An approach to training and nutrition that is harmonious with the seasons.
“Live in each season as it passes; breathe the air, drink the drink, taste the fruit, and resign yourself to the influence of the earth.”
― Henry David Thoreau, Walden
The purpose of this writing is to propose a model for a year-long approach to training and nutrition that aligns with the seasons and environment.
I argue that this method makes reaching your fitness goals easier and results in other benefits such as a more sustainable and wholesome food intake.
Ultimately I will challenge you to scrutinize your own approach to fitness with a lens of environmental and seasonal influence. If you are interested in fitness and nature, these ideas may be the strategy you’ve been looking for.
A VERY Brief History of Food and the Modern Health Crisis. Before the invention of modern food preservation people relied heavily on seasonal availability for many foods. The alternative were foods that were dried grains, heavily preserved in salt or subject to other preservation methods that rendered them unpalatable. Fast forward to current day and now cheap food is always available, in 4 different flavors and 3 different sizes. There’s been both positives and negatives in this journey.
As the modern era ushered in a change in our food supply, so too did we see a change in our national health. Obesity, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other diseases related to lifestyle habits have taken center stage in the health care needs of modernized nations.
What were some of the factors at play that led to this? It is impossible to say, but here are some things I ask you to consider:
- Many jobs have become less physically demanding and moved indoors in the past 100 years.
- Modern food science and production along with consumer demand has produced a food supply that is heavily dependent on cheap mono-crops.
- Giant food corporations are able to dominate multiple media outlets and bankroll local and national policy makers to heavily influence information given to consumers.
- Many people have no idea where food comes from. The idea of a seed growing in the soil and producing food is a foreign concept.
Your fitness results are, in some part, influenced by environment and culture. When I propose that you harmonize your training and nutrition with the seasons, I am suggesting that this could create an environment that supports better outcomes and a balanced approach to your training. Some benefits of this program include:
- Higher vitamin D levels from more sun exposure which promotes immunity and bone health.
- Focus on seasonal availability of foods. This tends to result in those foods tasting better, costing less, and having a smaller environmental impact on the planet.
- Cyclical focus on aerobics and strength training, and muscle building and fat loss. This gives your body a balance of all the benefits of all types of exercise and nutrition.
- A training focus on an outdoor adventure. Using your body as a vehicle to do a long hike, bike ride, climbing trip, or anything where a good power/weight ratio peak during the summer/fall is desired. However, you can modify any training program to meet your own goals if they differ.
Harmony with the Seasons
As you can see in my image above, each season is labeled with a training goal (building muscle, improving aerobic capacity) and a nutrition consideration. Below you can see a chart that describes the level of calorie surplus or restriction that would match with the corresponding goals. By following this model you will (1) eat foods that are fresher and more readily available in season, and (2) follow training goals to maximize use of good weather by having a more aerobic/outdoor focus in the summer and a (3) bodybuilding/indoor gym focus in the winter.
I recommend focusing on (1) fat loss and (2) building aerobic ability in the spring. Also consider that the holiday season around Christmas and the new year has passed so the social pressure to indulge may not be as much of an issue.
Foods available in the spring lend themselves to some lower calorie recipes, which are important to a successful fat loss program. Seasonally available foods in spring typically include:
- Leafy greens and lettuces
- Roots like radish and carrots
- Broccoli & Cauliflower
- Green onion
I personally apply this in my nutrition program by making green smoothies in the morning and big salads for lunch every day during the spring. I grow my own produce so mine comes straight from the garden. Consider starting a couple of raised beds of your own. A few square feet of soil can grow enough salad greens to feed a family of four once they get growing.
Your training program will start incorporating more aerobic exercise in the spring. I recommend this because this will prepare you for summer and fall to pursue outdoor activities. Getting around outside is a lot more enjoyable when you’re not huffing and puffing. The spring may be a rainy season depending on where you live. Your training schedule should be flexible if you’re doing anything outside .
An example routine of such a training program might look like:
- Monday/Thurs- medium distance run & weight training upper body
- Tuesday/Fri- air-bike intervals & weight training lower body
- Wednesday- stretch & rest
- Sat- long hike/walk
- Sun- stretch & rest
I can provide details on how to grow some of your own foods, build a training program, and all the nuances another time. But for now, I hope you get the gist of spring which is to (1) shed fat from the previous winter and (2) get your body ready for outdoor activities.
Summer vegetables are diverse and lend themselves to so many amazing recipes. This time of year is peak harvesting time for:
During all seasons, I recommend you eat an abundance of fruits and vegetables. Ideally incorporating as much as you can find in-season and local. If you have a garden, you can harvest these veggies for the rest of the growing season right from your yard. If not, try a local farmer’s market if you are able.
At some point in the summer, you should halt your weight loss and focus on maintenance. Enjoy your new body and high level of endurance! Pursue some long hikes or backpacking trips, enjoy a long run exploring a new area, and get outside. Spending more time outside is good for you and could a missing component of your health routine. Vitamin D from the sun, healthier sleep patterns following a circadian rhythm, and a break from the computer world could be just what the doctor ordered.
This is where you will reach your cardiovascular peak. Strength training will be on a maintenance level. Hopefully you pick a big event to pursue sometime in the summer or fall because you’ll be ready for one. I did a 500 mile solo backpacking trip one year and it changed my life! You could do something like that too!
In the fall, both summer and cool crop vegetables will be available. It is an abundant time of year! Many traditional holidays are featured around a fall harvest for good reason.
Some foods unique to fall include:
- butternut squash
- acorn squash
- sweet potato
As fall transitions into the rainy season, I recommend slowly increasing calories and shifting your focus to building muscle. After the first hard freeze, most fresh produce will have to be shipped or grown in a greenhouse. Either way, a lot of fresh produce is typically more expensive and lower quality in the winter.
Could now be the time to start focusing on increasing calories? I argue yes, the stars are aligned. Consider that during the fall and winter:
- more high calorie foods are available related to the holidays
- longer nights and colder days makes indoor training more appealing this time of year- why not lift weights?
Over the years, I have worked with 1000’s of athletes and clients and I have noticed a trend that people have more trouble losing weight over the holiday season. Think about what some of your favorite fall/winter foods are. Are these typically higher or lower calories? My case is this- embrace the cold weather and the abundance of calories and build some muscle this time of year.
Winter concludes the training cycle and the growing season. During the middle of winter I recommend having your most intense phase on building muscle and keeping your aerobics on a minimum or maintenance level. This will give balance to your overall training program. Now you are taking care of your heart, lungs, brain, muscles, joints, and bones- your entire body. Weight and muscle gain should be slow and controlled- about 0.5 to 1.0% of your body weight per week (about 1 pound per week for most people).
Fundamentals of Successful Training Programs. One of the strength coaches I used to work with in college athletics used to keep his entire training program in a little black book. Handwritten. He carried it around everywhere, and for good reason. His training program was the blueprint to helping his athletes reach their long-term strength & conditioning goals.
Periodization is a term used to describe a long-term physical training program that focuses on different goals at different times of the year in order to prevent plateaus in progression and prevent injury.
In other words, periodization is a training program that:
- makes you progress at something (weight, reps, speed, etc.) over time
- prevents you from hurting yourself from overuse
- mixes up your individual workouts enough to challenge you and keep it fun
- spends some time of the year bringing up your weak areas
- ultimately focuses on one big goal (strength, size, performance) in the big picture
- includes a diet strategy to maximize all of your efforts
An example of a bodybuilding routine I created for myself one winter can be found here.
The application of nutrition and training is an art and a science. This method is informed by the science of periodization and nutrition science but the application and harmony with the growing seasons is my artistic touch. This comes from my background as an outdoors-man, sports dietitian, gardener, and lifelong lover of food and philosophy.
I also hope that you can scrutinize your own training plan and compare it to the one I have proposed to you. Do you go with or against the flow? Do you have balance in your training throughout the year? Do you get a variety nutrient dense foods throughout the year? There’s a lot more to nutrition than just calories and macros. Spend the extra time to make something work with your rhythm.
Should you follow a nutrition and training philosophy like this? If you think you’re up to the challenge, I welcome you to try my methods. If you found any of this interesting, please let me know. I’d be willing to compile more info and data into an e-book for a “how-to” version of many of the topics discussed here.
Thank you for reading! I would love to hear your feedback or how you’ve applied some of this principles for yourself.
Additional resources you may find interesting:
- The Townsends– A youtube channel dedicated to history of food and historical recipes.
- Food in History– Reay Tannahil. A great book on… the history of food from cavemen to modern day.
- Mike Israetel– A strength guru you should probably listen to if you want to learn in-depth about periodization
- Planting Calendar– from the Farmer’s Almanac if you want to try growing some of your own food
- Alan Aragon– a sports nutritionist who is does a great job of explaining nutrition science to the public