We’ve spent the last 12 weeks seeking out athletes who compete at a pretty high-level in their sport —CrossFit, powerlifting, weightlifting, GRID —to learn what they eat, how they fuel themselves and hear what lessons they’ve learned along the way.
Here are the 4 biggest takeaways from these athletes that you can –and should– implement in your own nutrition.
1) There’s no one-size fits all approach to nutrition. Find the one that works for YOU.
Fitness and nutrition is incredibly personal and it’s OK to shop around and test things out – whether it’s a meal plan, nutrition coach or just specific foods — to see how they fit with your lifestyle and goals.
“Nutrition is really hard in that it’s different for everybody and your body changes so rapidly, but, you have to figure out what works for you. And if it’s getting boring or it’s not working for you anymore then—in my mind—there’s no problem with changing or adding in or trying to figure out a new nutrition plan. As long as you’re aware of what’s going into your body. I was almost burned out from the Zone, didn’t want to do it anymore, so I needed that change [to macros] and, at the time, it was the right move for me.
There’s not one specific answer, because everyone’s bodies are so different and they’re going to respond differently. That’s the frustrating part of nutrition—that you have to be patient enough to see what’s working and to not be discouraged if something isn’t. There’s going to be something out there for everybody—whatever your goals are, you just have to have the patience to actually try out these things until you find the one that works for your specific body.” — Lindy Barber, member of the Fittest Team in the World (CrossFit Mayhem Freedom)
“It’s all about trial and error. ‘Let’s try this and see if it works’. Is this working? No, okay change it up. There’s no one magic thing that works for everyone. You just have to find what works for you and it doesn’t matter if it’s working for everyone else. Just find what works for you and just be confident [with that].” — Christian Lucero, CrossFit athlete
“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.” — Andrea Ager, member of Team Dynamix, 4th place 2016 CrossFit Games
“I may have more of an open approach than other Games athletes these days, in that I don’t follow anything specifically. Part of the whole reason why I fell in love with CrossFit is that I didn’t have to think about exactly what I was eating. In gymnastics I used to write down what I was eating every day and just [was] so obsessive. Now my [mindset is] ‘I’m just going to eat when I’m hungry and I don’t have to obsess about food as much because I’m building muscle and using my body the way that it should be.” — Emily Bridgers, 6-time CrossFit Games athlete
2) If you are training hard on a consistent basis, you probably need to eat MORE.
Over and over, the stories from some of the best athletes in their respective sport admitted they got it wrong. Athletes don’t diet and exercise, they train and fuel. Learn how to fuel yourself no matter what level you’re at.
“At first [when I started working with a nutrition coach], like every girl or even males probably are like this, I said you want me to eat more food and more often? I’m going to gain SO MUCH weight. And [I was] kind of afraid to do that. Until I gave it a chance and I said, ‘Wow’. I really saw my energy levels go up. I saw my [body] fat going down and my muscle going up and my numbers going up in weightlifting.” — Jamie Hagiya, CrossFit and NPGL’s Phoenix Rise athlete
“As I’ve gotten older, my ability to recover has slowed down a lot, so I really had to focus on that, even more so than training. Training is the easy part.
The hard part and the real gains are made in the kitchen as far as eating and just nutritional timing alone. How much to eat, when to eat.” — Anthony Pomponio, National Champion Weightlifter
“I remember before CrossFit I got to the point where I wasn’t even eating regular meals, because I’d wake up and I wouldn’t be hungry, and my metabolism was not functioning at all the way it was supposed to. I had spent so much time running and on the elliptical that I think my body was just used to storing fat and me starving it.
So over time, through CrossFit, I started to eat more and more every year almost and with that, I continued to get leaner and leaner, and go through a slow progression of building muscle every year too.” — Emily Bridgers
3) You need CARBS.
More carbs = more energy. And go easy on the fat, Paleo people. Especially around workouts, it could really be getting in the way of you leaning out.
“In 2012, when I was still competing with youngsters, I was probably at my very leanest that I’ve ever been 9-10% body fat, and I started to feel like my body was starting to break down a bit. I just needed to add more starches, more carbs to my diet. So I started to loosen up [my diet] and be a little bit more flexible. My mom is Hawaiian, so we were raised regularly eating rice every night. I had completely cut that out of my diet for a long time, so I started adding that back, and of course potatoes—things that would give me a little bit more energy.” — Cheryl Brost, 2016 CrossFit Games Masters Champion 45-49
“I actually used to be really strict in my diet in 2012-13, [I ate] very little carbs at all—no rice, nothing like that, and barely any potatoes. And I lost 20 lb. over those two years, and it was all from diet.Losing all that weight really effected my strength and it was really hard for me to get strong. In 2014 I added back in 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.” — Andrea Ager
“When I started incorporating carbohydrates, I was performing better, recovering better, wasn’t feeling as beat up. Being able to recover is so crucial, and when I started adding more, my body was repairing [itself] faster and I [felt like] I could handle that beating [of] a high volume training schedule.” — Gabe Subry, CrossFit athlete and Owner of the Human Improvement Project
“Once I decided I wanted to train for the Games and began to increase my volume, I lost a lot of weight very quickly. I was losing all my strength and essentially just becoming a toothpick. I started to add those more calorically dense carbohydrates that are fast-digesting to get in enough calories to keep me training throughout the day.” — Lindy Barber
4) It’s okay to not to be 100% on point all of the time. Learn how to be flexible and ENJOY life.
One of the major underlying things we heard: you don’t need to eat chicken and broccoli at every meal for the rest of your life to see success.
“I’m not afraid to have a night out and just relax though. I don’t freak out like ‘Oh my gosh I’m having a beer!’ I’m more relaxed. I’m very approachable. [I want people to say] ‘Yeah she has a piece of cake every now and then or ice cream.’ I want to inspire people, and make [them] believe that they can achieve [their goals] too, and they don’t have to be perfect.” — Cheryl Brost
“Sometimes I’ll go off of [my diet]. For me, because I love food so much, it is so hard for me [to stay exactly to the RP Strength template all the time], you know? It’s okay [to be flexible]. I think that’s what helps me from binging. At nighttime if I have a little bit of ice cream or some days I really want [something], don’t deny yourself that. For me I know that’s what works. I know for some people, you open that door and it opens the flood gates. It helped me relax, going into Regionals and everything. When I need to buckle down, yes, I will. And sometimes I’ll slack off a little bit.” — Jamie Hagiya
“I used to be so focused on doing everything correctly—you kind of just drive yourself into the dirt. You lose interest. And so that feeds into where I don’t feel like I’m punishing myself. If you say you’re never going to [cheat], then typically, what I found out, for me, is I fall off the wagon [to the point where] I’m not even dieting anymore. I’m just eating whatever I want. So the [cheat day] gives me a guideline to follow. It’s a mental checklist. I’ve learned you just got to have fun with what you’re doing if you take it too seriously it’s just not going to be sustainable.” — Andrew Rape, NPGL’s New York Rhinos athlete
“I’ll throw in a donut if I’m craving one. Pizza is my other vice. If I’m feeling super wiped from training or I’m craving a cheat food, I’ll do it just to keep my mental sanity.” — Christian Lucero
“I still have cheat meals, and in the off season I definitely give myself more leeway with my diet. Afterall, I am 25 and I want to enjoy my life with friends and family who aren’t always necessarily focused on dieting. This simply comes down to balancing my lifestyle.” — Ewa Januszkiewicz, Team Juggernaut Powerlifter
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