CrossFit’s Criticisms: How Do I Keep Energy Levels High on Primal?

Inline_CrossFit_Criticisms_Keeping_Energy_High_with_PrimalOver the past two posts in this series, I’ve explained how a Primal way of eating can not only support a heavy CrossFit schedule, but elevate it. Today, I’m going to explain how going Primal can help fix a common complaint among CrossFitters: fatigue. No energy. No pep. A distinct lack of physical and psychological motivation to train, let alone hit PRs. This doesn’t just make it hard to finish workouts and make gains. It bleeds into the rest of your life and makes that worse, too.

Here’s a typical query from a committed CrossFitter suffering from low energy.

I feel like I have been doing everything right lately. Eating clean, working out everyday. But recently WODs that would typically do pretty well at have been killing me. To the point I am the last finished in every class. This came out of nowhere. What could it be? Anyone else experience anything like this?

“Eating clean”: Eating too few calories and/or carbohydrates. We already know what’s wrong with that.

“Working out everyday”: This isn’t just hard on the body, it’s downright counterproductive. Daily workouts will shatter most people, particularly on the level of CrossFit WODs, and have them out the other end in worse shape than before. I’ll be doing a post on CrossFit and recovery soon, but it’s worth noting for today that CrossFit recommends three days on and one day off. That plan may or may not work for an individual based on any number of factors (more to come there…).

Or this one, from the CF forum:

I have gone off my usual oats that i used to have for breakfast. i have reduced my fruit to 1.5 servings a day, nor am i currently consuming anything starchy, like, beans or sweet potatoes (my fave), i eliminated these and all dairy just to see what happens. Now my body is reacting with sluggishness and fat cravings (sunflower seeds, anyone?) Despite that I still go train hard and sweaty but I noticed it’s taking me forever to recover. My leafy salads and eggs and chicken breasts (all i eat basically) are just not cutting it. how do i get over it? please help! grains are disgusting, they bloat me. dairy causes breakouts. no going back. thanks for advice…

The reasons for this person’s lack of energy is even more glaring. “Nothing starchy,” no longer eating “my fave” sweet potatoes, leafy salads and chicken breasts. She’s barely eating!

I’ve said my piece on macronutrient interventions. Since a major reason for fatigue is inadequate food and macronutrient intake, increasing carb intake and eating more calories overall from whole-food Primal sources will give you more caloric and nutrient density.

I’m not here to suggest you modify the workouts. They are what they are. This isn’t about changing CrossFit. This is about working with it. That’s the beauty of this Primal stuff—it applies to everything because it’s all-encompassing, because it’s about making you the best, healthiest, most productive human you can be. And humans do all sorts of different things. Like CrossFit.

So, what does Primal have to offer a CrossFitter who wants more energy for training sessions and normal waking (yawning) life?

Honor Your Circadian Rhythm

Most people think of the circadian rhythm in terms of sleep and sleep alone. Sleep is a big part of the circadian picture, but it’s not everything. Every single cell in your body follows a circadian rhythm. Circadian clocks are attached to every piece of peripheral tissue, embedded in every organ, enmeshed in every physiological system. Even your skin’s resistance to UV damage follows a circadian schedule.

What does this mean? If your circadian rhythm is off-kilter, every cell and physiological process in your body functions differently. Problems arise. Energy production slows. Every standard physiological process runs a little funny. When your circadian rhythm is off, you’re off. Nothing works quite right. You’re not yourself.

Expose yourself to natural light during the morning and daytime. This helps set your circadian rhythm and gets you in tune with the sun’s rise and fall. It also energizes, and that’s great. Vitamin D is one of the most important vitamin-like substances around. But sunlight is also a great source of blue light that keeps us awake at night and alert and energized during the day. It has to be real, natural light. For all our access to artificial lighting indoors, our daytime light exposure is downright pathetic.

Limit artificial light at night. Blue light (from screens, smartphones) tricks your circadian rhythm into thinking it’s daytime all over again. UVEX safety goggles block blue light, are completely affordable.

Get to sleep at a reasonable hour. Miss sleep, miss reps. Lose sleep, lose your footing during the jerk. Sleep is when we recover from past bodily insults, like doing Fran or high rep zercher squats. It’s when we consolidate memories. It’s when we burn fat and release growth hormone. It’s even when we release a large amount of ATP, a surge of the body’s energy currency. Miss your sleep, miss that surge.

Balance the Intensity of CrossFit with the Tranquility of Nature

CrossFit is stressful. It’s acute stressor after acute stressor, which is a double-edged blade. This is why it works so well but also why some people can burn themselves out. A person simply can’t go hard without resting. There are limits.

Get out into nature every day if you can but at least once a week, preferably twice. Nature is a hard reset for your monkey mind. It’s returning home to the source. Extensive research shows that this kind of excursion can reduce stress, the same stress that’s pushing you over the edge and destroying your will to live. Spending time in nature is an easy fix (if it works, and it often does), providing a quick but effective stanch against the stress.

Nature doesn’t have to be the forest. It can be desert, beach, lake, marsh, swamp, meadow, prairie, bog, jungle. Even a city park can work. Use what you have.

Focus on Micronutrients

The Primal eating plan has always identified and promoted the consumption of otherwise obscure micronutrients, many of which play major roles in energy production.

  • Iodine: The raw building block for thyroid hormone, which drives metabolic rate. Low intakes can cause hypothyroid, and then you’re lagging. Best sources include seaweed (especially kelp/kombu), dairy, and eggs.
  • Selenium: We need selenium to convert inactive thyroid hormone into active thyroid hormone, the stuff that actually has an effect on our energy levels. Brazil nuts (just one or two will provide the RDA) and wild salmon are the best sources.
  • Magnesium: Magnesium is a cofactor in over 300 physiological systems and enzymatic reactions making it a crucial…. blah blah blah. You’ve heard the spiel before. Magnesium is important. For energy levels, it’s almost everything. Without adequate magnesium, we produce very little ATP, the body’s energy currency.
  • Glycine: Taken an hour before bed, glycine—the primary amino acid in gelatin/collagen—promotes more restful sleep and promotes wakefulness and better performance the next day, even if you force sleep restriction.

If you’re doing CrossFit without paying attention to your intake of iodine, selenium, magnesium, and glycine/collagen, you risk losing energy levels.

Get Fat-Adapted

Though I’ve focused primarily on non-dietary factors today, I’ll close with perhaps the most momentous modification you can make to support your daily energy levels: getting fat-adapted.

Fat-adaptation allows you to easily tap into your own body fat stores in between meals, providing a steady source of clean-burning energy. Fat-adaptation tends to normalize blood glucose readings, so you’re no longer chasing the sugar dragon up into hyperglycemia and down into hypoglycemia.

Fat-adaptation doesn’t imply exclusive low carb eating for life. CrossFit and other intense training regimens give the fat-adapted a lot of leeway with their carb intake. As Peter Attia explains, you can still carb up before and after your training sessions without compromising your ability to tap into body fat for energy as long as you create a glycogen debt that must be refilled and your carbs don’t exceed the debt. CrossFit, with its full-body, high-intensity, moderate-to-high-volume training, just might be the most reliable way to create an economy-rending amount of glycogen debt.

(Note: For those who aren’t fat-adapted yet, understand that it’s a process and will take a few weeks. It will likely require a temporary change to your training schedule to accommodate the metabolic shifts taking place. Let adaptation trump performance for a short time. Results aren’t instantaneous, but they’re worth the short-term adjustment.)

In the end, having adequate energy boils down to support.

  • Eating enough calories and carbs and protein and fat to support your training.
  • Supporting your biologically-appropriate circadian rhythm by getting bright light during the day, dim light at night, and having a reasonable bedtime.
  • Eating adequate amounts of the basic micronutrients that support energy production.
  • Spending time in nature to support your body’s need for rest, relaxation, and green spaces.

Thanks for reading today, everyone. Have thoughts or questions on energy and high intensity exercise? Share them below.

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.

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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21 thoughts on “CrossFit’s Criticisms: How Do I Keep Energy Levels High on Primal?”

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  1. These nutritional steps are akin to the links on a delicate chain. If followed correctly it wcan be pulled taut and provide a solid foundation for strength, personal growth and success. If not the rope becomes slack, ensnaring you and preventing progress.

    It really takes a bit of planning and time management to overcome these obstacles.Some days rising at 05:30 to cook three days worth of proper food is an equatable trade for that hour of additional sleep.

    Stress, that is the one that is difficult to mitigate. Bastard is invisible, relentless and sublimely clever….

  2. No crossfit for me. I can relate to the fatigue issue, I have learned to keep my rest days as rest days, and avoid the “exercise creep” on those days

    1. No crossfit for me either. No such thing as a dumb question, but sometimes it’s just a matter of common sense. If the bod is complaining about what one is doing, then it’s time to rethink the situation and do something different.

  3. Dehydrated sweet potato powder has been hugely helpful for me. Meditation & naps are also pretty great 🙂

  4. The nature aspect of this article is so under rated. Even in business, you get your best ideas, or in this case with training, your best recovery when you’re away from the computer or out of the gym. I also think there’s a huge aspect of being “fit” that needs to include getting outside and being in nature.

  5. Ok, in the interest of keeping things real, I will probably never do Crossfit. Love the concept but prefer to be outside and don’t know that I would push myself that hard. But there are still great tips here. Yes to magnesium…don’t take many supplements but that’s one I can’t live without. And my sleep is not great…I’m a big believer in gelatin and collagen for their effect on my skin…after reading this think I’m going to try some an hour before bed for the glycine. Even when I think these posts don’t pertain to me, I’m always glad I read them!

  6. Mark, are you endorsing crossfit now? Why are we on such a crossfit kick? I have been watching you tube vids of crossfit, and it seems frankly, dangerous and unsustainable. Having a six pack and being ravenously hungry seems cool, but I think most would agree feeling good is the point and being reasonable with our health will make us healthy happy people. I love this blog, because it is great for everyone young and old, I just don’t think crossfit is good for everyone. Anyway just asking when we are going to shift gears back to the daily apple?

    1. Second that! MDA used to be for the average person; lately, it seems to be all about keto and Crossfit. Maybe readership is down and Mark is searching for new populations to target.

      1. Well, crossfit started by recommending a paleo/primal style approach to food, which is unsustainable given how the “sport” evolved, so maybe a lot of crossfitters are keen on more information on how they can better balance their (intense) exercise routine with healthy eating.

    2. Everybody starts somewhere. Crossfit seems to be a popular entry point for people who haven’t discovered housework for time wearing a weight vest.

  7. Sure, Olympic lifts were designed to be done fast, in high reps, and interspersed with burpees and pull ups…


  8. This is interesting, because I experienced this and the best thing I ever did was forget low-carb ideology and emphasize carbohydrates. This increased my metabolism and improved my adrenal fatigue. I am curious if the suggestions in this post will really help someone that’s limiting carb intake like a crossfitter on the paleo diet. I think much more emphasis needs to be placed on carbohydrates and sugars rather than the micro nutrients. If a lot of meat is being consumed, those adrenal supporting nutrients are probabaly being consumed anyway. The limiting factor then would be carbs.

  9. Don’t get me wrong, I love nature. But a walk in the New England woods at this time of the year is downright stressful. Between the tics, gnats, mosquitos, deer flys, and unrelenting humidity, I am content to be in my comfy, air conditioned, bugless home. Think I’ll just work on my strength exercises inside today.

  10. Though I don’t Crossfit, I do operate a barefoot rickshaw service and this requires extraordinary energy output with challenging recovery. Here are the key techniques that make it possible:

    1) Raw liver shakes blended with kefir and fermented veg. Your liver and microbiome are critical metabolic infrastructure. Support them this way and I guarantee you will be saturated with every micronutrient known and yet to be discovered. Remember that grass-fed liver of the highest quality is critical.

    2) Chew watercress and sprouts during long bouts of endurance activity. Insignificant insulin response, but large amounts of minerals, electrolytes, water soluble vitamins B and C, along with soluble fiber which acts as a sponge in your gut for constant hydration. All of this is critical for keeping fat oxidation high.

    3) Train strength. Heavy squats, deadlifts, presses, pulls. The greater your strength, the lower percentage of that strength you require for submaximal activity, and the longer you can go while maintaining efficient technique.

    4) Train intervals. Tabata, sprints, whatever, but go hard (i.e., life-or-death hard) with short rest between sets. This will condition you far more effectively than long slow distance.

    5) Wear a weight vest and/or carry a heavy pack as much as possible. This teaches posture, economy of motion, and mental fortitude in ways that other exercises do not.

    6) Pull a rickshaw 😉

  11. Thanks for addressing whether we can retain fat adaptation while still upping carbs for performance. I always thought I had to choose between the two, and would err on the side of trying to stay fat adapted because the reduction in hangry states was so great for my work schedule and overall mental health.

    I was definitely feeling the fatigue though and have been struggling through some moderate intensity workouts I normally wouldn’t blink at.

    I don’t do crossfit, but I’m enjoying this series. I’m coming from a martial arts pov, with lots of cross training involving things like kettlebells, battle ropes, box jumps etc. Keep it up!