In this article, we will explore what macronutrients are, how macro ratios affect CrossFit performance, and how to calculate your macros for CrossFit. At the end of the article, I will teach you the problems with counting macros, and how to avoid them. Of course, one of the best ways to avoid the pitfalls of macro counting is to hire a coach 😉
You might be wondering, “why is a CrossFit macros coaching company telling me exactly what my macros should be?!” And it’s because we offer nutrition coaching, not macro “plans”. We don’t just throw a set of numbers at you and tell you to figure it out. We’re there to help you make lasting nutrition habit changes that fit your macros.
Without further adieu, here is EVERYTHING you need to know about macros for CrossFit.
What are Macronutrients (aka ‘Macros’)?
Macronutrients are the three nutrients your body uses to produce, and store, energy, including energy for exercise! The three macronutrients also happen to be the familiar protein, fat, and carbohydrate.
Each macronutrient contains energy, which is commonly measured in calories.
Protein has 4 calories per gram.
Carbohydrate has 4 calories per gram.
Fat has 9 calories per gram.
One of the biggest issues we have with diets is that they tend to favor one macronutrient and restrict the others. Keto is high fat, low carb. Paleo is similarly high fat, low carb. Vegans are generally high carb, low protein. Atkins is high protein, low carb. You get the point!
Why are Macros Important?
At Beyond Macros, we don’t believe these types of diets are the best for CrossFit athletes. Each macronutrient plays an important role in the body and needs to be consumed in the proper quantity. The proper quantity is the level of intake where both performance and ideal body composition are both supported.
Why Protein is Important for CrossFit
Proteins are used by the body for:
Building its structures and tissues, including muscle and skin.
Functional components such as
Hormones (ex. Adrenaline, melatonin)
Protein is an important macronutrient for CrossFit athletes because of the damage we do to our muscles and their functional components during exercise. The body uses amino acids, the building blocks of protein, to repair muscle tissue after exercise.
The body stores some amino acids in amino acid “pools”. But, even after you’ve finished exercising, your muscles continue to break down and rebuild. To make sure that the rebuilding outweighs the breakdown, and you recover properly, you must have enough amino acids available in your amino acid pools. The only way to do this is by eating foods that contain protein.
Why Carbs are Important for CrossFit
The body uses carbohydrates for many reasons, but most importantly, your body uses carbohydrates for energy.
The type of exercise you do in a CrossFit class relies on energy systems that run primarily on carbohydrates for fuel. During CrossFit, your body will use the carbohydrate stored in its muscles called “glycogen”.
If you restrict carbohydrates, as in the keto diet, you will have low power output and will not feel good during a CrossFit workout. However, if you eat too much carbohydrate the excess energy will be stored as body fat. This is why it is important to find the right carbohydrate intake for YOU, which we will discuss later.
Carbohydrates are also important for the busy CrossFitter. If you deplete your body of carbohydrates and then train hard you will suffer from brain fog and compromised cognitive function. The brain relies primarily on carbohydrate in the blood for energy. It can also run on ketones, but it takes days, sometimes weeks for the body to ramp up ketone production. So, if you want to have a productive day at work AND get a great workout in- you need carbs!
Why Fats are Important for CrossFit
Your body uses fats for some very important jobs, including:
Sex Hormone Production (testosterone, estrogen, progesterone)
Nervous System & Brain Tissue
As an organ, it insulates the body and helps regulate body temperature.
Strength gains are mostly neurological adaptations. This means your brain learns how to use the nervous system to recruit more muscle tissue. Acquiring high skill movements, such as a muscle up, also require the nervous system to learn the movement pattern.
With inadequate fat intake, you will not have the raw materials to properly produce sex hormones or insulate the nervous system so that you can learn new skills and move heavier weights.
This is why the best macro ratio for CrossFit performance has adequate amounts of fat!
How to Calculate Your Macros for CrossFit
The first step in calculating your macros is to calculate what your calorie needs are.
Some people might be thinking, “what about the connection between carbs and insulin? Hormones? It’s not all about calories in and calories out!” But bear with me.
Energy Balance= Calories in – Calories out
When calories in are less than calories out you lose mass.
When calories in are more than calories out you gain mass.
When calories in matches calories out, you maintain mass.
It can’t really be that simple…can it?
Yes, this equation is right. We have had hundreds of client transformations that prove it. BUT IT”S STILL NOT THAT SIMPLE.
Here is why.
The problem isn’t with the calorie balance equation. The problem lies in our ability to accurately measure calories in and calculate calories out. An online calorie and macronutrient calculator could never take every variable into account.
How Many Calories Does CrossFit Burn?
Calories out is almost impossible to accurately calculate without the use of a metabolic ward and indirect calorimetry. Unfortunately, this is very expensive, and also limits research sample sizes. Thus, even science can’t help us too much in calculating calories out.
Even if you could use a metabolic ward to determine your total daily energy expenditure, your energy expenditure will vary day-to-day based on the following factors:
Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR): Made up of basic cellular functions to sustain life at rest.
Non-Exercise Activity Thermogenesis: Think the activity your Fitbit tracks.
Thermic Effect of Feeding: The energy used to break down and use your food.
*Body temperature regulation: specifically when exposed to extreme temperatures. Otherwise, this is a part of RMR.
There is another wrench in the gears when it comes to calculating your calorie needs for CrossFit. Calories out are often tied to calories in! This happens because the human body is an adaptive and economical system. If you consistently eat 2000 calories-per-day, it will adapt to use exactly 2000 calories.
Here is a scenario when this becomes a problem. Let’s say you use an online calorie calculator and it estimates that to lose weight you need to eat 2200 calories. If you’ve already been eating 2000 calories-per-day, and 2200 calories is actually a surplus. If you took the calculator’s advice, you would probably gain or maintain your body weight. This is the problem with online calorie & macro calculators!
Now you are probably wondering, “if a metabolic ward is too expensive, and online calculators might not work, how the heck am I supposed to calculate the right calorie intake for me?”
If you downloaded your CrossFit Macros guide, pull it up and follow along. It will walk you through how to calculate your calorie and macronutrient needs for CrossFit performance, fat loss, and muscle gain.
The first step you will see is to calculate your calorie needs. Remember, this is a starting point. You will pretty quickly know if this is the right calorie intake, and can adjust as necessary. Later on, I will discuss how to make adjustments.
To calculate your calorie needs, choose your goal, determine your activity level, and then multiply your bodyweight in pounds by the corresponding cell in the table below.
The next step is to calculate your macro ratio. This is simple. Choose your goal, body type, and then pick the corresponding macronutrient ratio from the chart below.
For our 1-on-1 clients, we do these calculations a little bit differently, but they work out to be pretty similar. Again, this is a starting point for you. It is IMPOSSIBLE to find the right calories and macro ratio for every client the first time. So, I will tell you at the end of this post how to adjust your calories and macros if things don’t get moving right away!
And here is a video to help you calculate your macros!
Why You Should Count Macros When You Do CrossFit
Counting your macros is an effective way to get leaner, stronger, and perform your best. Macro counting achieves these goals by:
Making sure that your calorie intake reflects your primary goal.
Ensuring that you eat adequate protein to gain or maintain your current muscle mass.
Feed your body the right amount of carbohydrates to fuel CrossFit performance.
Provide enough fats to maintain a healthy nervous system and hormone balance.
It is also a great way to see fast results. When you have your calorie and macronutrient ratio dialed in, you will see noticeable changes in body composition and hit regular PRs.
How to Count Macronutrients for CrossFit
Counting your macros is actually very simple, but that doesn’t mean it is easy. Luckily, the app and website, MyFitnessPal, does most of the work for you. Below is a step-by-step way to use MyFitnessPal to dial in your macros for CrossFit.
Change your calorie and macronutrient goals from the defaults. Use the numbers you calculated in the CrossFit Macros Guide. The app will then automatically calculate your protein, carb, and fat intake in grams.
Use the app to keep a food journal for a NORMAL week of eating, don’t make any changes yet!*
*This is the most important part of the process. If you’re not working with a coach who can get to know your eating habits, and evaluate the first steps you should take to start hitting your macros, you need to become aware of your own habits. From there, you can start to identify areas of improvement. To do this:
Review your normal week of eating, and look for patterns.
Are you under eating protein? If so, identify some foods you can add to your day to get more protein.
Are you eating too much fat? Identify the sneaky sources of fat in your food journal and determine how to cut them.
Are you under eating? If so, which macronutrient are you worst at eating? Find foods that can help you eat more of that macronutrient.
Pick a typical day from last week. Add or subtract foods from each meal or snack to see if you can hit your calorie and macronutrient targets.
Commit to ONE simple behavior change that you can make over the next few weeks to move closer to your macros. If you try to do everything at once, you will get overwhelmed and fall off!
Track your progress and make new behavior changes when the old ones become second nature.
Here is a video to help make macro counting easier using MyFitnessPal.
Common Macro Counting Mistakes CrossFitters Make
Although macro counting is an effective way to lean out, gain muscle, improve performance and more…it still has some potential pitfalls. I will teach you the common pitfalls with macro counting and pose some solutions so that you don’t fall victim.
Macro Counting Problem #1: Learning the “Macro Language”
When you first start macro counting, one of the biggest challenges is “learning the macro language”. What I mean by this is, knowing how much of each macronutrient a food has.
For example, you may believe that when you’re eating meat you are getting a great protein source. What you may not realize that most of the calories in meat come from fat. For people trying to lose fat, this might mean that you don’t have as much room in your macros to eat added fat sources.
The initial period of getting to know roughly how much protein, carbohydrate, and fat are in each food can lead to frustration.
Instead, pay attention to how much protein and fat are in what looks like a normal portion of meat. This way, you will start to learn the macro language. The easiest way to become “fluent” is to weigh and measure your food at the beginning. Pay attention to the macros in myfitnesspal, and start to “calibrate” your eye to intuitively know how much food you need to eat at each meal.
Macro Counting Problem #2: It’s a Diet, Diets Fail
Diets fail for many reasons. What do you think about when you hear the word diet? Most people will say things like:
“I will feel hungry”
And looking at the language used to describe our perception of diet is enough evidence for why they fail.
Diets also fail because they represent a major deviation from what is “normal” for you. When the diet “ends” you will usually revert to bad habits. Because your body has gone through a period of change, it is going to fight to rebound back towards its starting point.
Instead of treating macro counting like a diet, we at Beyond Macros use it as a compass to help guide our clients towards good eating habits. If you’re doing it on your own, you should do the same. The mentality has to be that you are changing your nutrition habits. It’s a long-term process.
Even if your goal is weight loss or mass gain over a 3-month period, you can still begin creating better eating habits. This will lay the foundation for sustainable change once your calorie deficit or surplus is over.
Macro Counting Problem #3: Food Quality
One of the major benefits of macro counting, flexibility, is also one of its biggest obstacles. Unfortunately, Instagram has created an “IIFYM” or “flexible dieting” culture where people with 8-pack abs pose eating donuts and post pictures of their franken-food desserts. Sugar-free, fat-free ice cream sandwiches anyone? These “macro friendly” foods are usually extremely low quality.
This flexible dieting/iifym culture has also, unfortunately, produced a host of coaches and programs that focus on hitting your macros at all costs. Usually, this means eating in a very unnatural way, such as crushing gummy bears or fig newtons at the end of the day as a source of pure carbs, for example.
You can lose fat and gain muscle eating low quality foods. BUT we at Beyond Macros take a long-term perspective on nutrition. We believe it is a dangerous approach to eat processed foods with artificial ingredient and sweeteners EVERY DAY…even if it “fits”.
If you eat sweet foods and desserts every day, you are developing the habit of eating sweet foods. If you fall off the wagon, even for a month, that habit will lead you down a rabbit hole with nothing but fat gain at the end. And you might get stuck down there…
That is why at Beyond Macros we want to educate our clients about how to make it convenient and tasty to eat high-quality foods. We can teach clients how to insert “cheat” foods without forming bad habits around them.
You can easily avoid the flexible dieting trap by using common sense. Avoid low-quality and processed foods, and become a “nutrient seeking missile!”
Macro Counting Problem #3: Nutrient Timing
Another problem with macro counting is that it doesn’t help you with nutrient timing.
Is it really OK just to eat all your protein at one meal?
Does it really not matter what I eat before, during, and after training?
Is it OK to snack consistently throughout the day if I hit my macros by the end?
These are all questions I have heard, and they are great questions. Nutrient timing is outside the scope of this article, but if you are taking a DIY approach to nutrition, you need to educate yourself!
We recommend the following nutrient timing resources:
As I mentioned earlier, it’s impossible to calculate the perfect calories and macros for everybody using the same equations. Everybody is unique, and will have slightly different requirements.
The Calories and Macros for CrossFit guide provided you with a great starting place. You should download it now if you haven’t already so that you can find your starting place.
So, what do you do if the calories and macros you are following aren’t leading to results?
First, let’s establish what a “healthy” rate of progress is.
For fat loss:
0.5-1lb per week for women.
0.75-1.25lb per week for men.
For muscle gain:
0.25-0.5% of your bodyweight in lbs of muscle gained per month.
Weight gain should be at about 1lb per week.
For performance, it’s a mixture of subjective and objective observation:
Are your performance indicators objectively improving?
Are you recovering from exercise?
How are your energy levels for exercise? At work?
Next, there are many considerations when making adjustments. This is where a coach comes in handy. But, if you’re taking a DIY approach here is the simplest approach you can take to find what works for you:
If you aren’t losing weight (or it’s slow) drop your food intake by 100 calories. Keep your protein constant and remove some carb and fat.
If you are losing weight too quickly, add 100 calories from protein and carbohydrate.
If you aren’t gaining mass (or it’s slow) add 100 calories from carb and protein.
If you aren’t feeling recovered, try adding in 25g of carbohydrates.
After making an adjustment, observe for at least 10 days to see whether your weight trend begins moving at the correct speed. You can adjust in 100 calorie intervals until you are progressing at the right speed.
Your Nutrition for CrossFit Gameplan
As you have just learned, counting macros for CrossFit can be a very effective method to lean out, gain muscle and improve performance. It has it’s pitfalls, but with knowledge of them, you can avoid the traps.
Download MyFitnessPal, log a normal week of eating.
Audit your normal habits, and identify one habit to change to move you closer to your macros.
Only add one new habit at a time when the last habit feels second nature.
If you aren’t progressing, experiment with some adjustments to your calories and macros.
In the case that you need additional accountability, you have hit a plateau, or just want the support of an expert coach who can save you time by pointing you in the right direction- I encourage you to schedule an initial interview to learn more about working with a Beyond Macros coach.
At Beyond Macros we are THE sustainable transformation nutrition coaches. If you are interested in learning exactly how to get leaner, stronger, and perform your best Click Here to learn more about what you get with a Beyond Macros coach, or schedule an initial meeting with us HERE