Periodization: How to Structure your Eating Throughout the
Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS
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?
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.
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.
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.
term "nutrition periodization" is born!
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.
of the listed suggestions in each cycle can be applied to
other cycles but they are categorized under their most
important cycle below.
(or Preparatory) Stage:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Try anything new.
- Form a new eating routine. Stick with what has worked
for you in the past two cycles.
- 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
- 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
- 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
Recovery or (Transition)
- 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
- 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!
- 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.
are some nutrition principles that apply year-round:
- 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
- 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
- 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
- Restrict your eating to a few food groups. This
may lead you to nutritional deficiencies in the future
- Consume too much fat after a training session
or a race. Fat can slow the absorption of
carbohydrates and can slow the nutritional recovery
- 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
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
Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS
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
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
Bob is also the author of the book
Periodization for the Endurance Athlete
Bob can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org