As the Sports Dietitian at University of San Francisco, my approach towards nutrition is encompassed in decreasing the stress response. Sounds odd right? Stress is a beautiful thing for athletes and is likely the cause of many successes and winning moments. Stress is that rush, the competitive spirit, the focus, the passion that athletes have that cannot be replicated. Why would I try to decrease those super-athlete hormones? Athletes, in particular young athletes, do not realize they are often overusing stress hormones to perform because that is all they know. Stress is their Plan A. I believe that as an athlete improves and matures, they learn how to harness stress for appropriate and useful moments - to make stress their Plan B. A truly successful athlete becomes a master at decreasing stress hormones when necessary and learns how to truly take care of themselves. Then, when they need that adrenaline rush at the key moment of their performance, they can use it to be spectacular.
Nutrition is crucial in decreasing the internal stress response which will allow for increased energy, focus, fitness, recovery and wellness. This article discusses the When, What, Why and How of nutrition and it’s key role in improving athletic performance.
When should our athletes be eating?
My philosophy around nutrition is based on the foundation of meal timing. I highly encourage individuals to eat within an hour of waking, every 2-4 hours thereafter and within an hour pre and post workout. Meal timing is essential for physiological and psychological reasons. The body needs fuel to perform, recover and to decrease stress. If the body goes too long without appropriate nutrients, stress hormones will increase and trigger the sympathetic nervous system, or the “flight or fight” response, and the body will go into a specific metabolic mode for survival. The key to a successful metabolism is to use food to keep the body out of this survival mode, let the body know it is safe and not in trouble, decrease stress hormones and properly build, burn and recover. Stress hormones are useful during key moments of performance, but not the other hours of the day. When an athlete can use food to let the body recover and metabolize properly as well as perform with energy, achieve fitness goals and have focus, they have achieved the ultimate balance. So often, an athlete comes to me tired, not pleased with their fitness state and convinced they are a sugar addict or cannot control their cravings, while the truth is they just are not eating often enough.
What should be on an athlete’s plate?
At every meal, I suggest eating a balanced plate of food including proteins, carbohydrates and fats to give the body everything it needs for fuel. Athletes on the go often create the habit of eating bars and powders, sweets and comfort foods. I work extensively with our athletes to learn how to fill their plates with proteins, vegetables and whole grains. At USF we believe in eating whole real foods. When athletes eat processed foods they are often full of sugar and leave an athlete unsatisfied. When an athlete eats a balanced plate of protein, vegetables, complex unprocessed starch and fats, they are satisfied, cravings diminish and they can focus on their day. And when they get their meal timing dialed in by eating every 2-4 hours, their bodies are working at their maximum potential. The percentages of macronutrients (proteins, carbohydrates and fats) and calories varies per athlete and specific needs. The first step is establishing a consistent meal timing routine and creating balanced plates and then we can assess what needs to be adjusted to achieve specific weight or performance goals.
Why does this process work?
More than anything else, nutrition is about consistency. Everyone right away wants to know how many calories or protein etc they need to be their best, but that is difficult to know without consistent data points to use to assess each athletes specific state of needs. Often it takes weeks and months to see results. The more consistent the better, but it requires patience to allow for a consistent behavior to pay off into results. This is due to several reasons.
- Behavior change is tricky and it can take time for athletes to integrate new habits and behaviors
- Due to an athlete’s fast metabolism, it can take a while to see results. In particular with weight gain, it can take 6-12 months to achieve true weight gain.
- It can take time for the body to trust. If an athlete has been over training, not recovering, under fueling and using their flight of fight response as their Plan A, it can take a while for the body to re-calibrate and use different neurological and metabolic pathways and trust that it does not need to be stressed at all times.
How do athletes stay accountable?
Using data from Sparta and the Force Plate has taken my work to the next level as it allows us to quantify if athletes are taking care of themselves. We can see how their body is truly reacting to their workload. We can monitor their servings of protein, vegetables and water as well as sleep. As we are integrating Sparta into the nutrition program we can not only assess what an athlete is eating, but also how accountable athletes are being at taking ownership of their nutrition. Using the food logs, sleep and regeneration meters and their signature allows us to properly assess what we need to focus on as an Athletic Performance team to allow that athlete to be healthy, well and at peak performance.