Nutrition Periodization

From a training perspective, periodization is defined as a strategy that provides long term performance improvements by varying training specificity, intensity, and volume throughout different cycles during the year. Let me simplify things a bit. Periodization is basically a training plan that changes at regular intervals, based on specific goals. Many athletes follow a periodized training program, and mixed martial artists are a classic example.


It’s well known that MMA fighters have to train in several different fighting disciplines, along with doing traditional strength and conditioning, in order to be considered well-rounded. Because of this comprehensive approach to training, days or weeks must be organized according to specific goals, whether it’s improving cardiovascular endurance or speed and agility. These changes in training demand nutrition strategies that support them. This is the essence of nutrition periodization. The objective is to modify the diet to optimize performance, no matter what the goal is at the time.



When training starts for an upcoming match, a fighter is likely coming off a rest or active recovery period. This means physical activity will be increasing significantly, despite the fact that the training won’t yet be intense. This situation requires an increase in calories to support the increased energy expenditure. Weight loss or gain is not the focus at this time; you’re just trying to get accustomed to daily training and general conditioning. The diet should be higher in carbohydrates (55-60%), moderate in protein (20%), and lower in fat (20%). Water is fine to drink during workouts, but you definitely want to use a solid recovery shake post-workout. It’s also a good idea to take a multivitamin/mineral supplement in case your diet is lacking in any particular nutrients.


After the general conditioning phase, the focus may switch to strength and power, which involves traditional exercises (deadlift, cleans, squats, and bench press), plyometrics, and core work. Fighters have a distinct advantage when they can overpower their opponent, so being able to use maximal strength in quick bursts is essential. The calorie level during this phase will stay fairly consistent, but changes in macronutrients are needed. Carbohydrate levels typically drop and protein needs go up, along with a small increase in fat intake. Protein needs should be around 1.6-1.7 gms/kg body weight or about 25% of calories to support a positive nitrogen balance and muscular recovery. Carbohydrates will drop down to approximately 45-50% of calories, and fat should be around 25%. To stave off fatigue, carbohydrate/protein energy drinks, in addition to water are suggested during workout sessions. Research has shown that antioxidants (vitamins C, E, and beta-carotene) can decrease the free radicals associated with high intensity training. In addition, glutamine, HMB, and arginine might also help with the recovery process after workouts. Again, it is critical to get in a good post-workout shake and a wellbalanced meal two hours afterward.



As the fight approaches, many MMA fighters will begin to focus on cardiovascular training. This is important for two reasons. First of all, every fighter needs to make weight prior to the fight, and aerobic exercise at high intensities is very good for calorie burning. More importantly, cardiovascular training enhances stamina. The fighter with more gas in the tank in the later rounds is often the winner, especially if the fighters are equally matched in skill. Training the cardiovascular system is vital because any damage sustained during a fight will have less effect on a well-conditioned athlete. From a nutritional standpoint, calorie levels during this period will continue to drop even with the increase in energy expenditure. This will help with weight loss as the fight approaches. Normally, increased cardio would require a high carbohydrate intake to enhance performance, but performance isn’t the biggest concern at this point. Cutting weight is the focus, so carbohydrates are normally kept around 40% of calories. Despite this, sports or energy drinks can be consumed during training sessions, since the carbohydrate content is considered low to moderate in these beverages. Increased cardio and decreased carbohydrate intake will definitely have an affect on perceived exertion during the workouts, meaning that the exercise will seem more difficult. Fighters have to work through this to meet their weight goals. Protein will jump up again because of the desire to maintain lean muscle tissue in the face of increased cardiovascular exercise. At this point, 2 g/kg body weight is ideal for protein, with fat intake staying about the same.

Supplementation is generally continued, along with other practical sports nutrition guidelines. The only new recommendation would be a casein/whey protein shake prior to bedtime. This combination of slow and fast proteins will continue the recovery process and help to reduce catabolism during the night hours.


The last stage of fight preparation involves visualization and game planning against the opponent. Workouts typically decrease in frequency and duration, but intensity remains high. Essentially, fighters are trying to get the most out of shorter, more focused training sessions. Most of this time is dedicated to sparring, allowing the fighter to further develop his overall fight strategy. The nutrition and supplementation regimen doesn’t change much at this point, but this is largely dependent on how close the fighter is to making weight. Hopefully, drastic weight loss measures aren’t needed, but some fighters compromise nutrition to get to their weight goals.


It’s clear that nutrition directly affects performance in mixed martial arts, but many people don’t realize how important it is to tailor your nutrition to your trainin
g goals. You want to go into a fight in the best shape possible, so why not use all the tools at your disposal? All MMA athletes train hard, but not all athletes pay meticulous attention to their nutrition and supplementation. All things created equal, nutrition is the difference between winning or losing. If you have questions about personalizing your nutrition periodization, contact a sports dietitian.


At a Glance:

General Conditioning

-Workouts incorporate all facets of mixed martial arts and steadily increase in intensity

-Recommend a traditional healthy diet (high carb, moderate protein, low fat)

-Post-workout shake and multivitamin/mineral are ideal


-Plyometrics and weightlifting are the focus, along with continued fight preparation

-Calories remain consistent despite drop in carbohydrate and increase in protein

-Energy drinks with carbs and protein during workouts

-Consider supplemental antioxidants (Vit C, E and beta-carotene)

-Glutamine, HMB, arginine to help with recovery

Cardiovascular Endurance

-Traditional cardio exercises become a focal point, along with boxing and grappling

-Calories and carbohydrates drop

-Protein levels continue to increase

-Energy drinks during workouts

-Supplementation is continued

-Protein shake before bed to reduce catabolism

Fight Game Planning

-Technical skills and sparring are the focus

-Duration and frequency of workouts decrease, though intensity remains high

-Nutrition largely depends on weight status

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