Are CrossFit and Primal Compatible?

Different crossfit equipment used for crossfit training at fitness clubBack when they were infants, CrossFit and paleo were the best of friends. Robb Wolf was giving CrossFit nutrition seminars. CF boxes were running paleo challenges and offering meal plans to clients. Tens of thousands of people were introduced to paleo through CrossFit and CrossFit through paleo.

Over time, however, they drifted apart. CrossFit met and fell in with the Zone Diet—a calm, well-mannered lad with impeccable balance, and paleo’s dad got a job in another city. They ended up going to different schools. These things happen. It’s fine. Both CrossFit and paleo are better versions of themselves for having met each other.

I’ve been interested in CrossFit for the better part of a decade. I’ve been to several of the Games. One of CrossFit’s best (and best-known) coaches, Kelly Starrett, was a presentee at PrimalCon Oxnard and a contributor to MDA. The infamous Grundler Brothers were early supporters of the Primal Health Coach certification program. Without CrossFit’s early endorsement, I’m not sure ancestral health would be as big and influential as it is today.

For the past year, my Primal Health Coach team and I have been working with Absolution CrossFit (of LaGrange, IL) co-owner and coach Laura Rupsis to understand what CrossFit athletes are missing in their diets and lifestyles. We’re convinced we can help them. I’m convinced we can help coaches help their clients using a Primal approach.

CrossFitters want:

To perform better. They’re interested in eating healthy food, but they don’t want their performance to suffer because of it.

To lose body fat and gain muscle. Who doesn’t? Losing body fat can improve performance in exercises where you manipulate your own body weight, but not if it means losing muscle and strength.

CrossFitters worry about:

Getting enough calories. With Paleo diets it’s notoriously hard to overeat, which is great if you’re trying to lose weight, but not so great if you’re trying to support an active training and competing schedule.

Getting enough carbs. I don’t blame your average CrossFitter for giving up on paleo. Keeping up with WODs while eating lean meat and getting your carbs from broccoli and asparagus sounds like hell. It doesn’t have to be that way on Primal, and I’ll show you how.

Burning out. CrossFit is taxing. There’s no way around that. And our real lives are busier than ever. Between kids, work, commuting, cooking, cleaning, and, hell, living, we all have a ton on our plates. Throwing one of the most intense training programs in the mix can push people to the breaking point. I’ll explain how going Primal can help prevent or mitigate burnout.

Many of the top CrossFitters have given up on paleo, opting for more flexible diets. Orthodox paleo just doesn’t work for the highest level of CrossFitters, who expend a ton of energy and eat a ton to compensate. And we can guess that this isn’t a spurious breakup. CrossFitters are students of the body and the inputs that make it run smoothly. If they’re moving on from paleo, something isn’t working.

But there’s a problem: Many of the most influential CrossFit bloggers, thinkers, and coaches are throwing the baby out with the bathwater. They assume if paleo doesn’t work, Primal doesn’t either. Researchers even released a study showing that paleo eating undermines the benefits of CrossFit training. It was just retracted for being, well, completely wrong, but it goes to show the forces arrayed against the union of CrossFit and paleo.

Although paleo and CrossFit have drifted apart, parallels remain. CrossFitters don’t fear fat, eat plenty of animals, understand the importance of plants, and love them some bacon. Even the movements prescribed by CrossFit are ancestral at their core—squatting, picking things off the ground, running, jumping, bending, reaching, climbing, hoisting, pressing things overhead, pulling—only performed at greater intensities.

Rather than merely recreate the paleolithic movement milieu, CrossFit transcends it in many ways.

CrossFit asks you to go as hard as humanly possible without breaking down, sacrificing your quality of movement, and hurting yourself, all while paying homage to your heritage as a human animal. That’s no joke, man. And they take it seriously. All the CrossFitters I know spend almost as much time warming up and doing “prehab” mobility work than they do working out. Sure, people get injured—as they do in every sport. Contrary to popular belief, CrossFit has never been shown to be more dangerous than other types of training. Recent studies show that CrossFitters experience no more shoulder injuries than other athletes, for example. If anything, CrossFitters get fewer injuries than athletes on other programs.

My point is this: CrossFit asks a lot of your body. I’m here to argue that Primal eating and living can provide the answer. There are many reasons why the Primal Blueprint, in contrast to paleo, can make CrossFitters fitter, faster, and recover better. I’ll just list a few for now:

  1. Primal is a more flexible version of paleo. It’s more malleable, allowing use of some of the most potent foods for recovery from intense training—dairy, whey protein, and dense starchy carbohydrates. Early incarnations of paleo restricted dairy, assuming universal intolerance, and cautioned against starchy plants, assuming everyone was sedentary.
  2. Primal isn’t paleo. Paleo is a great approach to diet for most people. You could do a lot worse than eating animals and plants and avoiding potentially allergenic foods. But the paleo diet people are criticizing is an archaic, narrow version that just doesn’t apply to the Primal Blueprint. As new evidence unfolds, Primal adapts. It’s the only way to stay honest in this business, even if it means dining on crow (which, by the way, is totally Primal) from time to time.
  3. Primal gets you fat-adapted. While the most intense WODs definitely burn through—and require that you replenish—a ton of glycogen, fat adaptation benefits every athlete. A fat-adapted athlete will burn more body fat at any given intensity. A fat-adapted athlete will hold on to muscle glycogen longer, saving it for later. A fat-adapted athlete has more and better mitochondria with the metabolic flexibility to burn fat, ketones, and carbs. And once you become fat-adapted and build those fat-burning mitochondria, they don’t just disappear. You can even eat more carbs, and your muscles will maintain the upregulated ability to burn fat.
  4. Primal is macronutrient-agnostic. My personal flavor of Primal is definitely higher fat and lower carb, but that’s me. That’s what works for my goals and lifestyle. For a top CrossFitter, Primal might be higher carb and lower fat. It’s really up to you and your goals.
  5. Primal is way more than diet. Heck, your average CrossFitter could maintain whatever diet they want, only follow the Primal lifestyle laws, and see huge improvements to their performance and recovery. Sleep, sun exposure, social contact, mental stimulation, circadian health, nature exposure, and other lifestyle factors all have huge impacts on not only your physical health, but also your physical performance.

The primary goals of the Primal Blueprint are to offer information about how various macronutrients, micronutrients, and other food compounds affect your health and performance, and allow—nay, force—you to chart your own course. Some say that’s a weakness, a lack of conviction. So what? Ideological conviction is exactly what we don’t need.

In the coming weeks, I’ll address the common criticisms CrossFitters make about paleo, why they don’t apply to Primal, and how going Primal can actually solve many of the most common issues CrossFitters face.

Tune in tomorrow for the first official post in this series. Thanks for stopping by today, everyone. Have questions you’d like me to take up around CrossFit (or other intensive training program) and the Primal Blueprint? Share and discuss in the comment board.

This article was co-written with Laura Rupsis, Level 1 CrossFit Certified, Primal Health Coach Certified, and owner of Absolution CrossFit in La Grange, IL.

TAGS:  mobility

About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending more than three decades educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates flavorful and delicious kitchen staples crafted with premium ingredients like avocado oil. With over 70 condiments, sauces, oils, and dressings in their lineup, Primal Kitchen makes it easy to prep mouthwatering meals that fit into your lifestyle.

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