Whether you are a weekend warrior (currently every day of the week warrior for some of us), a professional athlete or parent of an aspiring pro, something you all have in common is knowing a thing or two about sports nutrition is important for overall health and performance. Something else you all have in common right now? Most likely a change in schedule. Some seasons were cut short, some delayed and many of you aren’t training to the same extent, for some of you, you’ve increased your training.
Many of the athletes that I work with have decreased training volume or intensity and are now in offseason, so this blog is focusing on nutrition during the offseason, but also touch on what to do for increased training.
Nutrition for athletes is important for two reasons:
1. Your health needs, including needs for growth and immune health
2. Your performance needs, including needs to training, recovery, and events. Whether you are fueling yourself or fueling another athlete, knowing what and when to eat and drink is critical to sports performance, in and offseason so that you perform your best in next season.
Off-Season Nutrition Pitfalls to Avoid (And How To Avoid Them)
- Keeping the same nutrition all season long
- Variation in diet is important for micronutrient intake, as well as the fact that our needs change on and offseason. We will cover how to make these changes. Additionally, perhaps offseason is a good time to be a bit flexible and include foods you wouldn’t include during the season. If you crave pizza, perhaps 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 you do in the offseason sets you up to have the best season possible. Remember this when you’re making food choices. Pay attention to how you feel in training and in general when you eat well versus go overboard with treats or junk food.
- Following a schedule or eating foods that aren’t realistic during the on-season
- This is the running a marathon in brand new shoe 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 you’re eating off-season so that you have them available on-season, especially for athletes who move away during the season. Ask your parents for help or speak with a sports dietitian.
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 on a daily basis. By eating well on a daily basis, you’ll get more out of each training session, which will translate into better performance on game day.
Top two areas of nutrition health for athletes:
- 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.
- 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 shouldn’t be sharing (water bottles, etc). Additionally, the physical stress of training can damper our immune systems, especially if nutrients are lacking. In general, physical activity is good for our immune function, but I’m talking about high 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 veg 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 or 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, like avocado, nuts and seeds, vegetable and olive oil and fatty fish, over fat you should limit, like 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 you’ll get through choosing healthier versions of these foods, as I mentioned. Some athletes do need more iron, but have your levels measured before supplementation. Especially for young athletes, ensure you’re 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 offseason, as well as different training blocks, starting with the elephant in the room – off-season weight gain. Okay, for the most part, it’s going to happen, and that’s fine as long as you keep it in check. For females, this can actually 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 5 lbs of where you want to be going into the on-season.
Top two areas to address when going into offseason:
- Recovery needs – this includes recovering from the previous season, which for some can include regaining weight or lean mass lost in season
- A decrease in energy expenditure – this is particularly important right now as many athletes do not have access to training facilities or maybe in quarantine
For recovery needs, be sure to keep your micronutrient and protein intake high, while allowing for some ‘treat’ foods that perhaps you cut out during the on season. Use the 80:20 guideline: eating for your physiological needs 80% of the time, and eating for other reasons, like enjoyment, 20% 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.
Adjusting for a decrease in energy needs
For the most-part, micronutrient, essential fat and protein needs remain constant on and offseason. Keep eating a high nutrient density diet as I mentioned previously, but what changes are:
- Carbohydrate needs
- Fat calorie needs
To address carb needs, change your proportion of starch on your plate at meals by increasing vegetable intake. Instead of having ½ of your plate as rice, potatoes, pasta, decrease it to ¼ of your plate. Do not cut them out altogether!
At snacks, try replacing higher carbohydrate 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 you’re not drinking your 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).
For fats, our essential fat – omega-6s and omega-3s – need 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 you’re adding to your meals and snacks. Again, don’t cut them out altogether!
Examples of how to reduce carbohydrates 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 you’re using in cooking. Continue to use healthy oils, such as olive oil and avocado oil, but measure out how much you’re using
- Add lower fat condiments like salsa, hummus, mustard and hot sauce instead of mayo, too much guacamole (yes, that is a thing), and caesar and ranch sauces
- Choose fish or lean poultry instead of red meat, or try switching to some plant-based options, such as tofu or tempeh or legumes
To recap, during off-season or lower training intensity and volume blocks, keep your protein intake the same and reduce energy from carbs and extra added fats.
As the offseason progresses, athletes have to then shift to working on offseason 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 you eat during training to what you’ll be eating during the on season. I like to use the analogy heading into a marathon by putting on a brand new pair of runners 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 perhaps performance -think training camps, time trials, and so on.
For times like this, follow proper sports nutrition by fueling your body with healthy foods, increasing carbohydrate intake, especially leading up to training or competition time, hydrate during your sport and make sure that you include recovery nutrition. Getting in a mix of carbs with protein after training and performance is key.
Example pre-training meals and snacks for optimal performance:
- 3-4 hours pre-event: Have a well-balanced meal making at least ½ of your plate carbohydrate-rich foods, about ¼ lean protein, ¼ veggies or fruit, and be careful how much extra fat you add as fat slows digestion and can leave you feeling full or heavy during performance.
- 1-2 hours pre-event: Have a carbohydrate-rich snack, which is fairly low 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 don’t forget to hydrate! Have about 500 mls water with your meal and at least 250 ml with your snack, as well as another 250 ml in the hour before the event.
If your 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 such as in soccer, consider some sort of sports beverage with electrolytes and some simple carbohydrates.
What you consume immediately post-event is both important for recovery as well as fueling your next training session or event.
First, hydrate. Your goal is to hydrate to a point that you weigh the same as you did before you 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 your muscle as quickly as possible to help in repairing and rebuilding glycogen, or energy, store, 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 your training is decreasing in volume and/or intensity, follow the recommendations for reducing overall energy intake while keeping protein constant.
If your training is increasing, start adding in carbs at times leading up to and post-training.
Increase the serving of starch at your pre-training meal, and consider increasing the serving size at all meals as volume and intensity of training increases. Remember to keep your protein intake up at the same time.
Have a carb-rich snack 1-2 hours out, and be sure to get in carbs post-training. If you had a lower intensity or volume training session, you can reduce the amount of carbs you consume post-training.
Regarding exactly matching daily energy intake with daily energy needs, you don’t have to be exact to the calorie or gram. Our bodies are pretty cool and can store carbohydrates in the form of glycogen, so as long as you increase your overall energy intake as training progresses, you should have enough energy to get you through training.