Off Season Nutrition for AthletesNov 20, 2023
Edited by: Danielle Abel, MSN RN PHN CMNE FNMS CSCS
Off-season will look different for each athlete, mostly due to their specific goals. It's important to remember that there is no cookie-cutter approach to off-season nutrition.
- Some athletes might want to improve their capacity for greater strength & power by increasing muscle mass or hypertrophy and increasing their intake by eating in a slight calorie surplus or starting a bulking phase.
- Other athletes might use the off-season to reduce unwanted body fat by going through a cutting phase or calorie deficit phase that would have been difficult to achieve during the in-season due to the performance demands of their sport.
- Another group of athletes might just want to maintain what they've achieved and enjoy some time, not necessarily focused on body composition-related goals; in this case, these athletes might choose to eat near maintenance in an energy balanced phase.
In this article, we'll cover all these and give you examples of how you might implement these concepts.
Best Practices For All Goals
No matter what an athlete's goals are in the off-season, there are some best practices that might be helpful for all athletes, regardless of whether or not they have body composition-related goals:
- Account for lifestyle & training changes
- Monitoring body composition
- Balancing training volume & nutrient intake
The off-season might more slower paced for some athletes. If this is the case, they may want to be mindful of their daily activity from a baseline perspective. If they're getting 10,000-12,0000 steps or more each day in the off-season, what changes to their daily activity levels & training volume might occur in the off-season? If activity levels decrease, then their nutritional demands, from both a calorie & nutrient perspective, could be lower. Having a way to quantify this can be helpful:
- Weekly average number of steps
- Frequency or volume of resistance training sessions
- Minutes of cardio or aerobic conditioning per week
Even if an athlete is not interested in changing their body composition off-season, there is still value in some level of self-monitoring. We recommend choosing at least 2 body composition-related variables to keep track of.
- Average weekly body weight
- Bi-weekly or monthly measurements
- Bi-weekly or monthly progress photos
Especially for athletes who aren't tracking their intake, self-monitoring might be a great way for them to monitor their intake. If their weight is saying within 2-3lbs of their baseline, then it can be assumed that they are meeting their daily energy needs.
Calorie Surplus for Muscle Gain
If an athlete competes in a sport that is based on their body weight, they might be really excited to be able to eat more, or they might be nervous about eating more and going above their weight class. In either case, it's important to emphasize that calorie surplus phases are intended to be time-bound. Meaning they won't eat like this forever.
It might see your favorite fitness influencer going in and out of calorie surplus or deficit phases, but it's important to recognize that most of these people are not athletes. As a result, they probably have more liberty in choosing when and for how long they will work on cutting and bulking.
For athletes, though, they need to be a bit more strategic with their timelines since athletic performance can be affected by extremes in energy intake. Another consideration is that manipulating your intake takes time and intentional effort, which is usually achieved through fairly precise tracking.
Having this level of dedication to your nutrition might be too much for some pre-season or in-season athletes, so the off-season might be a better time due to increased schedule flexibility.
Keep this one thing in mind though:
- There is no minimum or maximum amount of time you have be in a surplus, maximize the amount of time you have
- Sometimes short surplus phases can be beneficial, whereas long surplus phases can be detrimental to your health
If you're looking to set up a calorie surplus phase for you or the athletes you work with to help them gain muscle, which can later be translated to increases in strength & power, here are some of the considerations we would recommend:
- Establish a start date and an approximate end date, for example, a short surplus might be 4 weeks, whereas a long surplus might be 16 weeks, with breaks at maintenance for days or weeks as needed
- Start low & go slow; for example even a 5-10% increase could be beneficial to start with; monitor how the body is responding to the increases via things like hunger & fullness, bloating, or energy level
- Establish at least 1-2 ways to monitor progress in the surplus; this could be training-related (PRs, for example) or changes in body weight or measurements
- Keep well-established nutrition behaviors & habits in place, such as adequate hydration levels, eating a balanced plate most of the time with protein, fruits or veggies, simple-to-digest carbohydrates & high-quality fats
- Don't be afraid to use or recommend high-calorie, energy-dense foods & beverages to help athletes meet their calorie & nutrient needs, like simple carbohydrates (jasmine rice vs. brown rice) and cooked or processed fat sources that don't necessarily have to be chewed (think nut butters here) there is no need to leat large volumes of low-calorie foods during this time like watery fruits & vegetables, such as watermelon or leafy greens which are better suited for calorie deficit phases; they could actually worsen digestion
Calorie Deficit for Fat Loss
If possible, it can be really helpful to reserve the off-season for times when an athlete wants to drop body fat. If you think about it, during the in-season it could be hard to not only adhere to a calorie deficit due to the fast-pace of the season, but also be compliant when the body's energy needs are primarily dictated by the intensity of sports performance.
The most common situation we encounter with athletes who want to drop body fat is getting them on board with the timing of these phases. Sometimes, it can be hard to overturn an athlete's mindset who is fixated on changing their body composition now.
- In general, though, we try to present the perspective that they might be more successful in delaying a fat loss phase until they can dedicate the necessary mental energy needed to go into a calorie deficit in the off-season.
With that being said, if someone is really persistent, you can always start the calorie deficit and see what happens, making any necessary adjustments along the way. If you're looking for specifics on how to set up a calorie deficit the right way so athletes actually see results, we have an entire blog article covering athlete calorie deficits that you can read here.
Maintenance Phases to Maintain Gains
Sometimes athletes just want to coast during the off-season. Maybe it's because they're really happy with their performance and want to be able to maintain it. Or, what also might come up is that the in-season was so mentally taxing that they just need a break.
A break might come in the form of not tracking their intake and eating intuitively instead, while doing some self monitoring to ensure they're meeting their energy needs. Sometimes, we see athletes pair these nutritional phases with styles of training they've been wanting to try or just personally enjoy. Either way, it's important to support athletes who might go against the grain and aren't really interested in changing their body composition before their next sports season.
Some possible intuitive eating goals we like to use include:
- 80% of meals are balanced with a protein source, fiber source, simple carbohydrate source, and fat source
- Regular meal timing of every 3-4 hours
- Monitoring hunger & fullness cues and adjusting intake level up & down as needed
- Finding alternative ways to cope with strong emotions that does not include food
If you want to be able to support your athletes during maintenance phases, we have an entire article that covers what maintenance phases for athletes can look like here.
Our Hybrid Athlete Team, available on the Train Heroic app, is a great place to get support with your training & nutrition, no matter what season you're in. Backed by our over 10 years of training experience, we can help you reach your goals and become even more athletic. You can get more info or join our Hybrid Athlete Team here.
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