The Case for Varying Your Nutrition and Recovery

Here’s what a typical Monday looked like for Ron Clarke, the record-setting Australian distance runner who dominated international competition in the 1960s:

6:30 a.m.: 3 miles fast
1:00 p.m.: 6 miles fast
5:15 p.m.: 12 miles fast

As it happens, that’s what Tuesdays looked like too. And Wednesdays, Thursdays, and Fridays. That’s what his training weeks looked like in January, and May, and November. “His training from one season of the year to another varies little if at all, and any variation is unintentional,” noted Fred Wilt in his 1973 classic How They Train. “Each workout from day to day is remarkably similar.”

These days, almost no one trains like that. Within any given week, there are hard days and easy days, long and short, fast and slow. Within a season, there’s a progression from general fitness building to specific race preparation. Within a year, there’s an arc that aims to bring athletes to a peak for the most important competitions of the year. These deliberate variations in training are collectively referred to as “periodization,” and their effectiveness is—with rare exceptions—almost universally agreed upon. (Clarke, for what it’s worth, set 17 world records but never managed to win a race at the Olympics or Commonwealth Games.)

Lately, periodization has re-emerged as a hot topic in sports science—but as a much broader concept. If you train differently from day to day and month to month, shouldn’t the same be true of all the other things you do—like eating, resting, and mental preparation? That’s the question posed by a big new mega-paper in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance, by group of scientists led by University of the Basque Country physiologist Iñigo Mujika.

The authors suggest an “integrated, multifactorial approach to periodization,” and make specific recommendations for periodizing four key areas: recovery, nutrition, psychology, and skill. Here’s an overview of what that means in five training phases: general preparation, specific preparation, taper, competition, and transition/off-season.

Recovery: The big debate in recovery (other than “does any of this stuff actually work?”) is whether it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. The inflammation and other bodily stress that follows a hard workout is the signal that tells your body to adapt and get stronger—so reducing it with an ice bath or a massage may be counterproductive.

This idea is still controversial, but some coaches and scientists now recommend limiting the use of recovery techniques during the general preparation phase, which for a marathoner would be the period of building up big mileage. Then, when you move to the specific preparation phase, where you’re hammering more race-pace workouts, you might throw in some ice baths and so on before those key workouts to help ensure you can nail the desired pace. And once you get to the taper phase in the final few weeks, use all the recovery you can get.

Nutrition: You can think about periodizing nutrition on several different timescales. The shortest is day-to-day variation: eat more on big training days and less on light training days. This might seem obvious, but it’s not what sports nutrition guidelines used to suggest.

At the other end of the spectrum, you might choose to periodize your nutrition over the course of a full year. A recent case study of Canadian Olympic runner Hilary Stellingwerff showed how her weight fluctuated almost sinusoidally from year to year. In the off-season, she would gain weight and then sustain a slightly higher-than-normal weight through the general preparation phase. Then, as specific training proceeded, she would gradually alter her diet to produce very subtle weight loss, then arrive at her target race weight shortly before the most important competitions of the year. There’s an uncomfortable tension in sports like running between the performance benefits of being light and the serious injury and health risks associated with being too light, so periodization aims to avoid spending too much time at race weight.

There are also other possible ways of periodizing your nutrition, such as doing some carbohydrate-restricted training during the general preparation period to boost fitness adaptations—the nutritional equivalent of wearing a weighted vest, essentially. For example, there have been a few studies of a “sleep low” protocol that involves doing a hard evening workout, not eating many carbs afterwards, then doing an easier workout before breakfast the next morning. This is an area of lively debate, but it’s not yet clear whether the benefits outweigh the challenges.

Psychology: This is a form of periodization I hadn’t thought much about, but the discussion has some interesting suggestions. In the general preparation period, you might focus of goal-setting, motivation, relaxation, and other big-picture challenges. During the specific preparation period, you shift to emotion management and increasing your sense of “self-efficacy,” for example by keeping a log of the improvements you’re making.

Once you start tapering, the emphasis changes again to work on focus, optimal arousal, and competition routines. When the competition period finally arrives, there are some obvious keys like confidence, but also some more neglected ideas like flexibility and tolerance of ambiguity—traits that come in handy when, as is almost always the case, a competition doesn’t go exactly as planned. Finally, in the off-season, you shift to self-care, self-evaluation, and new goal setting.

How exactly you’re supposed to achieve all these goals, and whether they’ll really aid your performance, admittedly remains a bit of an open question. But I think the idea of shifting the focus of whatever mental skills work you’re doing to match your training phase makes a lot of sense.

Skill: As a runner, for better or worse, I don’t tend to think a lot about motor skills. But they’re a big factor in most sports, and there’s plenty of research and debate on the best way to learn and optimize them. For skill-based sports, the big theme in the periodization paper is a move from high volume and variability to lower volume and more predictable practice conditions. Initially, you’re learning to hit the shot off-balance, with a hand in your face, with your off-dominant hand, and so on, and your failure rate may be pretty high. As you get closer to competition, you’re focused more on doing it right, and building your confidence by succeeding.

How you might put all these puzzle pieces together will depend a lot on your specific goals, sport, and circumstances. But the big message is relatively simple: if there’s something that you do identically every day, or every week, throughout the year, ask yourself whether it’s serving the same purpose six months before a race as it is six days before a race. If not, maybe it’s time to periodize.


My new book, Endure: Mind, Body, and the Curiously Elastic Limits of Human Performance, with a foreword by Malcolm Gladwell, is now available. For more, join me on Twitter and Facebook, and sign up for the Sweat Science email newsletter.

Outside Magazine: Fitness

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