Fueling for CrossFit Competition 101

by Erin Kratzer (CFNYC Member, Dietetic Intern and Nutritionist)

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When it comes to performance, nutrition is often a missing link for many athletes. Have you ever attended or competed in a day-long CrossFit competition and seen the athletes “refueling” with a protein shake after protein shake and the occasional protein bar mixed in? Having competed in a CrossFit competition recently, I witnessed a lot of poor fueling strategies for an all day competition.

Eating the right foods, at the right time, can significantly improve performance even if you aren’t competing all day long. With proper planning, packing, and timing you can fuel your next competition, whether that be in CrossFit or a day-long running or adventure race. Depending on the intensity of the exercise, your fueling strategy may vary, but the key to keeping your energy tank topped off is utilizing all of your macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.

The lower the intensity, the easier it is for your body to tolerate fat and utilize it as an energy source. For instance if you were running an ultra-marathon then having trail mix or mixed nuts, along with quick acting carbohydrates, can provide sustained energy and fuel.

At higher intensities like CrossFit, your body relies more on carbohydrates for fuel. Blood flow is also shunted away from your gastrointestinal tract, meaning slow digesting foods (fat and fiber) will slosh around in your stomach and increase your susceptibility to GI distress (e.g. frequent runs to the bathroom, nausea, or stomach cramps). Keeping this in mind, your plan may look different than a friend based on your GI tolerance of foods and the intensity of your exercise.

So, what is the best plan of attack?

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1. Eat A Larger Breakfast Full of REAL Foods
If your competition is longer or contains multiple events, you will be utilizing smaller meals and snacks in your fueling plan. Therefore, you want to take advantage of the time period where you can ingest and digest a larger amount of food. Eat a breakfast that you are used to having and do not experiment with new recipes the day-off your competition. Not a breakfast eater? Try having a larger dinner the night prior, and a smaller snack in the morning (ex. yogurt w/ berries and a sprinkle of granola, or PB and banana on toast).

2. Pack Snacks The Night Before
You have all heard the saying, “failing to plan, is planning to fail.” The night before your competition, set time aside before bed or after dinner where you pack your bag with your equipment and food. Not only does this make the morning rush out the door easier (e.g. you won’t forget anything!), but it also helps set you up for a successful competition the next day.

Some good snack ideas:

  • overnight oats (mix ½ cup oatmeal with 1 banana, 1/3 cup non-fat Greek yogurt, cinnamon, and a sprinkle of walnuts, or small dollop of nut butter)
  • whole food bars (Lara Bar, Rx Bar, Rise Bar, GoMacro Bar, etc)
  • whole fruit or fruit squeezes (yea, I’m talking about that Mango Banana squeezable baby food)
  • Dried fruit (mango, raisins, dates, cranberries, etc)
  • Sliced chicken breast or deli-meat
  • Nut butters to add to fruit or bread
  • Granola or trail mix (if longer break)
  • Make-ahead smoothie (frozen fruit, milk of choice, splash of OJ…if eating solid foods is hard for you, you can add some protein powder)

3. Look At The Schedule And Make A Fueling Plan
Plan your snacks around longer workouts, or periods of rest. The longer you have between events, the more your body will be able to tolerate. Remember, carbohydrates are your fuel – focus on having a source of carbohydrate during each snack break. Eating foods with protein will also ensure a constant supply of amino acids (building blocks of protein) in your blood stream, to maintain an anabolic (building) state and delay your body from relying on protein as an energy source (that comes from your muscles, we don’t want that!). In order to perform your last event, or final few miles of a race, with the same intensity as your first event or mile, properly planned nutrition is going to be your answer!

4. Recovery, Rest, and Booze
You can have a well thought out plan and all the right snacks packed, but if you are not recovered and rested, it might not make that much of a difference!

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Make smart choices the night before! Bet you didn’t think someone would be telling you this well into your adult years, but we all know a night of drinking, late night snacks, and minimal sleep does not bode well for peak performance.

  • Get at least 7-8 hours of sleep the night before.
  • Focus on high quality sleep as well. Turn off the smart phone, tablet, tv, and other bright electronics. The bright lights can impair the quality of sleep you receive – studies show that the use of electronics before bed can prolong the time it takes to fall asleep, delay the circadian clock, suppress melatonin levels (sleep-promoting hormone), reduce the amount and delay the timing of REM sleep (that deep, good for you sleep), and reduce alertness the following morning.1 This goes for every night, but especially the night before a big event.
  • Live on a busy street? Try some ear plugs or an eye mask to drown out those sirens and late night partiers and darken the room.

I cannot mention sleep and recovery without touching on alcohol. A night of binge drinking (5+ drinks/night) can affect brain and body activities for up to three days and can delay muscle protein synthesis2 and impair performance for up to 4 days. You read it right – your Saturday night shenanigans will still be in your system and impair your performance and recovery most of the next week. I am not saying you can’t have a celebratory glass of wine on occasion, but moderation is the key to life.

For instance, in the CrossFit Open you’re basically required to make a commitment to your fitness, nutrition and recovery for 5-weeks if you want to have a good performance! Besides the after effects of a night of drinking that carry into the following week, the immediate effects the next day are just as bad 3:

  • dehydration
  • elevated heart rate
  • core temperature dysregulation
  • accelerated fatigue
  • impairs motor skills, decreases strength/power
  • impairs balance, reaction time, and precision
  • an awful headache

All of these equal a recipe for disaster in whatever athletic feat you have the next day – the CrossFit Open, daily training, Spartan race, 5k run, local CrossFit competition, etc. If your performance in your next fitness feat is important to you, do your body a favor and lay off of the partying leading up to your event.

5. GAME DAY CHOICES

Eat Breakfast!
The purpose of game day fueling is to top off carbohydrate (energy) stores and enhance mental focus. If you are completing an open workout in the morning make sure your fuel stores are topped off – focus on carbohydrates, moderate protein, and lower fat meals. Ideal timing is a larger meal 3-4 hours prior with a small snack 30 minutes to 1 hour before. Go to your tried and true meals and don’t make that banana foster French toast recipe you’ve been meaning to try the day of your competition. Higher fat content meals will delay digestion/gastric emptying, meaning you will feel your breakfast during your workout, which is never fun!

Hydrate!3,4
Continue to hydrate with water leading up to go-time. Drink water at regular intervals leading up to the competition.

  • 2-3 hours before – 16-20 oz
  • 10-15 minutes before – additional 8-12 oz
  • Ideally you should consume 3-8 oz every 15-20 min during exercise if the sport allows.
  • Post exercise – 16-20 oz, plus additional if weight was lost through fluids
  • For sustained high intensity exercise or endurance races lasting >60 minutes, a fast-acting carbohydrate should be ingested (30-60 g/h) in the form of liquids, gels, chews, or soft foods.

Have Fun!
Unless you are about to compete in the Olympics, have fun! Even if you are, there is no reason to put excess pressure on yourself. You put in the time, training, and commitment (hopefully) to your sport. Go out and show how hard you worked!

Refuel!3
Consume a meal rich in carbohydrates and high-quality protein within 1-2 hours post-competition to help replenish glycogen (energy) stores in your muscles and assist in muscle protein synthesis and repair.

Now that your nutrition, recovery, and hydration plans are on point, go out and perform your best at your next competition, race, or tournament!

Resources:
1. Chang AM, Aeschbach D, Duffy JF, Czeisler CA. Evening use of light-emitting eReaders negatively affects sleep, circadian timing, and next-morning alertness. Proc Natl Acad Sci USA. 2015;112(4): 1232-1237.

2. Parr EB, Camera DM, Areta JL, Burke LM, Phillips SM, et al. Alcohol ingestion impairs maximal post-exercise rates of myofibrillar protein synthesis following a single bout of concurrent training. PLoS ONE. 2014;9(2): e88384. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0088384

3. AND, DC, ACSM. Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, American College of Sports Medicine: Nutrition and athletic performance. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016;116(3): 501-528.

4. Casa DJ, Armstrong LE, Hillman SK, Montain SJ, Reiff RV, et al. National Athletic Trainer’s Association Position Statement: Fluid replacement for athletes. J Athl Train. 2000;35(2): 212-224.

Responses

  • Jorge Baron Munoz

    great read.