Strength and power athletes have long neglected the performance and recovery benefit that nutrition can offer them.
Sports nutrition research has shown, just like with endurance and physique athletes, that nutrition is a vital part of these athletes success.
The main nutritional goals for these athletes are to provide the required nutrients needed to build, repair and maintain lean body mass.
It will also enhance performance and aid the recovery process.
This nutrition for strength training will also provide energy requirements to meet their daily needs, as the exercise they perform is intense and excessive.
Furthermore, many athletes have a goal to continually increase their strength, power and thus muscle mass, so further attention to nutrition is required.
Athletes and trainers who don’t pay sufficient attention to their nutrition will suffer from poor performance, recovery and health.
This article will look at the key dietary requirements for strength and power athletes, both in preparation and training for events.
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Many people believe strength and power to be of the same type of physical fitness, but it is not the same. Strength is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to generate force.
Strength is purely a measure of how much weight can be successfully lifted by an athlete. Power is the ability of a muscle or muscle group to generate force at high movement speeds. Instead of maximal weight, power is the ability to run, throw, and quickly change direction.
In this article, strength and power athletes are those who are involved in explosive exercise, from track and field events to weight training and wrestling. Essentially, strength and power athletes require near maximal muscle force production.
We described in previous articles how ATP is required for nearly every action in the body; it is therefore essential to all athletic endeavors. We use ATP at all times of the day, including exercise.
Our ATP stores are created from nutrients and stored as energy in the body. It’s therefore important to strength/power athletes.
When it comes to high energy and intense exercise, the body will be using the ATP-PCr pathway for energy transfer. This ATP-Pcr pathway provides energy transfer when energy demands suddenly increase.
This process which uses stores of creatine phosphate in the muscle, is able to transfer energy very quickly. However due to limited stores, this energy output is very short lived.
Strength and power athletes will also use another anaerobic energy supply, the glycolytic pathway, when ATP-PCr is depleted.
This pathway has a higher capacity as it uses glucose molecules and glycerol to transfer energy. It can provide energy for about 80 seconds before being maxed out.
Strength and power athletes primary use the ATP-PCr and glycotic system during their training, placing high nutrient and energy demands on these energy transfer processes.
Although the anaerobic energy system contributes little ATP during the actual strength/power activity, it is important for recovery.
During the recovery period, the aerobic energy system replenishes ATP and CP levels, which recharges the phosphagen system and delaying onset of fatigue.
Energy requirements, as for all athletes are of prime importance, and they must at least be matched to energy in vs. energy out.
Unlike endurance or physique athletes there is no single macronutrient more important for strength and power athletes, and aside from a greater caloric intake, macronutrient breakdown are similar to that of healthy non- athletes.
Energy needs are based on multiple factors, including age, gender, body mass and sport specific activity levels. We therefore calculate these needs in the same manner as before.
Example: Jack is a 32 year old strongman who trains 6 days a week using combination of weight training, sprints and event training each week. His weight is 240 pounds and his goal is to increase athletic performance while gaining lean bodyweight.
We therefore need to calculate his basal metabolic rate (BMR), as in his daily energy expenditure in calories without any contribution from exercise or digestion:
Bodyweight (in pounds) x 10 (multiplier) = 240Ibs x 10 = 2400kcals
We then must account for total daily energy expenditure (TDEE) that includes her BMR, non-exercise associated thermogenesis (NEAT), exercise associated thermogenesis (EAT) and thermic effect of feeding (TEF). We can do this using the below calculation:
Just like Jack, many strength and power athletes will have periods of time when they wish to increase strength and possible weight.
Tissue growth of approx. 1 pound requires around 5-8 calories per gram. Because 1 pound of muscle weighs 454 grams, an estimate of total calories needed to produce 1 pound of muscle is a range of 2300- 3600 calories.
In general, no more than 2-4 pounds of weight gain is recommended per month (half this for females).
Therefore an athlete would need to consume approx. 100-300 additional calories per day for a 2 pound lean weight gain per month. Or 200-600 calories extra for a 4 pound lean weigh gain.
It should be noted that modest increases should be made, and athletes must be patient with the muscle building process.
The body can only construct so much lean muscle tissue at a time, so further excess calories will likely only be stored as body fat.
Lean Weight Gain = TDEE + 100-300kcals
Lean Weight Gain = 4140kcal + 100- 300kcal = 4240 – 4440 kcals per day
There are also a number of strength and power athletes who will want to reduce bodyweight in order to meat competitive classes or restrictions. This can be done in the same manner used from weight management and physique athletes, and a 500 kcals daily reduction below their total daily energy expenditure is advised. This will see a reduction of 1 pound fat loss per week (the ideal).
Fat loss = TDEE – 500kcals
Fat loss = 4140kcal – 500kcal = 3640 kcals per day
Strength and power athletes appear to do well by constantly sticking to the same caloric intake, similar to weight management clients.
Lie endurance athletes, for intense exercise sessions, such as competition, daily, energy intake may need to be significantly increased, for example and activity level of 3-4 can be used to compensate the energy demands for this type of exercise.
These above average energy demands for these athletes make for a high volume of daily calories, which is commonly their biggest nutritional downfall.
Due to the intensive and excessive practice of strength and power exercises they are very demanding on the body.
This leads to the breakdown of muscle tissue, which results in microscopic tears in the muscle that require repair and rebuilding.
It is protein, or more specifically, amino acids that are synthesized by the body or from nutrients that are involved in the repairing phase. Therefore strength and power athletes require higher protein intake that the average person.
Insufficient protein intake will lead to suboptimal improvements that many athletes seek, such as recovery, energy levels and performance.
Adequate protein intake for these athletes is a must to ensure constant recovery from their training. Amino acids are critical to maximizing muscle protein synthesis (MPS) and therefore important to muscular growth and development.
Research suggests that 1.5-3.0 grams/kg per day will be the ideal. Of course, this provides a broad range of possibilities for the athlete. So a better way to ensure balance is remained, is after the athlete’s caloric needs have been determined, the total daily protein intake should make up 12-15% of total daily energy.
This usually results in approx. 1.5-2.0grams/kg/day.
It can be difficult to state a more specific intake, as each athlete will be different and must be assessed and monitored as an individual.
It is important to find the ideal intake with the athlete as muscle growth and development are largely caused by enhanced MPS and a positive nitrogen balance.
Common practice for many athletes is to consume excessive amounts of protein daily in order to ensure they are reaping all the benefits.
This has diminishing returns as once they hit a peak of protein assimilation; additional protein will not be used for building muscle.
Training is a stimulus for increasing strength and power while nutrition simply supports this. Too mush protein results in an unbalanced diet and a possible reduction in performance.
Excess protein levels can also result in greater urine production, thus causing more fluid to be excreted by the body, possible leading to dehydration.
Aside from daily intake, a key factor focus should be on ‘quality’ and the ‘completeness’ of the proteins. A high quality and complete protein will supply all 22 amino acids to the body.
Sources such as diary, eggs, meat, fish and protein supplements when required. This will have a significant effect on MPS too and thus strength and mass results.
Just like for all athletes carbs will play a key role in the diet for strength and power athletes. Due to the nature of their exercise, anaerobic metabolism requires glycogen for energy.
Insufficient glucose from the diet will mean reduced glycogen stores in the muscle which can lead to decreased athletic performance.
With strength and power athletes, it’s likely to see greater variations in carb requirements. Some athletes will perform very short yet intense activity eg. sprints, while other will conduct longer lasting anaerobic exercise lasting 30 seconds plus.
Although all of these activities will use glycogen as primary fuel source, the rate of depletion of it depends on the length of time for the exercise. Studies showed an average resistance training session can deplete muscle glycogen stores by 30-40%.
Strongmen, bodybuilders or rugby players will therefore need higher levels of carbohydrates than say a power lifter or sprinter, due to the increased length of their activity.
For those athletes undertaking exercise that lasts less than 30 seconds at a time e.g. sprinter, more moderate carb consumption on a daily basis is sound practice.
Of course, it’s also important to asses the frequency of the exercise and thus how often the athlete trains. Greater carb consumption will be needed for athletes training more often.
Aside from glycogen replenishment, strength and power athletes will see strength and size benefits from having crabs in the diet. Carbs stimulate insulin production, which is considered an anabolic hormone.
By driving nutrients into cells, we see a metabolic process of activity that results in tissue repair or growth. Insulin is a hormone that stimulates anabolism.
As a result, with adequate amounts of carbs within a balanced diet and with appropriate nutrition for strength training, athletes will see greater responses in muscle recovery and growth.
Many athletes will do well with 5-10 grams per kg in weight. This usually equats to 55-65% of their daily nutrient intake.
This should still always relate and conform to the overall energy balance to maintain a healthy macronutrient spit for the athlete.
For example, Jack our strongman:
240 ÷ 2.2 = 109 kg
109 x (5-10) = 545g – 1090g
This is a large variance in daily carb intake and due to his high bodyweight, unrealistic amounts of carbohydrates to consume daily.
To provide Jack with a balanced diet, the higher end of these recommendations could not be used anyway.
Therefore you should typically use carb intake as a percentage of daily energy requirements, but the higher end of the spectrum may apply in certain athletes.
Always assess each client on an individual basis and be prepared to adjust this daily intake based on feedback and results.
The type of carbohydrates consumed should also be considered. The glycemic index ranks carb foods accordingly to blood glucose response after intake.
Due to high demands for carbs in these athlete’s diets, the glycemic index may have some importance in improving energy levels and performance.
Therefore lower GI foods, such as oats, whole grains, fruits and vegetables should be the bulk of carb intake during the day.
For a more rapid supply of glucose, higher GI foods would appear most beneficial around training e.g. white rice, potatoes and carb supplements.
Essentially, nutrient rich carbs sources should always be given a priority in the athlete’s diet.
The anaerobic nature of strength and power activates requires for little fat to be utilized by the athletes. This means it can make up a smaller percentage of the diet.
Fat is still important, providing essential fatty acids for general health, support to anabolic hormones and aids in the digestion and absorption of fat soluble nutrients.
Therefore a moderate amount of healthy fats in the athletes diet can prove beneficial.
A general rage of 25-35% of daily energy needs should come from fat. Athletes seeking fat loss may use lower ranges, such as 20-25%, as this will aid lower caloric intake while maintaining higher loads of protein and carbs.
A higher range, such as 30-35% may be used for weigh gain, to help with higher food intake to meet the caloric requirements.
It is suggested that an equal breakdown of dietary fats should be aimed for when it comes to daily fat intake.
Significant benefits can be seen, including improved athletic performance, lower total blood cholesterol, reduced inflammation markers, improved insulin sensitivity and blood pressure.
Diets rich in polyunsaturated fats may help spare muscle glycogen and potentially increase the time it take to reach muscle exhaustion.
For monounsaturated fats, good choices include olive, canola, nuts and avocadoes.
Good sources of polyunsaturated fats are corn, sesame, canola, soy, nuts and seeds. For saturated fats, red meat, dairy, coconut oil are all good choices.
There has not been as many studies or research conducted on micronutrients for athletes, unlike the macronutrients.
But as with all active individuals, there may be a higher requirement for certain micronutrients than others.
Below are common considerations for the strength and power athletes.
Thiamin, riboflavin and niacin are the key B vitamins for athletes. B vitamins are potent for energy production so increased daily levels are important. The intake of high B vitamin foods is recommended with possible supplementation.
Vitamin C & E
These are potent antioxidants that reduce oxidative damage. They can also work in synergy with one another, making their benefits greater when combined.
Vitamin C should be consumed at 250-500mg per day and vitamin E at 100-300mg per day. This can be achieved through a diet including ample amounts of fruit and veg, but may also be supplemented.
Iron is a common deficiency and strength and power athletes are at greater risk of this, as they lose more via urine and sweat. Iron aids in transporting and utilizing oxygen, and is important for maximum performance. A diet rich in iron foods should be sufficient.
Aside from supporting bone strength, calcium is important to help produce ‘fibrin’, a protein responsible for the structure of blood clots. It is also used to aid muscle contraction and relaxation, movements essential for athletes to maintain at peak performance for a time.
Calcium also activates several enzymes that affect the synthesis and breakdown of muscle and liver glycogen, a main energy source for power athletes.
Adequate levels of calcium can be achieved through the diet, but supplementation should be used if the athlete is not reaching RDA levels.
Zinc and Magnesium
These minerals can play an important role in the muscle contraction and protein synthesis.
Magnesium has been shown to improve recovery from exercise while zinc can minimize exercise-induced immune responses in athletes.
Combining these minerals cam improve quality of sleep, recovery and protein anabolism at night.
For the strength and power athlete, these minerals are important to ensure sufficient dietary intake. If not, supplementation may be a good choice, such as an all in one ZMA product.
A common and effective practice to meet micronutrient requirements is for a supplementation of a one-a-day multivitamin during periods of high exercise intensity.
This may not be sufficient to improved performance markers, but will reduce potential for deficiencies.
We know the importance of hydration on the body and that a 1-2% dehydration level can reduce athletic performance. This means optimal hydration levels for strength and power athletes are essential.
If this does not occur, studies have shown that muscular strength can significantly decrease with sweat induced body weight reductions, causing dehydration. Just like endurance athletes, it’s not uncommon for strength and power athletes to lose water while training.
Adequate fluid intake at all times ensures the athlete feels energetic, keeps performance high and recovers well after each training session.
Maintaining hydration levels daily and through exercise is a must, and intake will be above average recommendations. Particular importance must be placed on pre, during and post hydration levels, especially for athletes training multiple times per day.
Athletes training in high heats must also give further considerations to hydration by increasing their intake above their normal levels.
Some strength and power athletes are also known to cut water to make specific weight classes such as in boxing or wrestling. This is unhealthy practice that should be discouraged and it can also reduce athletic performance in the short term.
This can be due to physiological responses and performance rebounds with rehydration as it is unknown how long it truly takes for complete replenishment of the body to occur.
Maintaining hydration levels for strength and power athletes is similar to endurance athletes. They should be continuously well-hydrated with focus with focus on drinking enough fluid pre, during and after exercise to balanced fluid loses.
Water is the ideal choice around exercise, but for exercise bouts for 90+ minutes, water has shown to be less efficient when compared to a sports drink also containing carbohydrates and electrolytes.
This will provide fuel for muscles, help maintain blood glucose and the thirst mechanism, and decrease risk of dehydration or hypernatremia.
It is the athlete’s responsibility to manage their fluid intake and to stay hydrated, and daily intake will vary. Average consumption is approx. 3.8L per day for men and 2.6L for women.
Athletes should also get into a practice of weighing in before and after exercise. For every 1 pound of bodyweight lost during training, it should be replaced with 500ml water (with no more than 400-800ml per hour).
Nutrient timing & frequency
A large amount of research for nutrient timing was conducted on endurance athletes and is therefore lacking for strength and power athletes.
What’s clear is that a large majority of calories for strength/power activities should be consumed before or after exercise sessions to avoid gastrointestinal upset and the subsequent interference with training.
Consuming sport beverages throughout training or competitions, or eating a light snack during a break will provide the energy needed to fuel high intensity performance.
As coaches we know they seek maximum performance and recovery from their training sessions. We also know that many of these athletes have a goal to increase their strength and build lean muscle mass. If therefore makes sense that he consumption of specific macronutrients around the workout window will aid in this.
These recommendations do not need to be as specific or detailed as for endurance athletes, as we know that strength as power training is not as depleting on the body. A simple protocol could look like
Below are some key supplements that may prove effective for a strength and power athlete:
Creatine – Mass Builder, Strength, Energy Production
With regard to athletic performance, creatine has continually proved itself to be one of the most effective and safe nutritional supplements to increase strength, muscle mass and performance.
How to take
3-5g per day is the recommended daily dosage. This should be consumed alongside a meal, or at least some carbohydrates to maximize uptake by the muscle cells.
Nitrates – Performance, Energy Production
Nitrates are a compound found in leafy green vegetables and beetroot. Nitrates break down into nitrates, which circulate in the body and are turned into nitric oxide (NO) as needed.
Nitrates can improve both anaerobic and aerobic endurance, blood flow and work output. It works by improving the body’s ability to produce ATP, which is the power the body uses to perform all activity.
How to take
Nitrates are best taken in the form of leafy greens or beetroot. They should be consumed 60-120 minutes before exercise at a dosage of 6.4 – 12.8mg per kg of bodyweight.
Caffeine – Performance & Fat Loss
Caffeine can have a stimulatory effect on increasing the adrenaline and dopamine responses in the body, providing greater muscular power output as a result.
How to take
For maximum effects from caffeine, dosages of 400-600mg should be taken 30 minutes before a workout.
It’s advised to save this stimulant for the hardest and most intense activities, as caffeine tolerance is common.
Beta Alanine – Performance and Energy Production
Beta-alanine is an amino acid that binds with another amino acid, L-histidine, to create a compound called carnosine. Carnosine has been shown to delay muscle fatigue and improve exercise endurance for high intensity exercise lasting from 60-240 seconds.
How to take
Dosages of 2-5g daily is advised, with the higher end of the range best used for longer training sessions. Best consumed with a meal and may also cause a tingling sensation upon consumption.
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References & Further Reading
- Antonio et al, 2008, Essentials of Sports Nutrition & Supplementation, Nutritional Needs of Strength/Power Athletes, 349-370
- Fink & Milesky, 2014, Practical Applications Of Sports Nutrition, Strength/Power Athletes, 387-414