Every single person that contributed on this article is a Science Lab member (though Elisabeth is kind of busy right now) and they add thoughts when available. I, on the other hand, am there to answer your questions daily. The section at the bottom that says “Mike’s Notes” is from Mike T Nelson. He wrote our book “Metabolic Flexibility for Fat Loss”; he’s kind of a smart dude. When you buy our book, you get access to the ETP Science Lab private forum and webinars. These are extremely valuable tools that can help you dial in your nutrition.
This piece is a follow-up to my two-a-day “Intraday Nutrition” article. I’d recommend checking that out, as it’s a great start to understanding some of the basic concepts of what I will be talking about in the next few paragraphs. I will go over some of the basic ideas behind Metabolic Flexibility, why it’s important to you, and how to apply these concepts to your nutrition around a competitive CrossFit event.
Becoming Carbohydrate Adapted
As a community, we value being fat-adapted (using fats when we rest for energy), but the fact of the matter is that we burn a lot of carbs during our workouts. In a study by Carter, SL et al., 8 males and 8 females, fuel use during cycle ergometry was measured. They found that the women burn about 50% carbs during exercise and men burn about 75% (2). Despite our reliance upon carbohydrate, we don’t actually eat extremely large amounts all the time. Eating carbs generates an insulin response, and insulin helps transport nutrients into cells to build tissue (fat as well as stored carbs as muscle and live glycogen). We do a lot of bodyweight movements, so gaining weight indiscriminately isn’t an option; instead, we eat most of our carbs around training, when it’s more difficult to store fat (8). We need to be metabolically flexible enough to switch between using carbs to fuel our training and build muscle, and then get right back to burning fat.
Your body composition, Metabolic Flexibility (how well you switch between carb and fat substrate utilization), as well as your gender will play determinate roles in how much carbohydrate you need. Lean people need a lot more carbs just to maintain a baseline of muscle capacity. During high intensity exercises, muscle glycogen is the primary source of energy and unless you are eating appropriate amounts of fat, protein and carbohydrate (total calories) , you just aren’t going to perform very well as an athlete, especially when your sport involves lifting weights.
That said, ingesting a crazy amount of carbohydrate that your body cannot handle is probably a bad idea, which is why you need to test this idea first. If you do not have the time to test this protocol, don’t do it. I’d recommend you follow an “Eat To Perform” approach to nutrition for a while before you consider employing these strategies. If you’ve been low carbing for a while, you’ll need to improve your Metabolic Flexibility before you can take full advantage of this concept.
What to Eat the Night Before a Competition
Again, I am not a “sacred cow” guy. I am going to lay out what I think is the best way to approach, but that may not fit with the way you eat. Try and take these suggestions and adjust them to your lifestyle, observing one caveat:
…. if you are going to try and win the CrossFit Games taking a very low carb (50g or less a day) approach, good luck with that one.
In other words, I don’t suggest it. For my money, Chipotle the night before an event is great. Certainly, you can (and probably should) prepare a homemade alternative, but a triple meat burrito bowl with extra rice and guacamole is going to be right on target to set you up for the next day’s competition.
I say this under the assumption that you have been doing this for at least long enough to know that you won’t wake up 5 lbs. heavier the next day; that won’t make muscle-ups any easier. Even so, if you are up 5 lbs., that might actually put you in the best position to move on to the next day because your gas tank will be on “full.” My suspicion is that for many of you, your muscles will be happy to soak up the carbs from the rice, and that the fats from the guacamole. There are plenty of people who’d argue against having any fat during a carb load like this. I have no problem with those people having that opinion for their sport, but for CrossFit, you don’t want insulin running amok. In my experience, the fats calm things down a bit.
For dessert, have my cherry and pineapple coconut milk smoothie before you go to bed. Just make sure you are using light coconut milk. I will say there is a strong argument for full-fat coconut milk from an energy standpoint; the medium-chain triglyceride (MCT) in coconut milk is available as an energy source much more quickly than long-chain fatty acids but its effect on improving performance has not been clearly demonstrated (1, 3-7, 9) . The case against full-fat coconut milk is that your metabolism will flex towards fat burning mode, and that will potentially slow absorption of the carbs you’re eating. Either way, it’s something you want to play with; it’s not necessarily make-or-break.
Another and potentially better option before you go to bed is to drink two scoops of Progenex Cocoon in hot water. Now, I want to caution you about this: get ready to be knocked out. Don’t take it early, otherwise you might find yourself napping at 7 p.m. the day before a big event. The active ingredient is L-tryptophan, and I find that it allows for a good night’s sleep, improved recovery, and a slow-loading protein boost. If you already take melatonin before a big event (It’s difficult to sleep when you’re excited!) I find this to be a better option because of the way I feel when I wake up. Melatonin can be tricky to dose, and it will sometimes leave you drowsy the next morning. Cocoon feels more like restorative sleep.
Most competitions start around noon, so if yours starts earlier or later, you may have to adjust. Similar to my two-a-day recommendation, you want to have a small meal to stabilize your system that won’t sit on your stomach during competition, so this is highly individual. Try to put a few hours between this meal and the event. Here is what I suggest:
- 2 eggs cooked in ghee
- Bacon (as many strips as feels right)
- One scoop of Progenex Recovery and one scoop of Vitargo (the link is an article I wrote on why fast loading hydrolysates like Progenex Recovery are better for competition days)
- One or two tablespoons of Justin’s Chocolate Hazelnut Butter
The bacon, ghee, and hazelnut butter are rich in long-chain fatty acids, which should stabilize your energy levels. Remember, your muscles are loaded up from the rice the night before. This meal is just to settle things in. The Vitargo and the banana are just there as a signal to “flex” your metabolism towards using carbohydrates as an energy source, so you may want to save it for closer to competition.
The one thing I wouldn’t recommend (unless the event starts really early) is going in fasted. This is contrary to what I recommend under normal circumstances. Once again, you really want to test these concepts for yourself before you implement them; this is one of the variables you need to be aware of. Also, while I know many people drink coffee in the morning, there is a strong argument to move to caffeine pills/powders or espresso shots for a more concentrated dose of the active ingredient. Again, this is definitely something you want to test before you put your money on it.
Peanut Butter and Jelly Perfected
Elisabeth and I laughed about this in the video I did with her. Rich Froning famously offered up that he eats a lot of peanut butter and jelly between competitions, which completely makes sense if you understand energy systems. (Which, by the way, Rich does.) The idea that he’s some good ol’ country boy that merley lifts weights and eats PB n’ J all of the time doesn’t really do justice to Rich’s story. If you don’t think Rich has this stuff dialed in, you are probably wrong. If you want to be in his league, you have to play by his rules, and his rules involve fueled workouts. Point blank. So let’s take a look at how we might be able to do peanut butter and jelly better.
The dosing on this is probably something you want to play with a bit, but for today, protein barely matters. We won’t ignore protein intake, but our main concern is energy, and that will come mostly from fats and sugars we can ingest quickly. If you can microwave this, it might go down a bit better:
- You really want to be careful with this and test it out, because Vitargo will increase insulin levels fast. Rich’s sugar from the jelly is only half glucose. This will go a long way to refill glycogen lost during the event, but it could possibly make you feel sick if you take in too much at once. So let’s do some math. As an example, let’s say that the first event burns 300 calories. For a woman, that would mean 150 calories of carbs were burned and for a man 225. You basically divide by four and you have an approximate value of what you need to replace expressed in grams of carbohydrate. One serving of Vitargo is 68 grams of carbs, so for women, it would be about 40 grams (3/4 a serving) and for men, 60 grams (a little more than one serving). You really want to push this and see what feels most right, it’s certainly possible that you can get away with a bit more and feel right.
- I would mix this with Progenex Recovery on a 1.5 (carbs) to 1 (protein) basis.
Wait about an hour to an hour and a half before you have the rest of this meal. It’s not my experience that this effects your blood sugar greatly but you may find it absorbs faster after heavier WOD’s so that might mean you would want the fats a bit sooner to keep your system stabilized.
- 4 to 5 tablespoons of Hazelnut Butter or Chocolate Hazelnut Butter
- Ripe Banana for flavor and to top off glycogen stores
This should be seen as a broad suggestion. Men with a lot of muscle might need more; women with a slighter build they might need less. You have to play with it a bit to see what works best, but the idea is sound. It’s my experience that Vitargo loads so well that you get very little blood sugar response and the hydrolyzed whey from the Progenex Recovery should give your muscles a bit of a boost. The fats are there to provide stabilization and give you some caloric load but you want to play with that a bit and see what feels right. If whey protein bothers your stomach and you want to get ultra-fancy, you can add about 6 grams of essential amino acids (EAAs) to the mix (but this is not a requirement.)
I can keep this simple: stick to a 2:1 ratio of carbs to protein. That’s two scoops of Vitargo and 1 1/2 scoops of Progenex Recovery. All whey is not created equal, and on game day you want a fast-acting hydrolysate to put you in the best position to recover for your next event. Progenex Recovery has your back there. The same could be said for Vitargo. Studies have shown that Vitargo loads into the muscle twice as fast as similar alternatives. With Vitargo, an athlete’s glycogen reserves can completely recover within 2 hours, resulting in less weight gain (bloating) and improved athletic performance. Similar alternatives can take double that time or even longer.
What About Pedialyte?
Whether it’s the July CrossFit Games or May Regionals in Chicago, hydration is an issue. A lot of people think of Gatorade or similar sports drinks, but Gatorade isn’t the go-to for a lot of the athletes at the CrossFit Games. Many are opting for Pedialyte, which is normally administered to sick/dehydrated babies. Pedialyte is pretty low carb, but it’s also fairly high in sodium content. Sodium is a valuable electrolyte. One of the major drawbacks to using Pedialyte as an intra-contest drink, however, is that it’s an appetite suppressant. For this reason, I would lean more towards electrolyte tablets for hydration purposes. Once again, this is something you really have to test because it’s easy to get it wrong.
As an example, if you are a football player, Pedialyte is probably a great option because hydration is your biggest issue. Someone engaging in multi-day competition has different concerns. I’ve had several athletes remark that Pedialyte is a great option for end of day rehydration after the event, but when used during the event, they crashed or experienced symptoms of hypoglycemia. The reason is probably due to the fact that their stomach was full and they didn’t feel like they needed to eat. Electrolyte tabs fix this problem and have a much better nutrient profile. This option allows you to get in some food between events so you can have sustained energy throughout the day’s events and on to the next.
Puréed or Blended Meals Between Competitions
The other option for nutrition on competition day is blended/liquefied whole foods. The goal of these meals is to provide quick-absorbing energy. You want a good combination of fats (85/15 ground beef), starch (sweet potato and rice), and a protein powder. I’d suggest that you lay off the fibrous veggies, but you may find them necessary from a fiber standpoint, so play with that a bit if you need to.
You really need to view all of these options similar to the way you would a golf bag. If you use the post workout drink as well as the “peanut butter and jelly perfected” recipe, that’s probably going to be too much food, but it’s person-dependent.
As always, you want to test this stuff out before you put it through the ringer in competition. This is not an optional step, but a requirement! Ideally, you will run a simulated competition day about 4-6 weeks out from the real competition to test run everything. When something works well, do not change it the night before the actual competition.
Frankly, I think you need about three months to get this right which happens to be about the time the CrossFit Games will come around. This might not be a formula you can test coming up to Regionals, so keep that in mind.
Also, into the second day make sure you are getting adequate rest and once again Cocoon can be really helpful going into the second day of your competitions.
My preference is electrolyte tabs since they allow each competitor to be more accurate with water intake instead vs. a pre-mixed item like Pedialyte—which is better if you are a powerlifter and trying to put on weight regardless (and you are not doing muscle ups.) Plus, many athletes after hard competitions will not like the taste of Pedialyte and won’t drink it.
I found this out by helping with the RAAM (Race Across America) 7 day, 24 hours a day bike race from San Diego to NJ several years ago. Don’t underestimate how taste of things will change. A few guys threatened to throw me out of the van if I even showed them any type of electrolyte drink or GU packet. There is no taste to electrolyte tabs, so you don’t have to worry, and you can adjust fluid levels as needed. Having people add more sea salt to their food the week before and monitoring performance helps too. Adding a lot of salt the night before can result in weird things happening, and some still think salt is evil. I find the reverse true and sea salt can be ergogenic for sure.
- Although we rely upon carbohydrate to fuel high intensity exercise, you don’t need to eat huge amounts of it all the time. We value Metabolic Flexibility, or the ability to utilize both fat and carbohydrate as an energy source depending upon our activity levels.
- The times you do want to eat a pretty huge amount of carbs are the day before and during competition. You need to experiment and see how your body reacts to carb loading, so give yourself a few trial runs before you attempt something like this.
- You may gain a significant amount of water weight (5 lbs. or so) after a carb load, so it’s a good idea to train your bodyweight movements with a weighted vest.
- Make sure you get a good night’s sleep before the event. Supplements like Progenex Cocoon can help you out here.
- Have a small high protein/fat, low carb breakfast the morning of the competition. A scoop of Vitargo or a banana closer to the event will flex your metabolism towards fat burning mode.
- A mixture of Vitargo and Progenex recovery will make a great recovery drink after the event. The ideal ratio of carbs to protein is 2:1.
- Hydration is important. Stick to electrolyte tablets and water during the event. An oral electrolyte solution is fine to rehydrate at the end of the day.
- Again, test all of this stuff out before hand! Give yourself several months to get a handle on how you respond to whatever protocol you decide to utilize.
1) Angus DJ, Hargreaves M, Dancey J, Febbraio MA. 2000. Effect of carbohydrate or carbohydrate plus medium-chain triglyceride ingestion on cycling time trial performance. J Appl Physiol 88: 113-119.
2) Carter ,S. L., Rennie, C., Tarnopolsky, M. A. “Substrate utilization during endurance exercise in men and women after endurance training.” Am J Physiol Endocrinol Metab 280: E898–E907, 2001 http://ajpendo.physiology.org/content/280/6/E898.full.pdf+html>
3) Goedecke JH, Clark VR, Noakes TD, Lambert EV. 2005. The effects of medium-chain triacylglycerol and carbohydrate ingestion on ultra-endurance exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr Exerc Metab 15: 15-27.
4) Goedecke JH, Elmer-English R, Dennis SC, Schloss I, Noakes TD, Lambert EV. 1999. Effects of medium-chain triaclyglycerol ingested with carbohydrate on metabolism and exercise performance. Int J Sport Nutr 9: 35-47.
5) Horowitz JF, Mora-Rodriguez R, Byerley LO, Coyle EF. 2000. Preexercise medium-chain triglyceride ingestion does not alter muscle glycogen use during exercise. J Appl Physiol 88: 219-225.
6) Jeukendrup AE, Thielen JJ, Wagenmakers AJ, Brouns F, Saris WH. 1998. Effect of medium-chain triacylglycerol and carbohydrate ingestion during exercise on substrate utilization and subsequent cycling performance. Am J Clin Nutr 67: 397-404.
7) Jeukendrup AE, Saris WH, Schrauwen P, Brouns F, Wagenmakers AJ. 1995. Metabolic availability of medium-chain triglycerides coingested with carbohydrates during prolonged exercise. J Appl Physiol 79: 756-762.
8) Rasmus Rabøl, Kitt Falk Petersen, Sylvie Dufour, Clare Flannery, and Gerald I. Shulman “ Reversal of muscle insulin resistance with exercise reduces postprandial hepatic de novo lipogenesis in insulin resistant individuals.” PNAS 2011 108 (33) 13705-13709; doi:10.1073/pnas.1110105108 http://www.pnas.org/content/108/33/13705.long
9) Vistisen B, Nybo L, Xu X, Hoy CE, Kiens B. 2003. Minor amounts of plasma medium-chain fatty acids and no improved time trial performance after consuming lipids. J Appl Physiol 95: 2434-2443.ml>.