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Fuelling for Pre-Season

Although the short-term future of sporting competition in this country hasn’t been confirmed yet it is expected that in the coming months all sports and sporting events at all levels will resume in some capacity.

In the up and coming weeks and months team sports such as football and Rugby will be returning to pre-season training in preparation for what is going to be a less than typical season ahead.

Although this pre-season may for some feel very different considering the unprecedented, prolonged break since the previous season was curtailed, the goal of pre-season training remains the same:

1. Build and improve physical fitness levels including cardiovascular and muscular strength

2. Improve skill-based fitness including agility, balance, coordination, speed and reaction time

Although there is a great emphasis placed on the importance of the physical and skill-based training during pre-season, it would be foolish to overlook the importance of nutrition and the ability to fuel your body correctly for what is a gruelling, challenging phase of the calendar.

When looking at nutrition across a sporting season you must look at pre-season, the season and off-season as three separate phases.

How you go about preparing for those three phases has to be unique, what you do in pre-season should be very different to what you do during the season in my opinion.

Pre-season nutrition

As I’ve stated above, the focus of pre-season is physical fitness training…a lot of fitness training.

To make the most out of pre-season training, to build and improve your fitness you physically have to do two things:

1. Maximise adaptation to the training stimulus/stress placed on the body

2. Recover quickly to be able to continue at a high intensity of training

To do this effectively you need to take into consideration the nutritional aspect.

Protein: The priority of pre-season

When it comes to optimising muscular adaptation to training and increasing recovery rate protein is the key nutrient.

Protein will be an important nutrient throughout your season to augment recovery but why is it so important in pre-season?

What makes proteins unique to carbs and fats is that it is our only source of nitrogen, an essential component of life.

We measure nitrogen balance (Nitrogen in – Nitrogen out) to determine whether someone is in a positive or negative balance.

A negative balance is associated with injury, illness and slow recovery rate.

There are many factors which affect nitrogen balance including overall energy intake, carbohydrate intake and level of physical demands placed on the body. If we are in a large Calorie deficit, not eating sufficient carbohydrate or training hard, it places a greater demand on the need for nitrogen and protein oxidation for fuel purposes.

The reason protein is key in pre-season is the introduction of a new, unfamiliar training schedule drains you of nitrogen, placing you very quickly in a negative nitrogen balance (Gontzea et al., 1975) which may increase risk of injury as well as slowing your recovery rate. Your nitrogen balance should return to normal within 2-3 weeks however, those 2-3 weeks are vital in terms of your pre-season. They could mean the difference between you having a brilliant pre-season and winning a place in the team or you being side-lined and struggling to get going all season.

Practical recommendations

Pre-season is the perfect time to increase protein intake in your diet, maintaining your nitrogen balance, helping you get stronger, faster and more powerful.

There is no definitive amount you should consume but I would recommend 2g/kg bodyweight a day.

This can easily be achieved by making sure you have protein in each of your meals as well as having at least one high protein snack such as skyr, whey protein or biltong.

A variety of sources will be the most beneficial to you so consider lean poultry such as chicken and turkey, leaner meats such as 5% mince or steaks, dairy such as skyr or Greek yoghurt and fish, both white flaky fish like Hake, sea bass and cod and oilier fish like salmon.

Train Low, Sleep Low, Recover Low

Next we come to carbohydrates (CHO), the primary fuel source for our performance. When it comes to the competitive season CHO will become the star of the show however, in pre-season CHO must take a back seat.

We want to maximise adaptation in pre-season so that when you come to play in competitive matches you are ready for the physical demands. To augment your ability to cope with those demands I suggest you don’t aim to be optimally fuelled through CHO during pre-season.

During pre-season, if you can train on lower levels of CHO this will provide numerous long-term benefits including being more fat adapted, meaning you become better at utilising fat stores for fuel whilst minimising glycogen depletion.

The goal is to increase the bodies metabolic flexibility through CHO periodisation, providing you with the ability to tap into both fats and carbs as a fuel source during competition, allowing for greater performance output.

Were you ever told by a parent or grandparent not to put your coat on indoors otherwise you won’t feel the benefit when you go outside? I was.

This is how I describe CHO periodisation. If you constantly keep your carb intake high during pre-season (keep your coat on) then when you get to the season you won’t feel any benefit.

To optimise metabolic flexibility, I recommend you periodise CHO intake through a number of strategies.

These strategies include:

· Train low

· Recover low

· Sleep low

Train low is exactly what it says on the tin, you train on low levels of CHO.

Training in this way stresses the bodies fat metabolism mechanisms which leads to various benefits including:

  • Mitochondrial biogenesis – the increases production of mitochondria (energy creating factories) in the cells

  • Increased citrate synthase activity

  • Increased activation of signalling proteins 5’AMPK and p38 MAPK

  • Increased resting muscle glycogen content

In simple terms, it increases the body’s ability to produce more energy at a greater rate and be able to store more energy in the muscles where it is needed.

Recover and Sleep low are two other strategies which are simple in application and elicit augmented improvements in endurance training adaptation.

One thing to take note of is when training on low CHO, your training performance and power output will not be optimal. Low CHO may increase perceived effort level and pain during training however your body will adapt after 3 weeks or more.

Fuel for the Work Required

When It comes to CHO periodisation during pre-season and the competitive season it is key to remember the phrase “fuel for the work required”

In practical terms during pre-season this means you shouldn’t be training low every day.

You should train low on some occasions, especially on skill-based days or when effort level is not intense.

And occasionally train high when training days are of high intensity.

Supplementing Your Performance

Although focusing on whole foods to improve your nutrition, it can’t be denied that ergogenic aids can be the cherry on top of the cake in enhancing your performance.

There are multiple supplements that have strong evidence research to support their benefit to performance however some are best taken during the season only.

There are three supplements which I would recommend in pre-season.


The first one is the worlds most commonly used drug/substance…caffeine.

Caffeine comes in various forms including coffee, tea, chocolate, energy drinks and tablets.

Caffeine has many proven benefits for performance including:

  • Spares muscle glycogen

  • Improved reaction time

  • Improves muscular strength

  • Improves endurance performance

  • Reduces RPE (rate of perceived exertion)

I recommend caffeine during pre-season to help counter act the slight decrease in performance output when training on low CHO days. This will allow you to perform at a higher level whilst still gaining the adaptation benefits of low carbohydrate training.

As much as I love a coffee or brew, I would strongly recommend you use caffeine tablets to supplement with as it is uniformed and much easier to measure how much you are consuming.

The only side effect you have to be aware of with caffeine is it can speed up your digestive process leaving you needing the toilet if you consume too much of it. I would use pre-season as a time to test the amount you can tolerate so that when the season comes around you will be fully prepared.


The second supplement I would recommend you start taking in pre-season is beta-alanine. You may have used this before without knowing as it is often in pre-workout drinks. Has your face and skin ever tingled after taking pre-workout? That’s the Beta-alanine.

Beta-alanine increases carnosine levels in the muscle which buffers Hydrogen ions.

In Lehman’s terms it reduces the build up of lactic acid, aiding anaerobic performance.

The reason I suggest you take it in pre-season is because there is a 10 week “loading phase” where you need to saturate your muscles with it before you will likely see benefits.

How much you need, like all nutrients and supplements depends on your body weight.

Creatine Monohydrate

Last but not least, creatine.

Creatine is probably the most researched supplement ever and has numerous benefits for your performance including:

  • Increased glycogen storage

  • Increased muscular endurance

  • Increased training quality

  • Increased strength

  • Increased recovery

  • Improved cognitive function

One of the main benefits of creatine can be seen on your intermittent sprint performance which is vital in sports like football and rugby.

Like beta-alanine, creatine has a loading phase but only for 1 week.

For one week you should consume 4x 5g a day (20g overall) and then reduce to 1x 5g serving a day to maintain levels afterwards.

The only side effects which you may experience, especially in the loading week is water retention which may lead to slight weight gain and tightness in joints and stomach cramps, but these side effects are not common at all.

With all supplements it is important you check the quality and source of them. If you are a professional sportsman who could be drug tested at any point you need to ensure the supplements you buy are WADA approved. If you want to buy with confidence use to search for products.


To summarise, pre-season is about pushing yourself to the limits and adapting to the stresses placed on you.

Your nutrition plays a vital part in both the adaptation and recovery process of pre-season.

· Energy and protein demands are going to be high due to the training

· Reduced Calories or CHO may result in a greater loss of nitrogen = negative nitrogen balance

· A negative nitrogen balance may lead to increased risk of injury and slower recovery

· Increase protein intake to 2g/kg to counter act impact of negative nitrogen balance

· Do this by including protein at each meal plus at least one snack

· Periodise CHO intake to optimise metabolic flexibility and endurance training adaptations

· Make sure not to train low every day

· Caffeine can counter-balance low CHO training by improving your performance levels

· Beta-alanine helps buffer lactic acid but needs to be loaded for 10 weeks prior to season

· Creatine has many, many benefits and should be something you consider using

· Use for approved supplements

If you are looking for induvial and personalised nutrition support or you manage a club and want assistance on how to get the best out of your players then contact me via my email at with your enquiry. I offer various services for individuals and teams from 1:1 consultations, to group workshops.



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