The concept of periodized nutrition
The concept of periodization when it comes to a training program is well known and well applied within sport. The link between exercise and nutrition is also well known. However, the concept of using the periodization model within nutritional practice appears to be very uncommon.
There is, of course, a lot of research and advice on nutrition to consume pre/post training, however, consideration of the bigger, long-term picture in regards to specific goals, physiological adaptations during different phases of training, is rarely put into practice-so much in fact that guidelines for practitioners are still lacking.
So what is periodization? When applied to exercise it is the long-term planning of athletic training designed to improve performance, reaching peak performance for the most ‘competitive’ part of the year (This might be a particular race, game or competition). It involves a variation of training throughout the year, variation of intensities and load and is typically broken down into cycles. Nutrition periodization, therefore, should be complementary to the training undertaken and the physiological adaptations that take place during the different cycles/phases of training.
Of course, this will differ from athlete to athlete, taking into consideration their training goals. An athlete whose sport involves a greater demand on their aerobic system will require a different approach to an athlete whose sport is predominantly anaerobic, based on the different physiological adaptations required. Let’s take an anaerobic athlete for example (e.g. Football player, Rugby player, long distance runner), they require a greater training of their GI Tract – similar to the training of any muscle, the GI tract needs to get used to the quantity and composition of food in order to be able to maximise the absorption of nutrients, increase delivery of carbohydrates and fluid and speed gastric emptying. Once initial training has occurred and the body is used to its quantity/composition, as training progresses, so does nutrition.
So when we’re considering marrying training with nutrition, how does this work? Well like any training programme the whole training year or cycle needs to be looked at, and then broken down into cycles. This is, of course, dependant on the type of periodization used.
Looking at the block periodization approach for example. There are three phases:
Phase 1: Accumulation
This will build the foundations for basic nutrition, allowing an athlete to get used to a certain ‘load’, e.g. quantities of food throughout the day. This will depend on the level of the athlete and level of preparation beforehand. It wouldn’t be sensible to start athletes on a calorie intake that is far greater than anything they have ever achieved daily before, it will require a gradual approach. This phase might typically be uncomfortable for the athlete initially but it will provide a stepping stone for their next phase.
Phase 2: Transmutation
This is when specificity comes into play. Typically load and intensity in training increase so it needs to be supported with nutrition. There needs to be a transition into consideration for timings around these sessions with food and factoring in ‘deload’ weeks will also change food intake considerably. Consideration of ‘train low’ and ‘train high’ in regards to carbohydrate intake as well as supplement use can be built into this phase tailored to suit the needs of the specific athlete.
Phase 3: Realization
This is when the athlete is getting ready for a competition/event and needs to be tapering, typically lower in volume but higher in intensity, again this will need to be supported with nutrition. That doesn’t mean nutrition is reduced at all, but it might be depending on the athlete. Timings will need to be refined and nothing ‘new’ should be added in here. The athlete should be fully prepared and comfortable with their nutritional intake to set them up to compete.
Of course, this is just one periodization method, some athletes might need to peak twice in a season, e.g. sprinters having an indoor and an outdoor season, and therefore multiple preparations and transition phases will occur. It is also important to note that even athletes undertaking the same training programme will be different in terms of load/intensities, thus there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach to nutrition.
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