16 March 2020
How to Fuel Your Performance: Designing a diet for the strength athlete
NUTRITION FOR POWERLIFTERS: PART 2 In part 1 of this article, I covered the 5 common nutrition mistakes powerlifters make. If you haven’t yet read this piece, I suggest you do so before reading any further. Why you may ask? Well, fuelling your performance is the cherry on top of an already sound nutritional approach….
NUTRITION FOR POWERLIFTERS: PART 2
In part 1 of this article, I covered the 5 common nutrition mistakes powerlifters make. If you haven’t yet read this piece, I suggest you do so before reading any further. Why you may ask? Well, fuelling your performance is the cherry on top of an already sound nutritional approach. If you the foundations of your cake are poorly constructed and taste horrible aka you haven’t yet addressed the common blunders I’ve seen in powerlifting nutrition, there is no amount or type of cherries that you can slap on top of your awfully put together cake that can save you.
With that preamble out of the way, let’s get into things…
Before we look at the specifics of calorie intakes, macronutrient intake, diet quality and other key elements of fuelling your performance, take a moment to reflect on your most recent training session or the last time on the platform.
I want you to ask yourself these three, simple questions…
- Did you feel as though your diet adequately fueled your body for the demands of the workout?
- Did you feel as though your diet provided you with the energy needed to facilitate an appropriate rate of recovery between sets?
- Did you feel as though your diet was conducive to sustaining a high level of physical and mental energy in order to lift and perform at your best?
Although there are a myriad of factors that can influence your energy levels, recovery capacity and performance within a workout, it is common knowledge that nutrition, particularly around the training bout, can influence your training performance in a meaningful way.
A few of the primary ways that strength athletes squander their workout quality and performance are:
- A failure to eat sufficient calories, leaving them hungry and running out of energy during a workout;
- Eating too many calories, leaving them stuffed, sluggish and tired;
- Opting for poor quality foods that can lead to rapid spikes and crashes in energy levels; or
- Opting for overly nutritious foods (specifically high volume and high fibre options) that cause gastrointestinal issues and discomfort whilst lifting.
Chances are if you are reading this article you are looking to make improvements to your performance particularly in the realm of nutrition. As we established in Part I of this article, there are common nutrition mistakes lifters make in an effort to maximise their performance and body composition. Unfortunately, in many cases, this ends up having the opposite effect and their performance suffers, hence my desire to educate lifters on what they should be doing with their nutrition to complement their lifting.
Before we get into the nitty gritty of how you can devise a diet for performance, I just want to draw attention to the nutrition for performance pyramid. This will hopefully remind you that performance follows health and supplements proceed the latter.
Elite athletes are not invincible and irrespective of whether an individual competes at the highest level or is a weekend warrior, all athletes are human. As humans we must first ensure our diet provides for adequate function of many bodily systems. Without a functioning metabolism, immune, digestive or endocrine systems, an athlete will be hard pressed in maximising their performance.
Whilst athletes are required to stress their bodies in a variety of ways, each unique to the demands of their sport, nutrition must first attempt to satisfy the foundational requirements of health and well-being, as much as possible anyway. Although attaining peak performance requires many trade-offs in the way of ‘health’, we must not leap over health and well-being and focus our efforts ignorantly at performance nutrition or supplementation.
It should go without saying that health is the foundation of peak physical performance. Without a strong foundation, we cannot build tall or impressive infrastructure aka high performing athletes. This article will be focused at level 2 of this pyramid, and should not be prioritised above meeting foundational nutritional requirements.
Once an athlete has the foundations set, it’s time to move towards designing a protocol that will maximise their potential to perform. When addressing the variables at this level such as calorie intake and macronutrient intake, we must recognise that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to nutrition for the strength athlete. Finding what works best for an athlete will take a lot of trial and error or the guidance of an experienced and qualified sports nutritionist or dietician. That being said, there are a few simple steps and guidelines that powerlifters and coaches can follow to devise a diet that will not only benefit an athlete’s performance, but also complement their body composition.
What follows is nothing novel. In fact, this day and age there are countless calculators online that can do all of the hard work we are about to endure for you. However, if you want to understand the principles behind these calculators and have the insights to be able to customise a diet, get your pen and pad ready. This simple step-by-step guide is the process most dieticians like me will follow.
If you are ready to get clued up, let’s do it. Thank me later 😉
1. Have a Clear Nutrition Goal
When looking to develop a successful nutritional approach, the first point to consider is the goal of the intervention. Having a dedicated goal for your nutrition is essential as it provides you with direction in how you set up your baseline diet and gives you purpose in how you go about your nutrition.
Should you cut, maintain or gain?
When determining your nutrition goal for your current phase, we recommend working through the following decision trees based on your level of advancement:
It is important to note that the above decision trees are merely guides and have been designed merely to point you in the right direction for what goals may best suit your current needs/situation. Obviously, we cannot take into consideration all of the potential factors that will influence your decisions and for many of you, your needs/preferences/goals will often require a unique objective. This is where hiring an experienced dietician or sports nutritionist can help!
Irrespective of what your immediate nutritional goals require, you will find yourself requiring one of the following dietary interventions:
- Calorie deficit = weight loss
- Calorie surplus = weight gain
- Maintenance calories = weight maintenance
Once you have established the direction you are headed, you can then start to look at how you are going to calculate your calories and macronutrients to achieve the desired outcome.
2. Set Calorie Intake
Calories are king. We touched on this in Part 1 of this series and now it’s time to outline how we go about setting an appropriate calorie intake for your nutrition goals.
The two major principles which govern changes in body mass are:
- The law of conservation: First law of thermodynamics; and
- Energy balance – Calories IN vs Calories OUT.
Although our food quality does indeed matter, how many calories we eat relative to how many calories we burn will ultimately drive changes in our body weight.
If you want to gain weight, you need to consume more calories than you expend.
If you want to maintain weight, you need to consume an amount of calories that equates to your expenditure.
If you want to lose weight, you need to consume less calories than you expend.
It’s not uncommon for athletes struggling to lose, gain or maintain weight. Although nutrition does indeed pose many challenges, we cannot refute or deny the laws of physics.
- If you are eating chicken and broccoli or fancy ‘superfoods’ but are gaining weight, you are eating too much.
- If you feel as though you are always ‘full’ and can never gain weight no matter how hard you try, then you are simply not eating enough.
- If your average weekly or monthly scale weight is going up or down, then you are simply eating above or below your maintenance requirements..
If this sounds a little unfair…
Don’t hate the player, hate the game…
How many calories should you be eating?
This is where we come back to that nutrition goal from earlier.
Is your goal to lose weight, gain or just maintain?
While there are endless fancy formulas available to calculate exactly how many calories you need each day, the reality of the situation is everyone is different and no equation can accurately predict your calorie needs.
Individual differences in genetics, environment/ lifestyle, diet history and other metabolic variations from one person to the next will mean that sometimes these predetermined formulas may be off.
For example, two people of the same weight and activity levels might plug their stats into a calorie calculator and receive the same calorie targets. even though they both consume and burn the same calories one might gain weight, while the other may lose weight. There are many factors which could lead to such disparate outcomes, however the reason I bring this up is not to bash calorie calculators, but instead highlight the importance of individual differences in calorie requirements and why we often require some trial and error to more accurately determine our calorie needs.
OPTION 1 – Baseline Diet
Formulas simply provide a starting point, but you will often have to undergo a period of baseline tracking to determine your calorie requirements. My recommendations for baseline tracking are below:
- Track calorie intake for 10-14 days
- Aim to keep calorie and macronutrient intake constant for the entier 10-14 day period
- Record body weight each day
- Assess changes in body weight in response to calorie and macronutrient intake.
- Adjust calories based on changes in scale weight.
- Continue this process until you are achieving the outcomes you desire.
OPTION 2 – Calorie Estimations
Although I just gave calorie equations a hard time, they can provide direction and spit out a ballpark estimate of how many calories we should consume for our goals.
I like to keep things simple when calculating my athletes calorie requirements, and below is the approach I use for varying nutritional goals.
*Calculations are based on an individual of moderate activity levels (2-4 hours/week of moderate-vigorous activity)
STEP 1 – Determine Maintenance Calories
No matter your goal, you must first determine your maintenance calorie requirements.
- Body weight (kg) x 29
- Body weight (kg) x 31
STEP 2 – Assign Calorie Deficit
Once you have established your estimated maintenance calorie needs, if your goal is weight/fat loss, you are to then multiply your maintenance calories by the figures below depending on how much and how fast you wish to lose weight/fat.
Males & Females
- Small deficit: Maintenance calories x 0.9
- Moderate deficit: Maintenance calories x 0.8
- Large deficit: Maintenance calories x 0.7
STEP 3 – Assign Calorie Surplus
If your goal is weight/muscle gain, multiply your maintenance calories by the figures below depending on how much and how fast you wish to gain weight/muscle.
- Males & Females
- Start at maintenance calories, track weight over a 10-14 day period.
- Aim for 0.5-1.0% of body weight gain per MONTH!
- Make small adjustments (eg. 50-100 cal increases) and continue to monitor weight.
3. Set Protein Intake
Protein is pretty important for a variety of reasons. Firstly, dietary protein is required for the maintenance, restoration and function of virtually every important organ in our body. Secondly, as most of you will know, it is necessary to help build new muscle tissue and preserve what has already been built.
Protein is of primary importance, but how much do we need?
This really is the million-dollar question.
When it comes to determining the amount of protein necessary to optimise muscle growth and performance for strength athletes the literature suggests anywhere from 1.8-2.2g per kilogram of bodyweight per day.
Whilst this is generally a fool proof range to start with, often your nutrition goals, body composition, activity levels and preferences will influence which end of this range you fall. For example, athletes who are very lean and very active, may require more that 2.2g per kg of bodyweight per day. This is because these populations are at a greater risk of losing muscle mass. Conversely, folks who are less active and carry more body fat can get away with an intake above 1.5g per kg of bodyweight per day.
Here are a few tips for setting your protein intake:
- Calculating this number based on your body weight is the most common method used.
- Aim for between 1.8-2.2g of protein per KG of body weight per day as a starting point.
- If you are very lean and very active, opt for the higher end of the above range.
- If you are carrying high levels of body fat and are not very active, opt for the lower end of the above range.
- Evenly spread your total daily protein intake over 3-6 meals throughout the day.
- As a rule of thumb, aim for 0.35-0.45g of protein/meal or at least 20-30g of protein per meal.
If you are in a calorie deficit…
- Aim for the upper end of the range
You are at a greater risk of losing muscle mass due to a net increase in catabolism (breakdown) of stored tissue and a little more protein isn’t going to harm you. Secondly, protein has a satiating effect, meaning that it can increase feelings of fullness, which can help blunt hunger whilst dieting.
If you are at maintenance or a surplus…
- Start at the lower end of the range
The lower end of the recommended protein intake range is likely a better option because:
1) You are less likely to lose muscle;
2) You are going to be eating more food and less hungry
3) You are likely better off having more of your calorie allotment from jet fuel aka carbohydrate to maximise training performance and recovery.
4. Set Fat Intake
Similar to protein, fat is kind of a big deal. Let’s be honest, who would want to eat a diet void of fat? Fat provides texture and flavour to our food!
Can anyone say nuts, butter, oil and avocadoooohhhh my yum?
Besides tantalising the taste buds, dietary fats are important because they contain “essential fatty acids’ (EFAs), a nutrient that the body is unable to make on its own and is required via our diet. Quite simply, we need fats to survive, stay healthy and, to a degree, keep ourselves sane when dieting.
As with most nutrition variables, the appropriate amount of fat intake will vary between individuals and will need to be based on their calorie allotment, body composition goals and ultimately their preferences.
If you are in a calorie deficit…
- Fat Intake: 0.6-0.8g of fat per KG body weight / day
- Set fat intake at the lower end of the range to allow more room for calories to come from carbs.
- Minimum suggested intake: 0.5g of fat per KG body weight / day
If you are in maintenance or a calorie surplus…
- Intake may be set higher as the individual is likely to have enough calories to work with that will allow carbohydrate intake to remain high in conjunction with a higher fat intake.
- Fat Intake: 1g+ of fat per KG body weight / day
- Minimum suggested intake: 0.5g of fat per KG body weight / day
5. Set Carbohydrate Intake
And finally, the macronutrient we all love to eat and talk about…carbs! Unlike protein and fats, carbs (unfortunately) are, dare I say, a non-essential nutrient. Without carbs you won’t die, even if you feel as though you might. That is not to say you can disregard carbohydrates. they are the rocket fuel that we need for performance–both cognitively and physically.
Whenever we talk about carbohydrate intake, people often fall into one of two camps:
Camp #1 – Low Carb High Fat aka Keto Diets
Camp #2 – High Carb Low Fat aka Western diets
However, what many fail to realise is that the body is one nifty organism. It adapts to whatever we throw at it. When you don’t consume carbs for some time, your body will begin relying more on dietary fats and protein for energy. Whilst this can work for both fat loss, weight management and performance (to a degree), it may not be optimal for the strength athlete or body composition enthusiast. Although preference and adherence should drive our macronutrient intake, if we are concerned with optimal performance, we must first look at what the most ‘ideal’ intakes of each macronutrient are and then work from there to find an approach that fits the individual.
So, powerlifters are strength athletes, and strength athletes lift heavy weights. Duh…
If you agree with this obvious point and have ever trained somewhat hard/heavy, I would hope that you would deem strength training as a high intensity activity. Activities that are performed at high intensities for short durations and without oxygen are called anaerobic exercises. In contrast, activities that are of a lower intensity and performed for longer durations rely on oxygen and are classified as aerobic exercises. Our primary fuel in both situations is ATP (adenosine triphosphate), which requires glycogen (the storage form of glucose which comes from the breakdown of carbs) to be created. As your initial ATP stores become depleted, your body will begin to breakdown glycogen to create more ATP in order to sustain the imposed force demands. If you are consuming a low-carb diet, this process just doesn’t happen because you have little to no glycogen stored. Initially you may not notice an impact on your performance, however with a low carbohydrate diet, you will eventually notice that your recovery, focus and ability to sustain high intensity training will suffer.
As I mentioned, our focus is performance, and given that carbohydrates are rocket fuel, we need to fuel ourselves as much as possible/necessary via carbohydrates in order to maximise our strength–irrespective of our dieting phase.
How many carbohydrates do I need?
I like to keep it simple here and instead of trying to work out how much glycogen your training consumes or multiplying a figure against your bodyweight, you merely take the remaining calories after protein and fat have been set and assign them to carbohydrate.
It will look something along the lines of…
1. Set calorie intake as per the above guidelines
2. Set protein intake as per the above guidelines
3. Set your fat intake as per the above guidelines
4. Once you have set calories/protein/fat intakes, the remaining calories can be allotted to carbohydrates.
Remember, protein contains 4kcal per gram, fat contains 9kcal per gram and carbohydrate contains 4kcal per gram. Important info when calculating your carbohydrate targets!
PIECING IT ALL TOGETHER
Now that you have the tools and knowledge to devise a diet for a powerlifter or strength athlete, I want to show you a practical example using the above information.
In this example we will set up the diet of a 60kg female who has the goal of losing fat/weight and who is moderately active.
Step 1: Calorie intake:
- Maintenance Calories: Bodyweight (60kg) x Activity Multiplier (29) = 1740 calories
- Assign Moderate Calorie Deficit: Maintenance Calories (1740kcal) x 0.8 = 1392 calories
Step 2: Protein intake:
- Protein intake: 1.8 x BW (60kg) = 108g protein/day
- (4 calories per gram of protein = 432 calories)
Step 3: Fat Intake
- Fat intake: 0.8 x BW (60kg) = 48g fat/day
- (9 calories per gram of fat = 432 calories)
Step 4: Carbohydrate intake
- Target Calories: 1392
- Calories from protein: 432
- Calories from fat: 432
- Remaining calories (alloted to carbohydrates): 528 / 4 = 132g carbohydrates
Summarising the above example, this ladies calorie and macronutrient intakes would be as follows:
- Calories: 1392 calories per day
- Protein: 108g per day
- Fats: 48g per day
- Carbohydrates: 132g
Using this approach means carb intake is as high as it can possibly get irrespective of whether you are in a deficit or surplus (winning!) and increases the likelihood of sufficient amounts of glycogen in the tank ready to fuel your training.
I hope you all found this useful and informative. If you did, please let me know and tag me on instagram @__staceyrogers – two underscores 😉