Engineering The Athlete: Nutrition For Fast Twitch Performance
When I think of how I’m going to improve someone’s programming, I do so in a holistic capacity. When I use the word ‘holistic’ I don’t mean the left-brain, studio-gangster non-spirituality that gets passed around these days - I mean a true, complete system, which acknowledges that the left hand needs to know what the right hand is doing. The human organism - from our fitness, athletic performance to health and the quality of life we live - is a multi-layered, circuit of decentralized economies. These economies communicate with one another. Your nutrition, sleep, recovery, training, stress & trauma processing, and beyond all feed into one another in some way or another. You can dig into the work of Art De Vany and P.K. Anokhin if you’d like to unpack that rabbit hole a bit more.
Branching off of this, when most people think about nutrition, they think in terms of adding lean body mass, burning body fat, basic recovery needs, more energy, and a vague concept of getting healthier. This is valid, but it’s important to consider the other subsystems of the body at play beneath this, as well as to view your health and performance decisions from a cells to performance model. This is a term coined by Aaron Davis, who is something of an unsung hero in this industry. He eloquently attached this phrase to complex biological systems at the root of our fitness and performance, so this is what we’ll reference. You can simplify this a step further by saying that health drives performance and that the more we improve health, the greater our performance becomes.
Preamble aside, when I think about improving someone’s physique and performance, I start with this cells to performance model. Here’s where we branch into targeted nutrition for fast twitch muscle fuel.
An often overlooked area of study by American coaches, this holistic model has been omnipresent in the strength & conditioning paradigms of Eastern Bloc sport scientist families for decades. This has also been an unappreciated staple of nutrition programming that goes into the key players in the Nervous System Training world on the whole. Names like Verkoshansky, Marv & Gary Marinovich, Jay Schroeder, Michael Colgan, Nick Curson and more all have eyes on their training systems, while an oft-overlooked aspect is that targeted performance nutrition underpins these training systems. The reality is that your biological profile is what gives you the physiological foundation from which athletic performance can be expressed. Few coaches seem to get this bridge. When I want to look at improving something for athletic performance, I find it better to bypass most RD’s and nutritionists in the athletic realm and instead look at folks doing quality functional medicine work or those who bridge this gap, such as Rick Brunner or Ryan Frisinger.
Nerve Circuitry and Athlete Biochemistry
Nutritionally up-regulating biochemical pathways of the nervous system, endocrine system, and protein assembly lines for athletic performance necessitates an understanding of target physiology and nutrigenomic involvement. Much of the work of Eastern Bloc sport scientists has focused on targeting specific gene sets that affect the nervous system and partner systems in athletic performance. These single nucleotide polymorphisms (SNP’s) are many of the same ones associated with neurodegenerative diseases (vast networks of methylation cycle genomics, neurotransmitter status, nerve transmission circuitry) and also extend into type 2b fast twitch muscle fiber performance (e.g. ACTN3, AGT, PPARA, IGF2, etc.). While this can be an entire textbook series unto itself, the following needs analysis can be made:
When we think of true, hairline trigger fast twitch explosiveness as seen in explosive lifting, elite sprinters, collegiate & pro basketball, explosive combat sports athletes, various skill positions in football, and beyond, we’re talking about the highest expression of the human nervous system and its dialogue with the musculoskeletal system. While this requires many adaptations, we will refine our focus for brevity’s sake. In order to boil this down to individual components I can affect as a nutritionist and trainer, let’s take a look at what’s at play here:
Proprioception/Kinesthetic awareness including specific inclusion of the propriospinal process by which feedback information from proprioceptors bypass the brain and instead get forwarded straight to the bundles of nerves in the spinal column for instant processing. Biomotor ability.
The ability to rapidly perform contract and relax cycles.
Rate coding, innervation, electrochemical message freeways.
Clear pathways for nerve impulses to travel free of traffic in the form of both heavy metals or neural inflammation.
Tendon adaptations for storage and transfer of kinetic energy.
Intra and intermuscular coordination, including an ability to not co-contract agonist and antagonist muscles (as seen in folks who go too far down the maximal strength pipeline, poor exercise selection leading to faulty muscle firing patterns, and/or an improper length/tension relationship in muscles.
Sensorimotor processing and a keen ability to process multiple inputs in record time to make a decision without ‘thinking’, including both brain and optical sensory components.
Appropriate maximal intent and intention in movement.
Prolonged repeat-ability of above components.
Functional Medicine X Strength & Conditioning:
Nutritional Ergogenics and Integrated Health Interventions
Let’s take this and further boil it down to something of a biological needs analysis in order to get something useful out of this to integrate with programming for athletes. I’m going to qualify the following integrations by saying that some of these things have been fleshed out, are repeatable, and have been observed. In other areas, I’m attempting to draw out a model by applying established research in one area to another where previously associations have not been made. I am completely open and up front about which areas are rock solid to what degree we can say that about science, as well as which areas are more in development or straight-up in the anecdata phase. Just e-mail me and ask.
If I’m trying to up-regulate nerve transmissions, impulses, bioelectrical muscle qualities, and in general improve neural communication to support fast twitch training and performance, I’m probably wanting to support established biochemical pathways that support this process. A diet rich in nutrient-dense foods helps, though will likely result in a loss of hydration (even if some of that is a good thing due to some of that water loss being because of lowered chronic inflammation). This means also supplementing with key electrolytes, and also looking at trimethylglycine (TMG crystal) supplementation to support explosive neuromuscular contractions via acceleration of neuronal traffic. This includes a necessary supply of hydrogen to support nerve transmission sites, as well as calcium, sodium, potassium, and chloride. For hydrogen considerations, maintaining healthy pH levels is going to be key. Healthy pH supports bicarbonation potential in which high presence of CO2 supports oxygen saturation in the body to underpin high performance (enhance respiratory channels for better gas exchange) and the conditioning/endurance side of all of this. Furthermore, this ensures a high electrical presence at the basis of neuromuscular actions involved in fitness and athletic performance. Caronsine supplementation can also drive muscle firing capacity to supplement resting reserves.
For supporting sensorimotor processing via eye health, I recommend taking care of your eyes via elimination of screens before bed. If you have to look at screens for a prolonged period of time during the day or at night, adequate cheap blue blocking glasses are available. Furthermore, avoiding overhead lighting at night and using lamps is an option. So is changing your bulbs to amber ones.
Increasing neuronal output, driving neurogenesis of the brain & nervous system, and decreasing nerve inflammation are all key elements at play. One can logically make the leap (and read supporting research) that supporting all of this with a quality brain and neural ‘platform’ would make sense. Brain health as well as neural components in training all involve having a quality lipid profile. One example of this is myelination and motor engrams - these are sets of instructions that your brain sends out to your musculoskeletal system in order to get it to move. How you train these over time predicates your movement strategies for sport. These myelin pathways from the brain are coated in a sheath, made up of a layer of fatty acid. This is where managing your dietary fat and including healthy fats becomes so key. You can also do what I do with athletes and assess your omega profile via an omega lab test.
This means optimizing your omega 3 to 6 ratio. To do that, you’re going to want to include regular seafood consumption (wild caught to ensure we’re getting the nutrients we’re after), as well as a daily dose of omega 3-heavy fish oil. Sufficient omega 6 intake is present through dietary means and most of us have an excess, which can result in inflammation everywhere (nerves included). This also means eliminating known nerve agitators or pro-inflammatory agents, such as refined sugar, excess dairy, artificial sweeteners, food dyes, MSG, and other excitotoxins, which ‘fry’ out your nervous system via creating an chemical environment of excess stimulation. More on that in a second. I would also be including primarily safe starches and testing which grains you can deal with, while absolutely ditching the neurotoxicity of wheat and gluten. This isn’t to say that all gluten-free foods are healthy, but more to acknowledge the questionable nature of the food itself, at least in American production lines where it is decidedly tampered with in comparison to past farming iterations or overseas products. Some of this is also because wheat products overactivate the immunosympathetic branches of our system. Last, but not least, the late Charles Poliquin, Dr. Mario DiPasquale, and Ryan Frisinger have all spoken about the n=1 experiment of running a mega dose fish oil experiment. This has a number of benefits and will be covered in a separate post, but in a nutshell, accelerating these processes via a month-long megadose of approxiately 8-10g of fat sourced from Omega-3-heavy fish oil does the trick. I have had athletes get more explosive and finely ‘tune’ their CNS doing this without many of the other recommendations involved.
Lastly, on the neurogeneration front, we definitely want to ensure that the brain and neural networks are not only growing, but are pruning off old, weaker nerves. This means out with the old, in with the new. Promotion of neurosynaptic autophagy will aid in various areas of brain health, but also in heightening the athlete’s ability to be in a reactive state. We can support this with occasionally eating in condensed windows, which means intermittent fasting on occasion for most athletes. Some sports’ demands are such that more regular fasting is feasible, but most team sports and combat sports are probably not ideal for this.
To close the loop on the stimulation front, we can all agree that many sports necessitate the need to properly conduct rapid contract and relax cycles on a neuromuscular level. Go watch next time John Wall explodes to the rim for a dunk or Tyron Woodley uncorks a combination - elite athletes have a keen ability to relax and generate tension in fractions of a second. In order to support this biochemically, we’re not only going to want to integrate the above, but also balance the sympathetic (fight/flight/freeze) and parasympathetic (rest/digest/restore) branches of the autonomic nervous system. This means balancing out excitatory foods and inhibitory foods. While we want glutamate and other high-arousal neurotransmitters for performance and cognitive needs, we tend to get enough of these via diet while not engaging in enough parasympathetic behavior or nutrition. Monitoring high-arousal foods or excess stimulation drinks and supplements is key for autonomic management. This is why high-stim pre-workouts, unnatural energy drinks, or tampered coffee are a terrible idea from an autonomic perspective - training and performance are already going to drive us into a sympathetic state of high arousal. Why would we want to further tax the HPA Axis and waste some of this neural potential ideally reserved for movement on managing unnecessary, non-natural, high-arousal states?
Furthermore, we can build off of this to include the role of neurotransmitters on training performance (a research area of Dr. Pat Davidson’s work). Acetylcholine is a key player for nerve transmission quality and rates. Dopamine concentrations in the brain are also involved in reward behaviors, movement, mental fortitude, and achievement. In fact, chronic fatigue or overtraining states are associated with serotonin dominance as well as insufficient dopamine reserves. While there are a lot of ways to look at creating balanced high/low arousal states, depending on whether we’re trying to drive the HPA Axis neuroendocrinology or simply engage in more restorative behavior, I would implement some combination of the following: prioritize sleep, eliminate the need to check e-mail, social media, or brain-stimulating behavior close to bed, consider GABA supplementation (inhibitory neurotransmitter), consider L-Tyrosine supplementation (to feed dopaminergic assembly lines), include numbers in your training (to drive dopaminergic processes associated with intent, reward payoff, and sticking to the plan), consider adaptogens, and live a life that is low in arousal states beyond what’s required for training. This means stress management, time to be social, have fun, and perhaps experiment with your chosen mindfulness practice, meditation, breath work, float therapy, neurofeedback, and beyond.
Vitamin D is actually a hormone in the body involved in hundreds of known processes. Many of these athletic qualities, including hormonal components, recovery, testosterone production, neurotransmitter health, and beyond are driven by Vitamin D-partnering. In order to facilitate this, you’re going to want to get plenty of sunlight. Eastern Bloc strength & conditioning coaches were actually the first ones to include physiology-first bases in their annual macrocycle programming based on seasonal performance fluctuations due to light exposure and what that does to athletes, biochemically-speaking. They re-conceptualized their programming model after shining artificial lights on athletes during the cold, sunless winters to help offset this. Certain light therapies or even certain tanning beds can be a good idea for athletes living in sunless winter areas. Additionally, vitamin D supplementation in high doses (likely 10,000 IU and up) is a good idea. Because of certain vitamin D absorption issues in certain populations stemming from genetic issues that complicate the vitamin D receptor sites, taking a vitamin D supplement that also includes vitamin K for ‘absorption’ is a good call.
We cannot overlook the role of the endocrine system in not just building muscle and recovering, but also in its effect on the neural communication. Higher testosterone concentrations and endocrine balance would appear to drive various sign posts of optimal neural function. In fact, if you look at how sports can be enhanced by anabolic aids, a working theory of mine is that the added neurophysiologic tuning from high testosterone levels is potentially THE key area behind how athletes benefit most from testosterone, second only to recovery aid. Thus, lab analysis and natural support of testosterone production would appear to be critical.
Maintenance and development of a high reactivity state for fast twitch athletic performance is going to be driven by a lot of what we’ve already laid out. A potentially-overlooked area is going to be ensuring certain stages of the methylation cycle are adequately supported. We’ve mentioned and will mention biochemical considerations for this, but a key piece that bears mentioning is that certain people have issues with their natural endogenous (built-in) detoxification mechanisms to eliminate heavy metals. For a finely tuned nervous system, we don’t want any biological ‘junk’ clouding neural features or mitigating endocrine potential. It’s probably a good idea to switch to natural hygiene and personal care items, particularly avoiding deodorants high in aluminum.
All of this takes energy of course, which means having sufficient mitochondrial capacity for cellular energy to support these processes. Everything we do is fueled by mitochondria. Some may need to grow more mitochondria, and there are also specific areas of the mitochondrial energy factory support chain where dysfunction can occur, but in general we’re going to want to drive health in each area (nutrition, recovery, sleep, light exposure, reducing environmental ‘insults’ etc.) to support ATP production to power this whole thing. You can also specifically look at nutritional support tools, including PQQ, nicotinamide riboside, CoQ10, creatine, among others.
Moving outwards to take a more macro view, this type of athletic performance is going to necessitate a high degree of metabolic flexibility. This means the ability to burn both fat (body fat and dietary fat via lypolysis), as well as carbohydrates for energy (glycolysis). You’re never exclusively utilizing one energy system, which means you’re going to want to target a specific dietary ratio to match your sporting needs, health needs, and fitness needs. Including a moderately high amount to high amount of protein is going to be necessary as a building block. From here, you’re going to want to also include more vegetables than you have likely ever eaten prior (like 8 servings high) to maintain fiber and nutrient density. Endurance and oxidative-driven sports are going to be different, but for fast twitch sports you’re going to have to distinguish between the amount of type 2b glycolytic fast twitch fibers used (hairline trigger-fast movements seen in basketball, MMA, football, volleyball, etc.) versus the mixed, oxidative fast twitch muscle fibers (think more powerlifting, strength sports, CrossFit, anaerobic capacity fibers). This means treating carbohydrate consumption like necessary boluses of food you need to get your neuromuscular system to run like a Ferrari. Keeping a decent gun clip storage of these in the form of stored muscle glycogen is a must. A final piece to look at for further evidence of carbohydrates fueling this type of movement comes from autonomics. It has been observed in labs that those in high-arousal states during bouts of non-exercise, such as anxiety, are primarily oxidizing glycogen instead of fat. This research would point to carbs being our preferred fuel during high-sympathetic nervous system-based activity rather than the established notion that fiber recruitment patterns are the lone driving factor. A confounding variable here would be whether these observed subjects were metabolically-flexible prior, though.
Additionally, you’re going to have to analyze what type of endurance you’ll need. This is going to further predicate macro ratio consumption. From here, we’re going to want to work outward. After ensuring you’re metabolically-flexible and healthy, performance-specific nutrition is the next tier. Oscillating your nutritional needs depending on energy systems used is the ticket. I have no clue why energy system development-based nutrition strategies are not at the core of most nutrition schools or even included in training curriculum for energy system support/development. At any rate, this means including more carbohydrates for fuel on days where you’re engaging in more carb-driven activities (e.g. explosive lifting, sprinting, fast twitch sports, etc.) and oscillating these with less carbohydrates (not necessarily low carb), more dietary fat on days in which you’re resting or performing endurance-type activity. Mixed days will require a balance. Protein won’t change too much, neither will carbs with low-glucose-spiking impact - these are your fibrous, vegetable-sourced carbs.
You might be asking for more of a cheat sheet. While I admit this isn’t as digestible as an infographic, it’s how my mind works. What I’ve attempted to do is give you a picture of the interrelated nature of the various systems at play in the athlete’s body - the what and the why if you will. Through this, I hope I’ve helped you understand a little more of the why that can go into programming instead of relying on cookie cutter templates or being myopic in our thinking. In using a holistic human performance model, as well as a cells to performance model, it’s important to look at each area that affects an athlete and how it relates. Then you can dive into individual rabbit holes as I have to get to the bottom of what you’re really, truly trying to affect.
Start with a comprehensive analysis of nutrition intake, health history, light exposure, labs (if possible), genetics (not usually ready for most, but definitely possible), recovery, sleep hygiene, environment, stress management, lifestyle, and include the various functional systems at play (I like using Omegawave Team for this). From here, determine limiting factors for the individual and attack them with reckless abandon. Of course, some of these interventions will need re-testing. Some may require a shorter period of time so as not to disrupt biological cycles. Others you’ll be looking to make minimum effective dose changes in, particularly where budget and time are factors (most athletes).
The bottom line is next time you think about performance, think about it as the summary output of a set of systems, and then think about how you can drive adaptations that will cascade outwards to engineer elite human performance.
Live. Adapt. Evolve.
Nan Yang, Daniel G. MacArthur, Jason P. Gulbin, Allan G. Hahn, Alan H. Beggs, Simon Easteal,and Kathryn North; “ACTN3 Genotype Is Associated with Human Elite Athletic Performance”; Am J Hum Genet. 2003
Seok-Ki Min, Seung-Taek Lim, and Chang-Sun Kim; “Association of ACTN3 polymorphisms with BMD, and physical fitness of elderly women”; J Phys Ther Sci. 2016 Oct
Rick Brunner; Explosive Ergogenics
Dr. Pat Davidson
Book; The Missing Wellness Factors
Foundational Neuroscience Research
Dr. Amy Yasko and Methylation Cycle Genomics
Dr. Yuri Verkoshansky
Marv & Gary Marinovich
Dr. Michael Colgan
Dr. Mike T. Nelson