The Football Diet to Improve Performance and Help Prevent Injuries
You are what you eat, and if you’re a football player, you need to be smart, durable, and athletic, so how do you eat that stuff? You train hard, and your diet should support your effort. Do race cars burn regular pump gas? Do elite athletes eat anything they can stuff in their face? Can diet really make that much of a performance difference? Yes, and science has proven it. When it comes to injury prevention, diet has a place too, and it’s better to prevent an injury that to try and manage it after it occurs.
You may be an active athlete who can eat anything and still keep your six pack. That’s especially common among youth and younger high school athletes, who may know they should eat right, but not have the maturity to actually do it consistently. If this sounds like you, know that there is no more debate; the proper diet will ratchet your performance and endurance up a notch or two, and help keep you injury free.
It’s ironic that some young athletes will train like they’re trying to win the championship, but not eat like it. That’s sort of kicking your hard work right in the teeth. Why work for and against yourself at the same time? Some of that is going to cancel out, leaving you behind where you should be for the effort you put in.
Why is Diet SO Important For Athletes?
Beyond simply performance fuel to energize you when you’re playing, nutrition has a powerful recovery and growth component. Your body responds to training through the principle of adaptive response. It adapts to demands it can’t meet by increasing strength and endurance to better face those challenges next time. It’s basic survival. Hard training actually causes small micro-tears in muscle fibers. Repairing them requires certain nutrients, one of the most important being high quality protein.
Performance nutrition experts now recommend a diet with as few processed and artificial ingredients as possible. Yep, refined sugar is one of those things they say to axe.
The Overlooked Nutrient
One of the most overlooked nutrients for hard training athletes isn’t strictly a nutrient at all, It has zero nutritional value, but is vital for muscle growth, performance improvement, and general health. It’s water, and staying properly hydrated can be a battle for hard training athletes. Most college football players have an established hydration plan as part of their nutrition plan. It’s that important.
Performance Diet Recommendations from the Pros
The Official Journal of the American College of Sports Medicine published a position paper on nutrition for athletes (http://journals.lww.com/acsm-msse/Fulltext/2009/03000/Nutrition_and_Athletic_Performance.27.aspx) They offer several key dietary recommendations for high performance athletes:
- Getting enough calories to support your training regimen and game expenditures is vital. Too few calories has a number of possible outcomes, including loss of hard earned muscle mass and bone density, increased recovery times, and increased injury chances. “Meeting energy needs is a nutrition priority for athletes. Optimum athletic performance is promoted by adequate energy intake” It’s not as easy as you’d think, even among D1 college players with a training table at their disposal. A study of Utah State football players in 2012 found “ The average athletes’ diet is inadequate in terms of both general and sport specific nutritional requirements.”
- Protein consumption should be 0.5-0.8grams per pound of body weight.
- Fat intake should never fall below 20% of total calorie intake. When reading labels, look for percentage of calories from fat. Yeah, there may be some math involved here. They also recommend against high fat diets for athletes, cautioning them to keep fat intake under 35% of total calories. It’s all about counting your macronutrients; protein, carbohydrates, and fat.
Remember that at 9 calories per gram, fat has more than twice the calories per gram as protein and carbohydrates. They both have 4. For example, say you’re eating something that has 10 grams of carbs, 10 grams of fat, and 10 grams of protein. Although it has equal macronutrient levels, it has far more calories from fat than either protein or carbs, containing 40 calories from protein, 40 calories from carbs, and 90 calories from fat.
- During competition, drink only enough fluid to to replace fluid lost during exertion; about 20oz per pound of body weight lost due to sweating. Prevent dehydration by drinking fluids before exercise instead of during.
- Replenishing lost fluid and nutrients starting immediately after exercise is important to maximize training performance gains and recovery.
- Pre-competition snacks can help maintain energy and keep performance strong throughout the game. The ACSM recommends pre-game snacks “…should provide sufficient fluid to maintain hydration, be relatively low in fat and fiber to facilitate gastric emptying and minimize gastrointestinal distress, be relatively high in carbohydrate to maximize maintenance of blood glucose, be moderate in protein, be composed of familiar foods, and be well tolerated by the athlete”
Nutrition and Injury Prevention That Keep You On the Field
You want to play or watch? Staying injury free is one key to staying on the field, instead of next to it. As a competitive athlete, injury can sometimes be unavoidable, but there’s no sense in making it any more likely. As with training, nutrition is a core component of any injury prevention strategy.
This study concluded (http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3871955/ ) “Suboptimal nutrition has been associated with injury in dancers” and conclude “Proper nutrition and rest (reduction of fatigue) are essential factors in maintaining a dancer’s body that is as resistant to injury as possible” Yep, dancers are athletes too.
Look, you’re an athlete; you don’t have to be a nutritionist, too. They have college degrees for that. As an athlete though, your job is be aware of what affects your performance and where you can get an advantage over your opponent. Nutrition is one of those things that can give you an advantage, and its perhaps more powerful than anything but your training. Football is a game of inches, and those inches are all around you, including your plate. Don’t let poor nutrition give your opponent the extra inch he needs to make the catch, when it could have been you.