Updated: Oct 15
Dana Eshelman, MS, RDN, CSSD, METS I
Another race season has come and gone. For some, you are ready to put your legs up and hunker down for cooler months. For others this means adding in some different activities and moving away from structured training. This is such an important part of the year as you allow your body to rest and recover for the next season! However, this is also a time of year I see many athletes lose sight of your goals for next season.
A couple questions to consider:
Do you really want to start from square one when you get back to “staying on track?”
Can you make realistic, long-term nutrition and training changes to maintain throughout the season?
My motto is: Make your off season work to your advantage!
Just as your training cycle follows peak phases and maintenance phases, your nutrition plan should as well. This is called nutrition periodization. Sports nutrition focuses on fueling to increase performance, promote recovery, and to maintain adequate hydration.
Having a nutrition plan during the offseason that aims to promote muscle and strength, maintain healthy immune function, reduce the potential for injury, and improve your ability to train harder and for a longer duration sets you up for success when you get back to a structured training plan. The offseason allows you to revamp your eating habits and experiment with your nutrition plan to reach your goals. Whether your goal is to lose weight, gain weight, or enter a maintenance phase, the offseason is the ideal time to make these changes to body composition.
Gaining weight during the offseason is likely for most athletes as they ease up on their training schedule. A realistic, healthy weight gain is to gain a half pound to one pound per week. Here are some tips to add in a few extra calories per day:
Beverages: choose 2% or whole milk (in some cases), try 100% fruit juice
Eat every 2-3 hours to ensure you are getting the calories you need to hit your goal
Choose calorie dense foods: nuts, seeds, nut and seed butters, granola, olive oil, avocado, cheese, sauces and gravies. I call these foods the “more bang for your buck” foods because you are increasing the calorie content without necessarily increasing the volume.
During the offseason is the only time I would recommend a focus on weight loss because it can cause decreased focus and performance as well as decrease muscle mass during the season. Keep in mind everyone’s calorie needs are different and can vary greatly from day to day. I encourage my athletes to focus on your hunger and fullness cues by having an internal dialect with yourself- are you hungry? Are you thirsty? How does this food nourish you? This is called intuitive eating and is a great way to naturally allow for periodized nutrition. Losing about one to two pounds per week is a realistic goal to strive for to avoid losing your lean mass. Here are some tips for weight loss:
Focus on high-nutrient foods such as fruits, vegetables and lean proteins.
Choose lean protein, healthy fat, and fiber at every meal and snack.
Avoid drinking sugary beverages such as soft drinks, punches, and energy drinks
Eat often, ideally every three to four hours to avoid becoming overly hungry and overeating in the evening
Maintaining weight will likely result in a decrease in your intake to match your decrease in activity in the off season to avoid unwanted weight gain. Keep these tips in mind:
Continue to eat often throughout the day, listen to your hunger/fullness cues and monitor portions
Limit those fun foods to special occasions and
Reach for water and unsweetened beverages for hydration
Continue to include lean protein, healthy fats and fiber at each meal and snack
Tips to Take Control of Cravings and Hunger
It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to say “hey, you are full” or “hey, I am still hungry.” So to all those fast eaters, including myself, slow it down and listen to what your body tells you. If you are comfortably full after 20 minutes of consumption, stop eating.
We all have done it. We decrease what we eat during the day if we know there is a delicious dinner to indulge in coming later in the day. This can backfire. Your body likes to stay on a schedule and does not like to be deprived of nutrients. If you are very hungry going into a meal you are more likely to make poor choices in what you choose to eat and the amount you eat. Allow yourself to eat as you are hungry through the day to keep a clear head.
Stay hydrated. Our thirst mechanisms are weak. Sometimes we confuse thirst with hunger leading to unnecessary food intake. Make it a habit to sip on water and/or electrolytes through the day to ensure thirst isn’t contributing to your appetite.
If you are eating out, plan to look up the menu and decide what you will order before you arrive. This can take some of the anxiety and overwhelm of making a game-time decision on your meal at the restaurant.
Keep in mind that sleep is just as important as nutrition and training. When you are sleep deprived, this impacts your appetite hormones ghrelin (signals hunger) and leptin (signals fullness) which can impact your ability to feel satisfied at meals. This often leads to choosing high carbohydrate, high sugar, and/or high fat meals for quick energy.
Look at the off season as an opportunity to fuel fiercely to support your goals so you can CRUSH your race season. This is your opportunity to enhance those meal prep and planning skills and hone in on your lifestyle habits, so you enter your race season ahead… not trying to play catch up! Your body will thank you!