Football players are completely clueless about nutrition. Sure, they read about training and usually put that stuff into practice, but the topic of what to eat and how to eat for increased performance on the football field seems to send them into hiding faster than the promise of a dozen gassers.
I was woken up at 7 a.m. to the following text message the other morning: “I ate peanut butter and some wheat bread for breakfast. I did good, right?”
What a way to start my day. The text was from my friend/trainee, Roeder. I played football with him for over seven years. He’s trained under me for long periods of time over those same seven years. Recently, he fell off the football training map and gained about 50 lbs. It isn’t pretty. So he asked me to retrain him. His text, while aggravatingly early and misguided, served as a wicked reminder that most football players are out of their minds when it comes to what to eat. Roeder is a guy with significant experience. If he’s this confused, no wonder I get the never ending parade of emails from nutritionally challenged 15 year olds!
Now, I’m no fancy big city nutrition expert, but I’m pretty sure I can figure out what to eat to do things like run faster, jump higher, lift more, and tackle harder. In fact, I have over 28 years of eating experience. The whole concept of nutrition has been made extremely complex by some supplement companies, the media, and people selling diet books. However, eating to increase football performance (and really for pretty much any sport) is surprisingly simple.
Follow these three simple rules for eating performance and you won’t go wrong.
1. Eat protein and a lot of it.
It’s been called by some “the athlete’s best friend.” Others have blamed it for kidney failure and kidney stones. What’s the truth? Do athletes really need a high protein intake? How much is enough?
Protein is the building block of muscle (muscle is essentially protein and water). Without enough of the building block, you aren’t going to grow. Protein is an essential nutrient. Without it, you would be in for a slew of health problems. But how much is enough? That’s debatable, but as a hard training athlete, you should be aiming for 1gram of protein per pound of body weight. So if you weigh 200 pounds, eat 200 grams of protein. Remember, this is just your starting point. During football camp, you may need to increase the amount. And during an off-week, you can bring it down a bit. Don’t go to the extreme on either end. Eating 5 grams of protein per pound isn’t going to make you any bigger. There is a point of diminishing returns. If you stick to 1–1.5 g/lb, you will be way ahead of the competition.
Where can you find high quality protein? Well, whey protein scores highest in use and ability in the body, but it is best used as a supplement, not as your base. Foods like eggs, milk, cheese, chicken, turkey, pork, duck, beef, fish, buffalo, venison, cottage cheese, yogurt, and natural peanut butter are great sources of protein. When you base your meals around getting a good portion of protein foods, meeting your daily requirement isn’t very difficult, especially if you supplement with protein shakes.
While we’re on the subject of supplements, please understand that supplements are just that—they supplement your meals. They aren’t a magic bullet. No one protein supplement is going to turn you into a hulk or the MVP of the Super Bowl. If you want to try protein supplements, find one that you can afford and that tastes good. It’s that simple. Don’t fall for the bells and whistles and the sales hype. Just get good quality whey or milk protein and you’ll be fine. I like Optimum, IronTek, and Muscle Milk but find what you like.
2. Limit junk food, especially in season.
No one loves junk food more than me. I love to eat a bag of Oreos and a giant Hershey bar as much as the next health nut. But this isn’t the stuff you want to eat before practice or games. That last sentence seems absurd. However, I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve seen a high school football player walking to practice eating Doritos. Then they puke and run out of gas halfway through and can’t figure out why.
Yes, sometimes we need to eat a lot to maintain during the season. Three-hour practices in full pads and a game on the weekend has a tendency to burn a calorie or two. This doesn’t mean that you should just eat crap to make up for it. With all the great protein supplements and “weight gainers” today, you have no need to supplement your diet with potato chips in season.
This brings me to my favorite people in the world—the linemen. Yes, yes, we need to be big and strong. However, some of the diets I’ve seen you guys eat are beyond awful. Being big doesn’t mean being a big slob. Linemen need good footwork and the ability to pass, block, and pull. If you’re a D-lineman and haven’t noticed the trend toward big but lean linemen, you’re going to be left in the dust.
3. Eat your vegetables.
Sometimes I feel like I’m coaching five year olds. Is it really so hard to just eat some damn green foods? I’ve had college football players almost cry when I tell them they need to eat more vegetables. What the hell went on in their childhoods that they’re afraid of asparagus?
Vegetables help in countless ways. Fiber, vitamins, water content, positive acid/base balance, and joint health are just a few advantages. This is so simple. Just eat one or two vegetables with each meal. Use the green ones as your base and then add colors.
You get the point. Bill Romanowski tells a story about how during his college football days, he’d drive out to the docks at 5 a.m. to pick out the freshest vegetables and fruit so that he’d perform at the top of his game. My kind of guy.
4. Embrace fats and use carbs sparingly.
The topic of eating healthy fats is worthy of volumes of books. But let me say this—eat fat. Concentrate on these:
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Natural peanut butter
- Almonds and walnuts
- Fish oil
- Krill oil
- Flax oil
- Coconut oil
Fats like fish, flax, and krill oils need to be taken in supplement form and can help reduce inflammation. If after playing football for any length of time, you don’t feel that reducing inflammation during the season is important, you obviously don’t see playing time much. I realize that taking fish oil is boring compared to No7-F X-plosive Swole, but one reduces soreness and joint pain and the other gives you expensive pee.
For those who freak when you see that coconut oil is mostly saturated fat, relax. Not only is it good for you, it’ll help build testosterone. As for carbs, forget ‘em. You’ll get plenty from vegetables, the few in your protein shakes, and just in the general course of eating.
This idea that football players need to load up on pancakes and pasta before a game is stupid. We aren’t endurance athletes. Frankly, I’ve played both ways every play (except special teams—those guys are insane) for a full three-hour game while eating less than 30 g of carbs. Fat is the better source of fuel. Leave the carbs to the cross-country boys.