Carbohydrate Guidelines for CrossFit Athletes
Carbs are not bad. Especially in our sport.
CrossFit utilizes glucose to facilitate movement (meaning when you do things like 30 Clean and Jerks for time (you might know this workout as “Grace”) your body WILL use GLUCOSE as fuel- either by the glucose present in your bloodstream (known as blood glucose), or the glucose stored in your muscles (glycogen) or it will MAKE it from protein or fats- referred to as gluconeogenesis.
Now, can you imagine if you wanted to do Grace and you were in enough of a carb depleted state that your body has to say “hang on a sec while I MAKE you some energy?” – seems rather inefficient right?
Your body is programmed a certain way for a reason- we LIVE for efficiency. Why not optimize that efficiency, especially if you want to get good at this sport?
And carbs are super cool, because carbs enter our bloodstream at different times depending on what source we choose. So, we can PLAN how we fuel ourselves!
Not going to train till afternoon/evening? Eat slower digesting carbs (also known as “Low GI” carbs) throughout your day, then eat carbs that digest fast right before you train.
This way you have given your body the fuel it needs to do things like play with your kids, get your work done, walk the dog, etc, then when you’re ready to train you’ve made sure you have fuel JUST FOR CrossFit!
Training first thing in the morning? You can have some liquid carbs in a shaker or a banana (fast digesting, also known as “High GI” carbs) before you hit the gym, or you can eat a snack before you go to bed and load up on stored glucose (glycogen!).
How do you know how many carbs to have?
This can get very personalized (based on gender, height, weight, body fat percentage, activity level, and age) but here are my general guidelines:
- Sedentary and training 2-3 times a week for 60 minutes or less or doing mostly lifting: eating 200 grams a day of high-quality carbs (potatoes, rice, yams, fruit, squash, starchy veggies). Carbs should be centered around training (before and after fitness).
*Sedentary = desk job with minimal activity outside of the gym
- Sedentary and training 3-5 times a week for 60 minutes or less or doing mostly lifting: 200-250 grams a day of high quality (low glycemic index) carbs.
- Sedentary and training 5+ times per week for 60 minutes or more: 250-300 grams a day with a mix of low GI and high GI carbs (i.e. whole food sources most meals, with specific high GI carb supplementation for training sessions lasting more than 75 minutes). You will also want to focus most of your carbs around your training.
- Moderately active and training 2-3 times a week for 60 minutes or less: 250-300 grams a day of high quality (low glycemic index) carbs. This carb range will depend on your work/life activity. If you have an extremely active job (firefighter, server, construction worker) then start with 250g and increase as needed. Just make sure 85-90% of it is coming from whole food sources!
- Moderately active and training 3-5 times a week for 60 minutes or less: 300 grams a day of high quality (low glycemic index) carbs. Again, refer to note above about activity level outside of the gym.
- Moderately active and training 5+ times per week for 60 minutes or more: 300-400 grams a day with a mix of low GI and high GI carbs (i.e. whole food sources most meals, with specific high GI carb supplementation for training sessions lasting more than 75 minutes).
*At this point you will begin playing around with how these foods make you feel and how they affect training.
If you're still trying to eat mostly whole foods that are low GI (think brown rice) you may discover a constant feeling of being full. Consider switching out brown rice for white rice, especially before and after training sessions.
- Extremely active: 350g- 500+g depending on training and work. If you’re a firefighter training for the CrossFit Games (think Sam Briggs) I am going to suggest 400g a day minimum- and then play with more depending on training and work schedule.
I understand you’ve been taught that carbs are bad and that this is why people struggle with being overweight or obese.
I also understand that there is a lot of information out there that says carbs cause type 2 diabetes and to lose weight you need to cut carbs.
Without getting too lost in all of this, let me tell you that one of the major swings we are doing now is based on our “low fat high carb” phase we did in the late 1970’s to 90’s. This phase left us with a lot of overweight people struggling with comorbidities (heart disease and diabetes) – and rightly so.
Because as we were telling people to eat Snackwells (they’re okay after all since they’re fat free!) we were also increasing our time at work in a chair, decreasing our protein and veggie intake, decreasing our sleep, and modernizing our lives (automatic EVERYTHING).
So essentially, we were increasing our carb intake while decreasing activity- this is not so good.
Carbs are for movement- the more you move, the more carbs you need.
The less you move, the less you need (but you still need SOME). We also were decreasing the QUALITY of the foods we ate- so you moved less but then also ate more refined and processed things. Also not so good.
Okay, slight rabbit hole for a second. What about keto and the carnivore diet and all the CrossFitters who tell you how amazing these diets are?
They are right – they ARE amazing. For keeping us alive when carbs aren’t available. Fat as fuel is great for when you want to run or walk long distances, or for when you’re going to be sedentary for extended periods.
Fat is useful for helping us maintain low levels of energy for long periods of time.
It is not such a useful fuel source for explosive stuff or for short bursts of energy (CrossFit anyone?).
As a Certified Nutrition Coach through Precision Nutrition, I recommend using this calculator to determine your needs. Then you can track using PN's method or input the recommendations into MyFItnessPal.
I also HIGHLY recommend playing around with this. Some people find they do well at 50% carbs while others find they do better at 30-40%. There is no hard and fast rule for everyone.
And if you focus on fueling yourself for life and training, eat your veggies, watch your alcohol intake, and sleep like a teenager you will find your physique changes as a RESULT of these habits!
Questions? Comments? Leave them here or feel free to email me- email@example.com