Building the Perfect CrossFit Diet for a Competitive Athlete

Written By Josh Williamson  |  Nutrition 

Do you want to take your CrossFit competition game to the next level? It’s no secret that diet and nutrition have a huge impact on an athlete's performance. But with so many different diets out there, it can be overwhelming trying to figure out what will work best for you as a competitive CrossFit athlete.

Today, we’re here to give you all the information you need in order to create an ultimate CrossFit Competitive Athlete's Diet specifically for optimal performance! We'll go over what foods work best, when is the ideal time of day to consume them and how macronutrients are key components of any successful diet plan.

So grab your juice box and get ready: Let's introduce your body to its new fuel source today!

What do CrossFit athletes actually eat?

Here we go…

The secret…

The magic plan…

The exact thing you need to get to the top of the podium. Sounds great? If only it was that simple. 

Is it too sarcastic to say CrossFit athletes eat food? Yeah? 

But this is a common question - what should I actually eat? Or what do the elite CrossFitters eat?

The secret is, there is no secret. The main factor this boils down to is eating enough quality food that supports the physical demands of our sport. However, I like to expand this a little further to include a criteria for how you should structure your food:

  1. Enjoyment - let’s be honest, if I gave you the worlds ‘best diet’ and would see you on top of the CrossFit Games podium next year, but every time you ate the food it made you gag and want to puke, do you think you would stick to it? It’s unlikely, but we know CrossFitters are a glutton for punishment - so maybe a few of you would… But the food must be enjoyable. Not only will you be more likely to want to eat it, but food plays a massive role in human behaviour and social interaction. 
  2. Performance and Recovery - loading ourselves with ungodly amounts of protein and going low carb might get the juices flowing for some bodybuilders, but for CrossFit athletes, we’re likely to suffer. Our food must reflect our training and our goals - after all, carbs are your main energy source so personally I like to see calories from carbs around 50% of total calories if not more.
  3. Digestion - Paint me a worse scenario than being in the middle of a competition floor going for a snatch 1RM with a crowd watching you and you suddenly feel like your bowels are going to drop out…We’ve all had a situation (hopefully not as bad as that) where we have eaten something and it gives us some sort of GI distress, whether that be bloating, cramping, nausea, or even stool movement. The foods we choose should agree with our body.

The bottom line?

For the majority of the time, we should be choosing tasty, high quality foods that we enjoy and agree with our body, while supporting performance and recovery. Nail those, and we have plenty of freedom with our food.

How much should a CrossFit athlete eat?

The short answer is they should eat enough to support the demands they’re placing on their body. Simple. Think about it this way; if you were to drive 1 mile, it’s very unlikely you would need to put fuel in your car, however, if you were to drive 1000 miles, you would need to refuel multiple times. The same principle applies to our nutrition; more work = more food.

With that being said, it’s a little more nuanced than that…

Calories are king when it comes to nutrition. Your ability to consistently eat an adequate amount of calories to satisfy your goal will be a key determining factor in how you progress. If you want to delve into this further, check out our previous blog on the fundamentals, but let's recap briefly when it comes to energy balance.

When it comes to calories, you've got three choices; 

  1. Calorie Maintenance
  2. Calorie Deficit
  3. Calorie Surplus

Let's start with maintenance calories. As the name suggests, consuming your maintenance calories will allow you to do just that - maintain. It occurs when you burn the same amount of calories as you consume.

If you want to lose fat, you'll need to be in a calorie deficit. Put simply, this is consuming less calories than you burn day-to-day.

Opposingly, a calorie surplus is required during a gaining phase. This requires you to consume more calories than you expend each day.

Understanding your current situation, and from there deciding on your goal, is crucial towards determining which caloric approach you take. 

There are a few ways to calculate how many calories you should be eating but remember, each of these methods are estimates. There is no way to accurately calculate how many calories you need to consume to maintain your weight. 

  1. An Online Calculator - Simply search for a TDEE calculator, input your data correctly, and voila, you will be given your estimated maintenance calories. 
  2. The Harris Benedict Equation - This will allow you to calculate the amount of calories you would need to survive if you were in a coma (i.e. your Resting Metabolic Rate). You need to multiply this figure by an Activity Factor which accounts for your day-to-day activity and training.
  3. The Simple Way - Multiple your body weight in pounds by 17-19.

These will likely all give you similar figures, but because these are all estimated, the best thing to do is choose one method and stick with it for 14-21 days. If you gain or lose weight, you’ll know that the initial calorie target is too high or low respectively. Ideally what we want to do at this initial phase is find out what our calorie maintenance sits at.

When it comes to energy balance and performance, we not only need to decide what our body composition goal is (if we have one), but also where we are in the competition calendar.

Remember, going too high into a surplus will have minimal effect on muscle gain, but it will cause body fat to increase quickly. On the other hand, going too aggressive into a deficit will allow for fast weight loss, but it’s also likely to impact your performance.

So let's run through a few scenarios to give you context;

  1. If your goal is to lose body fat, and you train recreationally (whereby performance isn't a primary focus), we can get away with being in a 15-25% deficit. Let’s say your maintenance calorie target is 3000; a 20% deficit would be 2400 calories. This will likely result in fast weight loss, but performance may also be slightly affected. 
  2. If your goal is to lose weight, but performance is important, you’re best sticking to a 10-15% deficit and keeping this phase outside of the competition season. We’ll touch on this later, but when we’re in a competitive season, we want to hang out around maintenance.
  3. If your goal is performance and/or muscle gain, keeping calories around maintenance or even in a slight surplus (5-10% especially when training/competition volume is high) would be recommended.

One thing I would stress is that being shredded does not equal better performances; there is without a doubt a point of diminishing returns. Being too lean is going to feel terrible - you'll be constantly tired and recovery won’t be optimal - yeah, you’ll look great when the top comes off midway through a WOD, but what use is that if you’re not functional?

Similarly, carrying unnecessary body fat will make your gymnastics (among other movements) more difficult - and who wants to make burpees any harder than they are?!

What do CrossFit athletes eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?

Based on what I’ve said above, you can imagine I’m not going to start prescribing meals for you - remember you are the expert of your own body. You know what you like. What agrees with you. What you perform the best on.

Instead of telling you what you could have throughout the day, let me show you how you might structure your day.

For some people, they prefer a large meal going into training so they’re not hungry, and then a smaller snack after training. For others, they prefer to keep the larger meal until after training. With that being said, you might find a large meal too close to bedtime results in a terrible sleep, which isn't great for recovery.

Remember, recovery is non-negotiable and sleep is free!
crossfit nutrition plan for competitve athletes on double training day

When it comes to double days, meal timing becomes much more important. Let’s get something straight right off the bat - you’ll need to make sure your calorie intake is appropriate. Remember, more work = more food. But let's say you have this nailed, this is how I would set up your daily structure for training twice per day..

crossfit nutrition plan for competitve athletes on competition day

What are good CrossFit athlete snacks?

Getting your food wrong before a training session or event usually means that you don’t optimize your potential during exercise. Failing to fuel or hydrate properly before exercise can result in:

  • Earlier onset of fatigue
  • Reduced speed, especially during repeat efforts
  • Reduced endurance
  • Poor concentration and decision making
  • Skill errors
  • Gut upset
  • Suboptimal body composition

This is where snacks come in.

Of course, snacks can be placed at any point during the day - they are great at bridging the gap between your larger meals, for increasing a certain macronutrient, or for staving off hunger if you know you’re going a long period of time without a proper meal.

However, there is another purpose for planning snacks - to top up your fuel just before a workout or competition

At this stage, it’s been some time since you had anything substantial to eat - it was probably 3-5 hours before your workout. Luckily, the pre-workout snack gives us plenty of flexibility and opportunity to make sure we’re in the most optimal position going into the WOD. Firstly, we have a 30-90 minute window before training to consume this snack; this means you could eat on the way to the gym, or just before your warm up. 

This is going to need a little experimentation. Personally, my stomach is like a human tank; I could eat 30 minutes before training, and have no issues whatsoever. For others, this will leave them feeling nauseous, and a strong desire to find the nearest toilet; not ideal if you’re heading into a deep snatch. In this instance, I would suggest having your snack closer to the 90 minute mark.

Now, in terms of food choice, this should be a snack that is mainly carbohydrate, but one which also agrees with you. My athletes know that I love Rice Krispie Squares bars - the caramel and chocolate one is the GOAT.

However, this isn’t your only option - toast or a bagel with jam, a piece of fruit, rice cakes with your favorite nut butter or honey, a handful of Haribo, Percy Pigs, or other jelly sweets; the sky's the limit here. For any of you who love the numbers side of things, we’re aiming for 30-50g of carbs here - this will vary based on your individual tolerance, and the volume in your session.

At this point, I think it’s worth mentioning that for a lot of athletes, they either don’t feel like eating, or if training early morning, won’t want to get up super early to eat. So, what’s the best solution here? In my opinion, something is better than nothing; especially if you’re doing an intense session.

The first option would be a semi-solid food - something along the lines of yogurt and honey with some granola, or nuts and seeds. If that still doesn’t have the appeal or leaves you nauseous, then a liquid option might work best.

A sports drink is a fantastic option; however, if you’re one of the unfortunate people who suffers GI distress with sports drinks, try diluting it with some water or use a powdered carbohydrate. Similarly, if they agree with you (and that’s a big if #IYKYK), a carbohydrate gel would be a great option here. You could also use some fruit juice.

Ultimate Plan To A Competitive CrossFit Athlete’s Diet

What do CrossFit athletes eat during competitions?

This is the real juicy question - should my nutrition for training change when it comes to competition? 

My motto is; “You train to adapt, you compete to perform”.

Training isn’t simply cycling the barbell, or practicing your strict gymnastics work and seeing that effort come to fruition. Training is you sending a signal to the body saying ‘I want to get better at this’, and your body responding with a specific adaptation that allows us to see improvement. 

Your goal of training shouldnt be to ‘perform’ - or at least not in the same context as you would in competition. The goal of training is to adapt to a specific demand - to get stronger, build aerobic and anaerobic capacity, improve skills, work on mobility etc.

This is why you’ll notice that the competitive athletes in your box don't attend many of the WODs - or if they do, you’ll also see them doing additional training outside of this in open gym. 

There is so much we could delve into here but it goes beyond the scope of this article. However, I did want to focus on something that is getting thrown around a lot in the health and fitness industry - inflammation.

Inflammation & Oxidative Stress

Inflammation - the sexy buzz word. 

It seems that anytime you scroll through social media, someone is trying to sell you something to reduce inflammation. 

Ice baths, recovery boots, antioxidants, massage guns, anti-inflammatory foods, supplements…the list is endless.

The real question is, why are you using them? I know what you’re going to say; to reduce inflammation.

And that’s where most people's knowledge ends - because the next question would be why do you want to reduce inflammation, and what makes you think it’s a good thing? So let's delve into basic inflammation physiology. 

You twist your ankle - what happens next? It swells, goes red, and becomes tender. This is an inflammatory response. It’s not just an injury where you’ve noticed this. Bacteria or viral infections, getting a splinter in your finger, or maybe in response to certain chemicals. It’s also common in some diseases too such as IBS, arthritis, and psoriasis. 

In short, inflammation is a normal physiological response to a stressor. 

So where does this fit in with exercise?

Well high intensity exercise results in 2 key physiological processes - 1. Inflammation, and 2. Oxidative Stress. These two responses are important because they signals to tell your body to get bigger, faster, and stronger:

Exercise → Inflammation & Oxidative Stress → Signal → Better Athlete

If we reduce the inflammation, then we reduce the signal, which means your body won't adapt as effectively to the specific demand. Given the potential for these hacks to reduce inflammation, they’re probably doing more harm than good!

Now, here’s where the controversy starts - reducing inflammation and oxidative stress improves performance. Can you see where this is going?

Reducing inflammation and oxidative stress in a training environment is potentially bad. However, in a competitive environment, reducing inflammation and oxidative stress may actually lead to better performances.

That begs the question - if we periodize our training, shouldn’t we then periodize our nutrition?
Enter Competition Nutrition.

Competitions will typically last between 1-3 days and will be draining both physically and mentally. Because we’re doing more work, we also need more food, so I’d recommend you set calories around maintenance or in a slight surplus for the competition days.

Now you might also think that more protein is needed, but counterintuitively, I recommend bringing protein completely down to the RDA which is approximately 0.8g per kg (0.4g per lb) of body weight. This will be easily covered by protein at your first and last meal of the day - no protein during the competition. 

This gives us much more room for driving carbohydrates up - which at this stage, if you haven't guessed it - are essential for high intensity performance. It might look something like this:

Competition Nutrition for CrossFit

Now that we’ve got our energy balance and macronutrients set up, let’s talk logistics. 

You’re going to need snacks. Lots of them. You might have the time to allow you to eat and digest a large meal, if you’re lucky, but you’re going to need to rely on small and large carbohydrate snacks. Here are some options:

Snacks for Competitive CrossFit Athletes

Although we’ve changed your macro split slightly, I don't recommend anything new when it comes to food choice. This is not the time for experimentation. The second point is, although the competition might be 1-3 days, I would like you to do this in the week leading into the competition. This will ensure you’re not chasing your tail and you go into the first day fully fuelled. The last point is about replicating your competition nutrition in the weeks/months leading into your competitive season.

Competition Replication

You wouldn’t put a brand new pair of lifters on going into a competition (or if you do, you shouldn't), so why would you treat your nutrition any differently?

The Golden Rule of Competition Nutrition - Never try something in competition that you haven't practiced in training!

Think about it - in a competition, we want to feel confident; that we haven't left any stone unturned. The last thing you want is trying a new food, or supplement and then feeling that at the bottom of a snatch like your whole world is about to drop out!

Luckily, there are a few strategies that you can implement before competition.

  1. Start As You Mean to Go On - Try to keep your breakfast consistent. Now this isn't an opportunity to smash as much carbs in as possible - this should be controlled, and practiced. If you haven't eaten enough carbs in the lead up, trying to play catch up isn't going to work.
  2. Stay Away From The Unknown - This applies across the board. If you see someone eating a certain food, or if there’s a certain supplement, and you think it’ll give you an edge, stay away. Again, there’s nothing better than going into a competition knowing you’re well fueled and that your nutrition works.
  3. Competition Eating - Depending on the competition, you could have 3-5 workouts in a single day, so it’s unlikely you’re sitting down to a full plate of food here. Snacks are going to be your friend. But just like the above, you need to trial these. What works well, what digests well, what is convenient?
  4. Mirrored Training - If you only train once, maybe twice, your body is going to be in for a big shock when it comes to competition day. You need to try and replicate the competition to some degree; workouts close together, do part A and part B workouts, and train on consecutive days. This will also give you a chance to trial your nutrition.
Multi-Day CrossFit Competition Days

Single day events are easy….well, relatively easy. 

If you can take on board the advice up until this point and practice it, your single day competitions will be a breeze. The multi-day competition is when the fun starts. 

The number one rule here is save your blowout until after the competition. As tempting as it is, the pizza and beer will still be there after the competition. The other thing you will also notice after Day 1 is you will have no appetite - but you need to eat.

This can be difficult, but this is where you need to resort to your stash of snacks. You should not only have snacks which are high carb, but also you need to enjoy them.

Three day competitions is when real prep is needed. Literally, this is a master plan that only a Bond villain could come up with - hence why the athletes leave it to me. We need to have meals and snacks prepared as much as possible, but we also need to know if there are supermarkets nearby, and the availability of UberEats.

The final point to highlight here is, you will be sick of food - don't try to rely on ‘clean’ food. The majority of your food is going to be low volume, high density foods and liquid carbs. Remember, you’re here to perform, you’re not here to be the epitome of health or aesthetics. 

What should I eat for dinner the night before a CrossFit competition?

In other sports - especially those centered around endurance - carbohydrate loading is used as a potential method of improving performance on competition day. 

Unfortunately the evidence around carbohydrate loading strategies is rather mixed, and trying to find a concrete answer is like finding a 4-leaf clover. 

So let’s not rely on potential benefits here, and let’s focus on something that actually will improve your performance in your next competition. 

We know carbohydrate (stored as glycogen) takes time to recover - as your body only has a limited store of this fuel (just like the gas/fuel tank in your car). Unfortunately for us, your body doesn't work like a car whereby we put fuel in and we’re immediately ready to go. Like most good things, it takes time. 

Our body must chew food, get it into our stomach, break it down into smaller pieces, pass it into our intestines, absorb it into the bloodstream, release insulin, and put it into the muscle and liver. We also can't get away with smashing a large pizza either to refill our fuel tank.

For us, what we eat today influences how we perform tomorrow. However, that also doesn’t mean there’s a free-for-all on the carbs the night before a competition - there’s a lot of nuance which goes beyond the scope here, but as a general rule, adding an extra 50-100g of carbs to your dinner and/or supper the night before a competition would be a good place to start. Then, we can start to refine the process - some things to consider are moving to maintenance calories or a slight surplus, potentially opting for a lower fat intake, and extra fluid and electrolyte support. 

Once we’re confident and happy with this approach, we simply move to our tried and tested competition nutrition plan as outlined above.

How many days should you rest before a CrossFit competition?

Competitions are great!

Do you remember your first competition experience? Absolutely buzzing! Couldn't wait to be out under the lights, throwing down again.

It can be difficult to fight that urge to get back into the gym; but take a step back. You’ve just busted yourself for 1-3 days so you need to recover - as a general rule there should be a 1:1 ratio of competition days to rest days - in other words, if you competed 3 days in a row, you should have a minimum of 3 days off.

Some of you seem to have an issue though - you’re happy to do everything a coach tells you when it comes to the workout and the competitions, but you struggle with taking rest - so when I say 3 days of rest, I mean proper rest.

Nothing. Nada. Zilch.

Ideally, if it were a 2-3 day event, you would ramp up your training intensity/volume until it has returned to normal;

Total Rest - Light Training/Active Recovery - Resumption of Normal Training

I appreciate this isn’t always feasible (nor is it what a lot of us want to do), however, as you delve more into the competitive space you will very quickly find out how much recovery time you need post-competition.

Your body will recover naturally, but there are additional things we can do to support this process.

Let’s introduce The 4R’s of Recovery - Rehydrate, Refuel, Repair, Rest. 

  1. Rehydrate - The post-competition hydration guidelines don't really change - we still want 125-150% of lost body weight. In other words, if you lost 2kg over a competition through sweat, you’d want to aim for 3L. It might also be beneficial to add in electrolytes during this period.
  2. Refuel - In the post-competition period, it takes about four hours for carbohydrates to be digested and absorbed. For rapid recovery the priority should be to consume large amounts of daily carbohydrates in the post-competition period (>8g per kg of body mass per day) and to eat a high carbohydrate meal within two hours following exercise with at least 1.2g per kg of body mass per hour for the first four hours of recovery.

    For context, for the first 4 hours of the post competition period, an 80kg athlete would need to consume 95g of carbs per hour! A minimum of 640g of carbs would be needed per day for the 1-3 days following the competition.
  3. Repair - Keeping consistent with protein recommendations, 3-5 meals across the day with 20-40g of protein will be sufficient, in addition to the consumption of carbs.

    There is also a large body of evidence suggesting 0.1g per kg of body weight of creatine will help the refuel and repair process. For the 80kg athlete this would be 8g of creatine per day.
  4. Rest - There is no doubt that sleep is absolutely vital for post-competition recovery. Although getting 8+ hours is still fully recommended, naps, sleep extension, and sleep-hygiene practices seem to be advantageous to performance by optimizing recovery.

    It is also worth noting some supplements may help the recovery process - specifically casein protein and Ashwagandha.

To Summarize

To summarize, CrossFit athletes should make food enjoyable and pay attention to their individual nutrition needs for optimal performance. The macro splits will depend on pre-competition or intra-session goals, with carbohydrates the preferred source of calories during competitions.

Eating small snacks tested widely during training is advised; as is ensuring quality sleep and supplements. Most importantly, practice competition nutrition in the weeks leading up to the event itself. It important that it feels right for you, and works for your body.

For further information on CrossFit nutrition be sure to check out our CrossFit Nutrition Course in WODprep Academy – with 4 modules covering all you need to know about fueling for CrossFit success.

So what are you waiting for? Unlock your potential today!

Here are 10 key points you can take away today:

  1. CrossFit athletes must consume enough quality food to support the physical demands of their sport. Food should also be enjoyable, aid performance and recovery, and not cause digestion issues.
  2. Calculate calories needed by using an online calculator, the Harris Benedict Equation, or bodyweight (in pounds) multiplied x 17-19.
  3. Depending on goals, deficit and surplus calories may be used. 
  4. Pre-workout snacks should contain 30-50g carbohydrates and agree with your individual tolerance levels.
  5. During competitions, calories should remain around maintenance or in a slight surplus while protein is lower than usual and carbs are increased.
  6. Competitions require increased calories and customized macro splits, with protein kept to the RDA and carb consumption increased. 
  7. Snacks should be small and portable, but tested during training for taste, digestion and convenience. 
  8. Practice competition nutrition in the weeks leading up to a competition. 
  9. Following a competition, aim to consume 8g of carbs per kg of body mass per day for 1-3 days.
  10. Recovery can be supported with protein, creatine (0.1g per kg of body weight) and sleep (8+ hours + naps). Additional supplements like casein protein or Ashwagandha may be beneficial too.
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