There was something very apparent this year at the CrossFit games, there were essentially two groups of athletes who came to the games. Those who went into it well fed and ready to compete in a competition designed to test your physical capacity, and those who had been running in a deficit to get as lean as possible for the games. The former athletes excelled, the latter ones did not. Anyone who works with world class athletes should not be surprised by this. Optimal body composition is a poor predictor of performance.
As a coach you also have to think about what the entire purpose of an athletes career is and what they are trying to do. If you are a CrossFit Athlete your goal is to win the Games, it isn’t about vanity. At least in the sense that the winner gets a 285k check and the guy or gal with the best abs doesn’t. The goal of nutrition for these athletes is to facilitate their performance; however, there has been a recent message pushed that optimal body composition is the key to a world class athlete and this hurt a lot of the Games athletes this year, in a big way.
Paleo is dead but what has replaced it is worse
The deviance from Paleo and Zone happened at the games level WAY before boxes got the memo. What has replaced it however is a point of view where food is the problem. I mean how many diets are we going to see pop up that are essentially another version of, “Don’t eat this list of foods” (both fats and carbs). You have to start viewing food as the answer to every problem, not the problem. (and just because if we don’t say it people assume we are talking about sugar we are talking about a diet based on the foundation of whole foods in the proper proportion for athletic performance)
When “getting an edge” goes too far
These ideas have begun to infiltrate a lot of the top circles with lead coaches and companies having athletes restrict carbohydrates (some do it with fats with virtually the same result) and diet down to specific body composition goals. We took a much different stance, we proposed, and still do that the more metabolically flexible an athlete is the better they are going to be.
Over these past four years the message that athletes need carbohydrates for highly glycolytic has waned and there is still a hard push to the lowest possible body composition. We have stood against this vehemently because we know what it takes both from a bioenergetics standpoint and what really low body composition does to athletes year round. An athlete on a low carbohydrate (or low calorie) intake and dieting to maintain extremely low body composition is a recipe for halting progress and injury.
The real numbers on body composition in and out of season
Out of season it’s very common for men to be 12-13% and as they move closer to the games the volume just naturally gets them closer to 10, anything under 10, like say 6% would not allow the athlete a ready source of energy for longer events or days with multiple events. This seems to stand in contrast with the relatively new opinion that for male athlete’s to have success they need to be sub 10, I can assure you, 2 weeks after the Crossfit Games even months after many are much higher as their body needs to heal and central nervous system needs to recover from the level of beating it just took. (Just as a point of fact, this isn’t speculation, I tested roughly 40 CF Games athletes, team and individual about 3 years ago and through ETP we get lot’s of body composition analysis shown to us, I think I can safely say we are in a very small percentage of people in this world with this kind of information in terms of amount.)
The narrative of “get small or lose” affects women the most
Which brings us of course to the women. Frankly the women are most interesting because the women are the ones that were most affected by this new found opinion related to body fat percentage. This is what I think is the interesting part of this discussion because it’s what makes us different than every other macro company out there. I totally get top Crossfit Games athletes not wanting to give competitors an edge by sharing their macros but some do, Lauren Fisher as an example is fairly open about what she eats (if you notice when we profile our athletes we always put their plan in the comments). But if you follow Instagram at all you know that a lot of the athletes look like they have lost a dramatic amount of weight. Now when we boil it down to the most simple ideas, there are two ways to lose body fat percentage, you can increase muscle while staying weight stable and expanding fuel needs and work capacity (ETP method) or you can lose weight or body fat by eating lower calories (other macro companies). Even if these Games athletes were say eating 4000 calories a day if you are burning 6000 calories a day that is a significant draw on your body. There is time and place for running a large deficit (we do this for our clients), prepping for one of the most physically demanding events on the planet is not one of them.
What science says about high end performance and energy needs
This runs antithetical to everything we know about high end performance in humans; there is over 30 years of data on this and for some reason large swaths of top level coaches and nutrition companies are pushing low-carbohydrate, lower calorie approaches. When you go against well-established scientific evidence of how the human body is fueled during exercise 1 of 2 things happen: 1) you discover something quite extraordinary, 2) the experiment has a bad ending. Some of the things that happened at the 2017 games point toward it having a bad ending, in some cases it could have been what kept some athletes from the podium, sponsors, and a 285k pay day. As a community, we have to change the narrative. Also I think it needs to be said to these athletes that they are participating in an experiment, to be frank I have not seen any evidence to support this less is more narrative but I have seen an abundance of the opposite.
Losing the Crossfit Games in the first two days
A common saying in Crossfit is that you can’t win the Crossfit Games in the first 2 days but you sure can lose it. Right out the gate a lot of athletes looked like they had nothing in the tank. I had seen this multiple years before, when Games athletes start working with companies that don’t understand the energy needs of a sport different than say Weightlifting (body weight events) or Body Building the athletes go from favorites, to also rans.
Here is what most people don’t know about the Crossfit Games, leading up to the Crossfit Games athlete’s are prepared and tend to under eat for various reasons, for some it’s part of their plan but for others it’s nerves. In my view the athletes under eating going into the games were pretty obvious, as most athletes do during the games, they eat what feels the most right. On Thursday and Friday the athlete’s who had adopted the “less is better” approach looked drawn out and tired. This is clearly speculation on my part but if you were starving and clearly getting your ass handed to you it’s going to be obvious that you should eat. Which is why they rallied in the last couple of days but it was too little too late because they lost the Crossfit Games before they ever showed up.
Losing the calorie “death spiral” narrative
Why am I saying all of this? Clearly some people aren’t going to like my opinion but Eat To Perform is often compared to other macro based companies because we ALSO use macros but we are not anything like them, that becomes apparent the minute you sign up. We believe that you need to stuff as much food into athletes as possible for them to be the best at their sport (this applies for scaled athletes as well as Games competitors, the difference is degrees). That process keeps their muscle and drives work capacity through the roof. When athletes start to work on long slow cardio this is a really smart as it increases capacity to recover and perform but long slow cardio is useless without the food to match. If you take stock of the weekend events, you notice that many athletes failed in events they would have crushed. Said simply, random rules on body fat percentage is a silly predictor of performance.
Here is the raw unfiltered truth. Eat To Perform has 5’3” 50 year old women who had macro plans almost double what some of the games athletes were eating going into their competition. If you think that being underfed going into the Games wouldn’t impact someones performance, you haven’t been paying attention.
If we are about getting better at exercise we need to abandon the do more eat less narrative
As a community we have to quit falling into the same trap that is basically a bunch of quick fix BS (first it was Paleo and Zone and now we are being bombarded with yet another version of less is better). Whole unprocessed foods should always be the standard and serve as the foundation of how everyone eats BUT AMOUNTS MATTER and it’s just difficult to meet your energy requirements limited to Chicken and Kale with one sweet potato a day. I LOST 100 pounds eating close to 5000 calories a day and working my face off (and in case you don’t know I am nowhere close to a games athlete). In the first 6 months of Crossfit I gained 15 pounds of muscle taking me from 22% body fat to 9% body fat at 149.5 pounds as a 5’9” male. Want to know what I found out when I got there? The same thing some of these Games Athletes just found out. To be better at any athletic activity you need food and recovery and it is sometimes shocking to folks how much food. I mention this because I was chasing body fat percentage similar to the message that was preached before Madison in 2017. It did not make me better at exercise, all it did was make me look like a teenager with no muscle. Turns out muscle is fairly important for becoming better as an athlete and for too long that has been ignored. That is why I wrote this article.