Many endurance athletes structure their physical training based on periodization principles in order to achieve peak performance during their competitive season. While many endurance athletes watch what they eat and sometimes maintain very strict or even superstitious eating habits, most do not employ the periodization principles of training to the nutrition aspect of their training. More often than not, athletes are physically and mentally prepared for competition but lack the ability to structure their eating throughout the year based on their physical training cycles.
Nutrition periodization is very important for any endurance athlete. By following the principles outlined below, the endurance athlete can use the food they eat to not only provide the energy needed to support their physical training and maintain adequate glycogen stores but also use food to maintain a healthy immune system and ward off illness, prevent vitamin and mineral deficiencies, speed recovery from hard training sessions, lose or gain weight and positively alter body composition.
The following nutrition periodization principles are separated into the different general physical training cycles that endurance athletes - young or old, novice or elite - will encounter throughout a training year.
Some of the dietary recommendations listed in each cycle can be applied to other cycles, but they are categorized under their most applicable cycle below. And just as program design principles must ultimately be tailored to the individual, so must the below suggested nutrition guidelines be tested and adjusted to suit you and your clients’ individual needs.
Base (Preparatory) Stage
- Eat a minimum of six to eight servings of fruit and vegetables per day to ensure an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals.
- Choose high fiber foods. Insoluble fiber promotes regularity while soluble fiber helps to lower cholesterol levels. While regularity may not seem beneficial during this cycle, the consequences could be great. Constipation can cause severe bowel distress and can lead to stomachaches, which may lead to missed training sessions because of feeling ill.
- Experiment with new foods.
- Experiment with different energy bars, gels and sports drinks during this stage in order to choose the products that work best to use in later cycles.
- Along with the above suggestion, try to find out what nutritional products will be used at races and try them. Longer endurance races (three hours or more) usually require food and fluid assistance from the race volunteers, so be sure to try these products before using them. For endurance races lasting one to three hours, it is possible to carry adequate food and fluids and not depend on racecourse assistance.
- Forget about the environment. If it is cold, it is still necessary to drink at least 12 cups of fluid per day (more depending on the volume of training).
- Get in the rut of eating the same thing everyday. Rotate through different foods and menus in order to promote more variety and balance.
- Try to lose weight. Chances are that weight loss will happen due to increased energy expenditure from increased volume of training, but changing body weight should not be a primary goal in this cycle. Insufficient caloric intake will not provide enough energy for the body to perform work in this cycle. Weight loss should be postponed until the active recovery cycle.
- Choose the energy bars, gels and sports drinks that worked best in the last cycle and use them for the remainder of the season.
- Eat often-at least four to six times per day. Snacking is beneficial in this cycle in order to maintain blood glucose levels.
- Think about using salt tablets. Depending on the environmental conditions, these could be of benefit. Try them during your training sessions when the environmental conditions are extremely hot (90 degrees or more) and humid (90% or greater). Salt tablets are not recommended for all athletes and care must be taken to prevent hypernatremia.
- Skimp on the calories. More than likely, training intensity has increased and nutritional intake must also be increased to support this level of training.
- Think about a lower fiber diet for longer distance races in order to decrease bowel movements during a race. Fruit juice is a great choice since there is no fiber and it contains adequate vitamins and minerals.
- Drink a minimum of 12-14 glasses of non-caffeinated fluid per day.
- Add extra salt to your diet for races that will last longer than four hours. Begin about two weeks before the event and be generous with the saltshaker. For a healthy athlete, it would be safe to add an extra teaspoon of salt per day. This is considering that there are no pre-existing health conditions that could be affected by an increased sodium intake and that fluid intake is proportionately increased at the same time.
- Try anything new.
- Form a new eating routine. Stick with what has worked in the past two cycles.
- Stick with the energy bars, gels and sports drinks that have worked during the base, intensity and peak cycles.
- Develop a pre-race eating routine with specific foods and beverages and specific timing of foods.
- Carbo-load two to three nights before a race (not the night before since the simple rules of digestion suggest the improbability of the food being fully digested and out of the digestive tract by race day).
- Continually snack on high carbohydrate foods the day before a race. Eat every couple of hours.
- Eat breakfast. Energy stores are low, especially glycogen stores, in the morning due to the overnight fast so it is important to replenish the calories used during the sleep hours (for brain function, heartbeat, and breathing).
- Try anything new, especially on race day.
- Carbo-load the night before a race. It takes 24-72 hours to fully digest a meal (from entry to exit) depending on the composition and quantity of food eaten.
- Drink too much water. Hyponatremia can develop as a result of consuming too much water because it displaces extracellular sodium. This is why drinking a sports drink is of benefit.
Active Recovery (Transition)
- Put the energy bars, gels and sports drinks in the back of the cupboard for a while to give the body a break from them. Re-introduce whole foods from all of the food groups to acquire vitamins and minerals from foods rather than bars, gels, and drinks.
- Try new restaurants and foods. Be adventurous and think outside of the box. Foods prepared a different way or from a different culture are good sources of nutrients and are a break from the “norm”.
- Try to lose weight safely and realistically. Since there is not much structure or strict training guidelines during this cycle, a weight loss of 1-2 pounds per week is safe, realistic, and will not have a negative impact on training.
- Overeat. It is very easy to gain weight in the off-season without realizing it. A weight gain of two pounds per month can happen by simply overeating by 250 calories per day!
- Forget about the environment. If this cycle falls in the winter where there is not much sunshine, it is common to eat more comfort foods, which can be very high in calories and tend to increase body weight and body fat.
Nutrition Principles that Apply Year-Round (Regardless of Training Cycle)
- Choose foods rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc to improve immune function. Current research studies lend support that these vitamins and minerals may be of benefit to improve immune function although the data is still inconclusive.
- Choose more polyunsaturated (fish) and monounsaturated (nuts, canola and olive oil, avocados, olives) fats rather than saturated fats (high-fat meats, butter, lard, processed foods such as cookies and chips) for improved heart functioning.
- Consume a high-glycemic index carbohydrate source (baked potato, vanilla wafers, jelly beans, watermelon, bagel) combined with a lean protein within the first 15 minutes after training or a race. Examples are a sports drink with a cup of yogurt, watermelon and chocolate milk, a lean meat sandwich minus the mayo. There are also commercially available products that provide the same effect. Some promising research has shown that a ratio of 4:1 carbohydrates to protein is beneficial for enhancing glycogen storage and quicker recovery.
- Think about taking a multivitamin that has no more than 100-200% Daily Value (DV) for nutrients (a child’s chewable multivitamin/mineral is perfect for adults).
- Keep a written three to five day food diary every four weeks to keep on track with the quantity and variety of food eaten. Seeing the amount of food eaten on paper provides good feedback of dietary habits and could prevent over- or under-eating.
- Listen to the body. If it craves something, chances are that it needs the nutrients in that food.
- When more assistance is needed, locate a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition.
- Restrict your eating to a few food groups. This may lead to nutritional deficiencies in the future.
- Consume too much fat after a training session or a race. Because fat is preferentially oxidized over carbohydrates, it can slow the absorption of carbohydrates and can slow the recovery process.
- Take any nutritional supplement that has not been researched in credible scientific journals or whose effects are unknown. Taking a nutritional supplement without knowing its full effects could actually lead to a decrease in performance, termed ergolytic rather than ergogenic. There are not many proven nutritional supplements that produce positive effects for endurance athletes.
- Believe a product or a specific way of eating is the only way to achieve success just because a training partner, friend or family member uses or follows it. Each person and athlete is different. Use the information gained from scientific research combined with trial and error to determine the best option.
- Worry about protein intake. Athletes who eat an adequate amount of food to support training will more than often consume more than enough protein to support training and recovery. Exceptions are true vegans or those who do not consume enough calories.
By combining the above nutrition periodization principles to an already periodized physical and mental training program, endurance athletes will undoubtedly be able to perform at the highest level of human performance possible for their bodies.
- Sports Nutrition: A Guide for the Professional Working with Athletes. 1999. Christine Rosenbloom, PhD, RD, Editor. Sports, Cardiovascular, and Wellness Nutritionists Dietetic Practice Group, The American Dietetic Association.
- Optimal Muscle Recovery: Your Guide to Achieving Peak Physical Performance. 1999. Edmund Burke, PhD. Avery Publishing.
- The Ultimate Sports Nutrition Handbook. 1996. Ellen Coleman, RD, MA, MPH, and Suzanne Nelson Steen, DSc, RD. Bull Publishing.
- Endurance Sports Nutrition. 2000. Suzanne Girard-Eberle, MS, RD. Human Kinetics.
- Complete Guide to Sports Nutrition . 1999. Monique Ryan, RD. Velo Press.