Eating for performance vs Body composition

By Ben Coulter aka @b_coulter

Many start out on a training (especially CrossFit) journey aiming to lose weight, however, as we progress, our goals can become a little more ambitious as not only do we want to look amazing, but we want to perform just as well! That is great and something that we should definitely be striving for. Performance goals are awesome, objective, measurable improvements in our capabilities and can be a lot more exciting than the number on our bathroom scales.

What is important to understand is sometimes our body composition and our performance goals can be pulling from opposite ends and leaving us stuck and frustrated, not really achieving the results we hoped for in either aspects.

Lets look at some reasons why this may be…

Our bodies need sufficient fuel to perform at maximum capacity. Eating in a calorie deficit (necessary for weight loss) while trying to perform optimally, is likely to be somewhat detrimental to performance. Most people decide (sometimes, rightfully so) that when time to lose weight or ‘diet’ to cut a large portion of carbohydrates out of their diet. Assuming this means they’re now eating in a calorie deficit they will be losing weight/fat. The problem may occur when we are also looking to achieve performance based as well as aesthetic goals.

CrossFit, specifically, is a high intensity sport that demands glucose as the primary energy source for the body to utilise to fuel your workouts. Carbohydrates are by far and away the easiest/most readily accessible source of energy for the body to convert to glucose to fuel performance. Therefore, when carbohydrates are restricted, our body needs to look elsewhere for energy reserves (fuel). Ideally, we now look to fat stores, however, this is a far less readily available source of fuel for your body to utilise, meaning it has to work harder to produce that energy that you’re relying on (and wanting quickly and readily available) to keep you pushing through your workout.

Hopefully this gives you a simple overview of why a calorie deficit (in the form of reduced carbohydrate) may work well to help you achieve your body composition goals, but could quite possibly have a negative affect on your training performance.

Aside from a lack of performance when eating in a calorie deficit (under eating, with the goal of losing body fat), we need to be mindful of other potential effects that high intensity/demanding exercise has on our body whilst being in that deficit. We now have less access to all 3 of the macronutrients simply because we are eating less food in total. Reduced Carbohydrate can affect performance as mentioned above. insufficient Protein intake can affect recovery which can lead to increased muscle soreness & discomfort, higher risk of injury, tiredness, poor sleep (we should ALWAYS priorities sleep) & poor concentration… You can see how this can start to snowball. Reduced fat intake may also affect hormone function which could lead to hormone imbalances, compromised immune function, amenorrhea (loss of period) in females & a host of other issues.

Along with a reduction in macronutrients, without mindful and consious eating habbits there could also be less micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals) available for our bodies to function optimally.

Does mean that you shouldn’t try to lose weight/improve body composition whilst doing Crossfit/ high intensity training? NO!

For many of us, its likely that improving body composition will improve performance. If you’re ‘overweight’, not only should reducing body fat be a priority from a health perspective, it is going to make you feel and perform better, an all around better quality of life…. think about how much easier those pull ups or that run will be without 10kg of deadweight (body fat), not to mention carrying those groceries from your car to the kitchen!

What it does mean, is that if you decide to make the commitment to losing body fat and would like to maintain or improve your performance, what and how you eat becomes critically important.

Some considerations for maximising performance in a calorie deficit to get you started;

Focusing on food quality should be a priority in everyones life, however, i understand that this isn’t the case (working on changing that, one person at a time) for everybody..Ensuring you’re eating sufficient amounts of protein throughout the day. at least 1.8–2.2kg of your bodyweight/dayEnsuring you’re eating enough quality fats from plant and animal sources (no vegetable oils!). Around 30%-40% total calorie intake ensuring your carbohydrate intake is surrounding your high intensity training efforts.

Think of your carbohydrates as fuel.

Ensuring you stay well hydrated.

Prioritise sleep and recovery.

Minimise external stressors as best as possible.

Accept that you’re in a calorie deficit and likely unable to perform at 100% every day.

Consider bringing calories up to maintenance or above leading into a period of time where performance is a priority for you.

Consider working with a nutrition coach to help you achieve your goals!