Whether your clients are weekend warriors or professional athletes, or perhaps you are a coach or parent of an aspiring pro, something you all have in common is that you know that sports nutrition and fueling properly is important for overall health and performance. Something else you and your clients all have in common right now? A change in training and performance schedules. Some gyms are closed, some seasons were cut short, some have never even started and some delayed, and many of you are not training to the same extent, but for some of you, you may have increased your training.
Many of the athletes that I work with have decreased training volume or intensity and are now in the offseason, so this blog is focusing on nutrition during the offseason, but also touches on what to do for increased training.
Nutrition for athletes during the off-season is important for two reasons:
1. They need to be healthy all year around. Their health needs, including needs for growth and immune health, do not change during the off-season.
2. How clients and athletes fuel and perform off-season will predict their next season. This includes understanding and meeting needs for performance, as well as needs for training and recovery. Whether you are fueling yourself or making recommendations to athletes, knowing what and when to eat and drink is critical to sports performance, in any season, so that you, and they, perform optimally in the next season.
Off-Season Nutrition Pitfalls to Avoid (And How to Avoid Them)
Let us start with the most common issues I see.
- Keeping the same nutrition all season long.
- Variation in diet is important for micronutrient (vitamin and mineral) intake, as well as the fact that our needs change on and off-season. We will cover how to make these changes. Additionally, the off-season is a suitable time to be a bit flexible and include foods you would not include during the season. If you or your client crave pizza, make Friday night pizza night, and have a few slices!
- Opposite Thinking: “I’m off-season so nutrition doesn’t matter.”
- It does matter! Nutrition is not an off and on switch. What athletes do in the offseason sets them up to have the best season possible. Remember this when you’re making or recommending food choices. Ask athletes to pay attention to how they feel in training, and in general, when eating well versus going overboard with treats or junk food.
- Following a schedule or eating foods that are not realistic during the on-season.
- This is the ‘running a marathon in brand new shoes’ analogy I’ll mention later. I would also like to point out for young athletes it is important to KNOW how to make and eat the foods they are eating off-season. This is especially important for athletes who move away during the season, so that they have these foods and meals available on-season.
Basics of off-season nutrition
First off, I like to separate nutrition for athletes into two sections: good nutrition for health and performance nutrition. Before contemplating your performance nutrition needs, make sure that you have the basics of healthy eating for overall health in place.
Good Nutrition for Health
Nutrition plays a huge role in how you feel and perform daily. By eating well on a daily basis, our clients will get more out of each training session, which will translate into better performance on game day.
Top two areas of nutrition health for athletes:
1. Nutrients for growth.
For younger athletes who are still growing and accumulating bone density, they have a double whammy of having increased nutrient needs for growth, as well as for sport. Not fueling properly can have long term effects on their health, including increased risk of bone fracture and hormonal disturbances. For adults looking to increase lean mass or overall mass in the off-season, this also counts as growth.
2. Nutrients for immune health.
This is for all athletes and is especially important right now, during the pandemic. Teams stay in close quarters and, well, share things they should not be sharing (water bottles, etc.). Additionally, the physical stress of training can dampen our immune systems, especially if nutrients are lacking. In general, physical activity is good for our immune function, but I’m talking about elevated levels of training here. I see it happen every year – training hard in the off-season, going into the season strong, and then missing events due to illness at a time that really matters. It sucks. So, let’s avoid it.
Basics of healthy eating for athletes
In terms of good nutrition for daily health and training, the basics apply to athletes:
- Eat lots of veggies and fruit for fibre, carbs, and vitamins
- Focus on whole grains for carbs and B-vitamins, essential for energy production
- Always include protein at each meal and snack, whether animal-based like chicken, eggs or dairy, or plant-based like tofu and legumes, to help build and repair muscle and supply minerals and B-vitamins
- Choose healthy fats from avocado, nuts and seeds, vegetable and olive oil, and fatty fish, over fried foods, and fatty meats
- Make most of your food yourself, limiting processed foods.
In general, athletes need more carbs and protein than non-athletes, as well as need more of the B-vitamins that we get through choosing healthier versions of these foods mentioned above. Some athletes do need more iron, but they should have their levels measured before supplementation. Especially for young athletes, ensure they are getting enough calcium and vitamin D as well.
Let’s now dive into performance nutrition, which includes on and off-season nutrition needs.
Let’s dig into how to adjust nutrition intake for on and off-season, as well as different training blocks, starting with the elephant in the room – off-season weight gain. Okay it’s going to happen, and that’s fine if it is kept in check. For females, this can be important to correct female athlete triad, which is common during the season and often corrected with body fat gain. What’s an ‘okay’ or ‘normal’ amount? There are no real recommendations there, but I usually recommend hovering within five to 10 pounds of where you want to be going into the on-season. Weight gain should never be rapid, and athletes should never expect to rapidly lose any off-season weight right before the season starts.
Top two areas to address when going into off-season:
1. Recovery needs – this includes recovering from the previous season, which for some can include regaining weight or lean mass lost in season.
2. A decrease in energy expenditure – this is particularly important right now as many athletes do not have access to training facilities or are in quarantine.
Be sure to keep micronutrient and protein intake high, while allowing for some “treat” foods that were cut out during the on-season. Protein and micronutrient needs are based, to a greater extent, on body size rather than training level, so even though athletes may be doing less training during recovery, their protein and micronutrient needs should remain about constant. Use the 80:20 guideline: eating for your physiological needs 80 per cent of the time, and eating for other reasons, like enjoyment, 20 per cent of the time.
Recovery nutrition needs vary greatly so I recommend speaking with a health professional or dietitian if this is an area of concern for you or your client.
Adjusting for a decrease in energy needs
For the most-part, micronutrient, essential fat, and protein needs remain constant on and off-season. Keep eating a high nutrient dense diet, but the changes are:
- Carbohydrate needs
- Fat calorie needs
To address carb needs, change the proportion of starch on plates at meals by increasing vegetable intake. Instead of having half of the plate as rice, potatoes, pasta, decrease it to one quarter of the plate. Do not cut them out altogether!
At snacks, try replacing higher carb foods with lower carb foods:
- Choose whole fruit over juices or dried fruit
- Swap out crackers and hummus for veggie sticks and hummus
- Instead of yogurt, fruit, and granola, choose either the granola or fruit (not both)
- Lastly, ensure that clients are not drinking carb calories. Reduce or eliminate juices, sports drinks, sweetened dairy, and alternatives, and please do not drink pop (that one goes during the on-season as well)
Our essential fat – omega-6’s and omega-3’s – remain the same, so continue to focus on getting in high-quality fats such as nuts and seeds, and fatty fish. Because fat is very energy-dense, and energy needs decrease during the offseason, decrease the amount of other fats and oils (butter, cheese, etc.) added to meals and snacks. Again, do not cut them out altogether!
Examples of how to reduce carb and fats at meals and snacks:
- In your trail mix, add some high fibre cereal and roasted chickpeas to reduce energy density
- Watch how much oil is used in cooking – continue to use healthy oils such as olive and avocado oil, but measure out how much is being used
- Add lower fat condiments like salsa, hummus, mustard, and hot sauce instead of mayo, too much guacamole (yes, that is a thing), and Caesar or ranch sauces
- Choose fish or lean poultry instead of red meat, or try switching to some plant-based options, such as tofu, tempeh, or legumes
To recap, during off-season or lower training intensity and volume blocks, keep protein intake the same and reduce energy from carbs and extra added fats.
As the off-season progresses, athletes must then shift to working on off-season goals, which may include gaining lean mass, losing body fat, increasing strength-to-weight ratio, increasing endurance, and so on.
As we progress into pre-season, it’s important to match what is being eaten during training to what will be eaten during the on-season. I like to use the analogy of heading into a marathon by putting on a brand-new pair of sneakers from a brand you’ve never tried before. Not a good idea.
How to Fuel for Training, Performance And Recovery
For most athletes, off-season still includes some training and performance – think training camps, time trials, and so on.
For times like this, follow proper sports nutrition by fueling with healthy foods, increasing carbohydrate intake, especially leading up to training or competition time, hydrate during your sport and make sure to include recovery nutrition. Getting in a mix of carbs with protein after training and performance is key.
Examples of pre-training meals and snacks for optimal performance:
- Three to four hours pre-event:
- Have a well-balanced meal making at least half of your plate carbohydrate-rich foods, about one quarter lean protein, one quarter veggies or fruit, and be careful how much extra fat is added as fat slows digestion and can leave one feeling full or heavy during performance.
- One to two hours pre-event:
- Have a carbohydrate-rich snack, which is lower in protein, fat, and fibre. Ideas include a tortilla with a bit of nut butter and a banana (roll it up and slice into banana “sushi”), some fruit, crackers, a granola bar, or dry cereal with a bit of yogurt.
And do not forget to hydrate! Have about 500 millilitres of water with meals and at least 250 millilitres with snacks, as well as another 250 millilitres in the hour before the event. If activity is less than 60 minutes, just drink water during the event. If it involves moving for more than 60 minutes, such as continuous running or sprints like soccer, consider some sort of sports beverage with electrolytes and some simple carbohydrates.
What one consumes immediately post-event is both important for recovery as well as fueling for the next training session or event. First, hydrate. The goal is to hydrate to a point that one weighs the same as they did before they started the activity. Next, think about quick protein and carbs. We are looking for fat-digesting sources so that the amino acids and carbs get to the muscles as quickly as possible to help in repairing and rebuilding glycogen, or energy stores, respectively. Ideas include a smoothie with whey protein and fruit or juice, Greek yogurt and fruit, or a homemade protein energy bite with eggs, tofu or protein powder, oats, and dried fruit.
Adjusting Nutrition for Changes In Training Schedules
If training is decreasing in volume and/or intensity, follow the recommendations for reducing overall energy intake while keeping protein constant.
If training is increasing, start adding in carbs at times leading up to and post-training. Increase the serving of starch at the pre-training meal and consider increasing the serving size at all meals as volume and intensity increases. Remember to keep protein intake up at the same time. Have a carb-rich snack one to two hours out and be sure to get in carbs post-training. If it was a lower intensity or volume training session, reduce the amount of carbs you consume post-training.
Regarding matching daily energy intake with daily energy needs, we do not have to be exact to the calorie or gram. Our bodies are amazing and can store carbs in the form of glycogen, so if overall energy intake is increased as training progresses, athletes should have enough energy to get through training.
Where to go next? Take some time to figure out off-season goals. Is it about recovery? Putting on mass for next season? Increasing stamina? From there, try to align training and nutrition with goals. Finally, consult a professional who can help you get an action plan for achieving your, or your clients, off-season goals.