When it comes to improving your fitness and sports performance, the battle doesn’t just happen in the gym. What you do outside of the gym can spell the difference between success and failure. CrossFit is no exception.
When CrossFit boxes started sprouting all over the world a few years ago, it spawned a cult of loyal CrossFit followers across 150 countries. With all the hype, and with experts professing CrossFit is for everyone, more and more people jumped in on the trend.
Unfortunately, not everyone has taken the time to properly prepare for the demands of this very physically-taxing sport.
Are You Doing CrossFit Right?
CrossFit is high intensity interval training that includes functional movement. This is especially helpful not just for athletes, but also weekend warriors and casual gym goers. After all, not everyone has a massage gun handy to help them limber up. CrossFit’s ability to teach a person to move the muscles and joints as efficiently and as pain-free as possible is therefore a big plus.
But safe and effective exercises are just one part of the CrossFit lifestyle. The other equally important part is sound nutrition. And it’s the part that is more often done incorrectly, or worse, ignored totally.
We list down the worst nutrition mistakes you may be making as a CrossFit athlete, and how to fix them in 3 easy steps.
You May be Guilty of Making These Mistakes
Whatever your current fitness level is, you can easily scale and modify CrossFit to meet your goals. With all the possible modifications though, you may not realize that you’re already making mistakes that can hamper your progress.
Any CrossFit fan knows “The Fittest Man in History,” aka Rich Froning.
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Froning is a 4-time CrossFit Games individual champion. He won the regional championship 5 times and the Open worldwide championship 3 times. To say he’s a CrossFit fixture is an understatement.
But even the champ made mistakes in the beginning. Froning admitted that in the beginning, he’d eat breakfast and forget everything else until late afternoon. He was, in his own words, “undereating. I was not eating enough carbs.”
This is unfortunately common in many athletes. Most decide to eat healthy on weekdays and let go on weekends. But even those trying to eat healthy during the week tend to eat very little.
If you’re trying to build muscle, inadequate food intake makes it impossible. Without enough nutrition, you cannot generate the power needed to work out.
As easily as one can under-eat, one can also do the opposite and overeat. This is particularly easy on so-called cheat days. If you’ve been limiting your calorie intake during training days, it’s relaxing to just sit down on your off days and snack on some chips. Maybe add a small candy bar. And perhaps finish the salsa you made the night before. You see where we’re going with this?
Fact is, it’s not difficult to over-indulge and undo all the gains you made during the rest of the week.
Overeating isn’t just limited to cheat days though. You may not realize it, but even “healthy” food can be detrimental to your training goals. The simplest example of this is nuts and trail mix. They’re touted as healthy. It doesn’t hurt that they’re delicious either. It’s also quite effortless to finish a whole bag without realizing it. That’s a quick 462 calories for every 100 grams.
Overeating affects overall sports performance. It can lead to deterioration in flexibility, agility and stamina.
3. Food Replacement
We’ve talked about under-eating and overeating but sometimes, the problem is just plain eating. Or more specifically, eating right.
There’s really no such thing as bad food. But it is true that some food is better for you than others.
Mat Fraser, who matched Froning’s record after winning his third straight Games in 2019, doesn’t discriminate much when it comes to his diet. He’ll eat steak, potatoes, tacos and enchiladas. He even has some milk chocolate bars stocked up. “If I'm hungry, I eat. If I'm not hungry, I don't. There's not too much of a science behind it.”
Many share this gung-ho diet approach; except they’re not doing it as well as Fraser. Sure, there’s a resolve to eat only “clean foods.” But just because something is billed as “paleo” or “keto” doesn’t mean it’s the best option.
4. Not Getting Enough Protein
Protein is an important part of any diet. It’s a vital building block of bones and muscle. It’s also needed in many different body processes to make enzymes and hormones.
Together with fat and carbohydrates, it’s known as a macronutrient (or macros). This means the body needs a large amount of it. Unlike the first two though, the body does not store protein. We simply do not have a reserve to draw from if the body needs more.
Sadly, protein is also not the easiest to have readily available. Steak would have hit the spot, but it’s not like you can have that ready-to-eat in your pocket. And so, athletes make do with protein shakes and other options. But they don’t always meet the required protein intake for their body weight.
5. Skipping the Carbs
Carbohydrates are stored in the body in the form of glycogen. It acts as the main source of fuel for exercise and other bodily functions.
More intense exercises (where CrossFit definitely fits) utilize more fuel, and thus burn through the body’s carb reserves. Eating adequate amounts of carbs are therefore important before, after and sometimes even during workouts.
A lot of young athletes and people new to CrossFit think that they need a low-carb, high-protein diet to build body mass. What they don’t realize is that a low-carb diet only decreases muscle potential and often results in worse performance.
6. Supplementing Your Way Out of a Bad Diet
Back in 2015, Fraser finished the CrossFit games in second place. Despite the highly respectable finish though, Fraser was not happy. In an interview with CNN, he was quoted as saying, “For a long time, I hated that medal. It kept me up at night. It was a source of disappointment."
And watching the games, you’d be inclined to agree. Fraser was a clear favorite and at one point had a 100-point lead but blew it. Years later, he would admit that that second-place medal “represented the cut corners, the slacking off, the thinking that I could out-train a bad diet.”
And what a diet it was. He was known to eat pints of ice cream every night to pack on the calories he needed.
At the end of the day though, no matter how many WODs you do, a bad diet is a bad diet. No amount of vitamins, collagen, fish oil or any other fancy supplement can make up for it.
Fix Nutrition Mistakes in 4 Steps
Photo by: WIT Fitness
Bad nutrition and dietary habits are roadblocks to CrossFit success. But there are ways to fix them. And it can be as easy as 1-2-3 (and 4).
1. Set a clear goal.
Set a goal and have a plan.
Many CrossFit athletes get into it without a clear idea of what they want to achieve. Do you want to lose weight? Do you want to build muscle or increase strength? Are you supplementing CrossFit for another sport? Are you setting your sights on being the next CrossFit Games champion?
What is it that you want to achieve? Because the way to tackle each of those questions may be different.
For example, to compete in the Games, you need to focus on strength gain. The diet for that will be very different if your purpose is weight loss.
So, set a goal first and foremost. Then comes the plan. Winging it just won’t work.
How to do it:
· Break down your overall goal into smaller ones.
If your plan is to lose weight, for example, plan for days or time periods where you focus on fat burning exercises first. Then have days for strength training. Don’t do everything all at once every single time. That will just be overwhelming.
· Organize your nutrition.
Different workouts require different calorie and macros intake as well. By creating a diet plan that works specifically with the exercise, you have a better success rate at maintaining results. You also recover better.
2. Eat right.
You under-eat. Sometimes, you overeat. Or don’t eat.
Just because the food is clean doesn’t mean it has no calories and you can gorge with impunity. There isn’t any meal timing trick that would allow nightly binge eating with no consequence. And no, adding fat to your morning coffee won’t help you somehow shed more fat. That’s just not how things work.
So how should it work?
· Don’t skip breakfast.
Regardless whether you believe it’s the most important meal of the day or not, skipping breakfast is just not a good idea. You may think it helps in cutting calories but in reality, it only makes you hungrier later in the day and thus, more prone to overeating.
· Eat your protein.
Eating protein results in increased metabolic rate, as studies show. It also keeps you feeling satiated which helps tremendously in sticking to nutrition plans.
How much protein should you include in your diet? It can vary depending on things like activity level, age, and weight. But a good ballpark figure to start with is 1 gram per pound of body weight.
· Don’t forget your carbs.
Intense workouts stress the body’s nervous system and increase the amount of cortisol produced. When cortisol levels get out of whack, it can derail bodily functions resulting in headaches, anxiety, weight gain and many other issues.
One way to combat the cortisol spike is to have enough insulin. How do you get enough insulin? By simply consuming carbs post-workout. About 25g is enough to calm the stress response after training and jumpstart the recovery process.
· Eat enough.
You’re not doing yourself any favors by starving. When the body goes into starvation mode, it stores everything it can. Metabolism will slow down and you just won’t have enough energy to even do your workouts.
· Have dessert.
Snacking is okay. Repeat: snacking is okay. Hunger leads to overeating and you don’t want that. But as always, bear in mind that there’s a proper way to snack.
Cut down on processed foods but don’t fall into the trap of replacing these with paleo versions. Often, these types of snacks are not even macro-friendly and don't help your CrossFit goals.
Instead, eat fruits or vegetables. Bananas, carrots, apples and berries are guilt-free hunger-pang quenchers. Include snacks in your meal prep so you’ll be less tempted to grab the less healthy alternatives.
But be conscious of portions. To quote CrossFit founder Greg Glassman, “Keep intake to levels that will support exercise but not body fat.”
· Consider reverse dieting.
Reverse dieting means gradually increasing your calorie intake over a period of 4-10 weeks. This boosts metabolism and also helps the body burn more calories throughout the day. This may be a bit harder to execute though so it may be worth hiring a coach to guide you through it.
3. Keep Track
Now that you know what to eat, it’s also important to keep track of when to eat and how much.
The simplest way to track calorie and macros is by keeping a food journal. It can help you pay attention to what you’re consuming, understand your eating habits and make changes and adjustments as needed.
A typical CrossFit-friendly meal consists of ⅓ lean protein and ⅔ healthy carbs, with a small portion of fat- the healthy, monounsaturated kind. It is recommended to try a diet for at least 4 weeks and tweak it based on your needs.
There are many online calculators to help you determine your caloric demands. There are also a myriad of free apps that track diets and exercise that you can just quickly download.
4. Stay consistent.
Once you have a goal and a plan, the one trick that can take you to the finish line is simply consistency.
Results won’t show overnight. CrossFit is not a quick fix. You can experiment and find the plan that works best for you. But once you have done that, stick to it for as long as it works. Getting distracted by new dieting fads will not help. Find out what makes you feel great and helps you recover and adhere to it.
Remember, we are a product of our habits.
Bonus: Boost CrossFit Success with Post-Recovery Tools
With nutrition all set, please do not forget another CrossFit essential - that is minimizing your injury risk. This can be done by simply stretching muscles out before the start of an exercise session.
And if you’re pressed for time, you can also achieve the same results by getting a massage. Make things easier by investing in a good quality sports recovery tool like HYDRAGUN. A few minutes of massage before the start of your workout can help ease mobility issues like tight hips, shoulders, and upper backs. Many also use percussive therapy for back pain.
It never gets easier. It just gets better.
Dedication to WODs is admirable. Doing AMRAPs is excellent. But nutrition also deserves as much attention as any CrossFit exercise. Tracking your food intake and also investing in sound post-workout practices and good recovery tools will better fuel your CrossFit performance.
Whether you’re gunning for a podium finish at the CrossFit Games or just starting your CrossFit journey, remember: you are an athlete. It’s time you eat like one.