and today it’s below 7 hours (7). Further research is needed to determine just how significant the effects of sleep deprivation are on sporting performance but with the effects it has on mental alertness, mood and hormone balance including insulin sensitivity and a plethora of other physiological and emotional disorders (8,9) it just makes sense to track your sleep and keep on top of it as best you can. It has been said that a sleep ‘debt’ can be clawed back by taking power naps (10) but, again, evidence is sparse. It’s safe to say that this is specific to each individual but one thing is certain, if you struggle to get to sleep or wake up multiple times during the night, this could be indicative of increased stress which is a risk factor.
Unusual muscle soreness (which itself can affect sleep quality), increased resting heart rate and diminishing performance markers are other ways to tell if you are under recovering due to excessive exercise output, insufficient dietary intake or both.
If your diet is on point there may be little need for supplementation but given the high volume and high intensity nature of the sport of CrossFit it is highly likely that getting adequate amounts of certain micronutrients will be difficult from diet alone.
Our Daily Dose contains the rda of all the essential vitamins and minerals including omega 3 fish oils and magnesium, which are the main ones of benefit to athletes and may have some effect on reducing DOMS (anecdotally). Creatine and beta-alanine are proven to increase intense exercise performance which is why we have these in our Performance Blend, which you take daily in a fruit flavoured drink. Pre-workout supplements can help you to overcome plateaus and help you to dig deep and pull out some extra reps. Dietary nitrates and caffeine are great for this, so try our beetroot based pre-workout and combine it with some of our caffeine tablets. Caffeine offers a benefit at 3-6mg per kg of lean mass and our tabs come in at 60mg per capsule so you can choose your own dosage.
For helping you to recover we do a leucine fortified chocolate powder that you mix into milk to create a tasty post workout milkshake. Awesome Recovery Spray is a favourite of ours and rubbing this in to your muscles after each workout can help with muscle relaxation and often results in a noticeable reduction in DOMS.
Then, of course there’s Awesome Whey protein (we also do a vegan blend if you don’t do dairy). Protein powders are a great way of adding extra protein to your diet if you struggle to get the correct amount from food alone. They can also be used in baking to make some pretty amazing protein snacks like brownies and cheesecake to make all your Zone Dieting friends jealous as f***!
Here’s some alternative uses for Awesome whey protein.
Check out our products online and watch the videos for more info on each one.
So, that is our guide to better CrossFit performance and remember, the first rule of CrossFit is to ALWAYS talk about CrossFit!
- Nazem TG, Ackerman KE. The Female Athlete Triad. Sports Health. 2012;4(4):302-311. doi:10.1177/1941738112439685.
- Disordered eating behavior among group fitness instructors: a health-threatening secret? Bratland-Sanda S, Nilsson MP, Sundgot-Borgen J.J Eat Disord. 2015; 3:22. Epub 2015 Jun 24.
- Paleo Diet: Claims Versus Evidence. Alan Aragon. Personal trainers conference, 2013 NSCA.com
- The Zone Diet phenomenon: a closer look at the science behind the claims. J Am Coll Nutr. 2003 Feb;22(1):9-17.
- BRIEF REPORT: nutrition and weight loss information in a popular diet book: is it fact, fiction, or something in between? Goff SL, Foody JM, Inzucchi S, Katz D, Mayne ST, Krumholz HM.J Gen Intern Med. 2006 Jul; 21(7):769-74.
- Kreider et al. ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 2010, 7:7 http://www.jissn.com/content/7/1/7
- Fullagar, H.H.K., Skorski, S., Duffield, R. et al. Sports Med (2015) 45: 161. https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-014-0260-0
- Halson SL. Sleep in Elite Athletes and Nutritional Interventions to Enhance Sleep. Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.z). 2014;44(Suppl 1):13-23. doi:10.1007/s40279-014-0147-0.
- Institute of Medicine (US) Committee on Sleep Medicine and Research; Colten HR, Altevogt BM, editors. Sleep Disorders and Sleep Deprivation: An Unmet Public Health Problem. Washington (DC): National Academies Press (US); 2006. 3, Extent and Health Consequences of Chronic Sleep Loss and Sleep Disorders
- Sleep Deprivation and Deficiency, PubMed Health 2017. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmedhealth/PMH0063010/
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