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5 Simple Nutrition Rules for Martial Artists

If you have trained martial arts for a long time or are just starting your journey, it's time to focus on planning your nutrition to be intentional about your fuel. I have trained Capoeira since 2006 and studied nutrition since 2001. With Bachelors and Masters degrees in Nutrition Science and a PhD in Biomedical Sciences, I know there are some standard nutrition concepts and some specific sports nutrition concepts that are essential for optimal performance. Not everyone is looking to get shredded, but every athlete is looking to reduce recovery time, improve performance, and see results. Follow these 5 simple nutrition rules to perform at your best and recover effectively.

a woman drinking water

1. Hydration: Staying adequately hydrated is crucial. Water is vital for regulating body temperature and maintaining performance. Adequate fluid intake before, during, and after exercise is essential. Metabolic processes require water, your cells require water. If you're dehydrated, you will know. If you're thirsty you've waited too long. Now, here is something to think about. You don't need to hydrate with electrolytes or rehydration drinks unless your working out at a consistently intense pace more than one hour. Plain, simple water will do just fine. That saves money and is easily accessible. Bring your 40oz of water to every martial arts class. You'll have opportunities to get the hydration you need during class. As far as etiquette is concerned, either wait until the water breaks are announced, or ask politely in a discreet manner to leave the training floor to get your water. Watch the behavior of the current students and follow practice for your training gym.

2. Balanced Diet: Consume a well-balanced diet that includes a variety of macronutrients (carbohydrates, protein, and fats) and micronutrients (vitamins and minerals) to support overall health and performance. For as many gyms that are around, there are probably that many recommendations for what, how, when, and why you should eat some specialized diet including but not limited to no carb, high fat, vegan, gluten-free, ultra high protein diets. There are so many specialized diets and for the most part, they work. Yup. If you are mindful of the nutrients you need to produce energy and build/maintain muscle (macros), you're doing the right thing. You listen to your body, do you have enough energy, strength, stamina? Adjusting your diet based on preferences is an important key to success. It's hard to stick to something long term that bores you, disgusts you, or makes you uncomfortable.

My typical recommendations are pretty simple:

1.) Reduce added simple sugars (ixnay on the candy bar-A)

2.) with the exception of your pre/post workout meals aim for balance among the macros with vegetables making the bulk of what is on your plate or in your cup (your body needs fiber and the micros)

3.) protein sources should be lean and clean (think roasted and baked not fried and caked).

On to rule number 3. This is probably the hardest for competitive athletes and couch potatoes alike.

balanced diet

3. Moderation: Be mindful of portion sizes to avoid overeating or under-consuming calories. You've just finished a killer Capoeira class and probably burned upwards of 700 calories just in the class, but it doesn't stop there. Your metabolism is revved up and your eyes see that kabob place down the plaza, or the pizza joint next door. You can smell the satisfaction of refueling your tank. But WAIT! Don't waste all of the hard work you just put in on the mats by deviating from your plan. You should have a good idea of how many calories you spend during the day. If not, check out this total energy expenditure calculator. There's no excuse now. You have an idea of your budget and what you can bring in versus what goes out. Depending upon your goals you may be bulking or cutting and those calories count. You could be looking to maintain a net zero balance to maintain yourself. You don't need to micro manage every calorie, but having realistic ball park ideas is essential for your success. If you're looking to change body composition this is where the balance comes back into play and really dissect the macro distribution.

So to this point, we've covered water, balance, and moderation, here comes the fun part! Variety, the spice of life. Much like your martial arts training encompasses different moves, sequences, forms, sparring, drilling, conditioning, building variety into your diet will distribute the macros and micros to support different functions in your body.

4. Variety: Focus on whole, unprocessed foods that provide essential nutrients. Like I said before, you'll want to minimize sugary, processed, and fast foods. When you start focusing on whole, unprocessed foods (think vegetables, fruits, lean proteins, complex carbs) you are investing in nutrient-dense foods that provide high concentrations of essential nutrients relative to their calorie content.

What else could be important for athletes? Timing. Now, there's tons of evidence to show that time restricted feeding and caloric restriction have tons of health benefits. But this point isn't necessarily about that. It's about timing your fuel to serve purposes. Whether it's a small meal 2-3 hours before you exercise or refueling after your workout to optimize replenishing your glycogen stores and muscle growth, timing is essential.

protein and vegetables

5. Timing: Consume a balanced meal or snack 2-3 hours before exercise to ensure your body has enough energy to perform optimally. If you're gassed before you hit the mats it's sub-city. You'll be sitting out sparring, rolls, rodas because the drilling was enough to empty the tank. Now, you don't need much to fuel through a workout. A few hundred calories will do. Focus on a balance of complex carb and protein.

Now, it's after class and your wobbly walking to the car from such a great class. It's time for your protein boost. Within 20-30 minutes of class completion you need a protein boost. Make sure whatever protein you consume (whole food or supplement) is a good source of branched-chain amino acids. Then within about one hour after your class, you need to refuel with a combination of carbohydrates (replenish glycogen stores) and protein (satiety and muscle maintenance) to aid in recovery and muscle repair. The timing of this meal or snack is important.

Ok, to recap our 5 simple nutrition rules for martial artists:

  1. Hydrate or dydrate

  2. Balance

  3. Moderation

  4. Variety

  5. Timing

Final Thoughts: Nutrition needs can vary significantly from one person to another. Consider individual factors such as age, gender, activity level, and specific sport or exercise goals when planning your diet. I hope these rules will help guide you on your path. You are the master of your destiny.


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