Nutrition Periodization for Mountain Athletes

Last Updated: January 1, 2024
image of a man mountain biking in the Alps

Just as your training plan changes throughout the year to support your athletic goals, so should your nutrition approach! 

In your training as a mountain athlete, you likely go through preparatory/base building, competition, and transition phases as you prepare for, compete, and recover from your races/events. Adjusting your nutrition throughout the year to support each of these phases will improve your performance and recovery and ensure that you stay healthy and strong throughout the year!

In this blog, I’ll define nutrition periodization, explain the critical elements of this nutrition approach, and discuss the health and performance benefits achieved when you periodize your nutrition. Let’s dive in!

image of a man mountain biking in the Alps

What is Nutrition Periodization, and Why Does It Matter for Mountain Athletes?

Nutrition periodization is a nutrition approach that supports the body’s energy, macronutrient, and micronutrient needs according to different training stressors throughout the training year to promote positive physiological responses in performance and health. In other words, it is a method of altering one’s nutrition throughout a training cycle so that an athlete can feel and perform his or her best!

There are several key features of nutrition periodization:

  • Nutrition periodization is heavily focused on daily nutrition. Many people hear the term “nutrition periodization” and believe it’s all about the timing of when you consume sports nutrition products like gels and sports drinks. In reality, it is primarily about your daily nutrition, which is the foundation of your health and performance. Once the foundation is in place, we discuss nutrient timing – what and how food is consumed before, during, and after training (including sports nutrition products).
  • Nutrition periodization is not one-size-fits-all. Every athlete is different – different genetics, training load, age, body size, etc. – and these factors uniquely affect his or her nutritional needs. A sports nutritionist trained in nutrition periodization can work with an athlete throughout his or her training year to develop a personalized nutrition periodization protocol that improves the athlete’s health and performance.
  • Nutrition periodization is designed to help you achieve your health and performance goals. There are several potential goals of nutrition periodization. Here are some examples of goals that may be set in a nutrition periodization plan: Adjusting body composition safely and effectively (this should really only be done during the transition or early base-building phases of training), improving daily energy levels, supporting gut health, supporting the immune system, and of course improving athletic performance!
  • Nutrition periodization allows us to dive into nutrition details in a gradual, goal-oriented way. In nutrition periodization, we focus on optimizing macronutrients (protein, carbohydrates, and fats); optimizing micronutrients (vitamins, minerals, and essential fatty acids), dialing-in hydration (fluid intake and electrolytes); navigating food allergies, sensitivities, and preferences; meal planning; and building sustainable healthy habits. 

As a mountain athlete, nutrition periodization is critical to your health and performance. The physical demands of trail running, mountain biking, climbing, mountaineering, and, or course, racing can deplete your body if you don’t adjust your nutrition to meet your body’s needs during the various phases of your training cycle.

If you’re a multi-sport mountain athlete (such as a trail runner, mountaineer, and backcountry skier), you will have different nutritional needs depending on the time of year and the sport you’re engaging in. You shouldn’t fuel the same way for trail running as you will for your big annual mountaineering trip! 

Furthermore, if you are an athlete living and training at altitude and/or in climate extremes, your nutrition periodization plan can account for the intricacies of these environmental factors. For example, if you live and train at altitude, you’ll want to check your iron status throughout the year as part of your nutrition periodization plan.

If you live and train at altitude, you’ll also need to pay special attention to your hydration since altitude increases the risk of dehydration. Depending on the time of year, heat and humidity will also affect your hydration needs.

Live above 37 degrees north latitude? You’ll want to test your vitamin D level (vitamin D is vital for health and athletic performance) at least twice a year and periodize your approach to vitamin D intake through food and supplementation, depending on your vitamin D level.

How Does Nutrition Periodization Change Throughout the Year?

To understand how nutrition periodization changes throughout the year, it will first help to do a quick refresher on training periodization. I will refer you to an excellent article on the TrainingPeaks website that outlines and describes nutrition periodization. 

Long story short, training periodization is the process of dividing your training plan (usually an annual plan) into specific blocks of time, whereby each block has a particular goal and exposes the body to specific types of training and physiological stress. 

Nutrition periodization and training periodization are like two rivers running parallel to each other; as a periodized training plan winds throughout the year, a periodized nutrition plan follows suit. 

For example, whether you’re a runner, cyclist, or mountaineer, your annual training plan likely has a preparatory phase. This is the phase in which we focus on building strength, endurance, and technique. In this phase, nutrition periodization elements we focus on include optimizing metabolism (including blood sugar control), creating a sport-specific fueling plan, “training” the gut to tolerate food appropriately before and during training, optimizing foundational elements of health such as daily energy and inflammation management, and gathering data (whether that’s subjective feedback from your body, lab work, sleep tracking data, etc).

If you’re an athlete who likes competing, you have a competition phase in your annual training cycle. During this phase, the nutritional elements we may focus on include ensuring no energy (calorie) deficiencies occur as training volume and intensity increase, emphasizing foods that regulate inflammation, and practicing how you will eat before and during competitions. 

Every athlete should also have a transition phase after a big race or event. In the transition phase, you recuperate from your big event, repair, and begin shifting gears into your next training cycle (if you have another competition/event in the books) or into a different sport if you are a multi-sport mountain athlete. 

During the transition phase, aspects of nutrition we may focus on include identifying changes in energy expenditure between your previous preparatory and competition phases and your current transition phase of training (so you can adjust your food intake accordingly), preventing significant fluctuations in body weight and composition, revisiting your health and performance goals, and mapping out the next steps for your nutrition, whether that’s maintenance of your current nutrition plan or shifting into a new training cycle or health goal. 

Quantitative vs. Qualitative Approach to Nutrition Periodization

You’ve heard me mention energy (calories) and macronutrients (protein, carbs, and fats) several times in this article. For some, mentioning these terms conjures images of counting calories and tracking food. While a quantitative approach to nutrition periodization (i.e., tracking calories and macronutrients) may work for some athletes, it is never an approach that I recommend long-term, and it is entirely inappropriate for certain athletes (such as those with a history of eating disorders or disordered eating). 

Therefore, nutrition periodization can follow either a quantitative or qualitative approach. For many athletes (excluding the groups mentioned above), a short-term quantitative approach, such as tracking food for a week in an app like Cronometer, can be a constructive way to see how much one is currently eating, the distribution of macronutrients and micronutrients intakes, and adjust accordingly. 

For other athletes, a qualitative approach works beautifully, whereby we don’t focus on numbers but instead focus on food quality, food groups, and rough estimates of intake, such as using one’s hand to approximate protein and carb serving sizes. 

I use both of these approaches in my nutrition practice, depending on the needs and preferences of the individual athlete. 

Potential Positive Outcomes of Nutrition Periodization

Implementing a periodized nutrition plan has numerous potential positive health and performance outcomes. Here are just a handful of possible positive outcomes: 

  • Improved athletic performance (enhanced endurance, speed, and strength)
  • Improved mental stamina (through optimization of blood sugar control, energy intake, and micronutrient intake)
  • Support injury and/or surgical recovery
  • Reduced inflammation 
  • Improved recovery
  • Increased energy during exercise and daily life
  • More restful sleep
  • A better mood!
  • Improved body composition

The Bottom Line on Nutrition Periodization for Mountain Athletes

If you are ready to take your health and athletic performance to the next level, it’s time to take a periodized approach to your nutrition. Nutrition periodization takes the guesswork out of fueling your body so you can nourish your body with confidence throughout your training year!

If you are an outdoor athlete ready to make empowered nutrition choices with a personalized nutrition periodization plan, I would love to help! You can learn more about how we can work together by visiting the Services page of my website! 

The content provided on this nutrition blog is intended for informational and educational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. Always seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health provider with any questions you may have regarding a medical condition. Never disregard professional medical advice or delay seeking it because of something you have read on this blog.

The information and recommendations presented here are based on general nutrition principles and may not be suitable for everyone. Individual dietary needs and health concerns vary, and what works for one person may not be appropriate for another.

I make every effort to provide accurate and up-to-date information, but the field of nutrition is constantly evolving, and new research may impact dietary recommendations. Therefore, I cannot guarantee the accuracy or completeness of the information presented on this blog.

If you have specific dietary or health concerns, please consult a qualified nutritionist or another healthcare professional for personalized guidance.

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Lindsay Christensen Dietitian Nutritionist Colorado

Hi, I'm Lindsay

I help mountain athletes improve their performance through a holistic and inclusive approach to nutrition.

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