Nutrition in the Off-Season/Sports Transition

Jennifer DeWall RDN, CSSD, LD works with ICYF to provide expert advice on sports nutrition and healthy eating to the student and families of Indianola. A registered dietitian/nutritionist, Jennifer owns a private practice that focuses on helping athletes stay on the cutting edge with superior nutrition.

In the off-season, the duration and intensity of your training will vary dramatically. Changes in your activity level change the level of nutrition needed for you in order to maintain (or change) your current body composition. Depending on your sport, different body compositions may be required for optimal performance. What is the best way to make these changes in a healthful way without negatively impacting your training? Included are the top three tips to make off-season and/or sports transition a success.

1. Make Changes in the Off-Season NOT Pre-Season.
While most athletes talk about losing weight, what they actually want to achieve is a decrease in body fat. The goal is to lose body fat while preserving muscle mass. Body weight is a poor measure of the amount of fat we carry and changes measured on the scales do not necessarily reflect changes in body fat stores. Using a number of measurements of body composition will provide a better overall picture of its changes.

When aiming to lower body fat, there are no quick fixes that are sustainable. A long-term approach is required to lower body fat levels while maintaining the ability to train effectively. Therefore, changes in body composition are meant to be done between sports. The ultimate goal is to adjust your energy balance between calorie intake and your off-season fitness routine.

2. Practice nutrient timing.
Adequate carbohydrate intake in the form of whole grains, fruit, low-fat dairy products and certain vegetables are important. However, the timing of when you eat your carbohydrate can allow you to maintain energy levels for training while decreasing your overall energy intake. Focusing carbohydrate intake in the hours before and after training is a critical practice. It is important that athletes work with a licensed sports dietitian/nutritionist when practicing nutrient timing to prevent the negative impacts of energy restriction. If food/nutrient timing is not planned properly, a deficit in calories can cause injury, illness, loss of muscle mass and decreased academic performance.

In addition, daily protein intake may be increased to help the athlete feel satisfied on a lower amount of total calories. However, protein needs should not exceed one gram protein per pound of body weight. Excessive protein intake can affect kidney function and tends to focus attention away from much needed fruits, vegetables and whole grains.

3. Decrease dietary fat.
Fat is the most calorie dense macronutrient we consume. It has 9 calories per gram compared to carbohydrate and protein that both contain 4 calories per gram. Therefore, the best way to sustainably decrease body fat is to decrease the amount of dietary fat you are eating while also controlling total energy intake. It is important to remember that some fat in the diet is necessary. Getting your needed fats from olive oils, nuts, nut butters, seeds and fatty fish are optimal. However, many times athletes consume too much fat from unhealthy sources and the body composition changes they desire can’t occur, regardless of training. The amount of dietary fat you should consume depends on your individual size and body composition goal.

Approximate total fat intake for high school athletes in the off-season
Females 40-65 grams per day
Males 45-80 grams per day

Quick-Tips for Reducing Dietary Fat:
– Select lean cuts of meat (helathy cuts can be found on the “Athlete Shopping List” guide.)
– Eat more fruits and vegetables
– Try reduced-fat crackers, canned soups, chips and cheese
– Limit fat add-ons (e.g., sour cream, high-fat salad dressings, butter, and margarine.)
– Select low-fat or fat-free dairy products
– Limit fried foods