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CrossFit SoCal Regionals: A Nutritional Perspective

 

About a month or so ago I started working out at CrossFit LA.  Though I haven’t gotten around to writing why I started CrossFit, I will say that overall, supplementing my endurance training with a few sessions per week has been great.   I am very happy with what my experience at CrossFit LA has been as I generally agree with, and appreciate, the coaches’ perspectives.  And after only a few workouts I’d started to notice some of the functional weaknesses I walked in the door with were going away.  How I approach the sport in the immediate and foreseeable future is still largely TBD…we’ll see.  For now, I am enjoying being new to a sport again, learning new skills, and being coached.

But this post is specifically about my observations of nutrition at the CrossFit regional games last Friday in Pomona.  I decided since I had become involved in the CF community, I might as well see what some of the best local athletes looked like in competition.  I find almost any form of competition entertaining (really, try me), and figured it’d be well worth the ten or so bucks it’d cost to watch a group who claim to be the fittest athletes on earth in action.  Not to mention, CFLA had a team out there, so I was happy to go support.

It’s no secret that crossfitters are particularly interested in nutrition – the “whole life” approach is one of the things that attracted me to CrossFit in the first place.  So far in my experience in CrossFit, there has been a ton of emphasis on diet within the community – but it seems more focused on day-to-day eating as opposed to around training or competition.  Though on Friday I saw lots of coolers full of food under team tents where athletes were resting between WODs, it seemed like there was somewhat of a lack of nutrition in and immediately around the workouts themselves.  In the couple heats I watched I did not see any athlete sipping on carbohydrate / electrolyte drinks, nor did I see any athlete with a recovery drink ready to slam immediately after finishing their workout (acknowledging that after some workouts you want to puke, so have not choice but to wait ten or so minutes before even considering ingesting something).  It’s possible there were some, and I didn’t see them.  It’s also possible that some the competitors went back to their tents and drank recovery drinks.

Crossfit workouts are hard – there is no doubt about it.  The intense workouts demand repeated explosive movements, largely fueled by carbohydrates (and / or ATP).  These movements, especially under load, not only blow through available stored carbohydrate, but cause quite a bit of muscular stress.  For an athlete to have the best chance of being maximally effective in a 3-day competition that sees multiple workouts per day, staying hydrated (especially in Pomona!), consuming carbohydrates to top off and / or restore muscle glycogen, and consuming protein to reduce muscle breakdown is absolutely critical.

Some rest "built in" to this workout

Even in a 15 minute effort in heat (for example, workout 6), an athlete  can loose an appreciable amount of fluid and burn through significant carbohydrate stores.  Sipping on a carb / electrolyte (and maybe even with a small amount of protein) beverage during exercise will reduce the amount of fluid lost, reduce the amount of time it takes the body to restore glycogen, and reduce muscle breakdown.  This leads to better performance in subsequent workouts.  As for recovery, getting calories from carbohydrate and protein IMMEDIATELY (+ puke window)  after completing a workout is crucial – especially if you want your body to perform for 3 days straight.  And it’s not just about fueling / calories – hydration plays a key roll, too.  Many studies have shown the impact even a modest drop in body fluid levels can have on performance.  The event in Pomona was held outdoors on hot black top.  Between heats athletes sat under tents in warm dry air.  This absolutely sucks fluid from the body.  Sipping on a low-carb electrolyte drink all day long will give athletes the best shot at staying hydrated and ultimately performing at a high level.  There was actually an interesting study done on NBA players a few years ago that indicated even if sufficient fluid was available to drink, athletes failed to fully hydrate.  It’s got to be a conscious effort.  The effects on performance of adequate vs. inadequate fueling, especially come day 3 in a multi-day event, could be monumental.

You could argue that most CrossFit workouts are so short that fueling during the workout will have no actual impact on performance.  Sure, but looking at an event like CrossFit Regionals as a bunch of individual workouts strung together is somewhat nearsighted.  What is most important is the cumulative effect on your body of multiple workouts over those couple days, and the difference good nutrition vs inadequate nutrition can make.  A solid fueling strategy takes everything into account – meals (starting a few days out and through the entire weekend), hydration all day long, fueling immediately before and after workouts, etc.  It’s not a handful of individual workouts over a few days, it’s a mega workout with some time for recovery and fueling worked in.  You might also point out that many CrossFit workouts are completed straight through, without ever breaking, and taking time to drink would slow performance and inhibit a good result.  Many workouts are completed straight though, but many aren’t.  And this still leaves opportunity for nutrition.

Coming from the endurance world, nutrition is so ingrained in me that I don’t even think about it (triathletes often talk about the four legs of any race being: swim, bike, run, nutrition).  For years it was: train, eat, sleep, repeat.  It may be this way for many crossfitters, too.  Though CrossFit is an interesting phenomenon in that no one “comes” to the sport already a crossfitter – athletes come from all kinds of backgrounds – some of which might not place the same importance on nutrition, or require nearly as much from the body.  I know that growing up playing team sports, before I got into endurance sports, nutrition was something I paid very little attention to.  It’s possible that many of the talented athletes coming to CrossFit are arriving from sports where nutrition does not play nearly as big of a role in determining performance.

CF diehards may read this post and be critical as I am new to the sport.  In my defense – I live and work in the sports nutrition space and am exposed to scientific literature, brand messaging, new products, and elite / professional athletes all the time (many elite athletes are the LEAST educated when it comes to fueling strategies – but they are incredibly gifted).  I’m also pretty well-versed when it comes to fueling in general, particularly in multi-day events, as well as events that require one or more intense efforts on a given day.  Crit racing often requires cyclists to race in a few short (by cycling standards), intense races in a single day.  Stage races often see a morning time trial and afternoon crit, road race, etc.  Triathletes complete double-day workouts most days in their training week.   With these experiences I’ve gained a fairly good understanding of what it takes me to perform.

Nutrition is critical for success in competition.   There is a time and a place for real food (have you seen my website, btw?), but there is also a time and place for nutritional supplementation and the practicality of getting calories quickly and simply.  Of course, the higher quality these supplements are, the better.  Getting calories from whole-food sources is generally the way to go, but it’s also possible that at times, paleo aspirations could partially prohibit athletes getting the best fueling possible (coconut water = inadequate fueling for any real exertion….sorry).

A sport like CrossFit is an interesting phenomenon as the level of some athletes coming in “fresh” is so high.  Many of these athletes have competed at a high level in some other sport for a long time.  As the sport grows and evolves, strategies on things like nutrition will evolve as well.  But when you look at an event like SoCal Regionals in Pomona, see how high the level of competition is already (given the number of athletes attending and the very few that move on), the competitive advantage available through proper nutrition will matter more and more.  It’s a big opportunity for improved performance at a pretty low cost.  And arguably more important is nutrition for the “everyday” crossfitter, pushing their body 3, 4, 5 times per week….

Good luck to all the competitors that qualified this weekend.

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