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Breaking Down Nutrition Plans for Athletes with Three Simple Questions

BY Scott Tindal

As endurance athletes ourselves, we're routinely looking for information on how to best support their athletes. In this post, we'll break down a basic nutrition plan for athletes into three simple questions coaches can ask to get started.

You are in a powerful position of trust with all of your athletes. Athletes will sign up under your guidance to get the most out of their training. This means they are guided by you and your training yet may not fully understand how that could be impacting their desire. So, what is their focus, and how can nutrition positively impact that focus? Let’s delve into what might be a helpful way of thinking about your programming from the perspective of an athlete’s nutrition. And explore how nutrition could be impacted and manipulated to get the most out of an athlete. There are three key questions and discussions that can reinforce a positive experience for your athlete and you.

  1. What is the athlete’s overarching “desire” concerning implementing a nutrition strategy?
  2. What is the athlete’s immediate intent regarding a nutrition strategy?
  3. What are the athlete’s actionable items related to the nutrition strategy for the week?

What is the athlete’s overarching “desire?”

Athletes will have varying responses to this question when posed to them. A lot will talk about races and performance goals. Their desire to win their age group, win the executive challenge or beat their work colleague. Others will have desires centered around health and wellness and explain that this is why they entered the sport of triathlon.

These are all very valid desires and help focus the athlete when times get tough and the focus wanes. The more intrinsic this desire is, generally, the better. If the desire focuses on health and wellness, with some further questioning through a process called “click-through,” you can get to the deep-rooted reason. The click-through process involves asking the athlete or individual “Why?” about a topic you are attempting to understand better. Several “why’s?”— usually about four to five times — will usually get to the real “why” someone is really doing what they are doing. That “why?” often comes back to the love for their partner, children or support network. This is a great place to start when getting into the role of nutrition and its importance to an athlete.

What is the athlete’s immediate intent?

Now that the athlete has divulged their desire, now begins the process of getting into the details of what they intend to do about it. This feedback will significantly affect what training you deliver and how well the athlete responds. An example of an athlete’s intent may be to lose weight in order to achieve their desire. This is great, yet this can cause issues with your plan and the athlete all too often. From the nutritionist’s perspective, it certainly can make it a lot harder, not impossible, just a little more complicated in setting expectations for the athlete.

With the intent set, it now comes down to the purpose of their training under your guidance. If it is “performance,” they may need to accept — and you as the coach — that “weight & fat loss” is not the primary focus. The nutrition focus should be shifted to a plan centered on maximizing the athlete’s swim, bike and run performance. Because of this shift in focus, the fueling will be different for the performance athlete. There will be a more significant focus on fueling the intensity, duration and overall load of the individual sessions and, ultimately, the entire day and week as a whole. A bigger emphasis on refueling to meet the needs of repeated sessions at a higher intensity will become apparent. The total caloric intake is likely to be bumped up to avoid under-fueling and meet the athlete’s nutritional requirements demanded. Any weight loss during this time ought to be avoided and encourage the athlete to perform at their peak.

Performance Athletes

This focus on performance will likely tie in with scheduled races; thus, race fueling preparation should also be accounted for in training. Have you thought about building specific sessions into the plan to assist with race fueling and hydration strategies? How many? From what we know about gut training, this can take as many as 10 sessions, and these are generally not going to be completed on consecutive days and are more likely to be once per week in most athletes’ cases.

The duration and intensity of these sessions, mainly the brick, where we tend to see the most gastro-intestinal issues with athletes occur, are often not practiced at a sufficient level to replicate a race-day scenario. The ability of the athlete to repeatedly perform a solid bike (i.e., 90 mins) and then transition into a solid run (i.e., 90 mins) is invaluable in assessing the athlete’s ability to consume carbohydrates and set their hydration strategy. This is not to say every brick needs to be of this duration. It is more to consider having some of these in the plan to test the athlete while they are in their specific phase of performance gains.

Health and Wellness Athletes

If the athlete intends to “lose weight & fat,” this may require a shift in training or the mentality around training. It is not to say that training cannot be hard; it is more about setting expectations around performance when the focus is on weight & fat loss. The nutritional strategy will differ slightly from the “performance” focus previously mentioned. A caloric deficit will be applied, and the athlete will likely experience some hunger, feelings of tiredness and sometimes poor performance during a session. This needs to be monitored and accounted for but explained that this is OK over some time and that the focus is on weight and fat loss, and performance metrics are likely to suffer a little bit.

The athlete on a weight and fat loss program for some time is unlikely to smash their FTP out of the park as they are likely to be in a relatively underfed state. I will reinforce that this is not for a chronic duration as that can lead to serious health consequences such as RED-s, yet when managed appropriately, it is a way to create the loss that is desired. Ultimately, it comes down to the athlete being in a caloric deficit and managing the training load to accommodate this. It is a consideration for the athlete and you as the coach and can bring a tremendous amount of relief to everyone when it is aired.

What are the athlete’s actionable items?

The athlete’s intent will now determine their actions. These can be broken down into bite-sized chunks — pun intended — that can be worked on with the athlete, you as the coach, and any other professionals such as dieticians, nutritionists and strength coaches involved. The team is stronger with everyone on the same page, and the athlete will feel very supported and loved.

Again, these actions are going to be specific to the purpose. It is either weight and fat loss or a performance-oriented nutritional approach to keeping it simple. With this in mind, the weight and fat loss actionable items may be as simple as: for the coming week, preparing overnight oats the night before a session that is Zone 3 and lasting more than 80 minutes, or actively tracking their food intake for seven days using a food diary such as Lose It.

Food Diary

Tracking with a food diary can give an insight into what the athlete is choosing to eat daily, which can be an invaluable insight into behavior. Another positive outcome of tracking is the gradual improvement in nutritional education around certain foods’ calorie and macro-nutrient content. This can reveal where deficiencies may lie and any potential previously not visible issues to the athlete.

Sweat Testing

If the purpose is performance, these actions may be that the athlete performs a sweat test to understand their hydration requirements or record their carb consumption rate after each race pace brick that week. The positive outcome of these approaches allows athletes, coaches and nutrition experts to quantify the current carbohydrate intake is currently on the bike and run to know where to make possible improvements. Often, there is underconsumption of carbohydrates in training during race-paced sessions, and it is this insight that can generate huge gains once it is corrected. These simple actions can be documented in the FuelIn app.

Making New the Routine

Any changes to an athlete’s program need to be simple yet challenging enough to make them worthwhile. These changes can develop each week and be combined with other habits to support the purpose and bring success in the intent and overarching desire. In our experience, the shift in the purpose of training is helpful to revisit every two weeks. It acts as a recalibration and refocus for the athlete and allows them to reflect on what they aim for during a particular training period.

These check-ins don’t have to change the programming but provide an opportunity to confirm or shift them. The beautiful thing about this approach is that it will ultimately benefit you as the coach because the athlete will have a purpose and better understand how they can utilize nutrition to meet their desires.

To be clear, this is purely written from a nutrition perspective yet could be applied to other aspects of an athlete’s training program. Moving beyond this introduction to how nutrition can be manipulated for a specific purpose, we can go into some interesting scenarios, methods and supplementation to bring about positive change.

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About Scott Tindal

Scott is a nutrition coach to professional triathletes and executives with 20+ years of experience in professional sports. He’s an expert advisor to companies on nutrition product development and health optimization. Scott was the head of performance nutrition for Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL), Team Oracle USA, and Professional Rugby. He holds a post-graduate diploma in Sports & Exercise Nutrition, ISSN certification, an MSc in Sports and Exercise Medicine from the Queen Mary University of London and a Bachelor of Applied Science-Physiotherapy from the University of Sydney. Scott is also the founder of the FuelIn app.

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