Updated: Jul 9, 2022
Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN
The concept of nutrition periodization has been a long-practiced tool to optimize training adaptations, improve recovery, and enhance performance.
What is it?
This is a practice where you change your nutrition based on the training you are doing. This is very different from the way most of us traditionally eat. We are creatures of habit eating the same thing day to day. Maybe with a few minor changes. However, we change our training plans throughout the year - base phase training, to building, to competition, and to transition. So, why does our nutrition not also change?
Why do it?
As training load changes, the body’s need for nutrients changes. During off-season your needs will be much different than that during a competition phase. Some athletes will change their phase of training up to four times within a year- base, build, competition and transition. Additionally, their training days will vary within that training phase from hard days to recovery days. There will be phases of building weeks to taper weeks. With that being said, there are constant changes in energy demands based on the training day to day. Nutrition periodization allows for the body to get the nutrients it needs on any given day so you are able to see optimal training adaptations, maintain a strong immune system, and reach performance goals faster.
How do you do it?
1. Identify goals at each phase of your physical training plan. Usually training phases follow a base phase, building phase, competition phase and transition phase. Based on these goals, you can match nutrition goals that will help you reach your physical goals.
Physical Goals Base phase
Nutrition Training Methods Used
Build aerobic endurance Increase strength and mobility Body composition <75% maximum heart rate
Focus on daily nutrition and hydration plan
Improve metabolic efficiency (fat loss)
Increase antioxidant rich foods
Focus on power output Increase training intensity and volume Introduction of speed work
Increase overall energy intake Sandwich high intensity workouts with carbohydrate Experiment with during race fueling and hydration techniques Continue with antioxidant rich foods Recovery with timely carb and protein intake
Train gastric emptying for improved digestion of fluids and food to decrease gut discomfort
Continued increase intensity and volume Addition of more tempo and speed work based on ideal race pace
Remain at high energy intake Emphasize pre and post workout fueling and hydration techniques High antioxidant rich foods Understand during race fueling and hydration
Training race day nutrition Training absorption of carbohydrate burning exercise to improve capacity of the gut/ decrease gut discomfort Train gastric emptying for improved digestion of fluids and food to decrease gut discomfort
Cross training Find alternate workouts for enjoyment Body composition
Decrease energy intake
Balanced nutrition plan including a variety of foods from all food groups
2. Optimize day to day nutrition by understanding your fueling needs for workouts.
If you are in your base phase of training and/or doing a workout at <75% max heart rate, then you need minimal carbohydrate here to fuel your workout. Females, however, are VERY sensitive to training fasted due to a neuropeptide (kisspeptin) that is responsible for the function of sex hormones, endocrine and reproductive hormones. Train the body to be efficient at burning fat for fuel instead. In my professional opinion, consuming 20-40 grams of carbs with 5-15 grams of protein and minimal fat for these workouts will prevent muscle breakdown, maintain blood sugar levels, improve body composition and keep your hormones happy and healthy.
During those higher intensity intervals and threshold sessions in the build and competition phases, carbohydrate IS NEEDED to fuel the muscles in improving maximum VO2 and your threshold. This is where you sandwich your workouts with carbohydrate so you can maintain a high output from beginning to end as well as replenish those stores in the post-workout meal.
3. Be in the know about your macronutrient needs. Carbohydrate manipulation during phases of training. Research DOES NOT support a low carbohydrate, high fat diet long term for endurance athletes. Carbohydrates are the primary source of fuel during the build and competition phases of training when heart rate is high and energy demands are increased. When heart rate is <75% maximum heart rate is when you can train on low carbohydrate and focus on body composition. This will be during your base and transition phases.
Protein needs are increased during the build and competition phases to meet increased muscle breakdown, support recovery, and promote health hormone function.
Fat intake should not drop below 20-35% of total intake. It is recommended to minimize fat intake before a workout to prevent stomach discomfort as well as after to improve digestion. Fats take much longer to digest in the body when compared to carbohydrates and protein.
Is this right for everyone?
Research does support nutrition periodization for optimal muscle training adaptations and recovery; however, this research is still in its infancy. When considering changing your nutrition to match your training, be mindful of your specific goals, your fitness level, and how your body is tolerating the changes. Just as with all nutrition plans, there is not a one size fits all approach to nutrition periodization. Meaning, what works for one person is not necessarily going to work for the next.
This is best done with a coach or registered dietitian to measure your performance and health outcomes as you integrate changes in your training and nutrition.
Jeukendrup, AE (2017). Periodized Nutrition for Athletes. Sports Medicine. 47 (suppl 1): 51-63. doi: 10.1007/s40279-017-0694-2.
Impey, SG., Hammond, KM., Shepherd, SO., Sharles, AP., Stewart, C., Limb, M., et al (2016). Fuel for the work required: A practical approach to amalgamating train-low paradigms for endurance athletes. Physiological Reports. 4(10): e12803. doi: 10.14814/phy2.12803.