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Nutrition Periodization: How to Structure your Eating Throughout the Year
By Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS

How many personal records did you set last season? Not as many as you would have liked? Why not? What’s holding you back from achieving your triathlon racing goals…physical training, motivation, nutrition? 

Nutrition? 

You heard it right! More often than not, athletes are more than physically prepared and moderately prepared mentally but what is lacking is the nutrition knowledge to take you to that next level of performance.

Enter...Nutrition Periodization. Easy to say, hard to do, until now! This article will assist you in setting up a nutrition periodization plan that you can individualize to your specific needs and training and racing goals.

What good does it do you to periodize your eating just as you would your physical training? Well, if you don’t eat properly during the off-season it can lead to weight gain and an increased body composition and if you do not eat enough foods that are full of vitamins and minerals, you could develop a nutritional deficiency in the future. Improper eating during hard training can lead to lower glycogen stores, which could lead to lower quality training sessions and a low amount of vitamins, minerals and antioxidants, which could lead to a compromised immune system. Have you ever stopped a training session short because you just didn’t have the energy? Case in point! The bottom line is that it would be to your benefit to pay attention to what and how much you eat throughout the year in order to stay healthy and train and race hard.

The term "nutrition periodization" is born!

Below are nutrition periodization principles that you can employ throughout the year to assist you in your health and performance related goals. As always, nutrition is very individual and the following guidelines should be used as a template to build your personal nutrition plan.

Some of the listed suggestions in each cycle can be applied to other cycles but they are categorized under their most important cycle below.

Base (or Preparatory) Stage:

"Do’s"

  • Eat a minimum of 6-8 servings of fruit and vegetables per day to ensure you have an adequate intake of vitamins and minerals.
  • Choose high fiber foods. Some fiber promotes regularity while others help to lower cholesterol levels. While regularity may not seem beneficial during this cycle, think about the consequences. Constipation can cause severe bowel distress and can lead to stomachaches, which may lead to decreased training sessions because of feeling ill.
  • Try new foods and experiment with the foods you usually eat
  • Experiment with different energy bars, gels and sports drinks during this stage in order to choose the products that work well for your body in the upcoming stages.
  • Along with the above suggestion, try to find out what nutritional products will be used at the races you will be competing in in the upcoming season and try those. Chances are you probably will not need to use them if it is a sprint or Olympic distance but you will undoubtedly need them in half and full Ironman distances.

"Don’ts"

  • Forget about the environment. If it is cold where you live while in this cycle, it is still necessary to drink at least 12 cups of fluid per day (more depending on the volume of training).
  • Get in the rut of eating the same thing everyday. How many different breakfasts do you eat each week? Try to rotate through different foods and menus in order to get more variety in your eating plan.

Intensity (or Build)

"Do’s"

  • Stick with the energy bars, gels and sports drinks that worked well for you in your base cycle
  • Eat often, snacking is beneficial in this cycle.
  • Get a good handle on what nutritional products (bars, gels, drinks) work for you and stick with them for the rest of your season.
  • Think about salt tablets. Depending on the race environmental conditions and the distance, these could be of benefit. Try them during your long bricks to see how your body handles them.

"Don’ts"

  • Skimp on the calories. You are more than likely increasing volume and intensity of your physical training and your nutritional intake must be adequate enough to support this training.

Peak/Taper

"Do’s"

  • Think about a lower fiber diet if you race longer distances to decrease bowel movements during a race. Fruit juice is a great choice since there is no fiber but you still get some vitamins and minerals.
  • Drink a minimum of 12-14 glasses of non-caffeinated fluid per day.
  • Add extra salt to your diet if you are training for a full Ironman distance. Begin about two weeks out and be generous with the shaker. For a healthy athlete, it would be easy and prudent to add about one teaspoon of extra salt per day to your diet. This is considering you do not have pre-existing health conditions that could be affected by an increased sodium intake.

"Don’ts"

  • Try anything new.
  • Form a new eating routine. Stick with what has worked for you in the past two cycles.

Race

"Do’s"

  • Stick with the energy bars, gels and sports drinks that have worked for you during training
  • Develop a pre-race eating routine with specific foods and beverages and specific timing of foods then stick with it the entire season.
  • Carbo-load two nights before a race.
  • Continually snack on high carbohydrate foods the day before a race. Try to eat every couple of hours but do not force yourself to eat if you are simply not hungry.
  • Eat breakfast. Even if it is small, you need the calories. Chances are you have been in an overnight fast for 8-12 hours and your energy stores will be low.

"Don’ts"

  • Try anything new, especially on race day.
  • Carbo-load the night before a race. It takes 24-72 hours to fully digest a meal (from entry to exit) depending on the amount of food eaten.
  • Drink too much water. A condition termed hyponatremia (low sodium) can develop as a result of consuming too much water and it displaces extracellular sodium. This is why drinking a sports drink is of benefit. Split your fluid intake by drinking half water and half sports drink.

Active Recovery or (Transition)

"Do’s"

  • Put the energy bars, gels and sports drinks in the back of the cupboard for a while to give your body a break from the race season.
  • Re-introduce whole foods from all of the food groups. Chances are you have had your fill of bars, gels, and powders so choose the vitamin and mineral rich foods instead.
  • Go out with friend and family members and try new restaurants. As humans, we often get into the same rut of going to the same restaurants and eating the same foods. Be adventurous!

"Don’ts"

  • Overeat
  • Forget about the environment. If this cycle falls in the winter where there is not much sunshine, it is common to eat more comfort foods, which can be very high in calories and tend to increase body weight and body fat.

There are some nutrition principles that apply year-round:

"Do’s"

  • Choose foods rich in beta-carotene, vitamin C, vitamin E and zinc to improve immune function. Current research studies are lending support that these vitamins and minerals may be of benefit to improve immune function although the final verdict is not out yet.
  • Choose more polyunsaturated (fish) and monounsaturated (nuts, some oils, avocados) fats rather than saturated fats (high-fat meats, butter, lard, some oils, processed foods such as cookies and chips).
  • Consume a high-glycemic index carbohydrate source combined with a lean protein within the first 15 minutes after training or a race. Examples are a sports drink with a cup of yogurt, watermelon and chocolate milk, a lean meat sandwich minus the mayo. There are also commercially available products that give the same effect. Some promising research has shown that a ratio of 3:1 carbohydrates to protein is beneficial for enhancing glycogen storage and quicker recovery.
  • Think about taking a multivitamin that has no more than 300% Daily Value (DV) for nutrients (children’s chewables are perfect). See my other articles about vitamins and how to choose a vitamin/mineral supplement for more information about this topic.
  • Keep a written 3-5 day food diary when you feel that your eating habits are lacking or that you are losing control. Often times it simply takes seeing what, when and how much you eat to realize that something may be a little off and could be easily remedied.
  • Seek a registered dietitian who specializes in sports nutrition for endurance athletes when you feel that you need a more comprehensive eating plan or you seek more knowledge about nutrition.
  • Listen to your body. If it craves something, chances are that it needs the nutrients in that food (there are exceptions of course, such as copious amounts of chocolate!).

"Don’ts"

  • Restrict your eating to a few food groups. This may lead you to nutritional deficiencies in the future (years).
  • Consume too much fat after a training session or a race. Fat can slow the absorption of carbohydrates and can slow the nutritional recovery process.
  • Take any nutritional supplement that you have not fully researched in credible scientific journals or with registered dietitians who specialize in sports nutrition. Taking a nutritional supplement without knowing its full effects could actually lead to a decrease in performance. There are not many proven nutritional supplements that produce positive effects for endurance athletes.
  • Believe a product or specific way of eating will be right for you just because your training partner, friend or family member uses or follows it. Each person and athlete is different and you must use reputable scientific knowledge combined with trial and error to find what works best for you in your specific training and racing situations.
  • Think that you can eat that extra snack or sweet just because you had a long training session. There is a fine line between eating enough to support your training and overeating.
  • Worry about whether or not you consume enough protein. If you are an athlete who is eating an adequate amount of food to support your training, you should be getting at least 15% of your total daily calories from protein. Unless you are a true vegan, do not eat meats, dairy products, or beans or consume too few calories, you shouldn’t have to worry about protein.

I cannot guarantee a PR with each race you do simply by following my nutrition periodization principles but I can guarantee better performance after you get a good handle on what works for you when it comes to nourishing your body. Take the time to develop your personal nutrition plan and enjoy the health and performance rewards that will follow!

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS


Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS is the Performance Director at the Colorado Center for Altitude Training and Performance (ATP Center) in Evergreen, Colorado.  The ATP Center provides training, coaching, physiological testing and nutrition services for all ages, types and abilities of endurance athletes.

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS has been a USA Triathlon certified coach since 1999 and is one of the first USA Triathlon Certified Level III Elite Coaches in the United States. He has worked with beginners to Olympians and currently specializes in working with advanced to elite athletes. Bob was on the Performance Coaching team for Susan Williams, 2004 Olympic Triathlon Bronze medalist, as he served as her strength coach and sport dietitian during her journey to becoming the first United States athlete to medal in Olympic Triathlon. 

He blends his extensive education with his experience as an athlete, exercise physiologist, sports dietitian and coach to 

Bob has a Bachelor's degree in Exercise and Sports Science with a concentration in Wellness Program Management, a Master's degree in Health and Exercise Science and a second Master's degree in Food Science and Human Nutrition. 

Bob is also the author of the book
Nutritional Periodization for the Endurance Athlete 

Bob can be contacted at coachbob@fuel4mance.com 

 

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