On its way to an NCAA championship last fall, the University of Notre Dame women's soccer team worked with the athletic department's dietitian on eating right throughout the season.
By Erika Whitman
Erika Whitman, RD, CSSD, is the Sports Dietitian at the University of Notre Dame, where she oversees the nutrition needs of more than 700 student-athletes in 26 varsity sports.
Arguably the toughest part of a nutritionist's job is getting the athletes we work with to implement the advice we provide them about performance nutrition for consistent results. It's easy to give athletes the right information about fueling for their sport--the hard part is getting them to follow through on it. It takes constant education, effort, and sometimes creativity.
Here at the University of Notre Dame, nutrition is considered a critical component to performance and the support I receive from the rest of the athletic department in this area certainly makes my job easier. Our sport coaches, strength and conditioning staff members, and administrators all emphasize the importance of nutrition right alongside our athletes' training regimens on and off the field.
But I've found that if the athletes themselves don't truly understand why a consistent, healthy diet is so important, they're much less likely to effectively process the information I give them. In recent years, I've had success in helping our athletes remember key nutrition concepts--and act on them--with an acronym they won't easily forget: The Fighting I-R-I-S-H.
I-Intake adequate fuel
R-Recovery nutrition for daily training
I-Include top performance foods from all food groups
S-Schedule a fueling plan to optimize training
H-Hydrate to keep the body running efficiently
A great example of athletes who took this acronym to heart last year is our national champion women's soccer team. I'm confident that the squad increased its competitive edge by following through on these five key concepts throughout the season. Here's a look at how I customized the I-R-I-S-H acronym for the team.
INTAKE ADEQUATE FUEL
Though it's a simple and universally accepted concept that athletes must fuel their bodies with food in order for their muscles to operate efficiently, many athletes don't meet this basic goal. In a sport like soccer, energy stores are critically important as the duration and intensity of the game place great demand on the energy stored in the body. Glycogen (stored carbohydrates in the liver and muscles) is the main fuel that powers the body during long, strenuous activity like a soccer game, so it's important for soccer athletes to keep their tanks full.
Some telling research in 2009 found that soccer players who had low levels of glycogen stores covered 25 percent less distance and spent a greater amount of time walking than players who had adequate glycogen levels. Soccer athletes must understand that they will not achieve optimal performance levels if they don't properly fuel for practices and competition.
It's important to note that even within the same sport, energy needs vary from athlete to athlete. Factors such as duration of play, position, level of activity off the field, and body composition all play a role in determining a player's fuel intake requirements. Individual diet plans should be based on athlete's specific needs and performance goals, not just the sport they play.
Still, it's best to start with some average numbers. The typical elite-level female soccer player needs between 19 and 21 calories per pound of body weight per day during the season. So for a 140-pound player, this means consuming between 2,660 and 2,940 calories per day.
Using this range as a starting point, I then factor in other variables that affect each player's energy requirements and give them specific daily calorie goals. For an athlete who needs to put on healthy lean mass, I would help her figure out ways to add between 500 and 700 calories to her diet per day. For an athlete who is working toward weight loss, I would consult with her on ways to cut about 500 calories per day.
When athletes hear "recovery nutrition," they usually think of what they're supposed to eat and drink after a game or practice. As a sports dietitian however, I know that when extensive daily physical demands are placed on the body, all foods consumed throughout the day can be classified as "recovery" foods. Recovery nutrition for athletes who are practicing or working out almost every day of the week should actually begin well before activity.
The best pre-activity foods for soccer players are rich in carbohydrates to provide a quick energy source and protein to protect against muscle breakdown and delay energy availability. These foods should also contain minimal fat since fat takes longer to digest. The type and amount of food consumed is dependent on how much time the athlete has before activity.
Fortunately, pregame meals are one time that I can make sure the athletes have plenty of proper foods to choose from. I also explain to them that these are the types of choices they should be making daily to ensure they are fully fueled for activity.
Our soccer team's pregame meals are typically scheduled three to four hours prior to game time. I encourage players to also have a snack like a granola bar, half of a bagel, small sports bar, piece of fruit, or yogurt one to two hours before the first whistle blows.
The NCAA championship game was held in the afternoon last fall, and the squad's pregame meal included pancakes, eggs, various breads and bagels, assorted cereals, fresh fruits, milk, juice, water, and condiments like peanut butter and jelly. If the game were held later in the evening, the meal would have consisted of grilled chicken, steamed vegetables, pasta, rice, salads, rolls, and fresh fruits.
The next step to maximizing performance is maintaining fuel availability during activity. Because of their fast-acting properties, carbohydrates are the most efficient fuel source during exercise. The general recommendation is 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates per hour of exercise if the training bout lasts longer than an hour at moderate to vigorous intensity. Soccer obviously fits this criteria since an NCAA game is at least 90 minutes long.
Examples of carbohydrate-rich supplements good for use during activity include various sports drinks and energy chews, gummies, or sport beans. It is important players consume sources their stomachs can tolerate during exercise. Supplemental sports bars and beverages can be a great option during a practice or game, but I suggest athletes experiment with them at practice before using them during competition.
Although nutrition may be the last thing on an athlete's mind after a game or practice, I spend a lot of time stressing the importance of refueling within the "30-minute window" immediately following activity. During this time, the body is rebuilding at its fastest rate, using carbohydrates to replenish glycogen stores and repairing muscles via protein resynthesis.
To improve this recovery, soccer athletes should consume 30 to 60 grams of carbohydrates and 10 to 20 grams of protein within the 30-minute window. Examples of foods that include these ratios are chocolate milk, a sandwich that includes a lean protein like turkey, a yogurt parfait, cheese and crackers, pretzels, trail mix with dried fruit and nuts, or a carbohydrate- and protein-containing shake or bar.
A well-balanced meal within two hours will further enhance the recovery process. Regular meals and snacks should be consumed every two to four hours until the next pregame or pre-practice meal when the cycle begins all over again.
INCLUDE TOP FOODS
Unfortunately, college athletes are prone to the same temptations as their non-athlete friends. It's easy for first-year players who come from homes that don't regularly stock potato chips, sugary cereals, soda, and frozen pizza to be tempted by these previously forbidden foods.
We focus on the 80-20 rule, which states that 80 percent of an athlete's diet should consist of top performance foods, with only 20 percent of their diet made up of those less nutritious foods some athletes feel they just can't live without. It's my job to make sure our athletes understand why some of those favorite foods are not good choices and which ones are. (When necessary, we may shift the percentages to rename this the 90-10 rule.)
Healthy food doesn't have to mean boring food. Variety is important both in appealing to the athlete's palate and in making sure our players meet nutrient needs necessary for the body to convert stored energy into available energy. A great way to illustrate what this looks like is to create a healthy plate with real food or using food models. Create examples of meals and snacks so they can see the differences in color and nutrients on healthy, balanced plates of food versus plates that lack variety and color, and therefore important nutrients.
One tip I give our players is to make sure each meal has at least three different food groups represented on the plate. And from meal to meal, the foods that fit into each food group should also change. For example, if a player only eats broccoli and never spinach to represent the vegetable group, she will get a lot of vitamin C and calcium but miss out on a great source of iron and vitamin A. (For examples of top foods in each food group, see "Top Performance Foods" below.)
SCHEDULE FOR OPTIMIZATION
College athletes' daily routines are often hectic. There are classes, meetings, practices, lifting sessions, and hopefully some socializing time, too. But none are an excuse for nutrition to be put on the backburner.
That's why sticking with a good eating schedule involves planning. I sit down with our players early in the season to outline their schedules and identify convenient and optimal meal and snack times for each day of the week. I emphasize the importance of avoiding long periods between scheduled meals or snacks, and show them what it means to balance calorie intake throughout the day.
Dining halls are good options in many cases, but they're not open very late at night after a long practice. And during the day when classes are going on, students may not have enough time for a sit-down meal. Some easy snack ideas that I suggest to athletes for these crunched times include granola bars, trail mix, sports bars, a piece of fruit, a cup of yogurt, or a peanut and butter jelly sandwich they made in the morning before they left for class.
HYDRATE FOR EFFICIENCY
Last, but certainly not least, hydration is not only important for proper fueling, but also to guard against dehydration and heat illness during the hottest months of the year. Similar to scheduling when athletes eat during the day, I've found that it's important to outline a hydration plan.
In addition to maintaining fluid intake throughout the day, soccer players need to begin seriously hydrating for competition two to three hours before the start of play. This means at least 14 to 22 ounces of water or a sports drink, then another six to 12 ounces every 10 to 20 minutes as tolerated up until game time. During competition, six to 12 ounces every 15 to 20 minutes is suggested. And at least 16 to 24 ounces per pound of fluid lost is recommended after practices and games.
This is going to sound like a whole lot of liquid to the athletes, but I tell them performance has been shown to visibly decrease when fluid losses reach two percent of an athlete's body weight (or three pounds of fluid weight loss in a 150-pound athlete).
Game time is one of the toughest stretches for soccer players to stay on top of their hydration. With few clock stoppages and subbing opportunities, the athletes are on the go constantly. I advise our players to use every opportunity that arises--after a goal, a penalty, or maybe when the ball is kicked far out of bounds--to grab a water bottle from the sideline.
I also make sure our players know how to look to their own bodies for information on their hydration status. For example, the color and smell of their urine reveals a lot. Clear and odor-free is the goal, and the darker brown and stronger the odor, the more dehydrated they are. The players are advised to watch their urine carefully throughout the day for these signs.
As a sports dietitian dealing with the subject every day, it can be easy to forget that most athletes spend little time thinking about what they eat and drink. However, with a little prompting and reminders of how it can improve their performance, they will make better choices. I've found here at Notre Dame that sometimes all it takes is one little word.
Sidebar: TOP PERFORMANCE FOODS
Below are some of the best foods athletes can choose to eat from each of the food groups below, along with why they are great choices.
Fruits (carbohydrates): Fresh, frozen, or canned berries, melons, bananas, apples, and grapes; dried fruits like raisins and cranberries; 100-percent fruit juices provide potassium, magnesium, fiber, vitamins A and C, and other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Whole fruits are also filling, low fat, and low calorie.
Vegetables (carbohydrates, protein): Fresh, steamed, frozen, grilled, or canned spinach, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and corn provide potassium, fiber, vitamins A and C, and other vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. Vegetables are also filling, low fat, and low calorie.
Grains (carbohydrates, protein, fat): 100-percent whole wheat or whole grain pastas, breads, bagels, and cereals; brown rice; oatmeal; quinoa provide more B vitamins, iron, zinc, potassium, and fiber than refined and processed counterparts.
Meats & beans (protein, carbohydrates, fat): Baked or grilled lean meats like boneless, skinless chicken breast, turkey breast, salmon, and tuna; various beans like black beans; lentils like chickpeas or prepared hummus; nuts and seeds; egg whites provide zinc, iron, B-12 and other B vitamins, selenium, and a variety of amino acids. Lean meats are low in fat and calories.
Dairy (carbohydrates, protein, fat): Skim and low-fat milk; cheeses like cottage cheese, mozzarella, and various soft cheeses; yogurt and Greek yogurt; pudding are low fat, rich in calcium, magnesium, potassium, phosphorus, and vitamins A and D.
Other (fat): Baked goods with real fruit and nuts like Fig Newtons, banana bread, and trail mix bars; oils like olive oil, fish oils, and flax; non-creamy salad dressings provide anti-inflammatory omega-3 fatty acids.