Apples… Hamburgers… Cookies… All have a place in the football player’s diet. But it’s important that your gridiron athletes know when and how nutritional choices can make a difference.
By Leslie Bonci
Leslie Bonci, MPH, RD, LDN, is Director of Sports Nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and serves as a consultant to the Pittsburgh Steelers, Pitt athletics, and several area high schools.
When it comes to seeking nutritional counseling, football players are often the last in line. Because the message from the coaches is usually “bigger is better,” losing weight is not a concern. And most don’t consider nutrition as part of their game plan.
But proper nutrition is actually very important for football athletes. To get the full benefits of the intensive preseason workouts, nutrition is key. Because football requires short bursts of energy, eating enough carbohydrates is critical. And with only 10 to 15 games per season, each pregame meal takes on added importance.
As a dietitian who has worked with the Pittsburgh Steelers for the past 12 years, several NCAA Division I and Division III teams, and high school athletes, I have found that the best way to talk to football players about this topic is to emphasize performance benefits over nutritional requirements. Whenever I provide advice or information, I talk about the edge that eating confers—its specific impact on strength, speed, stamina, and recovery. This resonates with athletes much more than talking about calorie counting or healthy eating.
I also talk about taking responsibility for optimal body fueling. A player who comes to practice without having eaten breakfast or lunch, or skimps on fluid intake during a hot summer practice, is not going to reach his full potential—which ultimately affects the performance of the team as a whole.
However, at the same time, I also try to focus on individual needs. Each member of a football team will have nutrient requirements based on body size and position, as well as individual food preferences. What works for one player may not be the best strategy for someone else.
Therefore, the trick is to give players guidelines that are clear, but not overly-specific. For example during two-a-day practices, I tell them that skipping breakfast is not an option. But I don’t insist they eat any one specific food. I give them a range of possible choices to fit their likes and lifestyles.
When excess body fat seems to be hindering their speed and quickness, I start with simple advice: Decrease portions, but do not skip meals. Cut back on fats, not carbohydrates.
And I always link the suggestions to performance. I’ll say, “If you don’t eat breakfast, you will not have the energy to make the most of practice,” or, “If you forego that second helping at dinner, you will soon lose that excess weight and be able to move more quickly to make a tackle.”
Carbs Are Key
Football is a stop-and-go sport with short bursts of intense effort followed by rest. Therefore, the primary fuel substrate for football is carbohydrate. Yet for many players, carbohydrate intake is sub-optimal. I’ve found the typical football player consumes a diet that is 43 percent carbohydrate, 40 percent fat, and 17 percent protein. Most recently, with the low-carb phenomenon, players are eating even fewer carbs.
The biggest problem is that most football players eat too much fat. If their weight is fine, most don’t think much about what they eat as long as the food is enjoyable. The problem is that fat does not supply the fuel needed to build muscles. It can also cause stomach cramping and indigestion.
Many football players also eat too much protein. While protein is needed in an athlete’s diet to build and maintain muscle mass, a small amount will suffice.
An ideal diet for football players requires 55 to 60 percent of their daily caloric intake to come from carbohydrates, 15 percent from protein, and 30 percent from fat. The way I translate these numbers to football players is that each meal should be two-thirds carbohydrate and one-third protein, with the emphasis on moderate fat. Each meal should look like a peace sign, with one-third of the plate as protein (red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, cheese, milk, yogurt, dried beans, nuts, soy products), one-third as a starch (rice, pasta, potato) and one-third as fruits and vegetables.
I emphasize carbohydrate-containing foods with lower fat: bagels over doughnuts, mashed potatoes over fries, grilled chicken over fried, frozen yogurt over ice cream. I explain that upping the amount of carbohydrate in their diet will provide them with more available energy during practice and games. And less fried foods often decreases the chance of an upset stomach, which may also boost performance.
In many cases, it’s the lifestyle of high school and college-age athletes that wreaks havoc on their diets. To combat this, I provide some simple suggestions for trading their empty-calorie foods for performance-enhancing ones. Replace that cupcake with a piece of fruit. Forego the chicken wings for a piece of grilled fish. Snack on nuts instead of cheese curls (although do put them in a small bowl to avoid overeating).
Alcohol consumption can be another problem in football players’ diets. When I talk to athletes about this, I simply present the facts. Alcohol can slow reaction time, increase the risk of dehydration, cause an upset stomach, and delay recovery if consumed prior to replenishing fluid and carbohydrates.
I also talk to players about postgame snacks. Many have heard that they need to consume a protein-carbohydrate mix for best recovery, but they’re unclear on what this means. So I give them specific food choices to ensure that they are getting the right proportions—which is six grams of protein and 35 grams of carbohydrates. Suggestions include peanut butter crackers, trail mix, yogurt with cereal, a bagel with cream cheese or peanut butter, or a sports bar containing the right proportion. I also explain that this snack should be consumed within 30 minutes after practice or a game for optimal benefit.
The most grueling and intensive training for football players takes place during preseason two-a-day practices. At this point, calorie needs may exceed 10,000 a day per player. Getting enough carbohydrates is key for optimal performance and recovery. Hydration is critical for both performance and to ward off heat-related illness.
Remind your athletes of the heightened physical and mental demands of preseason, and thus the extra attention that should be paid to eating and drinking. Work with your coaching staff to ensure that refueling and hydration guidelines are met during every practice, and training session. By fueling properly during the preseason, the team increases its chances of winning during the season.
My first recommendation is that football players begin working on hydration and fueling one month prior to training camp. Just like players need to get their muscles in shape for two-a-days, they also need to get their digestive tract in shape one month before training camp. This will help the body be better acclimated and adjust more quickly to the demands of preseason, which will minimize injuries and maximize performance.
To accomplish this, athletes should schedule beverages at every meal, as well as before, during, and after exercise. They should also practice drinking larger volumes before and during exercise—gulps instead of sips.
In addition, the athletes should get into the habit of regular eating, by having three meals a day plus a snack pre- and post-exercise. Have them aim to proportion two-thirds of the plate to consist of carbohydrates, and choose foods with higher water content such as fruits and vegetables.
Once two-a-days start, players should consume at least three meals per day with snacks in between. Skipping breakfast is not an option, especially when a player has an early morning practice or lifting session. For the athlete who is not overly-hungry in the morning, a smoothie, yogurt, cereal and fruit, or even a sports drink and sports bar can be a lighter alternative.
Adequate caloric intake is very important. To support a large, hard-exercising body, this can mean consuming a lot of food. That is okay. Players should not be trying to lose weight during this time.
Carbohydrates must be the main fuel source. Players will not recover in time for the next practice unless carbohydrate intakes are adequate. And watch their protein intake. Excess protein consumption will be stored as fat and may dehydrate the body.
Sodium intake may need to be increased, especially for athletes with abnormally salty perspiration, to prevent cramping. “Salty sweaters” typically feel gritty or have white residue on their skin or uniform after exercise. Ask these players about their sodium intake, encourage sports drink consumption in addition to water, and recommend adding salt and condiments such as Worcestershire or soy sauce, to foods on their plate.
For the training camp rookie, it is important to remind him to eat and drink, even when he would rather nap. In addition, try to push a little more food at every meal.
How do you make sure fluid intake is adequate? Start by stressing the importance of drinking early and often. Players should start their day with 16 ounces of fluid and make it a point to drink at every meal, before, during, and after practices. Explain that drinking fluids not only prevents heat-related illnesses but also helps them sustain performance. When practice is grueling, being fully-hydrated will help them get through it.
Here are some specifics for them to follow:
Drink 16 ounces of a sports drink one hour before exercise as it takes one hour for one liter of fluid to leave the gut.
Drink 20 to 40 ounces of fluid (sports drink/water) per hour of practice.
Drink 24 ounces of fluid (based on recent studies) for every pound of body weight lost during exercise, immediately post exercise.
During practice, coaches must implement scheduled fluid breaks, and they must make sure every athlete stops to rehydrate.
Ideally, players should weigh themselves before and after practice and drink enough fluid to replace the lost weight. That is, 150 percent of the lost water weight should be consumed. A player who loses five pounds during a practice would need to drink 120 ounces of fluid to replace the water weight loss.
Are sports drinks better than water? During two-a-days, sports drinks most likely provide an edge over straight water. Sports drinks provide necessary fluid, fuel, and electrolytes during exercise, so they provide a great package deal.
At the same time, athletes should not overhydrate. Although consuming enough fluid is essential, it is possible to drink too much. Overhydration can cause hyponatremia, or low blood sodium levels. This can result in headache, apathy, fatigue, nausea, and cramping. In advanced stages, it leads to confusion, lack of coordination, seizure, coma, collapse, and even death.
Pregame meals have always been a tradition with football teams, but they should also be thought of as an important fueling component before a game. The best strategy is to choose lower-fat foods. Fats take longer to digest, so high-fat meals can leave the athlete with a full, heavy stomach and not enough energy to perform at his best.
For example, when planning pregame breakfast meals, minimize higher fat items such as fried meats, fried potatoes, bacon, and sausage in favor of leaner proteins and carbohydrates such as bread, cereal, and toast. For afternoon pregame meals, choose grilled, baked, or broiled meats, tomato instead of cream sauce, low-fat milk, and baked or boiled instead of fried potatoes.
I always encourage my players to stick with what is familiar to them for pregame meals. Experimenting with how certain foods sit in the body should be done during the off-season.
Some examples of good pregame meals include:
Turkey or ham subs, fruit salad, frozen yogurt
Eggs, waffles, ham, fruit
Pasta with red meat sauce, grilled chicken, salad, and fruit
Smoothie, cereal, fruit
For those who want steak, offer 8-ounce cuts with plenty of carbohydrates on the side
For beverages, serve sports drinks, juices, and water.
Postgame meals are also an important tradition for some teams. However, before the team sits down for the meal, they should begin refueling with fluids and carbohydrates immediately following the contest, in the form of sports drinks, pretzels, sports bars, or fruit.
Then the postgame meal may be a higher-fat option, such as fried chicken, steak, or a cheesesteak hoagie. This is usually the hungriest time for the players, especially those who don’t eat much before games. Some good options include:
Steak kebabs, rice
Salmon, green beans, and corn
Roast beef, mashed potatoes, and salad
Hamburgers, grilled chicken sandwiches, fries, and juice.
If players need to lose or gain weight, they should not attempt to do so during the season. The focus of preseason and inseason training is to get the athlete ready for upcoming games. Attempting to lose or gain weight during this period takes energy away from in-season preparation.
Losing or gaining weight should be a long-term project, something that takes place over six months. For players who are looking to change body composition during the offseason, meet with them to set realistic goals and if possible, hook those players up with a sports nutritionist who can help them develop a nutrition plan.
It is essential to understand each player’s on-field goals when altering their diet. If a player needs to lose weight, focus on losing weight to move more quickly. If a player needs to gain weight, focus on gaining weight to be stronger.
Some tips for weight loss in football players:
Do not restrict carbs.
Do not skip meals, but do decrease portion size. (It is usually not the pasta that is the problem, but the size of the portion!) A little off the top at each meal works very well. For example, eat 25 chicken wings instead of 40, drink a 12-ounce glass of juice instead of 20, or eat a 12-ounce steak instead of one that is 24 ounces.
Trim calories by cutting down on condiments and snacks.
Many find it easier to lose weight by eating smaller, more frequent meals that are more evenly divided throughout the day, instead of three meals a day.
Decrease calories from beverages by diluting juices, choosing diet soda or iced tea, and using smaller glasses.
Include filling foods such as protein and foods that require chewing: salads, vegetables, a baked potato, meat, fruits.
When eating fast food, choose regular instead of super-size meals.
Put snacks into a bowl instead of sitting down with the whole bag.
For the player desiring to gain weight, the most important point is to be consistent, eating more calories every day. Some tips:
Start a meal with food, not liquids, so have the sandwich first, then the shake.
Replace low or no calorie beverages with juice, lemonade, milk, and sports drinks instead of water.
Try to eat one-quarter more at every meal and snack.
Keep snack food around to nibble on.
Add higher calorie foods to every meal: granola instead of sugared cereal.
Add nuts to cereal, or snacks.
Eat bagels instead of bread.
Add more protein, but only 4 ounces more a day, through food, not supplements. Choose cheese, low-fat lunch meats, an extra piece of chicken or fish, milk, and yogurt.
To make the most of football players’ talents, encourage them to make nutrition a priority. Explain how nutritional suggestions lead to success on the field, and they will soon be analyzing their meals as diligently as they analyze game film!
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