CrossFit Training: How Going Primal Will Enhance Recovery

Tired sports man after box jumping exercise leaning on box. Dark picture.Exercise is a major stressor. But it’s a major acute stressor, rather than a chronic one. It hits us, then it’s over, and we recover. When the next session rolls around, we’re better/faster/stronger/fitter. We adapt. At least, that’s how exercise is supposed to go if you have enough buffer time between sessions. Most people do provide enough buffer time between their exercise sessions to promote recovery. Many provide too much, leading to detraining.

Some people go the other way. For these people who train 4, 5, 6 times a week, workouts can become, for all intents and purposes, chronic stressors. String enough acute stressors together with small enough buffers in between and you’re stewing in low level inflammation. Never quite recovering, never quite wringing out as much adaptation as you should.

A regimen like CrossFit demands a lot from you. The workouts themselves are demanding, prescribing complex movements, high intensity, and high volume. The weekly schedule is rigorous, with some boxes recommending 4-6 workout sessions a week. This can produce incredible gains in strength, body composition, and overall fitness—if you’re careful to recover and avoid burnout. If you’re not careful, if you don’t optimize your recovery, CrossFit training can burn you out.

Notice if you’re feeling an increased fatigue you can’t shake, decreased work capacity, intense sugar cravings, or poor sleep. Any of these are signs you need to pay more attention and time to recovery. If you’re finding yourself more injury-prone, obviously that’s a major red flag whose message you should heed.

Today, I’m going to explain how going Primal offers unique and particular benefits to CrossFitters and anyone else engaged in intense training who wants to optimize their recovery.

I won’t go deep into everything that factors into recovery from workouts, either because I’ve already covered them or they aren’t unique to Primal. These include:

Calories: Your body needs food to recover.

Protein: You need it to build back up that muscle you’ve been putting through the wringer.

Carbs: Refilling that glycogen you just burned through is important if you plan on getting back out there tomorrow.

Fat: Saturated fat, monounsaturated fat, omega-3s, and cholesterol all contribute to muscle recovery and protein synthesis. Make sure you’re eating plenty of all four. I recommend including a large source of all four in your last meal on training days. There’s something special about giving your body a ton of testosterone/androgenic precursors to play with before bedtime, which is when most of the growing and recovering happens.

One big issue is time itself. If you’re training five times a week, you simply don’t have as much recovery time available as the person training three or four times a week. It’s a numbers game. You can’t change that. In this scenario, your recovery strategy becomes even more crucial, your time more precious.

Ancestral Sleep

I have to start with sleep. When it comes to recovery from your training, it’s almost everything. Let’s put it this way: If you could fix one thing and one thing only in order to enhance recovery, it would be sleep.

Sleep is when muscles grow. If you don’t sleep, you not only lose the opportunity to make gains. One study found that sleep deprivation actually increases urinary excretion of nitrogen, which could indicate muscle breakdown and loss of lean mass.

Sleep is when testosterone and growth hormone spike. Sleep loss increases the catabolic glucocorticoid family of hormones like cortisol and decreases the anabolic triad of testosterone, IGF-1, and growth hormone, accentuating the “degradation pathways” while reducing the “protein synthesis pathways.”

Bad sleep impairs insulin sensitivity and glucose tolerance. If we can’t tolerate glucose or utilize insulin’s effects, we’ll have major issues replenishing the glycogen we need to recover and come back for the next session.

Okay, so, “go sleep more” isn’t good advice. It’s what everyone says. It’s what everyone knows. But it’s damn difficult to put into practice. How can Primal help you sleep more? What do we offer that others don’t?

First, we offer an evolutionary framework for understanding why human sleep is so messed up. After hundreds of thousands of years of hewing our sleep patterns to the light/dark cycles of the natural world, we’ve suddely reversed it. We spend our days indoors, away from natural light, and our nights at home bathing in artificial light. And since light exposure to our eyes determines our circadian rhythm and how well we sleep, restoring our ancient relationship to light is a prerequisite for good sleep. It’s actually simple:

Expose yourself to natural light during the morning and daytime. Sunlight is a great source of blue light that keeps us awake at night (bad) and alert and energized during the day (good). It has to be real, natural light to set the circadian rhythm most effectively.

Limit artificial light at night. Blue light (from screens, smartphones) tricks your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s daytime all over again, which depresses melatonin and disrupts your sleep. A pair of UVEX blue-blocking safety goggles is an inexpensive workaround that really works.

For more details on putting the Primal sleep concepts into practice, read this post.

Better Food Quality, Better Recovery

I wish I could tell you to eat McDonald’s and cheese danishes, spaghetti and meatballs and fried calamari. I mean, you can. Go on. You’ll probably stay pretty fit if you’re doing CrossFit. But you won’t excel. And I can’t in good conscience say the quality doesn’t matter for your recovery.

The Primal Blueprint doesn’t stress the consumption of local, preferably organic produce, pastured animal products, and high-quality fats for superficial reasons. We have very good reasons for spending a little extra and taking a little more time to obtain better foods. We like eggs from bug-eating, grass-scrounging hens because they are extremely nutrient-dense and make our LDL more resistant to oxidative damage. We like grass-fed lamb because its fat comes pre-loaded with antioxidants that reduce carcinogenic formation during cooking. We like organic produce because it has, believe it or not, been shown to have higher levels of plant polyphenols and certain vitamins than its conventional counterparts.

Recovery is about reducing unnecessary inflammation. We’re already coming off a major spike in inflammation—thanks to the intense training session—and the last thing we need is more for no reason. When we eat higher quality foods, like pastured eggs, grass-fed ruminants, and organic produce, we’re reducing the inflammatory burden that otherwise impedes the recovery process. We avoid inflammation-producing foods like grains and industrial oils. On top of this, be mindful of your individual responses to other possible triggers like dairy, eggs, nightshades or even certain fruit in case they might be contributing to the problem.

Get Sunlight (or Vitamin D)

Sun exposure doesn’t just provide natural light that sets your circadian rhythm and promotes better sleep and recovery. It also helps recovery directly by increasing vitamin D production.

First off, vitamin D is a prohormone—a precursor of testosterone. Our muscles need testosterone to recover and build new tissue  Studies show that replenishing one’s vitamin D levels and correcting deficiencies increases testosterone production.

In 2010, researchers took adults with severe vitamin D deficiency, tested how quickly they could replenish local ATP-PC for fast energy in the muscle, gave them supplements for 12 weeks, then tested ATP-PC replenishment rates again. Their average ATP-PC recovery time half life dropped from 34.4 seconds to 27.8 seconds after getting vitamin D up to snuff.

The faster your ATP-PC replenishes, the quicker you can call on it during intense efforts without needing so much glycogen or fat. The more testosterone you have at your disposal, the better your muscles will recover.

Other Stressors

Stress is stress is stress. If you’re losing your job and your marriage is falling apart and you’ve got a bad head cold and you just got a new puppy and you just found out you or your partner are pregnant, you’ve got a lot on your plate. All those add stress to your life and impact your ability to recover from your physical training. Of course, carving out some time to yourself to engage in physically demanding work can also relieve stress, but only to a point. Eventually, the physiological burden of balancing psychosocial stress and training stress becomes too much. At some point we all break down.

I have no specific advice for the specific stressors I listed because they’re different for everyone. Primal acknowledges that modern life poses unique challenges to the human organism. We may not run from hungry hyenas, face swarms of bees protecting their honey, stalk an animal for over a day only to step on a twig and send it bounding off to freedom, or engage in hand-to-hand combat with rivals, but we stress. To our bodies, these stressors are major. They don’t really stop accumulating, either, which creates a chronic stress situation that destroys recovery.

Rethink your stress. You’re gearing up to head out for a hunting party; of course your pulse is pounding (to deliver nutrients to important tissues) and you’re breathing fast (to grab extra oxygen for the task at hand) and you’re anxious (to breed caution and help you make the best decision). It’s just your Primal self trying to make sense of the impending task the only way it knows. That’s a good thing.

Recovery is a big piece of success in CrossFit, maybe the biggest. You really want to get this right. Luckily, going Primal has its benefits.

That’s it for today, everyone. Take care.

This article was co-written with Laura Rupsis, Level 1 CrossFit CertifiedPrimal 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 three decades researching and 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 Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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13 thoughts on “CrossFit Training: How Going Primal Will Enhance Recovery”

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  1. Or said another way, it’s all about hacking and maximizing the beneficial hormones and minimizing the damaging hormones. Great article that can be adapted to any sporting and fitness endeavor. Thanks!

  2. Eating in sync with our physical output requires practice but pays huge dividends when it is done properly. Compound movements such as dead lifts, farmers walks and power cleans are extremely taxing and require greater attention to all phases of recovery.

    Stress can be difficult to identify and has a way of manifesting itself in a variety of forms.

    Long bike rides, hikes , walks, swimming and even reading have helped me recover on days where I simply felt weary.

    Invest in sleep, get the most agreeable mattress and pillows that you can.

    Sometimes nothing works….those days you are forced to slog through time and endure the discomfort. I suggest using it as a foil to appreciate the days that you are feeling positive and energized.

  3. Rest is so important. I was training five days a week and slowly, I was feeling more and more tired, and I would try to eat more but I wasn’t just hungry.

    I cut down the sessions from five to three, and scaled down the work outs (probably the hardest thing to do since you feel you are doing nothing) and suddenly not only wasn’t so tired, but I was also ravenous! It seems I was so tired I couldn’t even eat.

    Now I’m feeling better but definitely taking it easier

  4. Isn’t this just a compilation of standard primal advice? Not unique to CrossFitters?

    Out of curiosity, why are we seeing so many CrossFit articles on MDA? Are most MDA readers doing it?

    1. I doubt that the older folks that read MDA are doing much Cross-Fit.

    2. Mark keeps saying it’s just a “series” because he’s been getting questions from Cross-Fitters. A very long series indeed. (And yes, it seems like standard Primal advice repackaged to entice the CF crowd.)

      Hope we eventually get similar attention to the women’s issues (menopause, hypothyroidism, pregnancy, etc) that many of us have been clamoring for.

    3. From what I’ve observed, cross fit is not a long term strategy if you want to stick with the scheduled program version of it, but then again, that is the point that the primal blueprint exercise regime originally made – a non regimental approach to doing high intensity workouts at a pace that suits your lifestyle, and week to week circumstance.

      Cross fitters get too caught up in sticking to a program at all costs, and end up burning out.

      In reality, you will have high and low energy weeks, injuries, and life situations, your program needs to be continually adaptable, yet disciplined.

      You can gain some good ideas for workouts from cross fit, but once you’ve done it for a year or two, you should be ready to move on and be your own coach, and format a self-made exercise regime, with the ultimate objective to train your BRAIN, not just the body, into a lifelong, sustainable approach to exercise, where you have learnt the techniques and form, and are disciplined to enforce your own program of exercise, without the need for a personal trainer, or classes telling you what to do.

      In other words, you need to work with a view of throwing away the “training wheels” at a future point – fitness instructors and the need for classes are training wheels.

      1. Good points, tribal. Crossfit can be highly overrated, and injuries under-reported. A physical therapist customer of mine thanked me warmly when I said I did Crossfit. She said that she had built her business on injured Crossfitters. I no longer do it, several permanent injuries from doing it for 2 years.

  5. Such an excellent article! I love sharing these, because many of my clients/patients/readers overdo CrossFit (or other exercise) and aren’t eating or living in a way that counters resulting inflammation and other fallout. Love this “CrossFit meets Primal” series! Thank you!

  6. Dear Mark,

    I’m not a crossfitter, I play badminton. Long story short, I love it and I’m trying to do it as often as possible, but it’s a pretty demanding sport, and I’m starting to have a lot of problems with my rigjt arm tendons – shoulder, elbow, wrist, etc. I really don’t want to cut down, it’s enormous fun, and I’m very bored with just going to gym so that’s how I keep myself fit. I take glycine and vitamin D every day, but what else do you think I can do?