Your CrossFit workouts are intense.
You want to fuel your body properly so that you can get through your WODs with vigor and vitality. And of course you know that what you eat greatly impacts your performance. Today’s workout kicked your a**. Tomorrow’s workout isn’t going to be any easier. So how can you maximize your energy levels in order to do your best for every workout? What sorts of foods should you eat? Is the Paleo diet the best? The Zone Diet? Low carb? What is the best macro ratio for CrossFit athletes?
I’ll tell you: It depends.
Let me explain.
The body uses 3 different systems to provide energy during different types of workouts. I won’t get too deep into the science of it, but it’s important to know the very basics. The 3 systems include the:
- Phosphagen system (immediate source of energy that uses creatine phosphate – this is why a lot of people supplement with creatine)
- Anaerobic system (uses carbohydrates)
- Aerobic system (uses carbohydrates and fats)
So how is any of this relevant to your workouts?
CrossFit workouts are unique because many WODs incorporate periods of heavy lifting, as well as various lengths of metabolic conditioning. Short bursts of energy like those required in heavy lifting and strength training use the phosphagen system, but it gets depleted very quickly.
Further into the workout, as you transition to metabolic conditioning, you’re going to need another source of fuel: Carbohydrates. They are the body’s “preferred” source of energy and they are used in 2 out of the 3 energy pathways. Carbohydrates are the most-utilized source of energy. Logically, this would tell you that the best macro ratio for CrossFit athletes would consist of a majority of carbohydrates. But exactly how many carbohydrates, you ask?
Let’s look at an example:
Chewbacca the Wookie is 7 ft. 5 in. tall and weighs 255 lbs. He’s a big dude – and he recently discovered he loves CrossFit. He also knows that he needs to work on nutrition.
Chewbacca finds himself searching the internet for information on the best macro ratio for CrossFit. Based on his height, weight, and activity level, he figures out that he needs to eat roughly 3900 calories a day.
So what about his macro breakdown?
We’ll use a few rules of thumb for this:
- He’ll eat a maximum of 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight
- 25% of his calories should come from fats
- The remainder of his calorie intake should come from a variety of carbohydrate sources.
This works out to be 255 g of protein, 108 g of fat, and 478 g of carbohydrates, or roughly 25% protein, 25% fat, 50% carbohydrates
These rules of thumb have been generated from reviewing the latest scientific literature on nutrition for sports performance, body composition, and overall health.
The bottom line is, we’re setting Chewbacca’s macros to fuel his body for prolonged periods of intense exercise. So that’s it, right? That’s the best macro ratio for CrossFit athletes – 25% protein, 25% fats, 50% carbs?
Well not quite.
Earlier you’ll remember I said that the ratio “depends”. This is because, even though we know scientifically that carbohydrates are the body’s preferred fuel source, we also recognize that personal preference plays a large part in a person’s diet.
There are people who just naturally don’t eat a lot of carbohydrates, instead they gravitate to foods higher in fat and protein. This may not be a conscious choice, it’s just the way they’ve always enjoyed eating. They would also perform perfectly fine with a lower carbohydrate ratio than Chewbacca’s example above.
Is there a best ratio?
In general people tend to perform better and can exercise longer when adhering to a diet that is higher in carbohydrates. This is also the case with most athletes, whether it’s people who play football, soccer, rugby, basketball, [insert name sport requiring endurance], or CrossFit.
This is why it’s not as simple as just asking, “What is the best macro ratio for CrossFit athletes?”, and why we can’t give you a simple answer.
Should I stop eating Paleo?
One of the most common dietary recommendations for CrossFit athletes is to eat Paleo – like cavemen used to eat. Take a look at what CrossFit founder Greg Glassman defines this as:
“Eat meat and vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar.” ~ Greg Glassman, CrossFit Founder
Notwithstanding the fact that the diet Greg describes is not what cavemen actually ate, there’s one major issue here.
Where are the carbs at?
Remember Chewbacca’s carbohydrate target every day was 478 grams. According to the Paleo guidelines, he’d need to try and get that primarily from non-starchy vegetables.
One 10oz package of raw spinach contains 10.3 grams of carbohydrates. Even if Chewie only wanted to get 400 grams of his carbohydrate intake from green leafy vegetables (leaving 78 grams for fruit and starch), he would need to eat 40 bags of spinach per day.
So should you stop eating Paleo? If one of the things you like about Paleo is the focus on eating whole, minimally-processed foods with a lot of your nutrition coming from plants – awesome. That’s a great way to go.
But please – avoid Greg Glassman’s advice.