Periodization in training and in sports is a common practice. It is how an athlete prepares in their specific sport with intricate sequencing of training cycles to put them at the best shape for competition. This is often measured, depending on the sport, for an athlete to peak at a specific time.
Nutrition periodization works in the same manner. Nutritionally preparing an athlete for competition to maximize performance.
Most athletes already do sporadic versions of nutrition periodization with timing of nutrients before and after exercise. Professional athletes have structured nutrition plans to keep their bodies in competition shape at all times.
What does this mean? Proper nutrition (ie: the right mix of nutrients at the right time) gives the body energy for exercise, builds and repairs muscle, and helps lower inflammation from the act of exercising (which is an inflammatory activity).
Sports seasons usually run in 4 periods: Preparatory (off-season), First Transition (preseason), Competition (in-season), and Second Transition (post-season).
Parents and coaches should stress proper nutrition especially during pre-season and in-season, with less emphasis on post-season.
Pre-season is typically when we see athletes getting back into exercising on a regular basis, whether or not they are in sport-specific practice at this point. This also means that some athletes may be gaining muscle and building up cardiovascular endurance, in addition to general strengthening, flexibility training, power training, and injury prevention.
This is when nutrition periodization comes in. Using carbohydrates to replenish muscle and liver glycogen (stored carbohydrate) and protein to build muscle post-resistance training are ways to use nutrition periodization.
A sports dietitian or sports nutritionist can help educate on the best foods to eat during sport-specific training cycles. Sport specificity is important, because a gymnast will not eat the same as a football player. You get the picture.
Nutrition periodization for adolescents and teens should include a rough plan for all meals and snacks, ensuring all macronutrients (carbs, fat, protein) and micronutrients (vitamin D, iron, calcium, etc) are met. When the diet is balanced, it reduces the risk of diet related fatigue, and possible injury. It also ensures that the body repairs and gets the proper food to replenish in the shortest time.
A pre-season day might look like this: 15 year old swimmer performing dryland after school (2 mile run + 45 minutes weight training) on Monday, preparing for 90 minute practice on Tuesday.
Goals: Optimize hydration, maintain blood sugar levels, protein at every meal and post exercise for muscle repair, carbohydrate for glycogen storage for next day’s practice, anti-inflammatory foods.
Monday: Drink water throughout the day
Breakfast: 1 cup Oatmeal with sliced banana and 2 tablespoons peanut butter + glass of milk
Lunch: Turkey sandwich on whole wheat with lettuce and tomato, orange, yogurt
Pre-dryland snack: 10 baby carrots + crackers
Optional post dryland snack: almond butter and apple
Post dryland dinner at home: Pasta with grilled chicken, spinach, and pesto + dinner roll
So, what are the downsides to this? When nutrition is extremely regimented, there is always the risk of disordered eating. This can happen anytime, not just in young athletes, but also in adults trying to lose weight. Whenever you work hard to get your nutrition on track, the tendency to take it a little too far, exists.
This can be minimized by letting kids be kids and recognizing that not every athlete needs strict nutrition guidelines. In addition, providing a variety of foods in the diet helps teach children to eat a healthy diet without restriction.
Resist the urge to pair nutrition with body type, size, or shape. The emphasis on healthy eating and nutrition in young athletes should be tied to performance and maintaining an overall healthy lifestyle. This can also help minimize the risk of disordered eating.
As a parent or a coach, modeling good habits will carry on to your child. What is practiced will become routine. When these young athletes go on to college and beyond, they will know that nutrition plays an integral role in their performance and success on/in the court/field/pool/mat.
To get a personalized nutrition periodization plan for your family and your young athlete, seek out the help of a registered dietitian (RD). RDs are trained to personalize nutrition based on medical conditions, medications, and for kids, periods of growth. For young athletes, sport specific nutrition periodization is also important.
Good nutrition habits are practiced and continue to evolve; it can take years to get it right. Start working on good lifelong nutrition practices early.