Nutrition for CrossFit. We Answer your most Frequent Questions
Today we talk about issues and questions about diet and nutrition in CrossFit. To solve all the mysteries, we interviewed Albert Hurtado – PhD in Biochemistry, and teacher in the Degree Course on Nutrition at the Universitat Rovira i Virgili, in Tarragona, Spain, for 5 years, and also the CTO and founder of ProKey Drinks.
- 1 1.- What changes should someone make to his or her diet if they wish to have CrossFit as their main training method?
- 2 2.- Do you think the benefits of measuring food quantities on a CrossFit diet justify the sacrifices?
- 3 3.- To get more energy before training, should we use fat or carbs?
- 4 4.- What for?
- 5 How much?
- 6 What does “before” mean?
- 7 4.- While following a CrossFit program, can diet help increasing one’s muscle growth?
- 8 5.- What is your opinion about the, so-called, “cheat day”?
- 9 6.- Do you think supplementation is required, if you follow a correct diet for CrossFit?
- 10 7.- In your opinion, what foods can play an important role in post-workout recovery?
- 11 8.- Tell us what 5 foods you consider to be a staple on any diet plan for athletes.
- 12 9.- To what extent is sugar harmful on an athlete’s diet?
- 13 10.- Would you give an athlete who trains in the morning the same nutrition guidelines as to one who would train in the evening?
1.- What changes should someone make to his or her diet if they wish to have CrossFit as their main training method?
To talk about changes, it would be necessary to know the departure point and diet of the CrossFit athlete in question. We could have our starting point with the typical occidental diet, with the Mediterranean diet and its food pyramid, with a standard diet for an endurance athlete, or with the traditional rice and chicken diet from gyms.
Generally speaking, any type of person, in order to improve his or her health (and, therefore, his or her sports performance), would improve largely from eliminating or reducing to the bare minimum their consumption of processed foods.
If I was asked to highlight a food group in particular that you should eliminate from any CrossFit diet, that would be the Grains (cereal) foods (i.e. bread, pasta, pizza, cookies, biscuits, pastry…), and any foods with added sugars (sodas, juices, biscuits, cookies and overall candy, breakfast cereals, etc.).
2.- Do you think the benefits of measuring food quantities on a CrossFit diet justify the sacrifices?
Unless you have very specific objectives, like increasing your performance on a given event, decreasing your body fat percentage, or loosing weight, a common person or recreational athlete, who does sports as an hobby, to improve his or her health and appearance, does not need to be counting calories nor grams.
Hunger or thirst should be our reference for eating properly when crossfititing, and for any sport in general. A frequent problem, though, is that these sensations have changed for most of us due to hazardous diet plans previously followed for many years.
For those who wish to count calories or weight food in their CrossFit diet, I would recommend them to focus, initially, solely on protein, as this nutrient may be the most important one in increasing/maintaining muscle mass and performance.
This way, your carbohydrate and fat intake would be less strict, and you would make sure your protein intake, regarding your weight and type of activity, would be met.
3.- To get more energy before training, should we use fat or carbs?
The ideal scenario is to have a good nutritional state and a good metabolic flexibility (this means having a good capacity to metabolize fat and carbs).
This being said, the answer depends on what do you want the energy for, how much energy do you require, and what does “before” mean. We will be answering these questions with a diet for CrossFit in mind.
4.- What for?
A strength athlete probably has higher energetic demands than an endurance one. Furthermore, the timely strength demand will be higher but also much more limited in time.
In general, you will use more glycogen than fat, which will come from carbohydrates, and which will in turn be stored in your muscles and liver. Hence, a CrossFit athlete would benefit more from good quality carbohydrates. If the workouts for that day are not very demanding or if you are in cardio-training days, you could easily go by with using fat as your energy source.
I have introduced this topic above.
A 20-minute WOD is not the same as a half-marathon. For a strength and intensity effort (weight + speed), carbs are required for higher performing levels. For an endurance effort, to workout free of carbs will improve your performance.
What does “before” mean?
Ideally, you should train with food fully digested. Therefore, you should allow, at least, 3 hours since your previous meal.
But if we are talking about an athlete who trains right after waking-up, and who, due to the empty sensation on his or her stomach, is not able to train while fasting, we would have to try different strategies to feed him/her so that he or she is able to train right away without having any of the commonly associated gastric issues.
4.- While following a CrossFit program, can diet help increasing one’s muscle growth?
While doing CrossFit, muscle mass growth is ensured, at least in volume, provided you ingest enough calories, regardless if you eat clean or “dirtier”. If you are talking about having perfect health and increase your muscle mass while ingesting as less fat as possible, then it is paramount that you have a correct CrossFit diet.
This advice is for the vast majority of people. There are, of course, those whose genetics allows them to disregard their diet and still look fit all the time, but those are a minority.
5.- What is your opinion about the, so-called, “cheat day”?
When you have an active social life it is impossible to follow your diet regimens strictly, therefore, I suggest that you don’t torment yourself about it. One day will not influence your performance. Cheat days may be understood in many different ways.
Besides the latter, the most common ones would be the following:
“I am on a low-carb diet because I am trying to decrease my body fat levels, and I use the cheat day as a refuel, of both carbs and for my mind”.
“I am always careful about my diet and I never eat many of those things I really like, so I have set a meal on a specific day of my week to indulge myself.”
I see no particular problem in any of the perspectives. But, more than on a “day”, I would focus on “cheat meal”.
To spend an entire day eating garbage just for a whim makes very little sense. Furthermore, as a trait of a healthy or controlled diet for athletes, normally there are no whims, since hunger and satiety are self-controlled. For someone who does not want to be too strict, the 80:20 rule (80% correct, 20% bad) seems to work fine.
6.- Do you think supplementation is required, if you follow a correct diet for CrossFit?
If you have certain objectives, than it may be interesting. But we must have into account that the vast majority of supplements are worth for nothing.
This is a very complex topic and I am not going to dwell on it, a general rule of thumb is the following: try it, if it works for you, fine. The majority of sports supplements do not work with everybody, moreover, there are not many studies on the topic that specify dosage and expectable outcomes.
A frequently recommended supplement when your training volume steps-up is protein, since reaching the intake requirements for certain body types and for certain sports relying solely on food, may be something quite complex (or very expensive, or requiring large daily intakes).
7.- In your opinion, what foods can play an important role in post-workout recovery?
I would highlight quality carbs, in moderation, though, and quality protein sources, alongside vitamins and minerals. Hence, potatoes, a plethora of fruits and vegetables, and meat, fish or eggs (or vegetable sources in case you are a vegetarian).
8.- Tell us what 5 foods you consider to be a staple on any diet plan for athletes.
I do not think an athlete should eat different foods from a non-active person, he or she just has to adjust the quantities and the schedule. If I must choose some foods that should be present on a CrossFit athlete’s diet, I would pick, in this order:
- Eggs, a very cheap and savory super protein. With no hesitation, several a day, everyday.
- Plenty of vegetables, particularly green-leafed ones, and eaten raw they are even more nutritious (salads and marinades).
- Quality fats: olives, avocado, coconut, chocolate (minimum 85% cacao).
- Quality carbohydrates: potatoes and other tubers, carrots, radish, …
- Seasonal fruits, never forgetting bananas, particularly for athletes.
9.- To what extent is sugar harmful on an athlete’s diet?
In general, added sugar is harmful to any person. That being said, if we are talking about an athlete, and depending on quantity and timing regarding its training schedule, it may be acceptable. But, as a rule of thumb, it is established that our daily caloric intake of added sugar should not go over 5%.
But since these values seem to be absent from any processed products, it is very hard to stay within that margin.
High consumptions affect our hormonal health, particularly our insulin response, and are an important risk factor for overweight and obesity.
The source of sugar in a healthy diet should be fruits. Also sweet dried fruits (dates, raisins…, provided they have not been dried with some type of sugar, which is the most frequent process).
I consider honey a suitable sweetener for those people who need to sweeten their coffee, infusions or some sweet they prepare at home.
10.- Would you give an athlete who trains in the morning the same nutrition guidelines as to one who would train in the evening?
In what concerns foods, macronutrients and caloric intake, yes, it would be the same. But as I said previously, planning when to eat and how to split calories or foods, that would vary.
And we would not take into account only when he or she trains, but also what the athlete does before and after training, and what type of job he or she has; I consider all of these aspects important to ensure that he or she performs at 100% throughout the entire day.