CrossFit Nutrition: What to Eat Before Working Out

crossfit nutrition

CrossFit is a high intensity, scaleable workout used by endurance and powerlifting athletes alike.

With such high demands on the body, you might wonder what a typical CrossFit athlete eats for breakfast…you might be surprised.

I recently had the privilege of speaking to 100 CrossFit athletes at a free seminar.

Each member handed in a log of their breakfast that morning.

What Should I Eat Before a Workout?

As you might guess, a high-intensity, interval workout necessitates a quality meal not only before the workout, but also following the workout.

As a post-workout meal (protein shakes, bananas, and water) was provided, I was interested in seeing how well the athletes had prepared for their workout that morning with breakfast.

I tried not to list breakfasts that were close repeats from other entries.

The task: I want you to analyze the strong and weak points of the breakfasts listed and make suggestions on how to improve them. Any trends? Any groups or types of foods seem to be missing?


Here’s a look at some of the breakfasts consumed that morning:

7:30am: Cup of coffee with half and half, 1 packet of sugar
8:00am: 4 Egg Whites (scrambled), 1 slice of American Cheese, 1 Slice of Whole Wheat Toast
8:45am: Blended Fruit Shake (1 cup strawberries, 1 cup of blueberries, 1 cup of almond milk, 1 tsp peanut butter)

2 Multi-Grain Waffles, 1 small apple, 1 Tbspn Pumpkin Butter, 2 Tbspn Peanut Butter, 16oz. Green Tea

3 Cups of Coffee with 2% milk (50% Decaf), 3/4 cup Greek yogurt (2%), 1/2 cup berries (Blueberries/Raspberries), 1 Tbspn Sliced Almonds, Cinnamon

Protein Shake, Banana

Coffee, Greek yogurt, Shake: Rice milk, Whey protein, Banana

Coffee, 2 Poached Eggs, Oat bread toast with Jam, Handful of Raisins, Water

Handful Brazil nuts, 3 Eggs in coconut oil, 1 apple

Paleo oatmeal: walnuts, pecans, flaxseed, cinnamon, ginger, almond butter, banana, eggs, almond milk, pumpkin seeds, blueberries, strawberries

Expresso, slice of Gluten-free  bread with chopped hardboiled egg, beets, sea salt and olive oil. Grapes, almonds, protein shake, omega-3 and flaxseed oil

Egg-white omelette with broccoli 1-tspn Frank’s Red Hot, 1 cup coffee

2 Scrambled Eggs, 1 small apple, 1 cup black tea

Coffee, 1/2 bagel

Everything bagel with honey and cream cheese

Strawberries, blueberries, almond slices in almond milk

Scrambled eggs, 2 pieces of bacon, water, coffee

1/2 cup of oatmeal, 1/2 cup of blueberries, 1 cup coffee, 16 oz water

Oatmeal with low-fat milk and 1 scoop whey protein, coffee with milk, fish oil, multi-vitamin

pre-workout: Banana and water, post-workout: Protein bar and water

Larabar (almonds, unsweetened coconut, virgin coconut oil), Coffee with Cream

Scrambled eggs, Kale, 1 cup Raspberries

1 Egg (scrambled), 2 pieces nitrite-free bacon, 1/4 avocado, 1 cup steamed broccoli, black coffee sweetened with agave nectar, water

3 Eggs with garlic, 1 cup kale, 1 cup coffee with whole milk

3 eggs, 1 cup broccoli, 1/2 cup peppers, 1/4 cup avocado

Yogurt, coffee

Fresh vegetable juice (carrot, parsley, celery, beet, ginger)

3 Eggs, 1 cup spinach, 1 cup raspberries
We often feel frustrated and overwhelmed when it comes to deciding “what should I eat?”, especially when you are pushed for time.


*Remember*: this exercise is not to cast judgement or poke fun – there is a real person behind each log who could very well be reading this post.

How Do I Meet Protein Needs THROUGHOUT the Day:

Breakfast is the most important, yet sometimes most difficult meal of the day.

This is because mornings are likely when you feel the most stress to just gulp something down before heading out the door…

If it’s just coffee and a pastry, you’re in trouble.

If you do not eat anything before getting to work, you’re in trouble.

You might be like most people and not eat a source of quality protein at the start of your day – again, you’re in trouble.

The average person can optimally absorb some 15-20g of protein in a sitting. This is about 2-3 eggs with a healthy heaping of vegetables, or a palm-sized portion of meat with liberal vegetables.

The two exceptions are:

1.) Increased body size which may have your needs at 20-25+ grams in a sitting and

2.) Consumption directly following a workout when your ability to absorb protein and carbohydrates is higher than at any other point in the day.

Keep in mind that you are also getting some protein from vegetables, nuts, and other things that you are likely including into your food and workout plan.

Protein is important, but excess at a sitting can cause bloating, gassiness, and in some cases, kidney distress.

Because of this, make your food more filling by really bulking out the vegetables and greens.

  • For active people, you want roughly 1.2g of protein for every kg of body weight.
  • For athletes, you may need 1.5g of protein per kg of body weight.
  • Take your weight in pounds, divide by 2.2 pounds/kg, and then multiply by 1.2-1.5g protein/kg body weight.

Protein Needs For 220lb Person:

For a 220 pound person like myself, that means I should have roughly 120-150 grams of protein in a day to maintain weight.

Typically this comes out to:

  • 3 main meals (breakfast, lunch, and dinner) at 20-25grams of protein (60-75grams total)
  • 2-3 small meals or “snacks” at 15-20g of protein (20-45grams total)
  • A recovery shake/meal directly following a workout of about 20-35g of protein.

If I wanted to gain muscle up to 230 lbs., my protein needs only really increase by 5-7g/day which would mean 1g/protein extra on my meals and 2-3g more on my recovery shake/meal.

In English, that’s only a difference of roughly one egg, or an extra handful of nuts spaced throughout the day.

Protein Needs For 150lb Person:

If you are closer to 150 pounds, your protein needs are roughly 82g-102g/day, this could mean three main meals at 15-20g/meal (45-60g), two-three small meals/snacks at 10-15g/meal (20-45g), and roughly 15-25g protein for recovery following a workout.

You’ll find that many protein supplements are geared for 15-20g servings, but some may be geared at 30-40g or higher so read your labels!

Protein Guidelines Need Context:

There can be a lot of subtlety as you can see by the ranges, and of course the number change depending the person, the time of day that they workout, and their health & fitness goals.

You can also play around with a few grams of branched chain amino acids, creatine, and others as long as it’s being directed in a safe manner, with adequate fluid intake, and for the right reasons.

I always resort back to what’s natural for the body before getting too crafty.

Trust that the body has all the tools it needs without having to turn to expensive and questionable regimens.

I’m a guy who likes to work with general recommendations and keep the tight specifics to those looking at top 3-5% of results or fitness performance.

Otherwise keeping these general guidelines in mind is enough to let you know that yes your protein needs are increased, but it’s important to space protein THROUGHOUT the day, and bias your needs for directly after your workout.

Unless you’re a big-time body-builder, you do NOT need 50gram+ protein shakes, in fact you’d likely be doing yourself more harm than good.

Again, it’s important to read the labels on your protein and adjust your serving sizes accordingly.

NON-Workout Days:

On NON-WORKOUT DAYS, your needs will be on the lower end of the scales listed, on workout days, your needs will be on the higher end of the scales listed.

Additionally, on both workout, and non-workout days, you may also play around with a small snack between dinner and bedtime to keep blood sugar stable and prevent wasting lean muscle tissue that you’re working hard to build in the first place.

Keep in Mind:

If you are feeling bloated, gassy, or constipated, protein intake is either too high, you may have low stomach acid, you may be over-exercising, you may be experiencing an imbalance of healthy bacteria in your gut, or a combination of it all.

Visually, I typically figure that about 70-75% of my plate should be vegetables and greens, and 25-30% should be protein.

To protect your ability to manage stress, I personally recommend only 1-2 very high intensity workouts in your weekly plan unless training for a specific competition.

As always, these recommendations are no substitute for medical or training advice, check with an appropriate professional for customization of your specific needs.

Stress and Exercise Series (Highly Recommended):

Part 1: How to Cope With Stress Brought About by High Intensity Exercise

Part 2: Why is Post-Workout Recovery So Essential?

Part 3: What to Eat Before and After Working Out


Protein Content of Common Foods (USDA)

Paleo Plan

Everyday Paleo

The Paleo Diet for Athletes: A Nutritional Formula for Peak Athletic Performance



  1. Joseph Doughty, DC May 9, 2012 at 3:43 pm - Reply

    Great post doc.

    You covered all the main points on this topic.
    Zone portions of paleo-friendly food offers great fuel for the CrossFit athlete.

    The only other thing I might add in is the food needs of endurance athletes who often eat while training. Although this may seem foreign to a CrossFit athlete who stops at 60 minutes, many endurance athletes fuel up while distance training or competing.

    Sugary, crapy tasting gel products are all the rage with endurance athletes. Whole food is tough to eat on the road, but I have managed plenty while training for triathlons.

    Do you have any thoughts on whole vs. convenient endurance “pseudo-foods” and bridging the gap of convenience vs. performance?

    • admin May 9, 2012 at 3:58 pm - Reply

      Thanks Dr. Doughty…Cordain’s Paleo Diet for Athlete’s is a great discussion for endurance athletes. The exception is more allowance for fruit and starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes, turnips, parsnips and carrots. Unless you’re at high performance or excessive duration (think half-marathon, sprint triathalon and beyond), you do not need to turn to easy to digest carbs like maltodextrin that you find in some of the recovery drinks.Instead, you can use high glycemic index carbohydrates from things like cantaloupe, watermelon,kiwi and other melons. You still do not need to go to the pasta and the white potatoes to get your carbs. And before turning to the maltodextrin, you could look to pure honey, molasses or maple syrup as pure carbohydrate sources before turning to the (often caffeinated) gels. You need 1.5 hours of relatively intense activity for some of these concerns to play a role, but sometimes 20-30 minutes of extremely intense activity such as Crossfit can warrant need for these carbohydrate considerations as well.

  2. Steve Thresher July 27, 2012 at 7:30 am - Reply

    “The average person can only absorb some 15-20g of protein in a sitting.”

    The maximum protein in one sitting argument is nonsense!

    • Alexander Rinehart, MS, DC, CCN July 27, 2012 at 9:30 am - Reply

      The blog article that you referenced addressed the question of whether extra protein would be turned into glucose/fat which was not my assertion. I also read this and carefully considered it in case I needed to adapt this article.

      Those with larger muscle or larger body size would need more protein such as 20-25 grams, and can get up to 40-45g or more following a workout. My position is that protein excess can begin putrefying in the gut and contribute to gasiness, inflammation and bloating which has been confirmed by a number of my clients particularly when excess high intensity exercise is involved.

      When your adrenals are revved up for these workouts you need adequate recovery. One of the effects of that adrenal revving is suppression of your ability to digest,and many people who are transitioning to a Paleo Diet or high protein diet, commonly have hypochlorhydria which decreases the ability to process protein in the first place. When you read the forums such as that on you’ll also see individuals still complaining of bloating and problems despite 100% compliance. So there’s contextual factors that are more nuanced as Mark Sisson also mentions in his article. And, 2-3 months into a high protein diet you can become much more efficient at turning protein into fuel due to epigenetic changes…just as you can become more efficient at high-fat diets for some high-endurance athletes.

      Basically he’s saying that the body is capable of eventually utilizing all of the protein, whether it’s for energy or eventually converted to ammonia and released through urine. But just because it’s capable, doesn’t mean their can’t be negative ramifications.

      So yes the body can handle these higher protein intakes, but can lead to kidney stress as well as the gasiness and bloating mentioned above.

      When you break up protein frequently throughout the day rather than in major increments, the body can utilize it more efficiently. The big difference is the post-workout and extended recovery meals where you need to have a higher intake of protein.

      These are general rules of thumb and guidelines are just guidelines at the end of the day. Case-by-case contextual factors need to be taken into account just like anything else.

      Thank you for your comment, I usually do not mention specific guidelines in terms of exact grams of carbs, fat or protein, but I’ve seen this help enough people at this point, so the final test is always to try each way and see what works best.

      • Steve Thresher July 30, 2012 at 11:38 pm - Reply

        Thanks for the response. Sorry my original comment was a little abrupt but I’ve been looking into this subject a lot lately and get annoyed when I come across another article spouting myths that been debunked several times over.

        This article on protein in take would seem to be appropriate to your target audience:

        Layne advises you should look at the leucine content to maximize the anabolic response.

  3. Link Bass April 21, 2013 at 11:05 am - Reply

    I think the author and anyone posting should post pictures of what they look like.
    Yah, lol, how is that 150g of protein working out of you? lol
    I’ll post pictures of me at 225 and lean….I promise you one thing, I eat a HELL of a lot more protein than 150g/day….generally at least 300g/day, and anyone who doesn’t look like a 160lb skinny guy does as well.

    • Thanks for your comment… I am looking at minimum needs to maintain muscle mass, we can surely handle more, and given enough time, we can undergo some metabolic shifting that helps us burn fuel from protein much easier as well.

      If you weigh 225 and are lean, and wanted to gain 5-10 more pounds of muscle, you would definitely want to eat higher than 150g/day, but it doesn’t need to be excessive based on what I reviewed, and I would still say >200g/day would be unnecessary, but not necessarily harmful.

      The lower your body fat %, the higher your muscle mass which would also tip the guidelines in favor of more protein. Guidelines are guidelines and always have exceptions based on context. So you’ll hear opinions across the board, the missing link is always context.

      If you have healthy levels of stomach acid, and drink ample amounts of water, eat liberal amounts of green veggies, and have been consistently increasing protein intake over a 2-3 month period, then 300g isn’t necessarily out of the question, but it’s likely being used partly as fuel and not all to muscle mass, and an abrupt transition to that amount would likely not be tolerated too well.

      And for an unnecessary sidenote, you may need up to some 80-90% loss of kidney function before it becomes detectable with standard blood tests. Typically, you only see medically-relevant results when induced by medications.

      And, so there can be some less optimal kidney function going on when you look at functional ranges of markers for kidney health and it’s worth noting.

      As for a picture, lol, I’d be happy to send one out of goodwill if you let me know where to send it. I’m 6’4″-6’5″ 225. Otherwise, I think I’m quoting minimum needs, and you’re quoting what’s possible on the higher end of the spectrum and I can’t argue with that. Enjoy your weekend and thanks again for the comment.

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