How Should My Diet Change as I Train Less?

Follow these guidelines for nutrition during the off-season.

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After the last race of the season, it’s important to dial back the training load to allow for an extended period of recovery. But when triathletes decrease their training intensity and volume in the off-season, they sometimes forget to adjust their eating patterns as well. The principles of periodization aren’t just for training; they also apply to what we eat. Follow these micro-adjustments as your nutrition guide this off-season.

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Adjustment #1: Balance what you eat with what you’re actually doing

Now that our workouts are less demanding, adjusting food intake to match our physical output is key. With training load decreased by 30% or more, an offseason nutrition plan for triathletes should shift the focus from sports fueling, recovery, and preloading to a balanced daily nutritional strategy. With a natural reduction in total carbs, set your sights on nutrient-dense foods that pack a punch of fiber, micronutrients, and protein.

Reduce carbs

The goal is to match carbohydrate intake to training. Carbohydrates (carbs) should still be present at meals/snacks but not as abundant as when training volume is high, and glycogen stores are constantly depleted. Carbs are fuel for the body, so it’s common sense; if you are moving less, you need less fuel.

Carb guidelines by season:

Training/Race Season Off-Season
8 to 12 grams(g) /kilogram(kg) per day 3 to 5 g/kg per day

For example, a 150-pound (68kg) athlete would require 545 to 680g carbs/day to support a heavy training load; and 205 to 340g/day during the off-season.

Your carb adjustments aren’t just about quantity, however. Quality matters, too. In heavy training, you may enjoy chips, pretzels, sports bars, granola bars, and pasta. In the off-season, you’ll want to replace prepackaged snack foods with whole foods whenever possible. Choose carbs like oatmeal, beans, lentils, chickpeas, brown and wild rice, starchy vegetables, fruit, and quinoa.

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Prioritize protein

Dietary protein is necessary to support metabolic adaptation, repair, maintenance, and growth of muscle tissue, the immune system, and has a role in forming hemoglobin.

Ensure there is adequate protein at meals and snacks that bridge meals more than 4-5 hours apart. Proper timing of protein intake around strength training is recommended.

Protein Guidelines by Season

Training/Race Season Off-Season
1.4 to 2.0g/kg per day 1.2 to 1.4+g/kg per day

For example, a 150-pound (68kg) athlete would need 95 to 136g protein/day during heavy training; and 81 to 95+g/day in the off-season.

In the off-season, choose lean protein sources like low-fat dairy (Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, cow, and soy milk), lean meats, eggs, fish, tofu, and tempeh.

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Include healthy fats

Just as in race season, incorporate healthy fats into your off-season nutrition plan. Heathy fat improves satiety, aids in absorbing vitamins A, D, E, K and supports cell growth.

Fat Guidelines by Season

Training/Race Season Off-Season
1.3g/kg per day 1g/kg per day

Using the 150lb (68kg) athlete example, in heavy training, 88.5g fat per day is recommended and approximately 68g fat per day in the off-season.

Healthy fat sources for the offseason include olive oil, nuts and seeds, flaxseed, nut butter, avocado, lean meats, fish, eggs.

Skip the sports nutrition

Gels, bars, and chews are crucial to an athlete’s training and racing performance. However, in the off-season, when the training focus is on skill, technique and aerobic conditioning as opposed to performance, supplemental fueling is not needed.

With balanced meals and snacks consistently spaced throughout the day, a one-hour swim, 60-75 min run, or 90 min to two-hour zone 2 ride is fully supported with water and electrolytes. Additionally, a post-workout recovery snack is not needed unless your next meal is more than 60-90 minutes out in which case, all you need is a small, balanced snack, such as Greek yogurt, chocolate milk, cheese and crackers, peanut butter or nut butter with a banana.

Adjustment #2: Hydration

In cooler winter temperatures, athletes tend to not feel as thirsty during workouts and throughout the day as compared to a hot and humid climate. However, proper hydration is important in all temperatures. Aim to consume at least half your body weight in ounces of water, and consume 16-24 ounces per hour of exercise.

In addition to water, improving fluid balance can be achieved by eating lots of fruits and vegetables, which have a high water content (and lots of high-quality nutrients to boot).

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Adjustment #3: Mindful Eating

Infants are very attuned to their hunger and fullness; once they are full, they will not eat anymore. By the age of 5, we have learned either by consumption norms, genetic predispositions, or emotional eating to ignore our body’s cues of hunger and fullness. Studies show that by the time we’re adults, emotional eating is the number one reason we overeat – not because we’re hungry or because the food tastes good.

Take time this off-season to understand your body’s cues. Be careful not to misread the signs: often, people think they’re hungry when they’re really thirsty or tired.

Also, pay attention to the cues your body gives you as you’re eating. When you are no longer hungry, stop eating. If you find yourself aimlessly snacking, ask yourself why you are eating.

An interesting fact: our hunger and portions tend to be more out of control when we are “dieting” or restricting calories. Why? Because this is the body’s self-preservation mechanism. You may not need to eat as much as you do during the regular season, but you certainly shouldn’t restrict or limit food intake, either.

Adjustment #4: Moderation

Regardless of in-season or off-season, the 80/20 rule stands: When you’re eating well-balanced meals and snacks 80 percent of the time, you balance out the other 20 percent made up by those special indulgences. There is no need to be perfect 100 percent of the time. Having a healthy relationship with food means enjoying those occasional treats, then getting back on track without emotionally beating yourself up.

Don’t think of the offseason as a period of restriction. Instead, use this training phase to establish healthy eating and  lifestyle habits, develop a positive relationship with food, and be ready to start next year with a healthy, strong body.

Susan Kitchen is a Sports Certified Registered Dietitian, USA Triathlon and Ironman Certified Coach, accomplished endurance athlete, and the owner of Race Smart, an endurance coaching and performance nutrition company.