CrossFit Training: How Primal Enables Elite Performance

Inline_Primal_for_Elite_Training_CrossFitBy now, you know that CrossFit and Primal are totally compatible. You can get enough carbs, calories, and micronutrients eating this way. The specific foods we recommend support healthy recovery, injury prevention, tissue health, ample energy reserves, and even longevity. The lifestyle recommendations—the Primal Laws—provide extra advantages most “diets” completely ignore. And the focus on fat-adaptation buttresses an energy system many athletes lack. All in all, Primal is a great choice for any CrossFitter.

But one final question remains: Can it support and enable elite performance?

Most of my previous posts in the series answer this question, at least partly.

We now know that there’s nothing stopping someone from eating enough calories and carbs on Primal to support CrossFit training. It may be a bit easier to obtain carbs and calories from a pint of ice cream and garlic bread than from a big baked potato and fried plantain—but not by much. And we’re all adults here. We should be able to eat the healthy whole foods without complaining.

We know that the specific foods and lifestyle interventions Primal recommends can help athletes gain strength and build muscle, thereby improving a major determinant of a CrossFitter’s success.

We know that good sleep hygiene and circadian alignment improve recovery. We know that tamping down excessive stress and inflammation allows a healthy response to training-related stress and inflammation. if you don’t recover, you don’t perform.

We know that the macros are important, which is why many CrossFitters focus entirely on the macros, but that misses a major aspect of Primal performance benefits: the micronutrients. What’s great is that alongside all those Primal whole food carbs, protein, and calories you get actual micronutrients that make your body run better.

I’m a big picture guy. I designed the Primal Blueprint to be a simple path to better health, something that Grandma and Grandpa could figure out without having to subscribe to an RSS feed or learn how to read a PubMed abstract. Something you could explain on an elevator ride.

But I also like the weeds, the nitty gritty details, the nerdy stuff. So do many of my readers. They aren’t exactly necessary for basic good health, body composition, and fitness, but they do provide an edge to people who want to really excel. Especially CrossFit athletes.

At the top, the little things really matter. Tia Toomey won the the title of Fittest on Earth literally by a hair. In the last workout to determine the winner she was beaten by her countrywoman Kara Webb. But Tia took the title because she was more consistent and performed just THAT much better over the entire Games. Then you’ve got Matt Fraser who completely ran away with the title yet again. He is so far superior because he doesn’t compromise and takes no chances. He eats paleo. These elite athletes don’t take any chances with their nutrition. They understand that macros are only part of the story. The athlete that stops there is destined to limit his or her potential.

You’ve got to get into the weeds like Fraser and Toomey did, and I’ve got three areas that most CrossFitters completely miss if they take an “if it fits my macros” approach:

Omega-6 Intake

As CrossFitters purportedly engaged in physically-demanding activity on a regular basis, you have more protection against excess omega-6 than most. You’re burning more than you’re storing. But you’re still incorporating all those omega-6 fatty acids into your cellular and mitochondrial membranes. The mitochondria are especially critical for a CrossFit athlete because they’re the power plants of our cells, turning incoming calories into the ATP that makes squatting, running, jumping, throwing, and moving one’s body through space and time possible. Mitochondria with too much linoleic acid (the primary omega-6 fat in the food system) are bad, leaky, oxidative stress-prone power plants.

Mitochondria whose membranes contain high levels of PUFAs are less stable, more prone to oxidative damage, and function worse than mitochondria whose membranes contain more monounsaturated and saturated fats.

To avoid excessive omega-6 intake, watch out for foods that contain or are cooked in processed seed oils like soybean oil, canola oil, sunflower/safflower oil, or grapeseed oil. Whole foods sources of omega-6, like nuts and seeds, usually don’t cause problems as long as you avoid the processed, refined, concentrated oils.


Fiber is fiber, in most people’s minds. It “provides colonic bulk.” It “absorbs cholesterol.” It enables bowl-shattering bowel movements. It’s “good,” for some reason. For many years, I’ve talked about the importance of the gut bacteria we carry. Well, those critters need food. They need to eat, and prebiotic fiber is the best food source for them.

When you feed your gut bacteria, they prosper and do good things for you. They produce steroid hormones like testosterone. They convert anti-nutrients into micronutrients. They reduce inflammation, shore up leaky guts, and improve your nutrient absorption. These are all important for athletes looking to maximize performance.

Great prebiotic sources include green bananas/plantains (gross straight up, great frozen in smoothies), cooked-then-cooled potatoes, raw potato starch, onions, garlic, leeks, almonds, pistachios. For the most part, all plant foods will provide at least some degree of prebiotic fiber.

Fat-Adapted Metabolic Flexibility

CrossFit hits every energy system hard, yet the majority of athletes who haven’t taken the time to get fat-adapted are squandering a ton of potential energy. I’m not saying you can win the CrossFit games on a zero-carb diet. I’m saying that taking 4-6 weeks to get fat-adapted before resuming carb cycling can improve your metabolic flexibility—your ability to maximize fat burning before switching over to glucose.

Take Dr. Peter Attia’s experience training in a totally fat-adapted state. At an intensity where most people would be burning pure glycogen, Attia was still burning about 30% fat. And that was on a fully ketogenic diet almost bereft of carbs. If you cycle in some carbs when needed, you can retain the fat-burning ability while having plenty of glycogen for maximal efforts.

Do be advised: As you transition into fat-adaptation, expect your WODs to totally suck. This is normal. This is fine. Just ride it out. The end result is worth it.

Primal isn’t magic. Nothing is. It won’t turn you into a genetic uberman/woman. At some level, we must acknowledge the role of genetics in truly elite physical performance. Michael Jordan isn’t Michael Jordan only because he practiced and worked hard. He’s Michael Jordan because he combined elite genetics with hard work and practice. The same goes for any of the top CrossFit games competitors. They are the products of great genes and smart training.

But Primal will help you reach your greatest potential.

When it comes down to it, any elite athlete should expect that eating healthier foods, getting more sleep, reducing systemic inflammation, improving connective tissue health, getting fat-adapted, and maximizing nutrient density without sacrificing carbs or overall calories will improve performance. At the very least, it won’t hurt. It can’t.

What do you think? Thanks for reading, everyone.

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

Primal Kitchen Ranch

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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15 thoughts on “CrossFit Training: How Primal Enables Elite Performance”

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    1. Amen. Many if not most of the readers here are older, somewhere between 50 and ancient. We don’t do crossfit. Why so many articles on it?

      1. I’m not sure what age has to do with it. I’m almost 50 and many of the folks I do crossfit with are older.

      2. As a 56 yo cross fitter I have found the series great thanks Mark. Many at our affiliate are always playing with nutrition and various “nutrition challenges” thru the year and these insights / comments are valued. Cheers

    2. There is a whole load about the basics of the Primal lifestyle on this site. It may seem that some demographic are overlooked; but what’s happening is that this site has been entering another period of deep “specialization”.

      This has happened in the past. See the “fasting” series.

      The content WILL return to the general basics, as it often does, and prod another particular of the health paleosphere. Until that, however, it’s adding minutia in some corners — corners which, in the present and in the future, will prove very useful for some people!

      There is no other place you can get both such a generalized, holistic view on the topic of health… as well as deep minutia. It’s because Mark & his workers have been so prolific. I don’t think this series will cause many problems or disconnect among the seniors. It’s merely a cycle.

      1. Stefan, thanks for sharing your feedback and perspectives on these “deep dives” I sometimes take with more specialized series on MDA. I am indeed doing more to reach out to the CrossFit community, and this series was part of that. Many years ago there was quite a bit of collaboration with the paleo/Primal sphere that dissipated with time. No one’s fault…just happened as things do. We have a number of Primal Health Coaches now who are also CrossFit trainers and even Box owners. From their feedback and my own conversations with CrossFit friends and associates, it felt like it was time to reboot that conversation, if not collaboration, between the two spheres.

        1. And I have no doubt you’re making an impact; hell, I learnt a lot from it myself! Keeping touch between those two spheres is very important for the long-term evolution of this community, I think.

          It’s overall a good investment, very educative & in-depth, and there’s really no drawback to it! Of course I love these periodical series.

  1. I don’t think so much space would be devoted to Primal and Crossfit unless there had been a serious problem regarding Primal and Crossfit.

  2. My favorite sport is tennis, I wonder if any of the top tennis professionals are doing a primal diet? The top players have an entire entourage, strategy coaches, fitness trainers, sports psychologists, dietitians, physical therapists, masseuse … oh yeah and the guy they pay 100K a year to string their racquets. 🙂

    1. I am a tennis fanatic, and have never heard of any of the top players doing paleo. Novak is gluten free. Nadal says his typical diet is pasta, fish, vegetables. Venus is on a vegan diet because of her autoimmune disease. That’s all I’ve heard, anyway!

  3. Great summary. Thanks for prioritizing the nitty gritty and the big picture. If it can’t be explained during an elevator talk it is too complicated.

  4. I love these “CrossFit meets Primal” posts! Though I’m no longer CrossFit’ing myself, I pass the posts and info along to clients, patients and family who are doing CF or similar workouts. Super helpful.

    Plus, these posts are full of important teachings for anyone – the importance of sleep, for instance, and impact of eating nutrient-dense food. Thank you!

  5. Nothing to do with Crossfit, but since you mentioned Omega-6… I’ve recently read about a type of omega-6 called gamma linolenic acid (GLA), typically found in evening primrose & blackcurrant seed that supposedly is anti-inflammatory and able to relieve all kinds of chronic inflammations from eczema, RA, dermatitis, asthma… even cancer. Can you shed some light on GLA, and if it’s something we should seek out, and if so, how best to obtain it in real food and not thru pills?

    1. Victor, thanks for your question. I’d be happy to take up your question in a future post. Look for it later next month.

  6. 52 and doing Crossfit for past 3 years. The articles provide some additional insight on why the WODs suck more some days than others.