This is part of Athlete Daily’s series highlighting high-level athletes across the world of strength training and functional fitness, and how they approach diet and nutrition.
Learn what some of the best athletes in the world eat, how they fuel themselves and lessons learned along the way.
This week we sat down with CrossFit athlete Andrea Ager. Ager, a former collegiate track and field athlete, member of the 2016 CrossFit Games 4th Fittest Team in the world (Team Dynamix) and the NPGL’s New York Rhinos. Over the seven years she’s done CrossFit, she’s moved regions, changed programming and experimented with personal diet and body weight, always being open to going back to the drawing board year after year and growing as an athlete from those experiences.
Athlete Daily: How has your approach to nutrition changed over the seven years you’ve been doing CrossFit?
Ager: “I actually used to be really strict in my diet in 2012-13. I was eating a very strict Paleo diet, so a lot of meat, a lot of greens, some fruit, very little sugar, and very little carbs at all—no rice, nothing like that, and barely any potatoes. I was totally addicted to it. In fact, the whole year of 2012 I never cheated once—never had processed food, dairy, sugar, none of that for the whole year.
Athlete Daily: For an entire year? Were you going crazy the entire time?
Ager: “I actually was so focused that it didn’t even bother me. I look at that focus and now I’m like ‘why? Where did that come from? [What a] psycho.’ [laughs]
So I lost 20 lb. over those two years, I went from 150 lb. to 130 lb. For a person that’s 5’9” it’s not good for me to be 130 lb.—it’s so light. And it was all from diet. Losing all that weight really effected my strength and it was really hard for me to get strong.
And CrossFit is still continuing to get so much heavier that the Paleo diet that I had, I just couldn’t sustain. In 2014 I added carbohydrates—a lot of potatoes, a lot of rice, and [started] eating some junk food every now and then. I’ll have pop-tarts or something sugary after a workout when I know I need to be getting in a lot of carbs [to aid recovery]. And I did see a lot of strength gains once I added in carbs. It was unbelievable.”
Athlete Daily: That’s a substantial amount of weight to lose. Was that your focus at the time?
Ager: “With my body type, I was definitely the leanest I’ve ever been. To the point where my guy friends would say ‘Dude your stomach looks leaner than mine, eat a sandwich. What’s wrong with you?’ [laughs] And I’d say ‘But I am eating!’ But there were times when I would wake up at 2:00am starving because my metabolism is so fast and my body was [burning through my food] trying to recover.
But as I was getting leaner, I thought I was getting fitter. During the 2012 CrossFit Open, at one point for the 12.1 workout (7 minute AMRAP of burpees) I was ranked No. 1 in the world, so I thought okay I’m eating correctly, this is what I need to be doing. But then of course, as the weights started getting heavier and heavier, I just couldn’t keep up.
What I didn’t realize was as I thought I looked better and as I was leaning out, I wasn’t getting as strong as I could have.
I remember my max clean was 165 lb. for the longest time. I was literally so happy when I finally got 175 lb. and 180 lb. Now I’m at 215 lb. and I still feel like I’m chasing all these PRs and all these goals. I wasn’t making the gains I probably could have if I had continued to eat carbs, [but] I had completely cut them out.”
Athlete Daily: When did you realize it was time for a change?
Ager: “In 2013 I missed an overhead squat at 175 lb. that I should have been able to get. We had to do three from the floor, and I was trying to make it to the CrossFit Games, so I thought ‘There’s no way I’m letting the bar drop.’
I got two in a row, rested, two in a row, rested, kept missing the third rep every single time. After that year, I thought ‘I am going to get stronger, I can’t keep doing this’. And, you know what, I need to be a little bit more relaxed. I need to experiment and not be so strict [with my diet]. I was so strict.
Now I’m probably at the happiest I’ve been, where I feel like I’m not going to fall apart when I lift barbells, I don’t feel like I need to recover as much because I have fat on me.
But then there’s some days still where I think ‘Oh, I’m not as lean as so-and-so. Am I doing this right? Maybe I should be leaner, maybe I should have more muscle..’ There’s never going to be a day probably where I’ll look at my own body and say ‘I’m happy with this.’ And that’s typical of any woman I think.”
Athlete Daily: How did your weight change once you added back in carbs?
Ager: “I weigh 147 lb. now, so I’ve gained 17 lb. back over the last three years. I don’t even think people notice that I’ve gone through such a dramatic change, but I wish I could show you pictures from college [where] I had no upper body strength, had big legs and ate like crap. And then I lost all that weight and got lean — but wasn’t really strong– but looked “jacked” to now.
I’ve changed a lot, but I think people see me as ‘Oh, she’s really lean’ but it’s also that I’m really tall and I have a really long torso. When I sit down, I’m taller than everyone around me, because my torso is so long! Which is not typically good for CrossFit, but I credit that for why I look so lean. Most people that are more compact and better lifters, they naturally hold more weight in the middle of their bodies.
It’s always been hard for me to gain muscle and keep muscle on. Naturally if I don’t lift and don’t eat a ton of protein, my body goes back to a skinny runner body. My girlfriends from college are like ‘Oh poor you, you can’t keep weight on.’
Yeah if I stopped working out, I’d weigh like 125 lb.—I’d be a stick. And Team Dynamix is a very strong team I’d say, strength-biased, whereas I’m very endurance based. So I always felt like I wanted to gain weight and [be able to] get under the heavy loads that we were under often.”
Athlete Daily: I think when a lot of people are focused on being lean, it’s easy to forget that there are people on the flip side of that who struggle to gain muscle and gain weight.
Ager: “There was even a time when Greg Glassman said to me ‘You’re a classic hard to gain weight person right?’ I’m like yeah. He goes ‘You should set your alarm for 2:00 am every night, and you should chug a protein shake. Have one ready-made in the fridge, just shake it up, chug the whole thing and go back to bed. Do that every night so that when you wake up you have more energy for training and you can eat a full breakfast, but you still have that extra 20-30g of protein daily. That’s what you should do.’
And I did that for a while, and I wasn’t seeing that much gains off of that, but I do understand that concept of having more protein in my diet would be better for me to gain weight. Now I don’t see myself as needing to gain weight, I just need to get stronger. And I can do that without gaining weight.
I’m starting to realize that size doesn’t necessarily mean strength. I’m happy with how I look now and how my diet is, I just need to keep training.”
Athlete Daily: Are you on any regimented nutrition plan now?
Ager: “A lot of my Team Dynamix teammates followed the RP Strength program, and I saw what they were eating and what the portions were and what mine were supposed to be. So during [Games training] I kind of went off what they had given me, but I definitely wasn’t strict on it.
I’m still at the point where I’m worried that if I was on a diet or limiting myself [instead of] just eating whatever I wanted that I wouldn’t be as strong. Although I know that being organized and eating your macros and counting your macros is important, too. I’m actually in the middle of discovering what’s best for me.”
Athlete Daily: What’s the biggest thing you learned from your time training as a member of Team Dynamix for the CrossFit Games this past season?
Ager: “Always have food with me. That was something I learned from this season. Every night I needed to pack and be prepared and ready for the training session at 9:00am or noon. Or the whole day even, knowing that I [was] going to need to eat after training at 4:00pm and then go coach all night.
If you’re going to train that hard [every day], and I didn’t eat a meal after training, on the way home from coaching at the end of the night I would feel miserable and I’d do worse in training the next day. I would feel like my body wasn’t recovered, I wasn’t [helping to] rebuild all the muscles I had just been tearing [through training]; because part of building strength is basically doing damage to your body and then repairing it.”
Athlete Daily: Are you still pretty strict on when you cheat nowadays?
Ager: Oh I eat treats all the time now. I eat ice cream three nights a week for sure-at least [laughs].
What I Eat in a Typical Day: Andrea Ager
Breakfast (8:00am) — 3 eggs + bowl of oatmeal
Running practice at the track (9:00am)
Post workout — Nutriforce protein shake (Ager is a sponsored athlete for them) & a bar (I love RX bars)
Lunch —handful of greens + white rice + salmon
Train (12:00pm – 4:00pm) — During a break in our training I’d have something like a Quest bar or Gatorade, or some rice and chicken. I had a lot of apples and bananas while we were training too.
Post workout meal — steak and potatoes with veggies or steak and fries—something a little heavier.
Coach 5:00pm – 8:30pm
Meal — Once I’d home from coaching, if I was still hungry I’d have some ice cream before bed.
All photos used with permission from Andrea Ager’s Facebook page.
Athlete Daily Nutrition Series
Week 1 — CrossFit Games athlete Emily Bridgers
Week 2 — CrossFit athlete Christian Lucero
Week 3 — CrossFit Games Masters athlete Cheryl Brost
Week 4 — U.S. Olympic Team Weightlifter Morgan King
Week 5 — Human Improvement Project’s Gabe Subry
Week 6 — Weightlifter, GRID CrossFit athlete Marco Coppola
Week 7 — CrossFit Games athlete Lindy Barber
Week 8 — GRID and CrossFit athlete Jamie Hagiya
Week 9 — GRID athlete Andrew Rape
Week 10 — Olympic lifter Anthony Pomponio
Week 11 —CrossFit athlete Andrea Ager
Week 12 —Powerlifter Ewa Januszkiewicz
Week 13 — Weightlifter and Powerlifter Kris Pope
Week 14 — Weightlifter Travis Cooper
Week 15 — Weightlifter Cortney Batchelor