Make nutrition a high priority and you will see the difference!
With a sport as physically demanding as CrossFit, being able to fuel your body properly should be a high priority. Does nutrition priority differ for beginners, intermediates, and advanced athletes? We’ll explore that topic here and go over the top nutritional priorities and how they apply to the varying levels of athletes.
The graphic below is a great overall representation of the Nutritional Priorities for altering body composition. Let’s break each one of the priorities down in order of importance:
1) Calories in vs. Calories out – this is the MOST important priority in altering body composition. What this ultimately means is that if you want to lose fat, you will have to reduce calories at some point in your diet. If you want to gain muscle, the most efficient way of doing it is to eat in a calorie surplus (eating more calories than you burn). If you goal is to keep your bodyweight steady, you would want to eat in a eucaloric state (calories in vs calories out is about equal). Does this mean that if you eat fewer calories than you burn that you can eat Twinkies all day? Not so fast!
2) Macronutrients– this is the second-most important priority in altering body composition. While you could lose weight by only consuming junk food all day, it would not be a very good way to improve body composition as you would likely lose a lot of muscle and strength from under-eating protein. Macronutrients refer to how much protein, carbohydrates, and fats you consume within a given day. Starting with protein, a general recommendation is about 1 g/lb of body weight (this can vary quite a bit, especially the further away you are from 10% body fat for males and 15% for females). This means that the more body fat you have, you can likely scale your protein down to closer to 0.8 g/lb of body weight or so. While those with more body fat need slightly less protein, 1 g/lb of body weight would be the upper limit of useful consumption in most cases even for the ultra-lean. Carbohydrate intake varies a lot based on physical activity. If you’re only doing 1 hour of class a day, your carb intake can be around 1 g/lb of bodyweight. As you train more and more, your carb intake can increase up to as much as 2.5-3.0 g/lb of bodyweight, which would be for something like elite level fitness athletes training 3-4 hours/day or performing multiple sessions each day. The last macronutrient is fats. Fats really make up your remaining difference once you have your protein and carbs figured out.
3) Nutrient Timing– after the first two priorities, the last couple become the details. Nutrient Timing refers to the meal frequency on a given day and timing of macronutrients around training. Some quick tips on nutrient timing involves eating about every 4-5 hours while you are awake and increasing carb consumption around training while simultaneously lowering fat intake around your workouts. Protein is simply spread evenly throughout the day.
4) Food Composition– this priority ranks towards the bottom, but touches on the importance of things like complete vs. incomplete sources of protein (animal proteins vs. protein from grains, beans, etc), the Glycemic Index (GI) of carbohydrates (think of sugar as very high GI and more traditional carbs like sweet potatoes as lower GI), and last is saturated vs. unsaturated fat sources. Some general tips on food quality include getting most of your protein from complete sources, eating high GI carbs only near training, and getting most of your fats from monounsaturated sources (ex – nuts, nut butter, and avocados).
5) Supplements– many individuals might think this is the top priority, as our gym culture has been saturated with clever marketing tactics by supplement companies. However, supplement intake actually ranks pretty much dead last and implies that you can eat mostly whole food sources and get most of the same benefits as supplements could provide. There are some staple supplements that do work quite well like whey protein, casein protein, creatine monohydrate, caffeine, and a carb supplement for training, but many of the fancier supplements either don’t work or don’t produce nearly the benefit we’d hope for, especially for the money they cost.
Now that we have the priorities covered, we can break down where beginner, intermediate, and advanced fitness athletes can focus their time and efforts.
For those new to functional fitness, much of their focus should be on the first two priorities; calorie balance and macronutrients. As much of the world knows, Paleo has always been popular in functional fitness circles. There are a lot of good reasons for this justified popularity, including eating lean meats, lots of fresh vegetables/fruits, unprocessed carb sources, and lots of healthy fats. This is a great start towards improving body composition. What also usually happens when a person starts Paleo is that they cover the calorie balance priority quite well. When they almost entirely give up carbohydrates, inevitably their calories go down (unless they’re loading up on fats to an extreme extent) and thus they lose weight. That’s not to mention the water weight they drop right off the bat from going low carb.
Beginners should be seeking to reduce calories somewhere along the lines if their aim is to lose fat and should they be seeking to gain muscle in the most efficient manner possible, they should look towards eating more calories than they are burning. Those are great first steps towards improving body composition, and as they master that they can slowly move onto calculating out their macronutrient breakdown based on some of the guidelines mentioned above.
We’ll refer to intermediate athletes as those who have been in the lifestyle for more than a year and are possibly looking to compete at events or are currently competing at the local level. With a solid foundation under their belt, they can start looking a bit more closely at some of the details with their nutrition. They should already have their calories figured out and should really be focusing on getting their macronutrients lined up with their goals. For, example of a 150-pound female, should be looking at around 120g or so of protein a day, well more than 200g of carbohydrates a day (assuming they are working out for 1-2 hours/day) and then using healthy fats to fill in the remainder of the calories needed to reach her caloric level to meet her weight goals, whether that be a weight gain, loss, or stable weight.
Once they have that ironed out, they should start to focus on timing their macronutrients properly. Proper nutrient timing would be implementing protein spread evenly throughout the day with their total protein amount spread evenly across 4-5 meals. Their carbohydrate intake should be thought of as similar to the way a bell curve is shaped in that it peaks around their training and then tapers off further away from training. For an athlete who trains in the morning, this means eating most of their carbs in the morning and tapering off carbohydrate intake as the night approaches. The inverse applies to fat intake, as it goes down around training and increases as you get further away from training. Fats are kept low around training as they slow down digestion/absorption of the nutrients you want to get into your body quickly around training. Proper nutrient timing also means that you can ignore the myth of not eating past a certain time or not eating carbs late at night, ESPECIALLY if you train in the evening. That bell curve would spike with higher carbs around night training, meaning you get to eat carbs late at night since you train late at night!
For our purposes, we will be defining advanced athletes as those competing on the highest levels, meaning striving to compete at Regionals or the CrossFit Games.
Advanced athletes (assuming they have nailed down the basics first) should really be taking a hard look at the finer details in their nutrition. This means they should really be putting an emphasis on nutrient timing, food quality, and using supplements to their advantage to gain an edge on their competition.
Proper nutrient timing for a high level athlete can mean planning their nutrition around training multiple times a day. When an athlete trains multiple times a day, the emphasis on timing of carbs/fats as well as the GI of carbs increases quite a bit. Some tips for high level athletes are to again spike carbs around training (fats stay low), but when multiple sessions are in play, it means that carbs stay relatively high throughout the day. This also would mean fats tend to be relatively low on twice-a-day training sessions. Higher GI carbs become an integral part of nutrition as well, which means that after your first session of the day you would want higher GI carbs (Gatorade, fat-free Fig Newtons™, sugary cereal, etc.) to help replenish glycogen stores more rapidly than their lower GI counterparts. This more rapid and complete glycogen repletion can promote higher adaptation from the first workout and better performance in the second workout of the day. Supplements also can become a bigger staple of the diet as supplements are designed for specific sport nutrition purposes such as glycogen repletion. As an example, Gatorade powder is basically perfect for an intra-workout drink to provide enough energy and to help replenish glycogen stores for the second (or third in some cases) workout of the day. If training sessions are close together, this is where whey protein can come into play as well. That can be a very light food to consume while still hitting your protein requirements for a given meal.
Hopefully this article sheds some light on some of the finer nuances of sport nutrition and how it can help athletes perform better, especially as athletes progress into higher and more competitive ranks. Focus on the basics first, and once those are mastered move your way down the list of the nutritional priorities to enhance your performance as well as your body composition.
About the Author
Nick Shaw is the Founder and CEO of Renaissance Periodization, a training and diet services company for world class athletes and is a contributing author to the top selling “The Renaissance Diet” eBook. Nick is also a competitive powerlifter and bodybuilder and has had the opportunity to work with several CrossFit Games athletes, numerous Regional level athletes, internationally competitive weightlifters (including Team MuscleDriver), world record holding powerlifters, and national level physique athletes. For more information on his company, please check out www.renaissanceperiodization.com.
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