Nutrition Periodization for Athletes: Taking Traditional Sports Nutrition to the Next Level

Nutrition Periodization for Athletes: Taking Traditional Sports Nutrition to the Next Level

by Bob Seebohar

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Bypassing the traditional belief that the nutritional element is only important around the time of athletic competition, this “new school” approach highlights the benefits that a year-round, periodized nutrition plan can bring. A variety of training cycles are outlined, accompanied by specific physiological goals such as increasing endurance, speed,


Bypassing the traditional belief that the nutritional element is only important around the time of athletic competition, this “new school” approach highlights the benefits that a year-round, periodized nutrition plan can bring. A variety of training cycles are outlined, accompanied by specific physiological goals such as increasing endurance, speed, strength, and power and improving technique, tactics, and economy. Covering every sport from football and golf to track and field and martial arts, this guide addresses the true needs of athletes who are training and competing on a consistent basis.

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Bull Publishing Company
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Nutrition Periodization for Athletes

Taking Traditional Sports Nutrition to the Next Level

By Bob Seebohar

Bull Publishing Company

Copyright © 2011 Bull Publishing Company
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-936693-07-8


Energy Systems and Physical Periodization

It may seem odd to begin a sports nutrition book with discussions of energy systems and the concept of physical periodization, but both of them provide a staple in your foundational knowledge of understanding how to use and change your nutrition throughout your training. By knowing about the various energy systems in your body that are called upon during different types of exercise, you will have a much better idea of which nutrients are being used and which are not in your training sessions. If you do not have a clear idea of your physical goals associated with each training cycle, you miss the opportunities to implement specific nutrition strategies that optimize your health and performance.


The body's three energy systems that provide you with the energy to fuel your training sessions — from warm-ups to sprints to strength training to long endurance training — are the phosphagen system, the glycolytic system, and the aerobic pathway. These systems are engaged at different times and in different amounts based on the intensity and duration of training. Warm-ups exert a much different metabolic response and energy system demand on the body than does sprinting. Strength and power training are somewhat different than long endurance training. It is these alterations in training load (volume and intensity) that dictate what, when, and how your energy systems contribute to fueling your workouts. The carbohydrates, protein, and fat that you eat on a daily basis and store in your body follow different metabolic paths, and their utilization depends on the intensity and duration of your training.

The phosphagen system, also known as the phosphocreatine or creatine phosphate system, is an anaerobic (without oxygen) pathway that supplies immediate energy to your working muscles. The amount of phosphocreatine stored in your body is limited, so this system only provides you enough energy for about 10 seconds of high-intensity exercise. Many sprint and explosive power athletes utilize this system. After the initial 10 seconds of this type of training, athletes typically require about 2–4 minutes of rest to allow regeneration of the phosphocreatine used. It is very important for athletes participating in this type of training to allow this rest interval between sets to allow the energy system to recovery during this maximal energy use.

The glycolytic system, also known as glycolysis, is another anaerobic metabolic pathway that functions to break down glucose or glycogen to energy. As with the first energy system, the glycolytic system also has limited stores and provides only enough fuel for about 1–2 minutes of high-intensity exercise. This system also yields lactate molecules, which can be thought of as friends rather than foes. Lactate can be used as an energy source to fuel your muscles at certain intensity levels.

The third energy system, aerobic energy, uses oxygen to provide energy and can thus produce a larger amount of energy. Pyruvate, a product of glycolysis, enters the mitochondria (the energy factories of the cell) and generates a constant supply of energy to fuel working muscles for hours and hours.

When you first begin exercise with a bout of lower-intensity cardiovascular exercise or a dynamic warm-up, your body utilizes primarily anaerobic systems, with a small contribution from the aerobic pathway. As you progress into more aerobic exercise, your body calls upon more of the aerobic energy system, with less contribution from the anaerobic energy systems. As a general rule, high-intensity and maximal training rely more on anaerobic metabolism, whereas lower-intensity and longer-duration training rely more on aerobic metabolism. Very rarely does one energy system perform all of the work at any given point throughout exercise.


Periodization is a strategy that promotes improvement in performance by providing varied training specificity, intensity, and volume in training sessions throughout the year. By manipulating each of these variables with just the right blend of science and art, you can almost guarantee an improvement in performance.

Figure 1.1 depicts physical periodization in a graphic form. As you can see, there are three main cycles: macrocycle, mesocycle, and microcycle. Each of these cycles have very specific physical goals. The macrocycle is normally defined as the big picture and includes the entire year (annual training plan) or 4-year plan (for Olympic athletes). The mesocycle is a smaller portion of time than the macrocycle and typically spans 2–3 months. Each mesocycle is typically separated into three specific subcategories, which include the pre-season or base, in-season or competition, and off-season or transition. Each of the mesocycle subcategories has its own very specific physical goals based on the status of the athlete and competition frequency and duration.

General and sport-specific conditioning are included in the preseason, and the physical goals are a result of the type of athlete, sport, and developmental stage. For example, many less-experienced endurance athletes may have goals of improving aerobic endurance, strength, and flexibility, whereas more-experienced athletes may try to improve anaerobic endurance, power, and economy. Strength, power, and team-sport athletes use this time of the training year to develop good technique, foundational strength, and movement patterns to build a strong body that is ready for more intense training in the next cycle. (See Figure 1.2, Periodization Boxes.) During the in-season, many athletes are getting ready for competition by training to improve competition specific strength, force, economy, skills, power, and speed.

During the off-season, most athletes take a reprieve from structured training — for a few days to a few weeks — with goals consisting of rehabilitation, recovery, and enjoying a small amount of time without formal training.

Each sport has varying lengths of each cycle. Much of this is dependent on the competition cycle of the sport. In many sports, athletes compete year-round, with very little down time and a nonexistent off-season (e.g., sailing). Other sports follow specific seasons, and athletes have scheduled recovery in between the competition season and the pre-season (e.g., football, soccer, triathlon). But it is always important to realize the competition demands and structure of your sport. Once you have this information, you can easily build a physical periodization plan that accommodates your goals and progression in sport.


The concept of periodization dates back to the ancient Olympic Games and was introduced in a more structured manner in the 1940s, when Soviet sports scientists discovered that athletic performance was improved by varying the training stresses throughout the year rather than by maintaining the same training from month to month. This led to the formal division of an athlete's year into cycles, with differing training stresses. The East Germans and Romanians further developed this concept by applying goals to the various cycles.

There are many models of periodization, but I have chosen two specific models that are opposites in the planning and implementation processes and that provide you with an idea of different approaches in attempting to attain the same overall goal of improved performance. An understanding of these two foundational models assists you with understanding and implementing nutrition principles to support your training load changes.

The first popular periodization model (Figure 1.3) follows the concept that training should begin with a general physical preparation phase in which volume is moderate and intensity is low. The intention is to develop strong tendons and ligaments, build strength, and begin to improve cardiovascular fitness. Many athletes and coaches explain this type of preparation in terms of the foundation of a house: the concrete must be poured before framing the walls.

As training continues in this model, volume is typically reduced to allow the intensity of training to increase in a sportspecific manner. More time is spent practicing specific sport skills. Many novice to intermediate level athletes have great success with this type of periodization model because they are still in the developmental stages of sport progression. The competition season can be quite demanding, with frequent competitions and very little opportunities to train.

Once the competition season is complete, both volume and intensity are reduced to allow the athlete to recover. This type of pattern is also experienced during the initial phases of injury, when a nutritional shift is required to support the injury status.

There is another common model used by athletes and coaches that employs the exact opposite concept of the first model. As you can see in figure 1.4, volume and intensity do not cross, and intensity is maintained at a high level throughout the training program. The volume of training fluctuates in response to competitions. This method is more commonly used with elite athletes who have at least 10 years of sport experience. Because the intensity is maintained at a high level, there is more risk of injury and overtraining. This method is often needed for more experienced athletes, however, because it provides them with the necessary stimulus for performance enhancement that the previous model does not provide.

It is very common for athletes to fluctuate between both periodization methods at different points in their careers and even during a training year because their sport and their body may require different stimuli and, more important, different recovery methods to achieve optimal performance.

Regardless of which periodization method is used, it is important to understand the differences in energy utilization and expenditure, which have a direct impact on your nutrition periodization program (as described in the following chapter). Maintaining a high intensity of training throughout your training year requires different macronutrient shifts than do frequent volume and intensity shifts.

Other types of periodization that fall into the previously mentioned models include traditional and reverse periodization. As you can see in Figure 1.5, a generic model of traditional (standard) periodization is characterized with a progressive increase in load (volume and intensity) over weeks to months. In this example, each block represents one week, so you see a three-week build to one-week recovery cycle. Reverse periodization is the opposite and begins with a higher training load with progressive decreases in load. As mentioned previously, traditional periodization is used quite frequently with novice to intermediate athletes, whereas reverse periodization is more commonly used with advanced athletes. Of course, these two types of periodization can also be used together in an athlete's training year. The important point from a nutrition perspective is, again, to note the changes in volume and intensity, because these institute a change in the nutrition program.

There are many principles associated with periodization, and the science can be somewhat confusing. If you have a basic understanding of periodization, you can use it in the development and implementation of your specific training program. The most important thing to remember is that each cycle should be constructed to have a set of specific physiological, psychological, and nutritional goals that help you improve as an athlete. As long as you progress in a steady, logical way, making sure that your body is prepared for each cycle, you should be more than ready to compete to your potential season after season.


The difference between proactive and reactive periodization is simply that the former allows you to plan your recovery and rejuvenation ahead of time, so that you improve performance, whereas the latter does not promote an increase in fitness, because you may always be reacting to your training sessions. The hard truth is that if you go weeks or months without planned rest, you cannot reach your full potential. Athletes know their bodies better than anyone, but it is often difficult for them to step outside their bodies and provide an objective assessment of their fatigue scale. Because you may not be 100% accurate in your assessment, it is important to structure planned and frequent rest into your training stressors. This rest can range from a day of light stretching to a complete rest day or a block of rest days in a row. No matter which method you choose, the important message is to try to predict closely when your body needs rest rather than forcing it to rest because you were not able to train hard during a workout, make certain times, or master technical skills.

Recovery is extremely crucial to your success as an athlete. Not many athletes realize that during cycles of high volume and intensity, fitness level does not improve. In fact, it may actually decrease as a result of the repeated physical stress placed on the body. It is only during planned recovery, which includes less volume and intensity, that the body actually improves its fitness. Quite simply, if you allow your body to rest and repair the damage that you did to it during training, you get stronger, faster, and more powerful.

To further illustrate this point, Figure 1.6 provides an example of a one-month mesocycle in which training volume is steadily increased each week, which is typical for athletes following a traditional periodization model. You can see that as volume increases, fitness level slowly starts to decrease. As soon as the recovery week begins, however, the body rejuvenates itself and recovers from the previous three weeks of training. The result is an increase in fitness.

By following a model that focuses on proactive periodization and recovery, you can reap the rewards of improved performance without injury or overtraining. It does not matter which recovery method or system you choose. The important thing is that you make recovery a priority. Take a day, a week, or a month for recovery, but be sure to include it during times of high volume and/or intensity. Remember, recovery is needed in order for your body to improve. Also, be sure to account for other stressors or time commitments that increase your stress, such as career, family, travel, or social engagements. Although it may not seem apparent, these add to your overall training load stress response and should be minimized when your physical training load is high in order to ensure a faster recovery from training.


Overtraining, also known as underrecovery, and injury are common among athletes. Whether you are just beginning your athletic career, if you are an Olympic medalist, you are likely to fall victim to one of these at some point in your athletic career. Following a well-periodized training program is extremely important in the prevention of underrecovery or injury, but their occurrence may sometimes be out of your control.

If you choose to follow a less periodized, more random training program, you may subject yourself to a higher risk of overtraining and injury. This could result in an unplanned break or, quite possibly, in forfeiting your entire competitive season. Properly planned recovery becomes extremely important during training, whether it is recovery days, weeks, or cycles. There is a limit to your capacity to endure and adapt to intense training. Once this threshold is crossed, your body fails to adapt and your performance declines rapidly. In fact, 10–20% of athletes who train intensively may fall prey to overtraining at some point during their sport career.

The term "overtraining" itself is fraught with controversy and confusion. The following definitions are commonly used when discussing overtraining:

Overload: A planned, systematic, and progressive increase in training, with the goal of improving performance.

Overreaching: An unplanned, excessive overload in training, with inadequate rest. Poor performance is observed in training and competition.

Overtraining: Untreated overreaching that results in chronic decreases in performance and impaired ability to train. This may require medical attention.

There are many causes associated with overtraining, but the primary cause is a poorly planned training program. The main culprit is a rapid increase in training volume and intensity, combined with inadequate recovery and rest. Other types of stressors, such as competitions, environmental factors, psychosocial factors, improper nutrition, and travel, can increase the stress of training and contribute to overtraining.

If you find yourself fitting into one of the categories of overreaching or overtraining, the smartest thing to do is rest. Recovery may take days, weeks, or even months, but unstructured activity is the best remedy to help you recover and get back in condition to train. In most cases, if overreaching is caught early, you do not have to stop training completely; you only need to reduce training volume and intensity.


It is extremely important to recognize the signs of overtraining before it becomes too severe. The physical signs of overtraining include the following:

• Decreased performance

• Loss of coordination

• Prolonged recovery

• Elevated morning heart rate

• Headaches

• Loss of appetite

• Muscle soreness/tenderness

• Gastrointestinal disturbances

• Decreased ability to ward off infection


Excerpted from Nutrition Periodization for Athletes by Bob Seebohar. Copyright © 2011 Bull Publishing Company. Excerpted by permission of Bull Publishing Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Meet the Author

Bob Seebohar, MS, RD, CSCS, is a practicing sports dietitian who specializes in working with endurance athletes. He has been a competitive endurance athlete for more than 15 years and has competed in all types and distances of endurance sports, including five Ironman races. He is a professional endurance coach and is the owner and operator of ATP Coaching, which provides coaching and sports nutrition services to endurance sport athletes of all ages and abilities. He lives in Boulder, Colorado.

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