Nutrition Basics for the Jiu-jitsu Athlete
By Sinead Roberts owner of Feed.Fuel.Perform
10 MIN READ
Why do you train?
… apart from for the pure love of it, the fundamental purpose of training is to become better in your sport. As a Jiu-Jitsu athlete, this means to build the strength, conditioning and skill required to out grapple and induce submission in your opponents.
Appropriate nutrition has two key roles in this:
1. To fuel the training sessions themselves, so you can perform and get the most out of them.
2. To fuel and provide the building blocks to recover from and adapt in response to the training sessions, so you improve in your sport. Training is just the stimulus to become a better Jiu-Jitsu athlete. You become a better athlete in the recovery period following training, as your body repairs and alters your muscles, neurology and energy systems to be ‘fitter’. And nutrition is a key part of this recovery.
In the words of one of the pioneers of the global fitness industry, Jack LaLanne: “Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Together you have a kingdom”
In this article, we look at some of the key components of diet for the Jiu-Jitsu athlete. Weight cutting will not be addressed, but if you want to read more on that subject you can here: https://www.feedfuelperform.com/post/weight-cutting-in-combat-sports-what-why-and-how
Hierachy of Needs
This graphic summarises the way we think about nutrition as an athlete.
Boring though it may seem, your basic diet really is the element of utmost importance. Becoming hung up on any other element without first considering whether your basic diet is optimised is typically like trying to stick a plaster on a wound that needs stitches and hoping for the best!!
Why is this? Because before we are athletes, we are humans. And humans require many things from the diet to optimise their chance of health. And the first principle of sports nutrition is health. An unhealthy athlete misses training days due to illness or injury. Or performs sub-optimally in training because of illness or injury. And both contribute to less effective training and, ultimately, increase the risk of less effective performance.
Once basic diet is considered, the amounts of the things in your basic diet and timing can be optimised specifically to support your sports performance. And supplements may be considered that have an acute or chronic impact on performance, but these are typically the icing on the cake.
So, what do we consider in basic diet? A quick 101 …
Calories describe the energy we get from the food we eat, specifically from the protein, fats and carbs we eat. We need enough calories (energy) in our diet to:
1. Fuel our training and recovery
2. Fuel our lifestyle outside of training
3. Fuel our basic functions as a human (everything from immune function, to cognition, to sex hormone levels)
Assuming we want to maintain our current bodyweight then the calories we eat (calories in) must match the calories we are burning (calories out). There is a nuance here in that the calories we need to remain ‘weight stable’ is not a set number but is instead a range. The reason for this is that our body can adapt to use more or less calories, by altering how efficiently it uses the calories and also how much it invests in things like our immune system and so on. You can test this and find the upper limit for your weight at any point in time, by increasing your daily calories by around 100-150 kcal for 1-2 weeks and seeing how weight is affected. If it does not change then you can repeat, and so on. You might find that with higher calories you have more energy to perform and recover more effectively.
Protein, Fats and Carbs
The things that provide the calories. Key foods falling into each category are shown above.
First, protein. Although protein has calories, it is not primarily an energy source in the body. Protein is a building block. As athletes, we focus on protein as the key component of muscle and soft tissue, but it is fundamental in every bit of the body.
Next, fats. Fats provide energy for low to moderate intensity exercise, and they are the carriers of the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E and K. With a very low fat diet we become at higher risk of deficiencies in fat soluble vitamins.
And finally, carbohydrates. These are the primary energy source for anything above moderate exercise intensity (i.e. a lot of your training!). Energy can be produced from carbohydrates more rapidly than from fats and with less oxygen, aka very valuable when you are gasping for breath in training! There is also evidence that low carbohydrate levels during exhaustive training, particularly if not replaced by eating soon after, may increase the risk of injury and illness.
Vitamins, Minerals and Fibre
Calories, protein, fats and carbohydrates in the diet provide our energy and building blocks, but we can’t access this energy or building blocks effectively, or maintain our health, without sufficient vitamins, minerals and fibres. There are too many of each to go into here, but suffice to say that a diet rich in a range of different fruit, vegetable, complex carbohydrate, protein and fat sources will help ensure exposure to the full spectrum of vitamins, minerals and fibres required for health.
If you are worried about a vitamin or mineral deficiency, a blood test can tell you more. I would not typically recommend a multivitamin or mineral supplement in the absence of a known or high risk of deficiency. This is because whilst enough is essential, more is not always better! And in some cases, excess may have adverse effects. The exceptions are:
1. 1000 -2000 IU of Vitamin D3 per day for individuals in the northern hemisphere between October – March, when there is insufficient sunlight to enable us to make enough in our skin (this is the primary source of our vitamin D3, not the diet!)
2. Vitamin B12 for vegan athletes with no fortified sources in the diet (and even here, I would also recommend bi-annual testing to monitor levels)
Nutrition for the BJJ Athlete
So that was the basics of the things to include in the diet. But what specifics should be considered as a Jiu-Jitsu athlete, who is likely to be undertaking a combination of strength, conditioning, technical and grappling sessions each week.
I am going to focus on 3 key elements: protein, carbohydrates and hydration.
Here we consider Total, Timing and Type.
· Total: Jiu-Jitsu training involves strength training, and so to support muscle repair and growth in response to training we typically recommend a protein intake of 1.2-2.0g/kg bodyweight per day. This range is broad, which can be explained by: a) the fact that everybody is slightly different and may respond best to slightly different amounts, b) that protein intake must be considered in light of total calorie intake (i.e. think of your total calorie intake as a bank account and you need to decide how to spend it on protein, fats and carbs … how much you have to spend on protein is impacted by how much carbohydrate and fat you need to eat), and c) this range was determined by a lot of different experimental research and variability always comes in through error, the impact of experimental conditions and the specific training used in the research, and the fact that each person in the study is different! So have a play and find what works for you!
· Timing: Protein cannot be stored in the body for extended periods. This is in contrast to fats and carbohydrates, which we can store in the fat, and liver and muscles for later use! But protein, we ‘use or lose’, as it is toxic just lying around. This means that to optimise our use of protein in the body we think it is best to eat sufficient doses regularly and evenly spaced through the day from soon after waking until before we sleep. Research indicates that around 0.4-0.5g/kg bodyweight per meal may be optimal.
· Type: Protein is made up of amino acids. Some of these are ‘essential’, which means we cannot make them from other amino acids in the body and so must eat them in the diet (a bit like minerals and most vitamins!). The proteins in our body require all the amino acids, we call these ‘complete’ proteins. As protein cannot be stored for long periods after we eat it, this means we aim to eat complete protein at each meal so that our body has all the amino acids it needs to build the proteins our body needs. Animal proteins are complete proteins. Any one plant protein is not a ‘complete’ protein; by this we mean it does not contain all the essential amino acids in sufficient quantities to optimise protein synthesis in the body. This is not a problem, it simply means we want to combine complementary plant proteins (i.e. those low in different essential amino acids) in any one meal or snack, to create a complete protein. The combinations to put together (and the amino acids that they are deficient in) are:
We follow the principle of ‘fuel for the work required’. The optimal amount of carbohydrates for performance may be driven by the amount of training you are doing, as is summarised in the graphic below.
Water in the body is like oil in the car, we need it to work!! Dehydration, aside from health issues, can cause decreases in concentration and grip strength. This is not great for a Jiu-Jitsu athlete who needs a quick reaction time and the ability to hold their opponent in locked positions for extended periods to induce submission. Hydration is incredibly hard to study, but there is some evidence these effects may be felt by 2-3% dehydration. Given that we do not feel dehydrated typically until we are 1-2% dehydrated … and may ignore it even then … you can see how it is potentially pretty easy to train with sub-optimal hydration levels.
A rough rule of thumb is to aim for pee that is light straw colour or clear. BUT hydration is not just about water. The body is a salt solution, not just a load of water, and so to be hydrated we need water + salt. And you can have clear pee because you don’t have enough salts rather than because you have enough water, either through losing excess salt in sweat or simply not having enough in the diet,. This is highly relevant for the Jiu-Jitsu athlete, particularly when training in a Gi where sweat rates may be high! If you add salt to your meals or eat ready prepared or café food you typically don’t have to worry so much as salt will typically be added. But if you prepare food from fresh raw ingredients at home and do not add salt, this may be something to be conscious of adjusting. Electrolyte tablets in water can do the trick too!
And finally, supplements. As I said right at the start, these are the icing on the cake. In other words, not much on their own, but if used appropriately can enhance the impact of a great cake (diet!).
The below is not a recommendation to use these supplements, but it is information on what they may be used for. I would always recommend chatting with a professional before using a supplement to determine if it is appropriate for you, and in what context.
A stimulant that may enhance performance in aerobic, high intensity sprint or repeat performance activity … such as any strength, conditioning or grappling training session and competition. It can be obtained from coffee and other caffeinated drinks, or in tablet or powder form. It is one of the ingredients in commercial ‘pre-workouts’. However, I would typically caution against using any pre-workout with a long ingredient list, particularly if you are a drug tested competitive athlete, due to the sheer number of other often unproven and potentially contaminated supplements they also contain.
Typically results seem to be seen when 3-6mg/kg bodyweight is taken around 60 minutes before exercise. This allows time for the caffeine to reach the blood and exert its effects. Taking over 9mg/kg bodyweight in one go appears to show no further performance enhancement and increases the risk of nausea, vomiting, nervous jitters, insomnia and may risk taking you into doping territory … (more than 12ug/ml urine, under the International Olympic Committee standards)!!
Supports explosive energy, aka a rapid takedown attempt, and muscle mass and strength (with appropriate strength training). Whereas caffeine has an acute effect (i.e. take it and pretty quickly feel the effect), creatine has a chronic effect (i.e. take it daily over a period of weeks to see the complete effects). Creatine is often feared by the combat athlete trying to stay near a weight class as it has a reputation for causing weight gain. And yes, in the initial period as it loads in the muscle it draws in water and so up to 2kg weight may be gained, depending how much muscle mass you have and how effectively your muscles load up with the creatine supplement. But long term creatine does not drive overall weight gain (remember, calories in versus calories out). If you do decide to take creatine, you can either do an initial loading phase of up to 0.3g/kg bodyweight daily for 5-7 days and then up to 0.1g/kg a day thereafter, or if you aren’t so worried about getting results as quickly as possible you can just go straight in at the lower dose with no loading phase.
This is an emerging area! It has been most studied in the context of aerobic training, aka ‘cardio’, where it supports increased blood flow and oxygen use amongst other things. More recently, there has been growing interest in nitrates for strength and power, with some studies showing nitrate supplements may help increase peak power output and also acceleration to peak power. This might be of particular interest to the Jiu-Jitsu athlete who needs to execute rapid and explosive takedowns and moves on their opponent. Nitrates are typically taken in a dose of 400-800mg, 2-4 hours before training. This timing is to give time for the nitrates to be digested and reach the blood, and potentially muscle. Nitrates may be taken directly as nitrate salts, or more commonly in the context of something like beetroot juice. We can obtain doses of 400-800mg directly from the diet in the form of eating beetroot and things like leafy greens too, although such a large amount of fibre close to training may not have useful effects on the gut!!! Nitrates are a supplement worth watching for more research over the coming years – in particular there are some indications the optimal dose and timing may differ for benefits in strength and power versus aerobic capacity. It is worth noting that antibacterial mouthwash wipes out the effects, as the bacteria in the mouth are needed for the first stage in the use of nitrates: the conversion of nitrates to nitrites.
Whereas nitrates may have a greater impact on aerobic exercise (and perhaps strength and power), buffers are designed to aid high intensity training. These are designed to reduce the ‘burn’ you feel when exercising at high intensity, meaning you can maintain that high intensity for longer. The way they do this is by mopping up the accumulation of acid that drives that burn. There are two key buffers: sodium bicarbonate and beta alanine. Sodium bicarbonate has an acute effect, i.e. you take it preceding exercise. Whereas beta alanine has a chronic effect. There are quite a few nuances, and potential side effects, with these and so I recommend you check this out to learn more: https://www.feedfuelperform.com/post/buffering-the-burn-b-alanine-and-sodium-bicarbonate-what-and-why
In Summary …
To wrap it up: a basic diet rich in a range of different fruit, vegetable, complex carbohydrate, protein and fat sources will go a long way to helping you remain a healthy athlete. And to look for the best you can from your diet, you may benefit from keeping protein around 1.6g/kg bodyweight if you are weight stable, and adjusting carbohydrate intake according to your average training load. And don’t forget to stay hydrated!!
If you want a great summary of current guidance of sports nutrition recommendations for athletes, check out the 2018 ‘ISSN exercise and sports nutrition review update: research and recommendations’, by Kersick et al (Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition 15:38) (https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-018-0242-y).
About the Author:
Sinead is a Performance Nutritionist and owner of Feed.Fuel.Perform, supporting individuals and athletes in using nutrition to help optimise their training, recovery and performance through nutrition coaching and education. She is also a Visiting Lecturer in Sports & Exercise Nutrition & Life Sciences at the University of Westminster.
Sinead holds a postgraduate qualification in Sport and Exercise Nutrition and a PhD. in Cell Growth and Metabolism, with over 10 years experience in coaching and education.