Nutritional Fueling for the Athlete

Having worked with multiple Crossfit Games and regional level athletes, and discussing the topic with coaches; inadequate nutritional fueling is major issue holding athletes back from reaching their full potential.  In fact, the problem is not just found within elite level athletes, but also with a number of your general fitness community members just trying to look good naked.  The questions are, how did we get to this point and what can we do about it?

When joining Crossfit, most start working out without making changes to their diet.  They eat a substantial number of carbohydrates in the form of bread and pasta, alongside your typical protein and fat sources.  They work out 3-4 days a week and use other days as ‘rest days.’  Typically these people will see reasonable results in their first few months including; pounds lost, improvements in their lifts and faster workout times.  These fast paced results won’t last forever and it is during this “plateau” phase when most people begin to steer down the wrong path.  Perhaps they heard about the Paleo Diet and start to cut out all processed carbs without replacing them with natural sources such as sweet potatoes. Or maybe they reduce total food intake in an attempt to lose more weight, and increase their number of days within the gym based on an overly simple “Calories in vs Calories Out” plan.  Progress comes to a halt and often regressions are seen.

Another typical scenario is one we see within the CAP community.  Johnny loves Crossfit and decides that he wants to compete within the sport.  He’s seen incredible progress over a year’s timeframe of working out an hour a day and eating a “clean” diet 85% of the time.  With his new goal, Johnny increases his workouts, two times per day, five days a week; however; continues to eat, sleep and recover with his old routine.  Some days he feels great, but more often than not Johnny is exhausted and requires a consistent pre-workout to amp himself up.  Injuries start to accumulate and time out of the gym is required… progress halts completely.

Let’s be clear about one thing, the Paleo diet can do great things for health when applied in the appropriate manner.  If you are overweight and/or have inflammatory diseases, a basic Paleo diet can do wonders for you… just don’t become dogmatic about eating like a caveman, and if someone around you is a zealot, remove them from your life.  If you want to make fitness THE priority in your life, a 100% Paleo diet is rarely the right answer.  Focusing on what you can’t eat instead of how you plan to fuel your workouts is the wrong attitude and can lead to psychological issues. Atkins, South Beach, Mediterranean, etc all have very similar problems.  The 30-day challenges that come with these diets are an additional disaster.  This is a new line of thinking for me and I may have just pissed you off… sorry, but you can’t be afraid to change your beliefs and say that you messed up in the past.  Learn and move forward.

What you need to recognize is that many of us despite desperately trying to eat less calories than we burn (sound familiar???).

If this is you or people in your gym, how do you fix this?  First off, I highly recommend finding a nutritional coach that knows what they’re doing. That said, most of you will try to do this on your own so let’s give you some guidelines.

You are going to need to track your food intake to know what you are currently eating.  Nine times out of ten, people over-estimate how much they think they’re eating.  Now, calculate your caloric maintenance number.  Many people recommend “Body Weight x15= total calories” (you’ll find this on pretty much every body building site out there). There are other equations, but lets keep it simple.

I’m going to guess that you will most likely need to increase your caloric intake dramatically.  Here’s the key, do this somewhat slowly and with a clear plan.  Jumping your caloric intake by 500-1000 calories right away can be a recipe for a weight gain disaster.

If you weigh 135 pounds and exercise intensely for 60-90 minutes a day, your MAINTENANCE caloric intake number is ~2000 calories.  For a 180 pound man, your number is 2700 calories.  Higher than you thought, right?  If you’re chasing performance and spending 3-4 hours in the gym, you can expect to add 600-1500 calories to your “maintenance number.”

So let’s say you’re under-eating by 500-1000 calories.  Start by adding 150-200 calories to your current numbers for a minimum of two weeks.  Pay attention to your body during this time… are you sleeping better? How’s your body composition? What’s happening with performance?  Talk with your coach about these things and he/she should know when to bump up calories another 10%.

OK, so now that we’ve got the total caloric plan covered, we need to address what those calories should look like.  In the last decade of Crossfit, I’ve seen more trends come and go than you can imagine… the current one spreading through social media is doughnuts, pancakes, and liquid recovery options all over the place with the hash tag IIFYM.  These people have eight- packs, mountains for backs and quads that hang over their knees… so are doughnuts the answer???

Flexible diets, such as IIFYM (If It Fits Your Macros) are NOT new concepts, but are relatively new to the Crossfit universe.  The basic premise comes down to using your age, height, weight and activity level to determine macronutrient ratio of protein/carbs/fat to consume.  The goal of the program is to provide numbers for weight loss, mass gain, or weight maintenance.  This approach is not for everyone but it does often produce results. At first, tracking will take some time, but ultimately it becomes pretty easy to understand and quick to do.

Now while Instagram will have you believe that IIFYM is filled with sugary treats, the reality is that doughnuts will be few and far between for most people as nutrient density needs to be taken into consideration. Dunkin Donuts will not get you there.  If you are one of the few people out there that is working out four hours a day, then your ability to fit a few more treats will be greater than someone that is doing a one-hour class.  The more calories you burn, the more calories you have to put back in.  “Earn your carbs” is a somewhat stupid statement but that’s what’s happening here.  For the highest levels of athletes, it would be damn near impossible to use just sweet potatoes, fruits and veggies to hit the recommended number of carbs they require.  Some denser options are going to be required like rice, oatmeal, etc.

Even here at CAP, most of us don’t train to such an extreme and instead exist in an intermediate place between a single 60 minute session versus four hours in the gym.  We need to balance the needs of our training with the need to have foods that contain some nutritional value to them.  By nutritional value I mean foods that have high levels of micronutrients and not just macronutrients.  Steak and fish have tremendous micro and macro nutritional value… your protein powder likely does not.  Leafy greens have a good micronutrient dose but have very little macronutrient value.  Hopefully you’re starting to get the picture here and understand how individualized each person’s program should be.  Let’s finish with some examples.

  1. You’re working out 90 minutes a day and you want to have increased work capacity over the average person. You will need to include some caloric dense, nutrient devoid foods in your diet.  This can be from sources like white rice (and even bread!), but don’t go crazy.  You do not have a free pass to doughnut town.
  2. If your goal is weight loss and you work out 3-4 days a week for 60 minutes per day, then your macronutrients should come from nutritionally dense foods and the room for things like doughnuts is very small. You still need to eat enough food to support weight loss, however; don’t think fewer calories = more pounds lost.
  3. You are chasing the highest levels of performance and training multiple hours and multiple times a day. Your number one goal is to get enough fuel into your body and that may REQUIRE things like instant oatmeal, several cups of white rice, protein shakes and powdered carb sources like maltodextrin.  Don’t ignore micronutrients and quality foods completely; steak and veggies still need to have a place in your life.

Again, if you have serious goals ranging from health, to body composition, to high level performance, then you really should find a nutritional coach to guide you on the path forward.

– Mike Molloy 

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