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Crossfit is a sport where the world’s top-tier athletes really shine. Have you seen the muscles on those athletes at the games?
Talk about impressive!
But, with so many Crossfit gyms all over the place, most of the people participating in this sport are probably not quite at that competitor level. Regardless, Crossfit is HOT as a way of keeping in shape, even for the average Joe.
As a former Crossfitter myself, I can testify about how much I loved the workouts, even though competition was completely out of reach. What I will say about participating in Crossfit is that I saw firsthand the impact that nutrition and supplementation had on my performance and my enjoyment of the workout.
Based on my expertise and personal experience here are some of the top supplements to help you hit those WOD PRs (For non-Crossfitters: Workout of the Day Personal Records).
9 Helpful Supplements for Crossfitters
Some soreness may be part of the Crossfit life, but regularly taking omega-3 fats can help make it tolerable. Omega-3 fats are the healthy fats found in fish, walnuts, chia seeds, and flaxseeds. They are considered essential fats for human nutrition, meaning they must come from your diet.
There are three omega-3 fats, EPA, DHA, and ALA. EPA and DHA are the active forms of omega-3s and are the most researched for their health benefits. They are the types of omega-3 found in fatty fish like salmon. ALA is the type of omega-3s found in plants. It must be converted into active EPA and DHA. Unfortunately, this conversion is quite ineffective. This means the biggest benefit of these healthy fats comes from taking EPA and DHA directly.
Muscle soreness after a tough WOD is partially caused by inflammation. Omega-3 fats have been extensively researched for their anti-inflammatory effects.
Although omega-3s have not been shown to directly increase performance, it is obvious that if you are not struggling with soreness you will be able to get back to the box sooner (1).
Omega-3s also help boost immune function, important during periods of heavy training, which can decrease the function of the immune system.
How to Take Omega-3 Fats
Ideally, your fish oil should contain both EPA and DHA. The recommended dosage is between 2-6 grams of total omega-3 fatty acids, usually with a 2:1 ratio of EPA to DHA.
There are many different options on the market for omega-3 supplements. Krill oil and algal oil are most likely the least contaminated by mercury, a concern for many fish oils. Algal oil is vegan, since it is made from the algae fish eat, making it a great option for a supplement.
The Paleo diet and Crossfit go hand in hand. This can make choosing an appropriate protein supplement that meets Paleo guidelines a bit challenging. Most Paleo-purists would probably not recommend a processed protein powder and instead would probably encourage getting your protein from real food.
That being said, there are several protein powder companies that have jumped on the “paleo protein” bandwagon, making approved products from ingredients like grass-fed beef and eggs.
But, here’s the thing for muscle building, whey protein made from milk (and not Paleo approved) is the ideal type of protein powder. Whey contains all nine essential amino acids needed for optimal health. Whey protein promotes muscle gain, decreased fat mass, and may promote weight loss (2). It is easily and effectively absorbed. It consistently out performs other types of protein, like soy or casein (3).
Although egg or beef protein may also have the benefits for building muscle, since they too contain all the amino acids, they also don’t stack up. A 2015 study that compared beef vs whey protein for muscle building found that whey won (4). So, stick with whey if your diet allows.
How to Take Protein Supplements
Obviously, not every Crossfit athlete follows a strict Paleo diet, so whey protein may still be a great choice. Regardless of what type of protein powder you choose, aim for 20-30 grams of high quality protein within an hour of your WOD. This will help your muscles recover and rebuild from all those pull-ups and weighed squats.
Related: Our article on the different types of protein powders explained.
Magnesium is aptly termed the “relaxation mineral” because it helps muscles relax, which is probably much needed after a tough WOD. Also, most Americans are not getting enough magnesium in their diet due to poor intake of foods high in this mineral.
Magnesium also helps with stress management and sleep, both of which can impact performance.
How to take Magnesium
Just so you are aware, magnesium in supplemental form is a very powerful laxative. Based on this you want to start slow if you want to take magnesium for recovery.
Magnesium glycinate and magnesium malate are the two forms that are usually well tolerated and may not induce such severe digestive issues.
The recommended amount per day is between 300-400 mg. Start adding a bit at a time and wait at least 48 hours to see how your body will react.
If you don’t want to take magnesium orally, consider an Epsom salt bath, a magnesium oil, or lotion after a tough WOD. Magnesium is well absorbed by the skin and will not have the same digestive side effects.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest ranked magnesium supplements.
Creatine is one of the most extensively studied supplements for athletic performance. Your body makes all the creatine it needs and it is also found in all animal foods.
Although your body can make all the creatine it needs, supplementation promotes faster energy regeneration after high intensity exercise, like Crossfit.
Creatine supplements cause your body to store more phosphocreatine, which is necessary to produce fast burning energy (6). This means your body will recover faster between sets and be ready to hit that AMRAP again. Supplemental creatine has also been found to increase strength, lean body mass, and help build muscle.
How to Take Creatine Monohydrate
The recommended dose for creatine is set to 0.1 g/kg of body weight per day to help with training adaptation. It should be taken before or after a workout with a source of carbohydrates.
Generally, a loading period of about 20 grams per day is recommended for creatine for the first 5-7 days. Creatine loading can cause weight gain the first week because it increases water storage in the cells. If your primary goal is weight loss, stick with the lower maintenance dose instead.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest ranked creatine monohydrate supplements.
Branch-chain Amino Acids
Those big, powerful Crossfit muscles need plenty of protein to maintain their strength. Protein is made up of building blocks called amino acids. There are three amino acids that are particularly beneficial for muscle building and strength. These are called the branch-chain amino acids (BCAAs): leucine, isoleucine, and valine.
BCAAs are popular as a pre- and post-workout beverage and they taste pretty good too. They help speed up recovery and muscle repair after a tough WOD. A 2010 study evaluated the use of BCAAs and exercise performance on fit male subjects. The subjects received either BCAAs or a placebo for three weeks. On the 4th week, they started a high intensity total body resistance training program.
Hormonal blood markers were analyzed both before and during the training. For those who received BCAAs, testosterone was significantly higher, while cortisol and creatine kinase were significantly lower. These findings indicate an anabolic or muscle building hormonal profile.
The athletes also had lower training-induced muscle tissue damage with the BCAA supplement (7). BCAAs can help your body move into “muscle building” mode, important for keeping up with your WODs.
How to take BCAAs
The recommended dose of BCAAs is 3-6 grams either before or after your workout. Look for a supplement that has two times as much leucine as isoleucine and valine. One thing to note, if you take a whey protein supplement, you probably don’t need additional BCAAs. Whey protein is high in all of the amino acids and particularly high in leucine.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest ranked BCAA supplements.
Inadequate intake of B-vitamins can seriously impact your WOD performance. Thiamin, riboflavin, and vitamin B-6 all support the body’s energy pathways, while folate and B-12 are needed to make new cells and repair damage.
Physical activity of any kind increases your daily need for all the B-vitamins. High intensity activity puts additional stress on the body’s energy pathways and many nutrients are lost through sweat. This means additional B-vitamins are necessary for all athletes performing at a high level.
Many athletes are simply not getting enough of these important vitamins. Without the B-vitamins helping you out, your performance at the box is going to suffer. This may be particularly true for Crossfiters who are focused on weight loss and cutting calories too low or eliminating food groups to lose weight (8, 9).
How to Take B-vitamins
B-vitamins are water soluble, so there is no major risk of toxicity (except at crazy high levels). Most multivitamins have an adequate amount of B-vitamins to supplement your daily needs. If you want to take a specific B-vitamin supplement, you can try a B-complex.
In addition to supplements, it is important to eat foods high in B-vitamins because those are some of the healthiest foods around. Green leafy vegetables, whole grains, and animal proteins are loaded with B-vitamins, so be sure to include those in your diet.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest ranked vitamin B-Complex supplements.
Vitamin D is a fat-soluble vitamin that your body is able to make on its own from sun exposure. But, most of us are deficient because we simply don’t spend enough time outside or live in cold climates. Vitamin D helps protect bones, as it is necessary for calcium absorption. It reduces inflammation, including sore post-WOD muscles. It can also boost your immune system, helping ward off colds and the flu (10).
Love those box jumps, but want to get even higher? Vitamin D can help! A 2009 study of the vitamin D status of adolescent girls found that it was correlated with jump height, power, and velocity (11). These findings might be explained in that a deficiency in vitamin D causes atrophy of fast twitch muscle fibers, needed for those box jumps.
Vitamin D supplements may also help mitigate some inflammation and muscle soreness. Research on vitamin D and athletes, found that athletes with lowest vitamin D levels had significantly higher inflammation markers and were more prone to injury (12).
How to Take Vitamin D
The RDA for vitamin D is 600 IU for adults. But, these recommendations are being reevaluated as they might be too low with deficiency being so wide-spread. The tolerable upper limit is currently set to 2000 IU, meaning it is safe to take dosages less than that number.
The best way to know if you need a vitamin D supplement is to get a blood test to detect deficiency. If you are severely deficient, a doctor may recommend a high-dose supplement for a period of time. Also, since vitamin D is made from spending time in the sun, consider going outside a few minutes a day.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest ranked vitamin D supplements.
You probably go to Crossfit to feel the burn, right? I remember the crazy burning sensation in my quads after the Murph workout that required over 300 squats and running, ouch!
An amino acid, called beta-alanine can help prevent some of that burning sensation, although not doing 300 squats will also prevent muscle burning.
If you want to get through those tough WODs and beat your PRs, beta-alanine can help increase your endurance. Taking beta-alanine consistently prolongs fatigue by helping your body clear out lactic acid and hydrogen ions, which are the cause the burning sensation and muscle failure experienced during workouts. This will allow you to push harder and faster (13).
A 2009 study evaluated the impact of beta-alanine supplementation on high-intensity exercise. Forty six subjects were assessed for their peak oxygen use, time to fatigue, and total work done during a high-intensity workout. They were then given either a placebo or a 1.5 grams of beta-alanine with dextrose four times a day for twenty one days, then two times a day for another 21 days. They participated in a 6 week HIIT program during the study period. The fitness level of all the men improved, but those who received the beta-alanine had significant increases in peak oxygen use, performance, and lean body mass (14).
How to Take Beta-alanine
Beta-alanine is best taken regularly, not just before you work out. The recommended dose is 4-6 grams per day. It can cause tingling in some people, therefore you may want to split up your dosage throughout the day.
Related: Our list of the 10 highest ranked beta-alanine supplements.
Pre-workout supplements are usually a combination of ingredients that are combined in an effort to boost performance, give you energy, and speed recovery. They may include ingredients like caffeine, creatine, BCAAs, various carbohydrates, electrolytes, and vitamins.
A 2014 study found that taking a pre-workout supplement improved several health and fitness markers in middle-aged men over a 28 day period. The particular supplement used in the study included amino acids, beta-alanine, creatine, caffeine, and B-vitamins (many of the ones mentioned above). Subjects who took the pre-workout had improved body composition, lower blood pressure, and better fitness levels compared to those who received a placebo (15).
The effectiveness of your pre-workout also likely depends on the ingredients. For example, caffeine is a common additive which has been extensively studied for its ability to help boost performance (16). As we have discussed, creatine and beta-alanine are also research backed supplements that can help improve performance, muscle building, and recovery.
How to Take a Pre-Workout Supplement
A pre-workout may be a good option if you don’t want to take several different supplements.
But, tread with caution on the ingredients.
Some have too many stimulants that can dangerously raise your heart rate or blood pressure. If you are sensitive to caffeine, look for a pre-workout without caffeine included. If you do want one with caffeine, make sure it has no more than 300 mg and moderate your intake of other high-caffeine beverages.
You also never want to double up on supplements, so if you are already taking creatine or beta-alanine, you don’t need more from your pre-workout.
If you do choose to take a pre-workout take it about 15-30 minutes before your WOD to give you the energy you need to make it through your workout.
Supplements and Crossfit
Most people who are into Crossfit, are really into Crossfit. It has been called a “cult” by many. But, the competitive and friendly environment of most boxes (Crossfit gyms) really make you feel like you are doing something amazing for yourself and your fitness.
If you are going to get into the sport, even if you are not going to compete on a larger level, well-balanced nutrition is the best thing you can to continue to improve your fitness and keep yourself healthy.
The first thing is making sure you are getting enough calories and macronutrients to support such high-intensity training. The supplements listed above can also help boost performance and support your nutritional needs. With a few small additions to your nutrition plan, you can hit those PRs WOD after WOD.
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