While knuckle-dragging my way through multiple CrossFit boxes over the past year and talking to scores of CrossFit faithful, the one thing that has become clear is there is a lot of chatter about and use of nutritional supplements. This observation was confirmed at this year’s Reebok CrossFit Games, where there seemed to be as much fluorescent-shoed foot traffic around supplement brand booths as there was at the Paleo truck.
Without question, “real food” is the primary nutritional objective of the CrossFit faithful. However, the desire for progressive improvement is part of the inherent spirit of all CrossFitters, leaving “Fran”-fanatics to wonder whether there are certain nutritionally aligned nutrients they should consider supplementing with. Here we explore the overlap between clean, strategic supplementation and CrossFit nutritional philosophies and optimal workout performance.
Creatine: Meat’s Metabolic Magic and More
Creatine is a naturally occurring amino acid-derived factor that serves as a resource to generate the principle energy molecule (adenosine triphosphate) rapidly and without the need for oxygen. Creatine is found in meat, and while most of us derive roughly 1 to 2 grams from our diets, hundreds of research studies have shown that several grams of creatine are necessary to support improvements in strength, power and development of lean body mass, especially in lesser-trained individuals. Ideally, creatine should be taken immediately before and/or after training with an energy source, like a carbohydrate.
Omega-3 fats are among the most popular supplements of CrossFit athletes, most commonly as part of a fish-oil supplement. The interest in them stems from their connection to brain health, exercise recovery, muscle protein synthesis and potential effects on fat loss. Docosahexaenoic acid is the principal fat in the membranes of neurons of the brain, while eicosapentaenoic acid helps control inflammation, which can peak after heavy training. Recommendations for strenuously training individuals are a minimum of 1 to 2 grams of combined EPA and DHA daily. Be certain to choose a supplement that uses molecular distillation and/or other purification systems to remove heavy metals and toxins.
Protein/Branched-Chain Amino Acids
Intense WODs stimulate muscles to produce proteins in order to adapt and become better able to meet similar physical challenges during the next WOD. Additionally, strenuous exercise can damage muscle tissue and promote inflammation, which is then linked to soreness. Protein powder (at least 20 grams) taken either immediately before or after training can promote maximal muscle protein synthesis, which in turn can lead to faster and greater gains in performance and the development of a leaner, more muscular body. A few grams of BCAAs taken either immediately before or during prolonged exercise may help prolong performance and reduce markers of muscle damage and soreness in the hours that follow an intense WOD. While whole foods can certainly provide the levels of protein and BCAAs necessary to elicit these benefits, supplements, because they are portable and more quickly and easily digested, make them much easier to achieve.
Unlike most other amino acids, beta-alanine is not used as a building block for protein but is used to make carnosine, a powerful buffer (antacid) in muscle. While carnivorous CrossFitters might get a gram daily from their diets, researchers have found that beneficial levels are three to four times more than that. In fact, research studies suggest that supplementing with at least 3 grams of beta-alanine daily can support enhanced power generation and help sustain higher intensity exercises longer before fatigue sets in. Beta-alanine consumption should be divided throughout the day (with meals) for two reasons. First, it can increase the efficiency of uptake and use, and second, it can minimize the potential for (the entirely safe but somewhat unnerving) tingling sensations that occur in some people but not others.
While many CrossFitters have avoided nutritional supplements, they are worthy of consideration based on the research support of efficacy and the inability of most CrossFit diets to provide the necessary levels proven in university trials. This leaves many with the lingering question: Which is more important, real food or optimal performance? Only you can decide.