This article was written by Claire Desroches, owner of Great Expectations Fitness, and Jiu Jitsu Blue Belt and kids coach at Kingston Jiu Jitsu.
Jiu-jitsu has now developed to the point that sports science principles are being incorporated into most of the professional (and many of the amateur) athletes' training plans. Within this, nutrition specific to the needs of grapplers has become of particular interest. Most of us have at least a basic understanding of the macronutrient and supplementation requirements for peak performance on the mat, but there's another part of the nutrition puzzle that is rarely addressed - nutrient timing. We all know the impact what we eat and drink can have on our jiu-jitsu and our health. BJJ magazines and websites take it further, advocating all sorts of rituals; these foods before your workout, these supplements after, no food between these hours, eat or drink whatever you want for one day a week... and all combinations in between! But how much do these really help?
Despite what a lot of “grappling diet plans” might have you think, our bodies don’t reset everything at midnight. So if you’re consistently eating too much or too little, not enough protein or too much-processed food, it doesn’t really matter whether you stop eating at 6 pm or only eat carbohydrates in the morning. The truth is, we don’t actually know what time-frame really matters to the body - different nutrients have different storage times - so the first place to start is to think about any changes in weight, shape, and/or energy you’ve experienced over the last 4-6 weeks. That will give you a clue as to whether you’re on the right track with your diet overall.
Assuming your weight is stable and you don’t consistently experience any noticeable energy slumps, you might start thinking about whether you are optimizing your diet around your training sessions.
What you put in before stepping on the mat is probably the most important aspect. You want to make sure you have enough energy that you can focus throughout the session, and maybe even push yourself slightly beyond your comfort zone. However, eat too much or too late, and digestive issues can bring an end to a training session as quickly as an injury.
The quickest and easiest way to get energy is from carbohydrates - anything from simple refined white sugar and syrups (like energy drinks, sweets, flapjacks) to complex starchy carbohydrates (like whole grains and vegetables), and everything in between (fruit, “healthier” snack bars, and specially-formulated energy supplements).
Aim to have a balanced meal or large snack, 4-6 hours before training, that will keep you going all the way through your training session. Complex, starchy carbohydrates should play the main role in this meal, alongside protein and fat; a rice dish or sweet potatoes are good places to start.
A smaller, high-carbohydrate snack 30-60 minutes before exercise helps to top up your energy levels and keep you going at the end of a tough training session. This should be something you find easily digestible; something like a piece of toast and a banana, or a fruit yoghurt and a cereal bar, should be adequate.
Protein is slower to digest so it is best to ensure you get your protein in throughout the rest of the day. However, a small amount of protein - as little as 5-10 grams, about the amount you’d get from a cup of milk or a tablespoon of peanut butter - can help to enhance carbohydrate availability (making the most out of that last-minute carbohydrate snack) and delaying muscle breakdown (thereby enhancing recovery) while you train.
If you exercise first thing in the morning, you might struggle to eat anything beforehand. If this is the case, ensure you are eating a full meal based on complex carbohydrates the night before, and have a think about what sort of sessions you schedule for the morning, as you might not get the full benefit of a more sparring heavy or explosive session; these are good times for slow and steady technical session.
For sessions lasting up to an hour, it isn’t usually necessary or helpful to consume anything during your session, especially if your overall nutrition and hydration are on point throughout the day.
Energy and Carbohydrates
For sessions over an hour, and especially beyond 90 minutes, you may need to consume extra carbohydrate - about 30-60g per hour is advisable depending on how hard the session is, and is usually best consumed in the form of energy supplements like gels or energy drinks, but individual preferences vary widely.
It is vital to begin any training session well hydrated by drinking regularly throughout the day, but for longer sessions, or even shorter sessions in warm climates (like gi sparring in a heatwave) - when you may be drinking up to 2L per hour - you will probably need to add electrolytes to your water to avoid dehydration. If you consume a sports drink, make sure it includes electrolytes, otherwise, you can buy tablets or liquid solutions (with or without carbohydrate) to add to your water or drink.
Some people are ravenous immediately after training, and others can’t stomach the thought of food for a while. Contrary to popular gym lore, it is not absolutely vital to consume anything strictly within 30 minutes of training. However, doing so can kickstart the recovery process.
Exercise causes (usually small amounts of) muscle breakdown, but also stimulates the rebuilding of muscle during recovery. This process is most active immediately after exercise, so the sooner protein is available for use by the body to create new muscle, the better. However, if you are consuming enough protein overall (at least 1.2g per kilogram of body weight per day), there should be a sufficient pool of amino acids for your body to draw from if it is not possible for you to eat straight after training. If eating something is an option, aim for about 0.5g per kilogram of body weight; about 30-35g of protein for a 60-70kg athlete. Although it isn’t necessary to take protein shakes, they can be a really convenient way of ensuring you get a good dose of protein after training, especially if sitting down to a full meal isn’t an option for a while!
Adding some carbohydrates to your post-exercise snack will greatly increase your body’s ability to use the protein to rebuild muscle, and to replenish energy stores. You’ll want about 2-3 times as much carbohydrate as protein, depending on the type of training session and how well-fueled you are throughout the day. A piece of fruit or two, along with your chosen protein source, is a good place to start.
If you begin your training session well-hydrated and are able to drink plenty of fluids during exercise, rehydrating afterwards shouldn’t be a concern. However, for many sports, it isn’t realistic to consume the recommended amount of water during the session. If you are concerned about dehydration, try to weigh yourself before and after training to see how much weight you have lost from water loss; try to consume 3 cups (750ml) of water for every pound (400g) lost. If this seems a lot, it is - so that’s another reason to concentrate on staying hydrated before and during your session!
This might all seem quite complex but remember not to lose sight of the bigger picture; if you feel good, and you are getting what you want out of your training, there is probably no need to start worrying about grams of protein and carbohydrate. But if you feel like something is a little off, maybe these recommendations will give you a good starting point to make some changes. As with anything, try to change one thing at a time, and give your body a while to adjust before you change anything else; that way you know which changes helped!