Jason Khalipa, Anna Tunnicliffe, James FitzGerald and more weigh in on the rules of nutrition

If you are going to the Games, there is no doubt you are an athlete. It takes some serious hard work, dedication, and fuel to keep you going. Games athletes are the elite of the elite — the top 1 percent of CrossFitters in the world. However, regardless of who you are or your abilities, there is an old saying heard often in the gym that goes, “Nutrition is 80 percent of your results.” This phrase, first coined by Vince Gironda, bodybuilder and former coach to Arnold Schwarzenegger, has been a rule of thumb for athletes and gym rats alike for years. But is it really true for everyone, particularly the super athletes of the world?

Coach James FitzGerald, the first-ever Fittest Man in the World (2007 CrossFit Games) and founder of OPEX Fitness— a leading company in individualized training programs for athletes of all abilities and coach development — shared his insights on what it takes to eat for the Games.

FitzGerald works with CrossFit Regional and Games-level athletes year round and also speaks from personal experience. In addition to FitzGerald, several familiar names weighed in with their two cents on nutrition.

  • They say nutrition is 80 percent of results in the gym. What is your take on this? Truth? Myth? Tough to say?

FitzGerald: The sport is too varied to say that one thing works and one thing does not. Why? Because each and every athlete out there at the Games is among the most talented CrossFitters. The bottom line? They do CrossFit better than you do, so they are at the Games and you are not, that is what the secret ingredient is. Nothing more special than that. First and foremost, it is really the essence of each athlete that makes them up and “gets them there.” Lifestyle choices certainly do come into play; however, contrary to popular belief, there is one thing I know is true of high-level athletes (CrossFitters, cyclists, runners, etc.): They use dense calories that no one wants to report on, like Nutella, higher fat/sugary desserts, heavy fat ice cream, etc., to fuel up between sessions and competitions. They are resilient in more ways than one, gut included.

  • There’s a lot of hype around clean eating (and perhaps athletes reporting they are eating clean), but from a coach’s point of view, what is the truth?

FitzGerald: I focus largely on results, so if someone eats grass and bark and horseshit, and they continually beat a lot of people, I am cool with that — honestly. I have spent way too many years stressing over that area (the “perfect diet”), and have found it’s not the only thing that makes a difference. Somehow, it got into the heads of people that the CrossFit Games is the healthiest competition in the world. It is not. In order to be an elite athlete, you actually walk a great line of sickness. As a coach to these athletes, I honestly don’t care about their health; I care about points, winning, and dominating workouts and their perceptions. Can I help them change some food things to recover faster and remove the bark? Yes for sure, but not at the expense of results. Again, it comes down to resilience and adaptation; whoever can recover faster is the eventual winner (in a workout, in an open, in Regionals, etc.). And if I can build that through proper workouts, proper mental guidance and proper training doses, then I’ll do it that way and not through food.

  • Can you give us an idea of what a Games’ athlete’s diet may look like?

FitzGerald: I just pulled up some numbers of “better than most CrossFitters” as an example that there is no answer to this. Here is an average of five days among five different individuals:

Male – 225 pounds

  • Daily Calories – 3,435
  • Proteins – 30 percent
  • Carbs – 45 percent
  • Fats – 25 percent

Female – 142 pounds

  • Daily Calories – 3,239
  • Proteins – 28 percent
  • Carbs – 30 percent
  • Fats – 42 percent

Male – 178 pounds

  • Daily Calories – 2,487
  • Proteins – 24 percent
  • Carbs – 24 percent
  • Fats – 52 percent

Female – 133 pounds

  • Daily Calories – 2,100
  • Proteins – 40 percent
  • Carbs – 35 percent
  • Fats – 25 percent

Male – 240 pounds

  • Daily Calories – 3,895
  • Proteins – 30 percent
  • Carbs – 38 percent
  • Fats – 32 percent
  • Ok, it is individualized! But what about nutrition around workouts? What should that look like?

FitzGerald: Again, it varies for all. Some who train in the morning fast, some do the training at lunch hours after breakfast, some do it in evening and fuel up with dinner after. In most cases, the post-workout window is the only one that makes sense right now for CrossFitters to have some nutritional sense and consistency (this does not mean you should not or do not implement per workout strategies, it just means that the postworkout window is the only one that science-wise makes sense as it’s about recovering for the next push). The only thing that can be made as a statement on what elite CrossFitters are doing is a post-workout shake of some sort, with whey and sugars ranging in amounts from 20 grams to 45 grams of protein and 12 grams to 90 grams of carbs. Yes, it’s that varied but refueling of some sort is happening.

  • What are common mistakes you see athletes make when it comes to nutrition or fueling for competition?

FitzGerald:

  1. Not getting a coach to help plan out the events, the recovery requirements, hydrating, and the fueling requirements beforehand.
  1. Thinking that the fueling is the most important thing and not focusing on the events and the vulnerability required to give it their all.
  1. Not looking back at their training and changes in volume and intensity and noticing how their food profile, hydration status, peaking and tapering may have given them insight into how to tackle future and upcoming events more effectively.

Today’s Athletes Weigh In Five Games athletes and veterans weigh in on the role nutrition plays in their training and competing. The panel:

Chris Spealler

Seven-time Games athlete, notable finish: 3rd place 2010 Games

Jason Khalipa

Seven-time Games athlete, notable finish: 2008 Fittest Man in the World

Emily Bridgers

Three-time Games athlete, notable finish: 6th place at 2014 Games

Becca Voigt

Eight-time Games athlete; 24th place in 2014

Anna Tunnicliffe

Three-time Games athlete; 22nd place in 2014

  • What is your own nutrition philosophy and what shaped this?

Spealler: Largely it’s the CrossFit prescription of meats and veggies, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch, no sugar. I tried the Zone years ago and it taught me to eat more frequently. I’ve shied away from strict Paleo because I have a hard time keeping any weight on, and from what I can tell, I’m fine with a small amount of grains in my diet. Khalipa: I eat it. With the volume being put in, sometimes broccoli and steamed fish doesn’t cut it. Every now and then I feel like I need some dense carbs and foods.

Bridgers: Mostly, I try not to be obsessive with food. I grew up as a gymnast and was fairly obsessed with how much I ate and staying as small as possible to make gymnastics essentially easier. I remember avoiding any food with fat in it. In college, we had weekly weigh-ins which were not the best for my nutrition philosophy or body image either. I would freak out and let my whole practice suffer if I gained a pound in our weekly weigh-in. I did not view food as fuel but more negatively, in that less calories equals a better result. Over the last five years of CrossFit, I’ve become much more familiar with how my body feels as a result of what I eat or drink. I’ve stopped thinking about calories as a negative thing and more as I need to make sure I eat enough to get through my training each day. Each year of CrossFit, I would say I’ve drank alcohol less and less frequently, which has made the largest impact on my performance.

Voigt: Eat clean and frequently make sure that my macronutrients are balanced in a 40-30-30 format.

Tunnicliffe: I have eaten Paleo for four years now, and in the last two years, I have added Zone into the mix. I believe the idea behind Paleo makes perfect sense and gives me the energy I need to train while keeping what I put in my body clean and healthy. As for adding the Zone, I realized that we weren’t getting the proper portions of protein, carbs and fats that I needed, and this was a perfect way to bring my whole diet into balance.

  • About how many calories and/or macronutrients do you consume daily?

Spealler: Not enough; it’s always been a struggle of mine. When I was trying to gain weight, I would eat up to 5,000 calories per day, which is a ton. Realistically, I’m probably at about half of that now but should be more.

Khalipa: I honestly don’t know. My diet changes depending on my training volume. I probably don’t eat as much as people would think though. I don’t eat much during the day. I don’t like to feel full or hungry. Just satisfied until nighttime. Then I eat more.

Bridgers: This is hard to say. I don’t keep track and it may vary from day to day.

Voigt: I eat around 2,000 calories a day with my focus being 40 percent are carbs, 30 percent are protein and fat.

Tunnicliffe: I personally eat 16 blocks of carbs and protein, and about 25 fat blocks a day, every day. I eat three four-block meals and two two-block snacks. I’ll also add in extra fats throughout the day for extra energy or to fill me up if I’m not quite hungry or I want something to eat before I workout.

  • What supplements and protein powders do you take?

Spealler: Progenex Recovery, Progenex More Muscle, Progenex Omega+.

Khalipa: Progenex Recovery, vitamin C.

Bridgers: I take all Progenex products. Recovery (Daily), Build, More Muscle, Force (Occasionally), and Omega+. I take Cocoon from time to time before bed to enhance sleep and recovery. Magnesium and zinc.

Voigt: Progenex Protein and Exos Night Time athlete multivitamin. Tunnicliffe: About Time protein and pre-workout, LuRong Living Essentials along with Theralogix glucosamine, chondroitin, vitamin D and fish oil.

  • What does your nutrition look like around workouts — pre-workout and post-workout?

Spealler: I’m notorious for working out on more of an empty stomach. I got used to it from all the sucking weight with wrestling and it’s stuck with me. I would rather work out a bit hungry than feeling full. Post workout, I have my protein powder and coconut water, usually within about a 15-20 minute window. When I was competing, I tried to eat simple things between events that I knew would sit well like chicken and sweet potatoes.

Khalipa: I like to have some peanut butter and honey before working out. I don’t eat during a workout.

Bridgers:

Morning Pre-workout: Breakfast and Starbucks iced coffee.

During Workout: Vitaminwater Zero, Osmo hydration, and occasionally a salt pill in the heat of the summer to replenish electrolytes. Atlanta heat is no joke!

Morning Post-Workout: One scoop of Build, two scoops of tropical vanilla

Recovery, two magnesium/zinc capsules. Lunch an hour or two later.

Afternoon pre-workout: Progenex Force During: Vitaminwater Zero

Afternoon Post-workout: Progenex chocolate Recovery — two scoops.

Dinner a couple hours later.

Voigt: Try to eat real food, homemade food at every meal or snack.

Tunnicliffe: I generally eat when I’m hungry. I’m the type of person that can work out about an hour after eating eggs for breakfast, so I don’t think too much about it. But if I’m hungry before I workout, I’ll have some coconut butter or something similar to hold me over. Then I get the protein shake!

  • Any taboo foods you eat?

Spealler: I usually have a little bit of bread each day. Between one and two slices of Ezekiel bread. Also I tend to have ice cream once or twice a week. I also love ketchup.

Khalipa: I like banana bread and nachos. I eat them when I feel like it — no daily or weekly routine though.

Bridgers: I typically drink a Diet Coke a day and have no plans to give this up! Judge away!

Voigt: Five saltine crackers at night if I feel like I need a little snack.

Tunnicliffe: I never cheat unless it’s after a comp and I deserve it. My go-tos are chocolate raisins and chocolate cupcakes. After the Games, I’ll have pizza once or twice, but then I feel sick and quickly get back on track.

  • Do you cook? If so what is your specialty you’d cook for us if we came over for dinner?

Spealler: Not so much. Sarah is the queen cook at home. If you had me cooking for you it would be grilling burgers and tossing in some sweet potato fries that were prepackaged.

Khalipa: I do not cook. Sometimes some eggs but generally never.

Bridgers: I do not love to cook, or maybe I just don’t have time to cook. But I would make you my “pizza eggs” special. It’s just scrambled eggs with pepperoni, parmesan, and banana peppers on a gluten-free English muffin!

Voigt: Yes, I cook everyday. I would cook you Veracruz white fish with jasmine rice.

Tunnicliffe: I love cooking! If you came over, I would probably make orange chicken.

  • Any advice for others when it comes to nutrition?

Spealler: I often get asked what I ate when I was trying to gain weight. Think of it like this: as best as you can and everything under the sun. Advice: Don’t feel like you need to gain weight to get strong. You probably just need to work harder and get strong.

Khalipa: Sometimes people are too wrapped up in the Paleo diet. Start doing CrossFit, eat better, and stay consistent. No need to go so crazy; often times people don’t last. It’s ok to have a muffin at a birthday party. It’s ok to have some honey in your tea or eat a few chips. Everything in moderation. That’s really the only way I see people sustaining the results they have and want for the rest of their lives.

Voigt: I often get asked, “What can I do to eat better?” I tell people to log their food so they can actually see what they are putting into their bodies. Once the data is collected, make small changes based on the data you see.

Tunnicliffe: Paleo or Zone? My advice is to start Zone, that way it’s portion control. Generally when we start with Paleo, we cut out the grains no problem, but up our protein intake so much and we don’t get enough carbs. With Zone, it still makes sure we get the balance of the macros. Once we get comfortable with the Zone, then you can start putting the Paleo restrictions on it.

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