CrossFit competition nutrition can make or break your performance.
I remember the first time I rocked up to a multi-event competition with a confident plan for what to eat before, during, and after. It was the 2011 Left Coast Invitational, and I arrived with my cooler and bag full of food. At first, I felt kind of silly, but when I felt fueled and energetic throughout that very hot and sweaty July day, it was worth it.
The foundations of good nutrition for athletes and competitors is something I’ve written about a lot – in two best-selling books and in a myriad of articles all over the internet.
You’ve got to consider some special circumstances and make adjustments to your normal routine if you want to avoid bonking, bloating, and other performance-killers.
While the strategies here are aimed CrossFit-style competitions, the general rules can be applied to most performance-based sports.
Keep in mind that these are basics, and your biochemistry or the demands of your sport (ex: weigh-ins for weightlifting) may require adjustments.
Rules of Thumb
CrossFit Competition Nutrition Tip 1: Carb loading isn’t necessary.
There’s no need to carb load the day before your competition. If you’ve done some light training or taken the day off, you should be pretty well topped up energy-wise. This also assumes that on a regular basis, you’re eating a post-workout of protein and carbs after hard training sessions, so you’re adequately recovered going into your competition.
Stuffing yourself with carbs the day before only floods your bloodstream with sugar, which causes your insulin to spike and means your body has to store that excess somewhere. Since you’re smart and you regularly refuel after workouts, your muscle will already be topped up with glycogen.
Think of your muscle glycogen storage capacity like a gas tank. If you try to put more gas in your tank, the tank itself doesn’t get bigger to accommodate; the gas overflows.
Significantly bumping up your carb intake can also cause some water retention, leaving you feeling bloated and heavy. Eat normal meals the day before your CrossFit competition.
(Need some help understanding how to structure meals on normal training days? Click here.)
This one would seem obvious, but it’s amazing to me how many athletes overlook hydration in their CrossFit competition day plans.
Even slight dehydration can significantly ding your performance and impact things like decision-making and mental clarity. Of course, hydration doesn’t just start the morning of your competition, so be mindful of what you drink on the days leading up to your event.
How much water do you need? There’s no one exact formula, and the guideline of half your bodyweight (in pounds) in ounces of water is just that, a basic guide.
You may need more – or sometimes less – depending on your body chemistry, how sweaty you are, the amount of veggies and fruit you eat, the weather, intensity of your workouts, and so on.
Since CrossFit competitions don’t require athletes to make a weight class, there shouldn’t be a concern with staying well hydrated leading up to the event. (Stay tuned for another post about weight-dependent sports like Olympic weightlifting, powerlifting, etc.)
If you’re constantly drinking water and your pee is very light yellow or nearly clear, your tissues may not be well hydrated.
Including electrolytes in your water means you’ll retain enough water to stay hydrated and preserve muscle function instead of just running to the bathroom every 45 minutes to pee.
Do you get muscle cramps, especially during strenuous efforts? It could be a sign of low electrolyte levels. My favorite electrolyte replacement is Elete, but you can find tablets like Nuun or even salt tablets in most retail sports stores.
Another good option: coconut water plus a couple pinches of sea salt. Why the salt? Despite its rich potassium content, coconut water is pretty low in sodium.
Between events, sip on water with some electrolytes added. Don’t gorge yourself with water since your stomach empties slower during intense periods of exercise, making you bloated and uncomfortable.
Eat a full breakfast.
Pre-competition nerves can make people feel like not eating, but performance tends to suffer on a quick breakfast of protein shakes, coffee, or worse, nothing at all.
While I’m not a fan of skipping sleep to eat breakfast, on CrossFit competition day, you may be better off getting up a bit earlier than usual to make sure you get a meal.
Most competitions have at least two workouts – three or more being typical – and generally, events kick off in the morning. That may mean waking up early to drive there. If so, think about prepping breakfast the night before.
Stay away from anything with a ton of fiber – not the time to be chowing on a breakfast salad – and be sure you’re eating something with protein, carbs, and fat. Examples might be a few eggs with bacon and sweet potato hash, oatmeal with coconut milk or chopped nuts and some fruit, etc.
Of course, you’ll want to plan for 2 to 3 hours of lead time to allow your breakfast to digest, so plan accordingly.
What to eat during the event.
Okay this is the big one for CrossFit competition nutrition.
Since most competitions are typically multi-event / multi-workout with breaks in between heats, you’ll want something to eat between those events.
This is where planning – or lack of it – can make or break the performance.
First common mistake: Eating or drinking something that came in your swag bag, mooching off a friend’s food, etc. It may contain an ingredient that upsets your stomach, leaving you running for the bathroom or bloating your belly.
Second common mistake: Timing nutrients wrong. Fatty meats, slow-digesting foods, casein-based protein powders, and big doses of fat all take longer to digest than is appropriate on competition day.
If you’re between events and have a little recovery time, you want that nutrition to go to your muscle as fast as possible. Skip the fatty foods between events.
Time is of the essence, so choose a protein powder that’s whey- or egg-white based instead. If you want to eat something instead, opt for egg whites, lean meats, etc. Certain protein powders, like casein, digest more slowly.
- Whey protein powder (this is my favorite)
- Lean meat
- Egg whites
- Recovery-type protein powder (typically a whey + carb mix)
- Protein bar with little fat
Between events, eat or drink proteins and carbs that are easy to digest.
Stick to something with a higher glucose content. Why? Glucose replenishes muscle glycogen most directly.
If you want to drink something, stick to things like coconut water or a fruit juice like pineapple which is high in glucose. You can also mix that into your protein powder.
Other ideas to mix into a drink: Vitargo, dextrose, or a recovery protein powder. If you use recovery protein powder, check the ratio of carbs to protein. You want close to 2:1 carbs:protein. If it’s far off from that, adjust by adding carbs.
Prefer something solid? Try baby food squeeze packets (look for ones with pureed sweet potato or banana as a main ingredient), white rice, or plantain paired with lean protein like chicken breast or egg white. Or, have a few bites of your favorite protein bar.
- Coconut water
- Fruit juice (ex: pineapple)
- Recovery-type protein powder (typically a whey + carb mix)
- Baby food fruit packets
- White rice
Avoid eating tons of fiber or fat between events.
Don’t count on competition coordinators to have food vendors; some don’t, and you might be left with no options if you don’t pack your own stuff. Bring a cooler!
After your workouts, let your body calm down a little before trying to force food or drink while you’re still breathing hard, sweating, etc. Your body will still be in a sympathetic state and not super receptive to food anyway.
When the competition is over, do a simple post-workout recovery shake or eat some easy-to-digest protein plus carbs. Once the next meal time rolls around, eat normally and perhaps add a bit more carbohydrate than you might otherwise.
Summing Up These CrossFit Competition Nutrition Tips
- Eat normally leading up to your CrossFit competition.
- Pay attention to hydration ahead of time, and consider adding an electrolyte replacement.
- Have breakfast the morning of the competition.
- Between events, eat or drink easy-to-digest protein and carbs. Avoid fats.
- After your competition, have a post-workout meal / snack. Then, eat the next full meal that comes after.
By paying attention to these basic CrossFit competition nutrition tips, you’ll avoid common pitfalls and perform your best!