Lots of Crossfitters are interested in Intermittent Fasting not because they necessarily want to just be more lean but also because if done correctly it can add to athletic performance and strength gains. Let’s first be clear about a few things, in none of the scenarios I am about to present are you technically training fasted because you will be eating something (technically). Also this is not a diet, eat what you want Paleo style, Zone style whatever floats your boat, count or do not count it will not affect the science behind why fasting works, especially in the case of athletic performers.
Very quick primer on what fasting does and why it works well
I feel a need to say this over and over, this is not a diet, if you want to eat 6 ribeyes in your window have at it, no one is trying to restrict your calories. If you happen to want to restrict your calories eating in a small window of time could not be more convenient but that might confuse the issue. The long and short of my message is simple, eat to stay fit and fast to enhance that process.
What fasting does is relatively simple but people want to make it very complex. As Crossfitters we have been exposed to the role of insulin as a “building” hormone (I think the word “building” describes it better than “storage”). In the presence of insulin HGH is blunted, said simply fasting increases your HGH, fast too long and you lose some of the benefits so you have to be conscious of your fasting window, personally I like 16-18 hours for men and 14-16 hours for women.
The other added benefit is that when you eat your body will have fully processed most of the food from the previous nights refeed window. So your body is ready for nutrients, you can literally eat a lot of things at this point and your body will use most of those nutrients well but my suggestion is to make your first meal count and save your “treats” for later in the day.
The Protocol to use for various WOD times
As a general rule I fast from 8pm to either noon or 2pm (either 16 or 18 hours). It is somewhat dependent on schedule.
Early morning fasted window
I WOD (workout of the day for non-crossfitters) at 5:30 am typically, my day starts like this, I wake up with no alarm clock at about 4 am (otherwise I do the 7 am session) at 5am I drink 10g of powdered BCAA’s personally I use Optimum Nutrition powdered BCAA’s because they dissolve in water. Then I WOD, post WOD I take 10g of BCAA’s again this time with Creatine (optional) and then I have another dose of BCAA’s at 10am. The later in the morning you WOD the fewer BCAA’s you need to take. I break the fast at Noon or 2pm.
This protocol likely will not be too hard for most of the people that workout in the morning because it is typically not easy to eat too much early. So WOD’ing on an empty stomach for this crew is no big deal, the post workout window is where things would seem difficult and certainly there is an adjustment period, I am not going to try and tell you there is not one. This also contradicts most Post Workout protocols so remember I am not trying to convince anyone of anything, this works well for me and keeps me lean. There are many crossfitters that fast I am simply trying to make that process easier, make your own adjustments and listen to your body.
The BCAA’s are there simply to protect your muscle pre and post workout, the protein will spike your insulin slightly but the HGH effect is not blunted too severely. You will not see results over night and initially things might seem hard but your body will adjust just try and stay busy during the fasted window in the morning and you should be fine, if you sit down and obsess over food life will suck a little bit until you eat every single day. DON’T DO THAT!
It is my recommendation for you to have your biggest most nutrient dense meal coming out of your fast. This is a guideline and not a rule because life’s schedule does not always play fair. This is a great time for protein and possibly some clean carbs to help your recovery and keep your glycogen stores full for tomorrow’s WOD. I personally do not over do it on carbs but I am also not a huge fire breather, if you are a fire breather and you are constantly depleting your glycogen reserves some clean carb refeeds for size might be in order.
This one is easier if you do not want to take in a ton of BCAA’s, I personally find it harder and more physically demanding but that seems to be person specific, when I do 18 hour fasts I love working out at noon, I do not however think you will get maximum athletic performance but if your concern is to simply get in a good workout and eat mostly natural then this window is for you. Simply fast until about 30 minutes before your workout then take 10g of BCAA’s. Post WOD I suggest having a big nutrient dense meal as close to the workout as possible but I will eat as late as 2pm in this scenario. That is why I like this protocol when I use 18 hour fasts.
Later in the day or Late evening workouts
There is no need for this group to use BCAA’s, simply eating a good amount of protein pre and post workout is sufficient, so in that way many crossfitters will prefer this protocol, to avoid the unnatural foods. Personally I love it when I can do late afternoon WOD’s. I break my fast around noon or 2pm with anywhere from 25% to 40% of my calories for the day (estimating is probably OK in this scenario) and somewhat dependent on how late you workout and how much food you can handle while still performing athletically. Your biggest meal would then be eaten post workout, similar to the other scenarios.
Some thoughts on Carb Refeeds and Fat consumption on “rest days”
For this protocol I borrowed heavily from the Leangains site, on that site Martin Berkhan suggests eating with a positive energy balance (you eat more calories than you burn) on workout days eating predominantly carbohydrates. This accomplishes a few things:
1. It restores the glycogen reserves in your muscles and liver that would have been used up on workout days under something like the normal reverse pyramid training that is the suggested workout protocol on that site.
2. Eating at a positive energy balance resets the Leptin in your body to function more properly. I may write more about this at some point but the long and short of it is relatively simple. The leptin hormone regulates the fat in your adipose tissue, when dieting too extreme you actually harm your leptin levels which hurts fat mobilization (and many other things related to inflammation in the body). Occasionally eating at a positive energy balance has very positive affects for keeping those levels normal.
3. The processes that your body needs to gain muscle is very complex. This cycle sends signals to your body that you will be tearing down muscle aggressively but will also provide it with the necessary components to repair itself and actually build newer leaner mass.
4. Lastly and maybe most importantly these days allow you to live life without extreme restriction from a dieting perspective.
For Crossfiters this brings up an interesting question, which days are off days? I will first give what I do and then make suggestions from there. On a regular maintenance protocol where I am eating +20% calories high in carbohydrate (note that for Crossfit this would probably mean clean Paleo style carbohydrates like sweet potatoes, butternut squash or simple a bit more fruit on these days) I try and stick to three carbohydrate refeed days and four days with -20% calories that are predominantly fats. This next part will get ignored but it should not, on rest days while fats are relatively high and carbohydrates are relatively low this does not mean you should eat extremely low carbs. This is maybe most important for Crossfitters because when you eat extremely low carbohydrates your athletic performance will suffer. Use your judgement but for my purposes I like to eat around 150g of clean Paleo style carbohydrates on these days. Once again I am not saying what people should or should not eat, I am offering up what I do, so read this judgement free while downing that ice cream sundae.
My gym Crossfits five days a week (the main site suggests three days on one day off), our rest days are on Thursday and Sunday. So those days are obviously rest days where you will eat highish fats with moderate carbohydrate intake. The simple solution for me on my +20% days is to do one on Monday, Wednesday and Friday. Tuesdays and Saturday’s are treated as conditioning days, or rest days and I eat -20% calories on those days.
For Paleo style eaters the +20% days are great days to have those treats that technically stray from Paleo. As most Paleo’ers know the suggestion is not to eat Paleo 100% of the time. These days are great to have some of the things you enjoy but would not eat on a regular basis.
The cliffs on fat days is simple, the body is extremely complex and is constantly in a state of tearing down and building up. When eating -20% and mostly fats you are keeping your body at a negative energy balance which means that you are eating fewer calories than you are using during your day. Under these conditions as a general rule your body is not storing fat. That is the simple version, there is much more going on but as a rule of thumb I find this helpful to know.
Dieting while fasting and Crossfitting
I have at times been a bit more aggressive with the protocol, something like -10% on “workout days” and -30% on “rest and conditioning” days is doable but your workouts will suffer. What I do in this scenario is cycle between a maintenance protocol (+20/-20) for say 20 days in a month and then go to the more aggressive (-10/-30) for 10 days. I even go as far as telling my trainers so they are aware of my limitations on those 10 days, the difference in performance is that extreme.
Personally I would not recommend a more aggressive protocol than that nor do I believe it is necessary. I realize for many people that are joining Crossfit gyms around the world one of the big motivations is to lose weight. I can not stress this enough, occasionally you can eat at a deficit and measuring might be in order but mostly you should just eat a good clean anti-inflammatory diet (Paleo) and let the workouts do their job. I realize that you will not do so but when you ask me various hacking questions do realize that I will likely default to that answer.
Use your brain and make adjustments
I am not a doctor nor am I a dietician, I am however a Crossfit Level 1 instructor and I am Crossfit Kids certified, I am extremely well versed on the Paleo and Zone diets that Crossfitters use to stay fit and have attended the “Whole 9” workshop (they are vehemently against intermittent fasting so you might not want to bring it up, you have been warned). I am extremely comfortable making changes to my diet for athletic performance but I am also very comfortable dieting. Just remember that all of your decisions have natural and logical consequences. If you want to ask me specific questions you can use the comments on this article, “like” the LeanYou.net Facebook page or best of all join the LeanYou.net Food
Log Porn group (most of the people in the group are regular lean gainers).
Also remember that these are my opinions based on my personal experimentation, they are not meant to be presented as advice for your specific situations or needs. Nor should they be viewed as a recommendation.