How many of you are asking yourselves, “What is nutrition periodization?”
Let me frame it this way: as an athlete, do you do the same training every day of the year?
I’m assuming most of you said no. At least I hope you did.
Do you eat mostly the same foods every day of the year?
I’m assuming at least half of you said yes, if you align with the creatures-of-habit beings that most humans are.
If we change our training throughout the year in order to help us reach specific goals, why do we not change the food we eat to match the changes in our fueling demands?
Nutrition Periodization 101
The concept and practice of periodization is not new, dating back to the ancient Olympic Games. Periodization is generally defined as the consolidation of short-, medium-, and long-term planning to optimize training-driven adaptations in performance, while also providing the athlete with planned rest and recovery.
Nutritional Periodization has thus been defined as “the planned, purposeful, and strategic use of specific nutritional interventions to enhance the adaptations targeted by individual exercise sessions or periodic training plans, or to obtain other effects that will enhance performance longer term.”
Simply put, Nutrition Periodization is “fueling for the work required,” in a meal-by-meal, and day-by-day manner. This is very much contradictory to how most of us approach food. Until I learned about this concept, even as a high-performing athlete, I too, ate essentially the same thing every day of the year. It was easy, familiar, mindless, and tasted good, so why change it?
As an endurance athlete, you usually dedicate several months at a time to training for a specific competition or event at least once a year, sometimes 3 or 4 times a year. Your training and training goals during this time will be different than your off-season training or in the days of recovery after the event. Furthermore, within this single training block, your workouts will vary from week to week and workout to workout. You will have high-volume push weeks and low-volume recovery weeks; you will have high-intensity speed days and LSD (long slow distance) days. When training load is greater, there is a greater need for certain nutrients to support the body’s training and make the necessary adaptations in fitness, body composition, and metabolic efficiency. Not only do overall energy needs increase, but the type of energy your body needs also changes, based on training intensity, training duration, and performance and body composition goals.
The goal of Nutrition Periodization is to meet the energy fluctuations and goals of each individual training session (meal by meal) and each training phase (day by day). Properly periodized nutrition that matches your training demands and performance goals will allow you to train harder, adapt faster, recovery more fully, maintain a stronger immune system and better overall health, and achieve your body composition goals.
Developing Your Periodized Nutrition Plan
Step One: The Big Picture
Generally, we can break down a training cycle into three phases: (1) The preparation phase, (2) The competition phase, and (3) The transition phase. The first step in creating your own periodized nutrition plan is to determine the goals of each phase of your physical training. Based on your training goals, you can apply specific nutrition principles to help you achieve them:
Step Two: Fine Tuning
Once you have established the goals of each phase, you can break down your current phase into individual workouts and assess the goals of each workout.
The goal of high intensity efforts such as intervals and threshold sessions is to improve your VO2max and lactate threshold. In order to go as hard as possible and maintain high power output from your first repeat to the last, you need to supply the body with the type of fuel it relies on for that session (carbohydrate).
However, if your morning session is a LSD effort < 90 minutes, there is no need for carbohydrate fuel beforehand (Note: this does not mean training fasted! Consuming ~10g protein, <5g carb, with minimal fat will both maintain healthy hormone function AND still allow for high rates of fat utilization).
Step Three: Practical Application
From an energy intake and macronutrient standpoint, one of the biggest components of periodizing your nutrition is carbohydrate manipulation. There is robust research that supports both the necessity of carbohydrate in successful endurance performance, as well as the metabolic benefit of training with low carbohydrate in select sessions. It should be noted that performance improvements have not been observed when high-fat, low-carbohydrate diets have been adopted long-term.
While carbohydrates become your primary energy regulator, protein intake should remain mostly consistent between each training cycle, with a slight increase during your Competition phase to meet increased energy demands and support recovery. Protein should always be your priority after training to promote recovery and healthy hormone function.
The Periodization Plates® shown below provide a good visual of how to apply this to your own plan, by manipulating the ratios of carbohydrates, protein, and fat, and the types of carbohydrates you consume.
Keep in mind that nutrition must be customized to each athlete based on personal goals, medical history, training regime, and nutrition practices, so it is recommended that you seek a qualified Registered Sport Dietitian to construct a customized nutrition plan to support your health and performance goals. Below is one example of a Carbohydrate Periodization Plan I provided for a female multi-sport endurance athlete, currently in her early Preparation Phase:
While sports supplements and ergogenic aides should also be periodized (caffeine, creatine, beta-alanine, nitric oxide), the focus of this article is on macronutrient periodization. Read my previous USA Triathlon article here for more information on supplements for endurance athletes.
Female Athletes The hormonal changes that take place throughout the menstrual cycle result in increased metabolic rate and total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) in the high-hormone luteal phase. In addition, inadequate caloric intake has been directly associated with menstrual cycle dysfunction. Thus, females should track their cycle and recognize warning signs of under-fuelling.
Finally, while fasted training is common practice in order to optimize fat loss, this practice may actually blunt fat burning and metabolic rate in the female athlete. Read my previous Fuel Station article here for more information.
Heidi Strickler, MS, RD, CSSD, METS I, ISAK 1 is a Registered Sports Dietitian based in Seattle, WA. An avid endurance athlete, ultra-runner, and triathlete herself, she has a passion for providing virtual nutrition coaching to endurance athletes worldwide. She also specializes in plant-based nutrition and nutrition for female athletes. In addition to her global client base, she also holds office space at Prime Sports Institute in Bellingham, WA, and teaches Sports & Exercise Nutrition at Seattle Pacific University. Find out more about Heidi at https://primebellingham.com/our-team/heidi-strickler/, or follow her on Instagram @hkstrickler_sportsrd to read her other publications, listen to her podcasts, and learn more about her services.
References and Additional Resources
Burke, L.M., Jeukendrup A.E., Jones, A.M., Mooses, M. (2019) Contemporary Nutrition Strategies to Optimize Performance in Distance Runners and Race Walkers. International Journal of Sports Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2019-0004.
Close, G.L., Hamilton, L., Philp, A., Burke, L., and Morton, J.P. (2016). New Strategies in Sport Nutrition to Increase Exercise Performance. Free Radical Biology and Medicine. DOI: 10.1016/j.freeradbiomed.2016.01.016
Impey, S.G. Hearris, M.A., Hammond, K.M., Bartlett, J.D., Louis, J., Close, G.L., and Morton J.P. (2018) Fuel for the Work Required: A Theoretical Framework for Carbohydrate Periodization and the Glycogen Threshold Hypothesis. Sports Med. DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-018-0867-7
Jeukendrup, A.E. (2017) Periodized Nutrition for Athletes. Sports Med, Review. DOI 10.1007/s40279-017-0694-2
Oosthuyse T., and Bosch A.N. (2010) The Effect of the Menstrual Cycle on Exercise Metabolism. Sports Medicine, 40(3): 207-227.
Potgieter, S. (2013). Sport nutrition: A review of the latest guidelines for exercise and sport nutrition from the American College of Sport Nutrition, the International Olympic Committee and the International Society for Sports Nutrition. South African Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 26(1),6-16.
Seebohar, B. (2011) Nutrition Periodization for Athletes: Taking Traditional Sports Nutrition to the Next Level (2nd ed). Boulder, CO, USA: Bull Publishing Company. ISBN 978-1-933503-65-3
Stellingwerff, T. (2017) Case -study Body composition periodization in an Olympic-level female middle-distance runner over a 9-year career. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism [online]. doi: https://doi.org/10.1123/ijsnem.2017-0312
Tønnessen E, Sylta Ø, Haugen TA, Hem E, Svendsen IS, et al. (2014) The Road to Gold: Training and Peaking Characteristics in the Year Prior to a Gold Medal Endurance Performance. PLoS ONE 9(7): e101796. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0101796