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Nutrition Periodization for Athletes

by: Bob Seebohar

As I mentioned in my first article about nutrition periodization, the concept was created to allow athletes to better match their nutrition needs with their physical training needs and cycles. Most athletes will progress through three distinct training cycles throughout the year:

  1. Preparatory cycle (also called base or pre-season)
  2. Competition cycle (also called build or in-season)
  3. Transition cycle (also called off-season)

Each cycle has specific physiological goals. While these will be very specific to the athlete depending on their sport, number of years training, and model of periodization used, it is first important to understand what the physical goals are for each cycle. Once these are known, a nutrition plan can be more individualized.

For example, goals for the preparatory cycle usually include building aerobic endurance, improving functional strength and flexibility. During the competition cycle, goals may shift to improve strength and power, specific competition simulation and strength training, with a higher volume and intensity load.  The transition cycle is usually when athletes take a break from structured workouts, perform a little rehab if necessary, and just unwind from their previous competition cycle.

While athletes may have longer or shorter training cycles, the one common thread within each training cycle are the physical stressors that are placed on the body through the different modes of training and different volume and intensity of training. It is these that must be factored into creating a daily nutrition plan. The energy expenditure will fluctuate depending on training mode, duration, and intensity, which is why it is so important to allow the nutrition plan to ebb and flow with the always changing training plan.

Below you will find some general nutrition tips for each training cycle so you are able to begin implementing the concept of nutrition periodization into your training program. Keep in mind that nutrition must be customized to each athlete so it is recommended that you seek a qualified Sport Dietitian to construct a customized nutrition plan to support your health and performance goals.

Preparatory Cycle

  1. Implement Metabolic Efficiency. While I will discuss this in much more detail in future articles, the basic concept is to eat foods that will control and optimize blood sugar so you teach your body to use fat as energy at moderate to moderate high intensities of exercise, thereby preserving very limited carbohydrate stores. Begin by eating protein, fiber, and fat together at almost every feeding.  This may also lead to weight loss and body fat loss, which are usually goals for at least a few athletes during this training cycle
  2. Build an antioxidant and anti-inflammatory shopping list. This time of training usually includes lower volume and intensity training which doesn’t disrupt the body’s antioxidant defenses too much but it is a good habit to begin building your antioxidant rich food list now because as training load increases, so does the stress placed on your body. Antioxidants and anti-inflammatory foods, found in fruits, vegetables, and omega-3 fat rich foods such as salmon, will help the body counteract the increased stress response with a higher level of training.
  3. Pop the hood. I recommend getting some testing done to understand where your body is at from an internal perspective. Ask your physician for blood work (complete blood count, iron, vitamin D, comprehensive lipid panel for starters). Get a metabolic efficiency test (visit metabolicefficiency.org for more information) to understand if your body is better at burning fat or carbohydrate and how you can manipulate your daily nutrition plan to improve this. Consider a sweat sodium concentration test to learn how much sodium your body sweats. This is largely genetic so a one time test is all that is needed. A good Sport Dietitian with the proper equipment can do this. Lastly, consider getting a Sports Genomic panel. This is not as well known as other testing but the information provided from this one time test can be such a valuable resource for any athlete. It will provide information specific to your genetic make up and if you have “spelling errors” on certain genes that affect different processes in your body. For example, you may have these “spelling errors” on some genes that are involved in inflammation and oxidative stress.  If that is the case, then your body will not handle the stressors of training as well and thus, specific nutrition strategies can be prescribed to account for this.

Competition Cycle

  1. Keep on your metabolically efficient eating plan but move to optimize blood sugar and be more conscious and articulate in your nutrition planning. Consider shifting the balance to include more carbohydrate (in the form of fruits and vegetables) on days when your training load is higher and less carbohydrates on rest days or days where your training is less than an hour. This is what I term microcycle periodization.  It will keep your body weight and fat composition in check while providing enough nutrition to support your training.  For example, most athletes who have full time jobs have larger training weekends and lighter training during the week.  Eat to support these fluctuations (remember, that is the point of Nutrition Periodization). I’m not talking about loading up on certain nutrients but rather, an increase in carbohydrate, protein and fat based on what training you have coming up. If you take a recovery week, that is usually a great time to keep your nutrients balanced while decreasing the volume, since overall energy expenditure is lower.
  2. Simulate competition intensity. When higher intensity training is done, the gut responds very differently to calories due to the blood shunting response. It is a great idea to practice your competition day nutrition plan first in training by simulating the same intensity that you predict to have in competition. This way, you will test your gut response to the food/drink that you consume and see if it is well tolerated by the gut or not. I would recommend beginning this at least 2-3 months before your first competition as the first couple of tries may not be successful.
  3. Boost your antioxidant and anti-inflammatory rich foods. I mentioned it in the previous cycle but this training cycle places more demands on your body thus, it is imperative that you are including more of these types of foods at every feeding throughout the day.

Transition Cycle

  1. The interesting thing about this cycle is that it is not really a training cycle per se as most athletes do not do much for these 1-8 weeks. The difficult thing to note is that athletes have the behavior of competition eating engrained in them and it is very difficult to change a behavior in a few weeks. Thus, the first nutrition tip is to get rid of all nutrition food supplements that provide calories. A daily micronutrient supplement routine may be fine but the goal is to get your calories through real food again and not sports nutrition products. Clear the pantry and get ready to frequent the grocery store more to keep a good stock of fresh fruit, vegetables, protein, and fat in your household.
  2. Shift your macronutrients. Because training load is low, consider dropping your daily carbohydrate intake a bit, keep your protein moderate, and increase your fat consumption. The easiest way to do this is to eat more vegetables and less fruit and whole grains. Your body does not need the extra carbohydrate since you are not in training mode and if you continue to eat higher carbohydrates, as you likely did in the previous training cycle, you will gain weight and body fat quickly. Drop some carbs, add in some healthy oils and fat rich foods such as avocados and olives, and keep your protein intake about the same. This way, you will enter your preparatory phase with a healthier body weight and body composition.

Recap

Now that you have a better understanding of how to implement the concept of Nutrition Periodization, you will be better equipped to make daily nutrition shifts based on your training cycle changes. Remember, if your training changes enough to warrant a significant increase or decrease in energy expenditure, then it is a good idea to change daily nutrition patterns to support this. Use the nutrition tips that I provided above to get started with Nutrition Periodization and be sure to seek out a qualified Sport Dietitian who understands and has used the concept before to help guide you in your journey of improving health and performance.

Author

Bob Seebohar, Coach, Athlete, & Sports Dietitian

If you ever meet Bob, you will have a hard time distinguishing between the coach, the athlete, and the sports dietitian because he is so passionate about all three. Growing up as a competitive soccer player and doing his first triathlon his sophomore year in college helped to spark his interest in training and nutrition. He is now a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist, NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, USA Triathlon Level III Elite Coach and a USA Triathlon Youth/Junior coach. Being an out of the box thinker, Bob also created the concepts of Nutrition Periodization and Metabolic Efficiency Training.

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