We may mock them (particularly when they have an itch they can’t reach to scratch or are struggling to fit into a standard airplane seat), but those meatheads who spend a couple of hours in front of the mirrors at Gold’s Gym five times a week understand one thing that your average CrossFitter might not. It takes effort outside the gym to maintain muscle mass.
This is actually of critical relevance to said average CrossFitter for the precise reason that box-goers ask their bodies to be not only strong and powerful but also aerobically fit. In effect, CrossFit training is at odds with itself. Most strength or power athletes are not also particularly well aerobically conditioned, for a very simple reason: The natural adaptations the body makes to aerobic training — particularly intense aerobic work — involve the development of slow-twitch muscle fibers and lighter bodyweight. Both of these result in a reduction of the muscle mass that tends to be necessary for optimal performance in strength/power work.
So since you can’t avoid aerobic training in CrossFit and since it has taken you a lot of time and a lot of hard work to develop your muscle tissue, how can you protect it? Good question. The answer is: It’s complicated. In fact, there are many factors that go into a complete answer, so in this issue, we’ll just focus on the nutrition part.
The Power of Protein
The single most important nutritional strategy for maintaining muscle mass is to eat enough protein. It’s strange to think of it this way, but muscle is just the body’s protein storehouse. To develop more muscle (or even just to maintain the muscle it has already developed), the body requires a certain amount of protein to be available to it. Eating less than optimal amounts can cause the body to harvest protein from muscle tissue, potentially compromising performance on your next WOD.
Fortunately, tracking protein intake is an easy thing to do. Yes, it takes a little bit of work at the beginning because you’ll have to read nutrition labels and do some math, but in time, you should develop the ability to gauge the protein content of a meal without doing any advanced calculations. (See “Promoting Protein” for a good place to start.)
So how much protein should you be eating? Studies on athletes who train intensely consistently find that they should be consuming at least 1 gram per pound of bodyweight per day. That means that a 180-pound man should eat 180 grams of protein per day, and a 140-pound woman should consume 140 grams per day.
Step 1: Eat at least 1 gram of protein per pound of bodyweight daily.
Quantity of protein is important but so is quality — which shouldn’t come as a surprise to any Paleo practitioners out there. But we’re not just talking about eating grass-fed beef. The type of protein ingested reflects what nutrition experts call “protein quality” — how well a protein from food meets the body’s needs and, therefore, how useful the protein is to the body.
Protein quality is determined by the array of amino acids in the protein source. Specifically, the presence and quantity of each of the nine essential amino acids — the ones the body can’t make itself and therefore must get from the diet — is assessed. High-quality proteins are generally from animal and fish sources, while lower-quality proteins are those found in legumes and plant-derived foods.
Protein quality does matter. You will need to eat more total grams of protein to maintain muscle tissue if you mostly eat plant-based proteins rather than animal- or fish-based proteins.
Step 2: Eat a lot of high-quality protein from sources like fish, poultry, pork and lean beef.
Whey Is the Way
No matter how dedicated you are to whole foods — and trust us, we’re dedicated — athletes who train intensely and expect their bodies to perform at high levels benefit from taking a protein supplement. But just as there’s a difference between proteins in food, there is also a big difference between protein supplements. Most protein powders are derived from egg, soy or the milk proteins whey and casein, but whey is by far the most prevalent and popular.
Milk contains two proteins: casein (which makes up 80 percent of the protein content) and whey (which makes up the remaining 20 percent). That’s fairly common knowledge, particularly among those who have stepped a toe into the world of supplements, but what’s lesser known is that whey protein naturally contains high amounts of branched-chain amino acids and glutamic acid, which enhance muscle recovery and limit muscle breakdown.
Unique among amino acids, the BCAAs can be directly used as fuel by the muscles, allowing the body to spare glycogen (or stored carbohydrates that are eventually used to fuel the body’s exertions) and having the ultimate effect of extending workouts. BCAAs also blunt signals that tell the brain that the body is fatigued and reduce perceived exertion, or how hard you feel you’ve been working. They directly influence protein synthesis (aka muscle growth), and one BCAA, leucine, blunts appetite and increases metabolism, both of which can increase fat loss.
And there are other benefits. Whey is more soluble than other protein sources and is therefore a very fast-acting protein. For instance, if you consume a 25-gram serving of whey on an empty stomach, levels of amino acids in the bloodstream peak roughly 60 minutes after ingestion. Even though a chicken breast is an excellent source of high-quality protein, it doesn’t digest fast enough to get to muscle tissue when it’s needed before and after workouts. It’s whey’s fast absorption rate that makes it ideal for periods when the body is working to repair muscle damage (such as after exercise) and is what makes whey a very anabolic (muscle-building) protein. In fact, simply eating whey protein stimulates an increase in your body’s protein synthesis (muscle-building capabilities) of nearly 70 percent.
It also helps limit weight gain and guards against insulin resistance, a potential precursor to diabetes. Whey also helps reduce blood pressure and improve vascular function, most likely because it contains significant amounts of the amino acid arginine, which dilates blood vessels. Whey is rich in immunoglobulins — substances that promote the immune system and support the body’s natural detoxification processes — and is loaded with lactoferrin, a type of protein that helps regulate intestinal iron absorption and promote healthy cell growth. It has been theorized that the lactoferrin in whey is responsible for its ability to assist with lowering low-density lipoprotein (aka “bad cholesterol”).
Step 3: Ensure adequate protein intake through a protein-powder blend containing whey protein isolate or concentrate.