Periodization refers to breaking something up into blocks or stages. With athletes, training is almost always periodized; meaning they have specific stages in training; each of which has a different goal. For example, these stages may look like:
- Competition season
With these different periods of training; intensity, duration, and physiological demands will change. During the preseason, this is typically where a lot of high intensity conditioning takes place; with the goal being to get the athletes ready for competition season. This is also when body composition changes should be made, whether it’s fat loss or muscle gain. The goal may be to gain as much lean muscle mass as possible to gain strength and power for the competition season.
During the competition season, there is usually not as much intense activity and conditioning going on. However, because the reason for competition season is, well um, competition; the athlete may have back to back weekends or even back to back days of competition. Therefore, during the competition season recovery becomes extremely important, so that athletes are ready to perform at their best for their next competition.
I realize that most athletes no longer have a dedicated “offseason”; however, what does fit into the offseason is injury. Obviously, activity level and goals change during injury. The number one goal should be to get the athlete better, so they can come back to their sport as strong or stronger than before.
The demands of these specific training periods put different strain and stress on the body; which means the nutrition needs change as well. Let’s use the example of a young gymnast, to see how nutrition needs change, based on the phase of training.
- Preseason – This is where gymnasts are doing more conditioning, learning new skills, and starting to put routines together for competition season. The goal during the preseason is to gain lean muscle mass, strength, power, and endurance. This is usually the phase where activity is the highest; which means nutrition needs will be the highest. The specific recommendations are approximately 5-7 grams per kilogram body weight for carbohydrates, 1.2-1.4 grams per kilogram body weight for protein, and 0.8-1 gram per kilogram body weight for fat. Carbohydrates are what provide our body with the best energy for fueling activity, protein is needed to build lean tissue and muscle, and healthy fats are needed for anti-inflammation.
- Competition season – For the gymnast, competition season is intense, with anywhere from 8-12 meets in a season. Many times, these meets are on back to back weekends. Therefore, recovery nutrition is key. Activity intensity has probably decreased somewhat from preseason; therefore, carbohydrate recommendations decrease to 4-6 grams per kilogram body weight, protein may increase slightly to 1.5 grams per kilogram body weight, and fat needs remain the same. The focus should be on recovery nutrition; getting at least 20 grams of quality protein and about 1-1.2 grams per kilogram of carbohydrate within 30 minutes after activity. This will start the muscle protein synthesis process, help to repair muscles, and promote muscle and liver glycogen restoration for use during the next workout or competition. If an athlete wants to figure out their protein needs post workout or competition based on body weight, they can estimate by multiplying their weight in kilograms by 0.25.
- Offseason or injury – Competitive gymnasts rarely take an offseason; however, they may be out of the gym for a week or two on vacation with family; or they could have an injury. Both situations typically result in lower activity. During this time, carbohydrate intake should match activity; meaning carbohydrate needs will likely decrease. This does not mean no carbohydrates; just less. What changes more drastically during this phase is protein – protein needs can actually triple during times of lower activity; especially if there is an injury. Protein is needed to preserve as much lean muscle mass as possible and to heal wounds. The recommendations for carbohydrates may be more like 3-4 grams per kilogram body weight; while protein may jump up to 1.7-2.0 grams per kilogram body weight. Healthy fats should continue to be consumed to cut down on inflammation and to help heal any possible head injury. The DHA in Omega-3 fatty acid has shown promising effects on healing traumatic brain injury.
Hopefully, this helps you better understand how nutrition needs change, based on the time of year for the athlete. Whether you are an athlete, a parent, or a coach this should give you a general understanding of the different phases of training, how the demands on the body differ, and how nutrition requirements must be adapted to meet these diverse demands.