Optimise your Nutrition in the Off Season

Claire Fudge, high performance sports nutritionist at 4th Discipline, has filled us in about nutrition in the off-season.  Read what she has to say here: 

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Let’s face it, it hasn’t exactly been a “normal” season of racing this year and for most athletes the changes in routine due to lockdown over spring and summer has brought either huge mileage on the bike or less training.  As triathletes, we are pretty resilient creatures and crave routine, numbers and a challenge!  So without fixtures in calendars this year many athletes have tried to hold onto some end-of-season races and duathlons.

But as any good coach worth his or her salt knows; an off season/ some downtime/ time out is required.  We simply can not keep on training at the same intensity and being “race ready” 365 days a year.  It has been frustrating for many athletes who have got “race ready” a number of times this year, only to sit on their turbo at home or dream of the race that could have been, but that doesn’t mean we can pretend the off-season isn’t valid.  Arguably it is even more important this year than most.

So as training starts to taper down and your schedule enters a new period (mesocycle) so too should thinking around nutrition.

Should athletes change their diet in off-season?

This has a number of answers, all of which are individual to the athlete.  Firstly we need to consider what their goal is during this time.  What is the focus?  What work is required with regards to body composition or weight?

1. Strength training

I am a firm believer in structured, guided strength & conditioning for athletes all year round, but for some athletes the winter or off-season is a time to try out some cross-training or hit the gym.  In this case where the goal is to build muscle, the timing of nutrients around the session is important.  The amount of protein in recovery may vary depending on the load lifted, but as a general rule 0.25g/kg of body weight at each meal, or a dose of about 20-40g protein is sufficient to meet needs for making and maintaining muscle mass (muscle protein synthesis).  Older athletes may need to be at the higher end of the range (1).
High Leucine protein sources for athletes muscle mass
That said we also need to ensure that we include high quality, rapidly digestible proteins with 3g of leucine for muscle protein synthesis.  An example is whey in dairy, which is a fantastic high quality protein, or eggs are a great inexpensive protein source. The total protein dose should be spread across the day
 

2. Listen to your body

Most important is that an athlete starts to learn about their own hunger and appetite.

Once we realign with our bodies & minds and take a step back to review the season, we also have time to listen and learn about our appetite again.  In fact you may find with lower volume and fewer hours, or with a reduction in intensity on the turbo or at the track that your appetite starts to increase.  Or maybe you can simply notice once again: we sometimes start to feel hunger during off-season, whereas those feelings can be knocked and suppressed during longer or intense sessions.

3. Managing appetite

If you hope to manage your appetite to improve body composition, then reducing the number and type of snacks you have in the day would ultimately decrease total energy intake and most likely the total amount of carbohydrate too.

Most athletes who succeed at managing their appetite naturally will listen to their hunger and so not feel the need for the snacks that they may have had pre-session in the peak season, for example.

Peanut butter fat and protein source for athletes muscle synthesis

Some nutrients such as protein and fat have more of a satiating effect, which can help us to feel fuller for longer.  That said, I am not suggesting that one simply eats a jar of peanut butter with a spoon in an attempt to kerb appetite, as fat also has 9kcal/1g so it is very energy dense.  The key here is not to simply add extra fat and protein thinking that this will somehow magically cause weight loss; we need to first learn about our hunger.  Athletes also sometimes forget that whilst adding protein and fats into the diet can help reduce hunger, if we are also trying to reduce energy intake we need to consider the ratio to other nutrients such as carbohydrates. 

Should we change the ratio of macronutrients with changes in training?

We can periodise carbohydrate depending on the amount of training and what the goals of the athlete are.  

How much carbohydrate?

Think of this as a constant moving range; so as training load decreases we would also decrease the dose per kg of body weight.  For example with a shift toward more low intensity exercise, an athlete could aim for 3-5g carbohydrates per Kg of body weight, up to 5g/kg of body weight for a day with about 1hr of moderate training.

In comparison we would expect an athlete when in heavy training of 4-5hr per day to be consuming 8-12g carbohydrates per kg of body weight!  This is the beginning of learning to periodise carbohydrates around training needs and an individual athletes’s goals (2).

Quantity of carbohydrate for athletic nutrition

As an athlete’s training load reduces, they need to mitigate as much as possible the effects of reduced energy expenditure and the subsequent effects on body composition.  Tweak the energy density of your diet and be mindful of managing appetite by perhaps increasing the ratio of protein & fats to carbohydrates, as this may help to curb hunger and reduce energy intake. 

Remember we are not expecting to be race ready all year round, and we should sit with the feeling of off-season being a time for our bodies to restock and restore ready for the new season ahead.

Should athletes worry about weight gain during off-season?

Again …. it depends on what an athlete’s goals are!  For example, some natural ectomorphs (athletes who typically look like marathon runners and are long lean and linear) may have struggled throughout the season to maintain weight; for some putting their health at risk.

For other athletes it may have been quite a battle to get race ready and manipulate their body composition; and so the winter season often leaves them feeling anxious about weight gain.  I repeat: we cannot remain race ready all year round and this includes our body composition, a part of which is the metric of body weight itself.

Body composition - losing weight/gaining in off season

1. Trying to reduce weight?

Body composition measurements show us the amount of lean or muscle mass, bone and fat mass.  Measuring lean and fat mass throughout the season is one of the metrics we can use to track changes with our training.  We would expect body composition to change when we decrease the load of training, but as a general rule try to limit the amount of weight change between race-season and off-season between 2-3kg.  Keeping a weight range allows for natural day-to-day weight variation, which is  psychologically less stressful and reduces a focus purely on a set weight.  It also makes for an easier adjustment back into training and a refocus on body composition as a new training cycle begins.
I would strongly recommend against big shifts in weight range between on- and off-season.  This kind of yo-yo dieting makes me question if appetite and energy needs are being adequately met within both of these training cycles for health, performance and body composition.
Off season nutrition opmisation for athletes
 

2. Trying to gain weight?

For some athletes using the off-season to allow for some weight gain may yield positive results in terms of hormonal health.  No athlete should be maintaining a weight or energy intake that is insufficient to support hormonal health, such as adequate testosterone or oestrogen levels for example.
The off-season can be really beneficial to address these imbalances for athletes; concentrating on getting the body fit, ready and strong ready for the new season ahead whilst helping to prevent low energy availability and risks of injury in the future.  It is a perfect time to re-evaluate how to better plan for the season and prevent under-fueling.
 
 

So don’t go trying to keep race ready for 365 days a year; instead use this time to learn about your appetite, manage your hunger and get ready for the season ahead so that your body is restored and regenerated. The off season should leave you chomping at the bit to get back into training and to have a body ready to do so!

 

 

  1. Jäger, R., Kerksick, C.M., Campbell, B.I. et al. International Society of Sports Nutrition Position Stand: protein and exercise. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 14, 20 (2017). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-017-0177-8
  2. DT Thomas, KA Erdman, LM Burke . Position of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada, and the American College of Sports Medicine: nutrition and athletic performance. Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics
    Volume 116, Issue 3, March 2016, Pages 501-52

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About the Expert: Claire Fudge is a High performance sports nutritionist, clinical dietitian and owner of  4th Discipline. She offers a personalised nutrition coaching service and a recently has announced the launch of its Triathlon Nutrition Hub Membership site, providing a one-stop educational resource for triathletes dedicated to achieving their nutrition and athletic goals. https://www.4thdiscipline.co.uk/join-the-nutrition-hub