My flight was really delayed on Friday so I wrote this one at the airport too. But I didn't want to drop too many knowledge bombs all at once so I paced this one out. This post gets pretty deep into the Paleo CrossFit niche, but I promise more practical applications are coming soon!
The first Crossfit Games Open workout was a few weeks ago, and I wanted to do well. It was pretty much the end of my strict paleo month, so I cheated and had a scoop of Cytogainer beforehand.
Cytogainer is a weight-gainer shake that I've used pretty much as my one gym supplement since high school. (I dabbled with NO-Xplode in college, but that is all). It's a combination of whey protein and carbs from maltodextrin, which is a complex carbohydrate processed from corn. Cytogainer has always gotten me in the mood to workout. But when I started CrossFit, I found that Cytogainer gave me stable and consistent energy -- not just for weightlifting, but even for the high-intensity workouts (called Met-Cons, for metabolic conditioning).
During that first Games workout, with the Cytogainer fueling me, I felt great. I wasn't lightheaded, my legs didn't feel like bricks, and I didn't need to eat fruit in the middle of a workout just to keep my strength up. After a month of dogging it on paleo, I was back, baby.
Also, after the strict paleo month ended, I started having one serving of oatmeal along with my breakfast of hard boiled eggs and greens tossed with olive oil. Voila, I no longer felt like I was going to faint during my bike commute to work.
The supposedly evil processed foods and grain-derived carbs were working for me in the gym. What did this mean?
I haven't read The Paleo Diet for Athletes, but I've learned that the authors advocate cheating with carbs after workouts, but only in a specific recovery time period, and only for endurance athletes like cyclists. The authors make these recommendations for post-workout...but what about before workouts, which is when I was benefiting from carbs?
One of the authors, Joe Friel, is an acclaimed U.S. triathlete coach and is fully behind the Paleo diet. It took him 2 months to get used to paleo. So maybe I just needed to wait it out another month, and then I would no longer need the carbs for workouts? I didn't want to suffer another month. I was confused.
I googled combinations of terms like "crossfit paleo carbs" and "crossfit paleo grains" to see if other athletes were in my position. I found this excellent post on the CrossFit forum, which referenced an email from a Nutrition PhD. It really opened my eyes. Take a look. The PhD notes that CrossFitters, with their brief intense workouts, can really benefit from carbs -- rather than fat -- as a fuel source. (Some more than others, of course. Every body is different). Also, the email says high amounts of carbs -- even from grains -- can provide the most benefit when breaking the fast in the morning, and before and after workouts. An otherwise paleo diet with these carb infusions could be an optimal regimen, according to this PhD.
What was really interesting, though, is the four pages of comments that follow the post. All from CrossFitters, they were nearly unanimous in their full agreement with the PhD's email, opining that "good" grains such as rice and oats, in moderation, are useful to provide energy before workouts and to flood muscles with glycogen after workouts. Many offered that paleo is a great starting point, from which athletes can move toward whatever works best for them.
I spoke to my coaches about it, who had previously advised me to find a pre-workout paleo meal that works for me, such as fruit and sweet potato. "Great," I had thought at the time, "more sweet potato." This root vegetable is one of the very few high-complex-carb sources allowed on a strict paleo diet, and is therefore consumed by the pound by some hardcore paleo athletes.
My coaches were reasonable. They told me, yeah, if I needed some carbs to power through the WODs (workout of the day), then I could use maltodextrin. It isn't ideal, but I should remember 80/20.
80/20. Eighty-twenty. The Pareto Principle. You may have heard this ratio used before, by talking-head management gurus, McKinsey analysts and Tim Ferriss. The mantra goes a few different ways, a few of which are: 80% of results come from 20% of effort and time; 80% of sales come the top 20% of clients; 80% of a society's wealth is produced by 20% of society's members.
The ratio can also be used in the opposite sense, and that's what I want to focus on here: Nearly all value is created in the first 80% of effort, and that last 20% produces much-diminishing returns.
Robb Wolf and Loren Cordain both say that, unless you have serious health problems such as auto-immune disorders, you can ascribe to Paleo 80% of the time and gain 95+% of the benefits. (This equates to 3 meals, or one "cheat day," per week). For the paleo die-hards, this is intended to provide leeway when you're at a cocktail hour, or you're traveling, or you just need a guilt-free cheat day full of ice cream and chocolate cake in order to stay on the wagon.
My coaches and many other CrossFitters, on the other hand, see 80/20 differently. In their view, that non-paleo 20% is indeed a beneficial -- even necessary -- element of the diet. Instead of "cheat" meals cashed in during moments of weakness or circumstance, carbs are used strategically, as a tool for performance and an essential factor in an overall comprehensive clean diet.
Further, hard-gainers like me need to fight for every ounce of muscle mass. It's really hard to get enough complex carbs to grow when you're eating vegetables like a rabbit. Again, it's a conscious, strategic use of non-paleo carbs at specific times. And also just being sick of sweet potatoes after a while.
On a related tangent, I know some CrossFitters who eat greek yogurt a few times per week, as a probiotic and general digestive aid. A healthy dose of pragmatism within the framework of a clean diet.
Right now, I eat a quarter cup of steel cut oatmeal with my otherwise paleo breakfast (a post all about breakfast is coming soon). Before workouts I have CytoCarb, which is the maltodextrin from Cytogainer without any of the other stuff; and whey protein isolate, a high quality lactose-free protein. After workouts I have a banana and more whey protein isolate, and then a serving of sprouted rice with dinner. Sorry, paleo extremists. I feel great, I'm performing in the gym, and I'm getting stronger.