A Nutritional Approach To Periodization

By Jeremy Ford, MS, RD, CSCS

Periodization is a term we live and die by in the field of performance. This term, adapted from early work done in the 1950’s and 60’s, is a staple in how we view our monthly, weekly, and daily activities (Issurin, 2010). These activities make up well thought out periods of time commonly known as macrocycles, mesocycles, and microcycles. These cycles are integral in the proper preparation, maintenance, and recovery of athletes. Through the timeline of any given performance period, of course more than just training goes on. An athlete will face variation in schedules, interpersonal connection, sleep, stressors, and more which can’t always be predicted. One variable that can be planned though is fueling. What if I told you that we can take these same tried and true principles and see them through a nutrition lens with the goal of maximizing these same periods? Let’s explore how we can take periodization concepts, ask the right questions, and identify nutritionally sound solutions.

A Brief Overview of Nutrition Periodization

Periodized nutrition was defined in 2017 by Jeukendrup as “the planned, purposeful, and strategic use of specific nutritional interventions to enhance the adaptations targeted by individual exercise sessions or periodic training plans, or to obtain other effects that will enhance performance in the longer term.” In simpler terms: using food to fuel the training program. In this article we will discuss more broad thoughts on nutrition concepts, though periodized nutrition can be used on a much finer level to elicit specific adaptations. For example, altering carbohydrate availability through a training cycle may trigger cellular and training adaptation effects, reduce GI problems, and ultimately improve performance. Jeukendrup also explores using supplements in the realm of enhancing training adaptations, introducing them at varying points in the periodized cycle to improve the quality of the training cycle. As mentioned, these training phases are well thought out. Rather than eating just for necessity, taking time to think about and collaborate on nutrition strategies creates a huge opportunity for athletes to be intentional with fueling.

Nutritional Considerations for Each Phase

In order to properly program nutrition throughout the life of training phases, we must consider a few things to make sure we are maximizing our intervention. While these are general in nature and actual needs can vary depending on the demands of your activity, this is a good place to start!

Phase Questions Nutrition Solutions
What is the load, volume, and goal of the specific period within the cycle? (off-season, preseason, competition, etc) Off-Season/Preseason

●      Screen and monitor for nutrition deficiencies in collaboration with sports medicine using blood workups, watch for signs and symptoms of deficiencies such as unexplained fatigue, difficulty concentrating, decreased performance, trouble sleeping, increased injuries, etc.


●      Address specific needs and barriers to proper fueling including: food insecurity, knowledge and beliefs around food, food preparation techniques, and basic food procurement skills (ordering food, grocery shopping, etc.).


●      Trial supplementation and sport food strategies that will be used during competition season, to understand how the athlete will respond and give you plenty of time to make the appropriate changes.



●      Have proficient recovery protocols in place to provide your athletes with a proper intervention between competition periods, such as post competition meals that replenish carbohydrate stores and provide adequate protein, or rehydration protocols that supply the appropriate amount of electrolytes and fluid based on sweat rate and content.


●      Execute injury prevention strategies and intervene when injuries arise. Prevention strategies include monitoring for readiness and recovery, tracking movement and usage during practices and games, and working with the sports medicine team to make sure athletes are attending treatment for minor issues.



●      Ensure nutritional intake is adequate to supply proper energy intake relative to energy expenditure. Monitor signs and symptoms of low intake including fatigue, unexplained weight loss, skipped meals; or of excessive intake including unexplained weight gain and increased fat mass.



What are the body composition goals during this cycle, if any? ●      Promote and maintain proper body composition changes by delivering accurate information and using reliable tools to ensure safe, meaningful changes. Athletes are exposed to a large amount of information in regard to body composition so it is important for the professional to use validated methods to initiate the change.


●      Monitor for any signs of disordered behaviors surrounding body composition or food as a whole. This could include obsessively weighing, excessively reading and documenting food labels, comments about body image, etc. Refer to appropriate staff as needed.


What is the load, volume, and goal of the specific training block? ●      Continue to ensure nutritional intake is adequate to supply proper energy intake relative to energy expenditure. Monitor signs and symptoms of any suboptimal intake.


●      Monitor recovery and provide proper recovery interventions. Your athletes should be utilizing the supplements that were used during the off-season/preseason phases. If changes need to be made, be sure to trial them on non-competition days.


What environmental factors may affect the training block? (hot, humid preseason, indoor sports, high altitude, etc.) ●      Direct nutritional interventions for the environment the athlete is currently in. On warmer days be prepared with additional supplements for hydration including salt tablets or an electrolyte product. Also, provide supplementation of vitamins if the environment or blood workup suggests it (ex: indoor sports and vitamin D).


●      Continuously monitor hydration status and rehydration efforts through establishing testing protocols. Hydration tests and sweat tests can be done as frequently as needed to reinforce importance and help your athlete identify their specific hydration needs.


What is the day to day schedule? (practice, lift, gameday) ●      Tailor nutritional intervention to between day needs depending on time of year and sport specific needs. For example, if your athletes are in an endurance sport your carbohydrate needs may vary throughout the week leading up to competition.


●      Monitor between day recovery and preparedness to ensure that athletes do not get lost in the season. Consider other stressors athletes may be experiencing that can influence recovery and readiness. This includes school, family, coaches, travel, etc. Be ready to have both formal and informal conversations around these stressors and refer your athlete when necessary.


What are the acute needs of the specific day? ●      Provide interventions that can assist with demands of the day. During a competition day you may provide your athletes with a pre-competition meal, an intra-competition snack, and a post-competition meal/snack. Be sure these are appropriate in content depending on the timing and needs of the given activity.


Table Adapted from Stellingwerff, T, et al., 2019

Final Thoughts

Remember that as we treat each athlete’s specific programming uniquely, we must also use the same approach when dealing with nutrition. Each athlete and time of year presents with a specific profile of characteristics and needs, and one size truly does not fit all. Be sure to work with a registered dietitian to create an optimal periodized game plan to maximize success!

This article was written by a Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitian Association Registered Dietitian (RD).  To learn more about sports nutrition and CPSDA, go to www.sportsrd.org


Haff, G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning. Fourth edition. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.

Issurin V. B. (2010). New horizons for the methodology and physiology of training periodization. Sports Medicine, 40(3), 189–206.

Jeukendrup, A. E. (2017). Periodized nutrition for athletes. Sports Medicine, 47(1), 51-63.

Stellingwerff, T., Morton, J. P., & Burke, L. M. (2019). A Framework for Periodized Nutrition for Athletics. International Journal of Sport Nutrition and Exercise Metabolism, 29(2), 141-151.


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