Everyone participating in endurance sport, however much they love it, needs a period of rest away from training and competing. A chance to recharge your batteries, to spend more time with family and friends – who may be feeling somewhat neglected – and to give your body the opportunity to recover from the physical and physiological stress that you’ve placed it under for the previous months.
But what about nutrition during your ‘off season’? Should you just relax, eat exactly what you want, not worry about gaining a few extra pounds, and enjoy as much as you like of the foods and drink that you try to avoid while in training? That’s certainly one strategy. Should you use the off season as a time to diet, to try to lose those extra pounds around your belly that somehow never disappeared over the summer despite all the training that you did? This can be a good time to focus on body composition, as you don’t need to eat as many calories and as many carbohydrates, as you do when you are in training. On the other hand, going straight from a “race diet” to a “weight loss” diet, with no relaxation over food at all, may backfire as it is likely to be difficult to sustain.
My preferred strategy for the endurance athletes I work with is broken up into various phases, as follows:
- For 3-4 weeks after your last event of the season, when you shouldn’t be in any form of structured training, relax and don’t follow any sort of nutritional plan. Enjoy the foods you have been largely avoiding. Have some nights out and drink as much alcohol as you feel like. Don’t worry if you gain a few pounds of body fat. After 4 weeks, if you are used to following a healthier diet, you will probably find that you’ve had enough ‘treat’ foods and prefer to go back to your normal way of eating.
- When you come to review how your season went and to put your plans in place for winter training, spend some time looking at the nutritional side of things.
- Did you eat enough food to fuel your training?
- Did you eat more carbs on heavier training days?
- Did you plan how you were going to eat after a training session, getting in both carbs and protein, plus fluid for rehydration?
- Did you have at least 5 servings of fruit and vegetables and some healthy fats each day?
- Did you practice your race nutrition in training?
- What nutrition and hydration plan went well for you in races? What went badly? How easily could you implement your plan?
- What would you do differently next season, in both your day to day way of eating and your race nutrition?
If you would like some help with reviewing your nutrition and putting together a plan for next year, now is a good time to contact a nutrition practitioner like myself – see here for details.
- For the next few weeks, such as the run up to Christmas:
- Focus your daily diet on fresh, unprocessed foods.
- Don’t count calories or track your ‘macros’ (protein, fat, carbohydrate grams)
- Try some new breakfasts, such as different versions of homemade muesli or porridge or ways of cooking eggs with vegetables as a weekend brunch.
- Fill half your plate with colourful vegetables at lunch and dinner. This helps to stop you over-eating other foods.
- At the same time, eat smaller portions of starchy carbohydrate foods such as bread, pasta, rice, potatoes than you would when you are in full training. Still make sure that you have enough carbs to fuel your high intensity training sessions, though.
- Make sure that you have some protein as part of every meal and snack, eg meat, fish, eggs, dairy products, pulses, nuts or seeds. This helps you to feel full so prevents overeating and to preserve lean muscle tissue when you are only training lightly.
- If you are taking time to work more on your strength and conditioning during this period, as many endurance athletes do, increase your usual protein intake by about 25% daily to support muscle synthesis and recovery. Cut back on carbs and fat by around 10% each in compensation, unless you are looking to gain weight.
- Have some healthy fats every day, eg half an avocado, a portion of oily fish such as salmon, mackerel or sardines, a tablespoon of olive oil, some ground flaxseed or chia seed. This helps to maintain a strong immune system over the winter as well as to reduce excessive inflammation that might have occurred during the competition season.
- Enjoy treat foods such as pizza, cakes and desserts when you are out socialising, but keep them out of your daily diet now.
- Avoid all sports nutrition products, eg energy drinks, bars, gels. If you are doing long rides or runs at this time, these should be at a low intensity and provide a great opportunity to improve your ability to burn fat as fuel by not replenishing your glycogen stores. You could also try starting your long rides in a fasted state or after a carb-free breakfast (eg eggs and avocado but no toast, or simply a protein shake). If you are riding for long enough to need refuelling, this is the time of year to enjoy cake at a café stop.
- During the Christmas break, eat and drink as you wish, but try to keep this to the festive period only, and return to your normal eating patterns on 1st or 2nd January.
- If you find that you have gained body fat over the off season, your period of base training during the Spring months is the best time to gradually lose it. Take extra care over your daily diet, looking to cut c 300 calories a day after accounting for the calories you are burning through training. Perhaps use an app like My Fitness Pal for a couple of weeks to assess how much you are using. Avoid very low calorie diets which are unsuitable for endurance athletes as they provide insufficient calories and nutrients to support your training. Staying healthy is more important than rapid fat loss.
If you find it difficult to relax about food during the off season, find yourself anxious about gaining a little weight at this time or avoid social occasions because you are concerned about eating “unhealthy” foods, these could be signs that you are developing an obsession with healthy eating. This could end up harming both your performance and your health. You may find it helpful to read my blog post Taking Healthy Eating Too Far: A Risk for Endurance Athletes.
I hope these tips help you manage the way you eat during your off season…and enable you to enjoy your time off.
Jo Scott-Dalgleish BSc (Hons) is a BANT Registered Nutritionist, writing and giving talks about nutrition for endurance sport. Based in London, she also works as a Registered Nutritional Therapist, conducting one–to–one consultations with triathletes, distance runners and cyclists to help them eat well, be healthy and perform better through the creation of an individual nutritional plan. To learn more about these consultations, please visit www.nutritionforendurancesports.co.uk