Working towards perfecting your lifting techniques is only part of the challenge for someone who’s looking to maximise their performance with the snatch and clean & jerk.
Fuelling your body with optimal nutrition is crucial and, for competitive weightlifters, the right diet can make all the difference in a sport where as little as 1kg can mean the difference between gold and silver.
Unlike bodybuilders, building muscle mass isn’t the objective for competitive weightlifters, especially as the athletes need to stay within their designated weight categories. Instead, the right diet needs to accelerate recovery and provide the right foundation for the explosive, yet graceful power required to perform lifts to their maximum potential.
The importance of diet in sport has been recognised for many years, but there has been significant research into nutritional importance in resistance training since the turn of the millennium.
In a 2004 paper on Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, JS Volek argued that diet can ‘optimise adaptations to resistance training’ by providing key energy substrates at precise times and by altering the hormonal environment to favour anabolism. In short, if you eat the right things, your body will work better.
It has been a widely-held belief for some time that protein intake is essential for an athlete, but particularly in resistance training-based sports.
Antonio et al., writing in the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition in 2015, claimed that a high protein diet combined with a heavy resistance training programme improves body composition in healthy men and women, without any obvious negative physical effects.
Nutritionist and strength coach Joel Giacobbe recommends that athletes should have about one gram of protein per pound of body weight every day.
Many trainers and lifters try to include a protein source with every meal – whether derived from pulses, whole grains, soy, beef, chicken, eggs, dairy or seafood. Any snacks in between meals should also be rich in protein, which helps to repair muscle cells when broken down into amino acids.
Whole grains and pulses, as well as green and some starchy vegetables such as sweet potato, are also excellent sources of complex carbohydrates, which will delay the onset of muscle fatigue – an essential step to prevent the body from burning useful sources of fuel, such as protein.
TIMING IS EVERYTHING
Interestingly, there is also evidence that consuming the right foods at different points of the day has an impact on training productivity.
Snijders et al., in the Journal of Nutrition (June 2015), find that ‘protein ingestion before sleep represents an effective dietary strategy to augment muscle mass and strength gains during resistance exercise training in young men’. So consuming protein before bed will aid your recovery overnight.
Consuming the right nutrients after a training session, though, is even more important.
Morton et al. from the Exercise Metabolism Research Group at McMaster University in Ontario, Canada, state that it is pragmatic for athletes to ingest fluid, carbohydrates and protein in the “post-exercise period… when rehydration, refuelling and repair of damaged tissues should occur”.
Most of a day’s carbohydrates should be taken post-workout, according to coach and powerlifter Phil Learney of Ultimate Performance. However, despite being the body’s main energy source, weightlifting does not require as many carbohydrates as endurance training.
Energy, though, is essential, and failing to consume sufficient calories will jeopardise training, according to the Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, which recommends that athletes in sports such as weightlifting may need to consume between 23 and 36 calories per pound of body weight per day.
Unsaturated rather than saturated fats should be consumed where possible. In 2009, Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise claimed that between 20 and 35 per cent of total calorie intake should be fat-based. Cooking with olive oil, rather than vegetable oils, is recommended by some weightlifting coaches as a source of good fats, as is avocado, flax seed oil and walnuts, to name a few examples.
RULES CAN BE BROKEN
It is worth remembering that every human body is different and there are no strictly unbreakable rules when it comes to diet, and many weightlifters will treat themselves to ‘cheat meals’ every now and then – even the ones who compete in the lowest weight categories.
Morghan King (USA), who finished sixth in the women’s 48kg division at the Rio 2016 Summer Olympics, admitted “You can find ways to eat burgers and pizzas that fit your lifestyle.” Even Lasha Talakhadze (GEO), the newly-crowned World Weightlifting Men’s 2017 Lifter of the Year, enjoys a glass of good wine on special occasions.
Then there is vegan Kendrick Farris (USA), who competed at the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Olympics. He told Men’s Fitness that he simply eats when he’s hungry and focuses on protein-rich foods such as avocado, spinach, pulses, nuts and fruit, whilst drinking plenty of water.
Aside from the recommended dietary requirements, whether you are a committed carnivore or a veggie-loving vegan, as long as you focus on the right nutrients, there are no barriers to success in weightlifting.