The off-season tends to lead to two different types of mentalities. Many people will choose to take a complete mental and physical break from any restrictions or commitments to diet and exercise; others will ensure the off-season stays productive, maintaining some degree of focus on these lifestyle factors to improve their body composition and athletic capabilities.
Although the amount of effort one puts into an off-season is highly variable, keeping some key fundamental principles within your diet can go a long way to maintaining your shape and fitness, or at least reducing the extent of physical damage.
Keeping some dedication throughout the off-season may also play a significant long-term benefit, as it will reduce the typically large ‘recovery period’ needed in the time shortly before or during the on-season to get back into shape (highly stressful!).1. Weekly weigh-ins
Keeping up to date with your weight, and body fat levels, can be key to making better conscious and unconscious decisions regarding food choices and energy intake. In an ideal scenario, an athlete would keep track of daily caloric intake during the off-season to ensure excessive weight fluctuations do not occur.
However, just being aware of your change in weight on a semi-regular basis seems to avoid the incidence of frequent ‘binge periods’ that would otherwise culminate in large weight gain over a typical 3-6 month off-season. It seems one’s awareness of their current status has a positive influence on avoiding poor decisions.
It is recommended to always stay within 10 pounds (~4.5 kilos) of your ideal weight where you seem to perform optimally. This is especially important if you aren’t regularly training or weightlifting during the off-season, as added weight is far more likely to be non-lean tissue and hold no athletic benefit. If you notice weight gain above this 10 pound limitation, it is preferable to be far more restrictive for the remainder of the off-season.
2. Reduce energy intake
As expected, when your training and match schedule has finished it is inevitable your activity levels will dramatically decrease, along with your daily energy expenditure. Even if you stay busy with weight training or some cardiovascular fitness during the off-season, it is likely to still be far less activity compared to participating in frequent competitive matches.
Keep in mind a traditional weightlifting routine only increases daily energy expenditure by ~260 calories, compared to ~1000+ calories in a high-intensity 90 minute football match . Unless consistent aerobic exercise is being maintained outside of sports training and matches (running, rowing, cycling etc), be mindful that you will need to lower your energy intake to avoid the post-season ‘blow-out’.
You can reduce energy intake by two main methods, and it is personal preference which method is more beneficial or convenient. First, reduce the volume of meal size or frequency of meals, provided the caloric density (food choice) remains the same as in the on-season.
Second, keep the volume of meal size and meal frequency the same, but decrease the caloric density of food choices within meals (i.e opt for more of a whole food, plant-based diet).
An alternative third option is to keep meal size and caloric density the exact same, but eliminate all typical ‘snacking’ habits in between meals.
3. Opt for a low fat diet if possible
This nutrition tactic is not essential, but is a useful tool for those that are willing to implement it. Opposing to many people’s preconceptions of carbohydrates, a high carbohydrate, low-fat diet can reduce body fat gain in comparison to a higher fat diet, lower carbohydrate diet even when caloric intake is matched. Unlike dietary fat, the conversion of carbohydrates into body fat (de novo lipogenesis) during a period of overeating is a very inefficient biological function in humans.
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The vast majority of excess dietary carbohydrate is stored as glycogen (mainly within muscle tissue) or burnt off as heat energy (increasing energy expenditure), as opposed to dietary fat which is easily stored directly as body fat. Studies report an approximate 5% of excess carbohydrate is stored as body fat in active, healthy individuals, increasing up to 30% if an excess of energy is maintained over weekly or monthly periods due to upregulation .
The low conversion rate can be very significant regarding maintaining or improving body composition in an off-season and limiting the rate of fat gain.
4. Be shrewd
As a general rule of thumb, just be sensible. Enjoy the flexibility an off-season brings, but be mindful that too many wrong decisions (i.e. too many late night kebabs) will lead to an unproductive on-season when that time arises.
Not everyone needs to obide by the quote “Champions are built in the offseason”, but everyone is responsible for how advantageous they choose for their time off to be.
Poehlman ET, Denino WF, Beckett T, Kristen A, Kinaman IJ. Ades PA. (2002). Effects of Endurance and Resistance Training on Total Daily Energy Expenditure in Young Women: A Controlled Randomized Trial. J Clin Endocrinol Metab
Borén GS, Dulloo AG. (2015). De novo lipogenesis in metabolic homeostasis: More friend than foe?. Science Direct
McDevitt RM. (2001). De novo lipogenesis during controlled overfeeding with sucrose or glucose in lean and obese women. Am J Clin Nutr.
Minehira K. (2003). Effect of carbohydrate overfeeding on whole body and adipose tissue metabolism in humans. Obes Res.