Ancient Nutrients, Modern Performance

Many of today's supernutrients were critical to human evolution, effectively responsible for taking us from ancient knuckle draggers to modern CrossFitters.
By Rob Wildman, PhD., RD,

Long before kettlebell swings, burpees or toe touches, physical performance was less about training programs and competition and more about survival in a perpetually challenging world. Strength, power and endurance, the core physical attributes of today’s CrossFit athlete, actually evolved tens to hundreds of thousands of years ago as a response to the challenges of surviving and thriving in a brutal world and enabled by hunting and gathering some pretty special nutrients.

While many of these amazing supernutrients were established in our evolutionary progression as a means to increase our chances of survival, today’s rigorous training competition only increases our dependence on them. That’s why we recommend taking a cue from the eating habits of our slope-foreheaded ancestors while you work out in our modern world.

Protein: The Most Primal Performance Nutrient

While water is known to make up about two-thirds of a lean body, protein is responsible for roughly half of what is left over and 80 percent of dry muscle. Proteins, in the form of contractile proteins, enzymes and connective tissue, are behind muscle mechanics like strength and power. So it’s no wonder our base protein requirement, set millennia before the first Olympians required it, is second only to water. Factor in that regular strenuous exercise can double daily needs to about 1 gram per pound of bodyweight, and many CrossFit athletes will simply strive to get at least 25 percent of calories from this powerful primal nutrient. The best food sources of protein are meats, fish, eggs and dairy, while protein supplements based on milk proteins (e.g., whey and casein) deliver a higher proportion of leucine, a branched-chain amino acid that is involved directly in creating muscle tissue.

Creatine: For Muscle and More

Creatine is naturally produced in the body from three amino acids (arginine, glycine and methionine) and serves as a mighty anaerobic power source for muscle cells while helping support and protect the heart and brain. Modern exercisers, especially those just getting started, find it particularly important for performing powerful movements, for extending the number of reps they can do and for improving body leanness. The best food sources are meats and fish, and people who include these foods in their diet tend to get about 1 gram daily. The most studied supplemental form is creatine monohydrate, and getting 0.03 grams per pound of bodyweight is recommended.

Beta-Alanine: The Muscle Endurance Alpha Nutrient

Beta-alanine is a unique amino acid, one that isn’t used to make protein in the body but instead is naturally made and converted to carnosine in muscle. Carnosine can help control the level of acid in muscle cells during intense physical activity. As a result, beta-alanine can increase strength and endurance. Better sources of beta-alanine include meats and fish, although usual dietary intake will not achieve the minimal supplemental recommendation of 3.2 grams daily, which is typically split over the course of the day

Omega-3 Fats: The Smart, Muscle-Recovery Fat

Once our ancestors began to wade into the water for food, they got so much more than just protein. Fish and other aquatic life forms are a rich source of the omega-3 fats eicosapentaenoic and docosahexaenoic acid. It is thought that we have them to thank for catalyzing the development of our relatively large brains long ago, and they certainly continue to enable optimal performance today. EPA can be converted to factors that help dampen inflammation and speed recovery from intense exercise and can support optimal protein synthesis. Meanwhile, DHA is critical to effective cognition and memory and can support recovery from head-related injuries common to contact sports. To benefit from these fats, at least a couple of servings of fish are recommended weekly or at least 1 gram of a fish-oil supplement daily.

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