Off season nutrition, maintain or indulge?

The end of the season brings about mixed emotions and off season nutrition. All the hard work has been done, and hopefully your race results have been achieved. While it can leave some feeling a little unguided with next season seeming so far away, it’s also a chance to relax, chill out and switch off from it all for a little while. It’s recommended that any athlete takes a little time out following the end of the season. A few days of complete rest are a great mental break as well as physical.

Taking a break doesn’t mean you have to just sit around though. You can still be active, keep healthy and do some unstructured training for fun or even add in some cross-training, taking part in other sports. This could be anything from mountain biking, cross country running. Or even going hiking or skiing over the winter.

What about our off season nutrition then? Many of us may have been very strict on what we’ve eaten over the year to ensure we sustain a good racing weight and are fuelled to train, race and recover well. When the off season comes along, we can often see it as an opportunity to indulge in all those things we’ve said no to over the year. Combine that with the lure of Christmas parties and meeting up with friends and there’s the addition of a little drink or two as well.

From experience, the more I make myself cut out during the year, the more I crave it and indulge once the season is over. It’s very easy to say; “I’ll take a couple of naughty weeks, and then get back into healthy eating.” And before long you’re finding excuses to keep up a less than ideal diet. Relaxing a little over the year, allowing yourself occasional treats, but monitoring what you have will ensure you feel you’re not giving up too much, moderation is key.

The same goes for the off season. We may have eased off training a little, but we are still under training stress, and the more serious you are about planning for your next season, the more you need to consider your nutrition over the winter months. It’s perfectly normal to put on a little weight over the winter, in fact it’s almost healthier. Given that many athletes will aim to achieve lower body fat levels to race optimally with minimal excess weight, this places additional strain on our immune system. We hear all the time about pro athletes getting ill. Increasing your kcal intake a little to comfortably meet the demands of you training will ensure you feel recovered from training, and stay healthy over the winter.

Throughout the year we adapt our training around our race schedule, manipulating the intensity and type of each session to match the demands of our fitness to be in prime condition for a race. We call this process ‘periodisation’. Over the winter we typically reduce some of, but not all, higher intensity session in favour of returning to a base phase. As well as reducing stress on the body, this gives us a chance to return to more technique based sessions. In addition to this we may introduce a larger strength and conditioning element to our training in order to build and prepare us for the following season.

In the same way that we periodise out training, we should also adapt our off season nutrition so that we are always fuelling the training we are currently doing. For example, over the winter we may be doing fewer high intensity sessions and therefore our average training heart rate will be lower. This means we’ll be using energy from a higher percentage of fats as well as some carbohydrate. During race season, when we train and race at higher intensities there may be a need for higher carbohydrate intake as a percentage of our diets. Protein requirements may change too, especially if you’re planning to increase the amount of strength and conditioning in your training plan.

“The concept of matching performance nutrition strategies to training demands to support different phases of training and competition” – Lucy Wainwright, EIS Performance Nutritionist British Triathlon

While all of us may feel the urge to indulge during the off season, it’s important to remember that our bodies still require the nutrients to keep us healthy, maintain a good immune system, repair muscle and replenish energy supplies after training. As mentioned in our previous blogs on macronutrients and micronutrients, it’s about more than just calories, we need to consider what the food we eat is giving us. As long as we ensure a varied intake in protein, good fats and slow releasing carbohydrate sources, in the amounts we need, and that we eat foods high in vitamins and minerals, we can be perfectly healthy with a little indulgence on the side. As a rough guide, consider the 80:20 rule, so 80 % of your food must come from ideal sources that are aimed at fuelling you correctly, so you can have 20 % of your intake to play with as a little fun. As long as you don’t go overboard on kcal, you should be able to manage your weight throughout the off season and stay healthy.

Coach Phil

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