If you want to play at the top of your game… get rid of the junk food. Optimizing performance means that you have to remember that food is functional, and it serves a purpose. When that purpose is helping players recover after two a days, that food needs to be filled with as much high quality nutrition as possible. Another factor to keep in mind is that those nutritional needs vary, not just based on the individual but also the position they play.
Tara Ostrowe, MS, RD, team sports nutritionist for the New York Giants says, “nutrition plans must be individualized for each player based on their weight, height, body fat percentage, and position on the field.” There is one thing that all plans do have in common though, and that is consistency. Choosing high quality foods and being consistent with a diet year-round is essential for every football player. Eating habits are the foundation for helping players perform at their highest potential and avoid injury and fatigue. So keep these things in mind.
Carbohydrates = Energy to Play
Athletes need carbohydrates, and plenty of them! Football players rely heavily on glycogen stores for energy. Carbohydrates are the go-to source of energy for intermittent sports, like football, where glycogen stores are often depleted during workouts and training. The amount and frequency required will vary based on the time of year (i.e., off-season, pre-season, etc.), the player’s specific goals, and their position.
Choosing a variety of whole grain breads, pasta, rice, potatoes, fruits and vegetables ensures these players are not only getting the carbs necessary to perform but essential vitamins, minerals and fiber, which have a slew of important functions. In particular, these help to decrease inflammation and support recovery. Carbohydrates in the form of sports drinks, gels and other similar products should be limited to game day and practice fueling and not in a players day-to-day eating routine.
Avoid refined carbohydrates including white bread, cakes, candy, cookies, pies, high sugar cereals, sodas, and juices.
Protein = Muscular Development
Players need enough protein to stimulate muscle protein synthesis, that is, to build muscle and also to repair muscle damage that occurs during training. Choose lean, high quality protein at meals, but also before and after every workout is imperative. This requires planning a diet that includes high quality sources of protein spread throughout the day through properly timed meals and snacks and avoiding an overload of protein at one meal or specific time.
Think skinless chicken or turkey, lean red meats, beans, eggs and fish. And those coveted branched chain amino acids (BCAA) are readily found in dairy and meat, so you can skip the supplements.
Avoid trying to consume extra protein through shakes, bars and powders. Research shows that consumption of excessive amounts of protein offer no benefit to stimulating muscle protein synthesis, and will more often just displace other important nutrients your body needs. The truth is that it is possible to meet a football player’s protein needs through real food.
Supplements can be useful only if it becomes difficult to get in the amount of protein needed or for game day and practice fueling. And if you do need to supplement, make your own smoothies. If you have the means, real foods like Greek yogurt, nut butters, and fruits like berries, apples or bananas are recommended.
Fat = Good
Football players also need fat, but the good kind. Too much fat (usually the saturated kind) can put players at risk for increased fat mass, which only serves to slow them down and kill performance goals. Too little fat can affect nutrient absorption and ultimately impact performance as well, so moderation is key here. Not only is fat calorie dense, meaning a little goes a long way, but it’ll keep players satisfied meal to meal. Include 1-2 servings of fat in meals in the form of fatty fish, nuts and nut butters, seeds, meat, dairy, avocado and olive oil.
- Monounsaturated Fats: Olives and olive oil, canola oil, avocado, nuts (pistachios, macadamia, almonds, cashews) and sunflower seeds
- Omega-3 Fatty Acids (polyunsaturated fats): fatty fish (salmon, tuna, halibut, trout), walnuts, flax and chia seeds
And be sure to avoid:
- Full fat dairy, butter, palm oil, fried foods, fatty cuts of beef, pork and chicken, fried foods, margarine, very creamy foods (i.e., salad dressings and mayonnaise) and anything made with partially hydrogenated oil
Don’t Forget to Snack and Hydrate
Think whole fruit such as apples and bananas with ¾ cup lowfat cottage cheese or yogurt, a handful of nuts or 2 tbsp. of nut butter on a piece of whole grain toast, lettuce roll-ups with turkey, avocado and mustard, a protein shake or smoothie made with plain Greek yogurt, fruit and 1-2 tbsp. of almond butter.
Avoid packaged snacks and bars. No matter what they promise, they can never live up to their hype. Whole foods provide plenty of protein, fiber, fat and complex carbohydrates in an ideal combination that makes it easy for the body to utilize.
And never forget that your body needs to be hydrated, especially during pre-season and the very beginning of the season when temperatures are high and players are wearing complete gear. During practice, or a game, players have to aim for 16-20 oz. of fluid per hour and should be drinking something every 15-20 minutes. For anything lasting more than an hour and especially if you’re losing water through perspiration, you must consider the need to replenish electrolytes i.e., Grab that sports drink and have fun!