Periodising Nutrition for Enhanced Performance

Depending on the type, timing, frequency and intensity of your training sessions, your body responds and adapts differently. Training periodisation is all about long-term variations in your training to improve performance. Did you know that your nutrition could also be used for adaptation? Research is making it increasingly clear that the adaptations from exercise can be both dampened or amplified with food choices and timing.

Nutrition periodisation is all about changing and adapting your intake in response to the different periods of training and racing. Some of these concepts are new, while others you may have heard about or have even tried already. Each of these concepts needs to be timed within your training/racing program appropriately and may not ideal to do year-round. Sports Dietitians are experts in these concepts, so if you would love some individualised advice on how to incorporate nutrition periodisation into your training, it is one incredible investment (ok, so I am a little biased).

The Macrocycle: Adapting your intake year round

The macrocycle refers to your training program over the entire season, and how your training changes depending on the time of year to ensure maximum performance for your key races.

Pre-Season/Base Phase

In triathlon, you will usually have a base phase initially. This is where you enter (or re-enter) the training scene with the goal of building endurance and fitness. Sessions are usually low to moderate intensity and are not yet focused on achieving those top end speeds. This is the time to really nail your nutrition to achieve specific goals, such as a particular body composition goal you may be aiming for. The reason that this is the ideal time to alter your intake, to achieve this, is that this phase does not rely on high-intensity training, and therefore you can enhance exercise adaptations by altering carbohydrate availability. There is no need to ‘diet’ or restrict to achieve this – instead, adapting your intake through the types of foods you are choosing can be enough.

During this phase, you will naturally need less carbohydrate overall. This is because you are simply not dipping into your muscle glycogen stores how you would during high-intensity sessions. Simple strategies such as keeping carbohydrates to a 1/4 of a plate at main meals or just switching your favourite carbohydrate options for a lower energy alternative, e.g. swapping rice for cauliflower rice, can be all it takes.

This is also the time that you can acutely alter carbohydrate availability by ‘training low’. This strategy is all about training with low carbohydrate availability. There are a few different options to achieve this, so it is all about incorporating a strategy that is the right fit for you, your lifestyle and your preferences. The purpose of training with low carbohydrate availability is to create an environment where the stress result from exercise can maximise gene expression (and therefore adaptation). Enduranc

e training already achieves this, however by also adding the additional stressor of lower carbohydrate availability, this response may be strengthened. Options could include training in a fasted state or even training twice per day to improve adaptations.

Although it may be tempting to train with zero nutrition for long sessions during the base phase, this does not often end well. Instead, use this time to cycle off supplements during training and instead add in some whole-food portables. This will naturally reduce carbohydrate and likely give your bank account a well-earned rest!


As intensity ramps up and there becomes a bigger focus on quality sessions, nutrition to support your training demands becomes increasingly important. A lack of adequate fuelling going into a key hill or interval session can prevent you from getting maximal gains from the session, as goal intensities may not be able to be achieved.

In this phase, reduce the number of sessions that you ‘train low’ for and instead concentrate on ensuring adequate carbo-hydrate intake around key sessions. It is best not to aim for significant weight loss during the season and to instead focus on weight maintenance, and adequate fuelling to maximise what you can get out of each session. Regarding your plate, it may now look like 1/3 plate carbohydrate – particularly on heavier training days.


As you approach a key race, chances are your training load will be reduced, as the focus moves to feeling fresh and rested for race day. As the training volume is reduced during this week, ensure your nutrition intake reflects this. Trusting your appetite is essential, as it will likely be reduced along with your lower training load. Ensure you continue to choose quality foods despite the added freedom, as this will minimise any unwanted weight gain as you approach the important day.

The Microcycle: Adapting your intake during the week


This is where the likelihood of increasing body weight and fat mass is highest. For many lean athletes, it is essential that body weight be increased slightly here to assist with regulating hormone levels and maintaining a good immune system.

To manage your health and body composition during this downtime, concepts are similar to the build phase. As muscle glycogen demands are much less, your intake of carbohydrate should be reduced to reflect this. However, instead of focusing on what you should remove in this phase, instead focus on what you can add in! Aim to consistently add plenty of salads and veggies to your meals – that way you will naturally reduce overall energy intake without going hungry or
missing out!

The training microcycle is the pattern oftraining that you follow over the week. This is all about how the length and intensity of your sessions change depending on your work and lifestyle commitments, and also what works best for optimum performance.

Periodising your nutrition around the weekly microcycle is a concept that can be tricky at first, but if you chat to an experienced Sports Dietitian, they will be able to train you to do it yourself automatically in no time at all! The benefits of adapting your intake daily to match your training demands are extensive. The biggest one many athletes find is that they

can achieve better energy balance and maintain body composition at their goal levels. Also, by fuelling those tough sessions adequately, you will find that you can maximise your performance and hit the goal intensities of the session.

For higher training days, where the sessions are longer or harder, your body will require additional energy and carbohydrate. This is because your need for muscle glycogen is higher as your heart rate increases. To achieve this, ensure you are eating frequently over the day, timing intake around your sessions and prioritising carbohydrate more than usual. This could mean adding a high-quality carbohydrate source to your salad for lunch or having a more carbohydrate-centric meal for dinner, such as a rice or pasta dish.

On recovery/lower training days, the intensity of any session is lower, so your energy and carbohydrate requirements are also reduced. To match this, reduce your portion sizes of carbohydrate where possible and instead replace it with higher fibre, lower energy dense foods – options like fresh fruits, salads and veggies are perfect. This ensures that you remain full and satisfied, as overall food volume and variety remains high. All that colour also helps boost your immune function to cope with the risk of illness while training hard over the week!

Summing Up

All triathletes will have different goals, body compositions, nutrition needs, lifestyle factors and training schedules. With this, there is no one program that is going to meet the needs of all athletes. However, by considering your training and competition cycle, it is possible to maximise the fuelling and adaptations to be gained to then enhance performance.

By considering your training and competition cycle, it is possible to maximise the fuelling and adaptations to be gained to then enhance performance.

To give you an idea, or what this may look like from a Sports Dietitian point of view when I work with an athlete, I utilise their training program to build a nutrition platform based on their training and lifestyle demands each week. We consider not only the performance side of things but also food preferences, work and family commitments, cooking skills and of course timing. This is done with both the macro- and micro- cycles in mind, and with the added goal of coaching the athlete to be able to be independent in nutrition periodisation after a few rounds.

Nutrition intake as we enter the off-season can be your key to a bigger and more successful 2017/18 season.

By considering the periodisation of food choices now, your adaptations to training will be amplified by the time the new season hits!  





Alicia Edge

Alicia is an Advanced Sports Dietitian with an online sports nutrition business, Compeat Nutrition. She is also a mum and triathlete, so advice extends beyond the basics and is instead focused on providing effective and achievable nutrition for both training and racing.

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