SUMMARY: Athletes often lose weight during their sports seasons, and not the good kind. Too often, these players are losing muscle. One top trainer’s survey of more than 100 athletes showed that when players lose too much muscle in-season, they’re more likely to get hurt. Could the key to staying healthy on the field lie in your kitchen?
When Scot Prohaska stepped into the locker room at Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, Calif., he found a demoralized team. The Monarchs, once a perennial powerhouse that churned out athletes like Matt Barkley and Heisman Trophy Winner Matt Leinart, had just come off a 4-6 season.
“The guys stared down at their shoes and looked like they were going to cry,” Prohaska says.
He told them they should be ashamed—not of the losses, but of what got them there: weakness. Weakness caused by bad eating.
Prohaska asked all the players how their weight had changed during the previous season. From week one until their final game, they had lost an average of 15 pounds.
While people in society generally regard weight loss as a good thing, for an athlete in the midst of a grueling season, the opposite is true. Prohaska—a former Canadian Football League player who now trains NFL players, MMA fighters and Olympians—knew firsthand. During his years as a strength coach, he tracked the effects of in-season weight loss on more than 100 pro athletes.
His shocking discovery? For every five pounds of lean muscle an athlete loses, his or her risk of injury increases by 30 percent.
Muscle loss also robs players of their power. Prohaska says an athlete who has dropped that many pounds has his strength reduced by as much as 25 percent. He says, “To lose five pounds of lean muscle, you have to have been breaking down muscle for six, eight, even 10 weeks in a row.” When you tear down your muscles on the field without giving them the nutrients to rebuild, strength and power are the first things to go.
Making matters worse, the losses are spread unevenly throughout the body, creating muscular imbalances that can put you on the fast track to injury, Prohaska says. When one muscle is lacking in strength, others step up to help deliver power. The weaker muscles are never strengthened, causing growing disparities that throw off your form and put your entire body at risk.
What’s more, athletes often don’t realize how weak they’ve become until it’s too late and they’re out for the season with a torn ACL or rotator cuff. When you think you are—but are not—as strong as you were coming out of off-season strength training, putting yourself in positions your body can’t handle is just about guaranteed, according to sports coach and dietician Brian St. Pierre, MS, RD, CSCS. It’s no wonder, then, that over half a million high school football players were injured, often from getting tackled, during the 2011-2012 season—according to the Center for Injury Research and Policy.
Muscle is the key to outpacing defensive tackles—and to bouncing back up when one knocks you down, St. Pierre says.
Athletes at all levels tend to lose weight when their sport is in season. Prohaska says that the key to playing (and playing your best) is to lose no more than three pounds during the season.
With everything that a high school athlete has going on—demanding after-school practices, long hours of class and limited time for eating—this may sound like a challenge. But it’s surprisingly simple.
Just ask the members of Mater Dei’s football team, who returned to the playoffs within a year of working with Prohaska. The trainer prescribed some hard-and-fast training and nutrition rules for the team; and last season, the players not only kept their muscle, they actually gained an average of two to three pounds of muscle.
Here are the eating guidelines that got the Monarchs back to championship form. Follow them to take your on-field strength to the next level.
Whatever you eat, make sure it’s of the highest quality. Instead of swinging through the drive-thru, have a homemade burger. Trade canned veggies for fresh ones. Skip packaged lunchmeat for unprocessed cuts. Whenever possible, swap processed foods with organic produce and free-range, grass-fed, hormone-free lean protein sources. Processed foods can throw off the body’s hormone levels, and they often contain unhealthy trans fats than can cause inflammation. Ridding your plate of preservatives, hormones, and trans fats is a surefire way to speed muscle growth and fat loss, Prohaska says.
Pack More Protein
Meat lovers, rejoice! Protein contains the amino acids your body needs to build lean muscle each and every day. No matter your meal, include a lean protein source such as chicken, fish, grass-fed beef, eggs, or whey protein, Prohaska says. When you’re working hard (and you’d better be!), aim to eat one gram of protein per pound of body weight each day.
Time It Right
“Muscles are like Venus fly traps. They are only open at certain times,” he says. So feed your muscles when they are primed to put the nutrients to good use: at breakfast and before and after your workout. Even if your stomach isn’t hungry, your muscles are hungriest at these times. No excuses.
Food is fuel—and your body should never run on empty. “Don’t let three hours go by without putting something in your stomach,” Prohaska says. Even if it’s just a handful of nuts, or some celery with almond butter, it will keep your muscles building up, not tearing down.
"During the season, the day before a game is the most important for nutrition. The nutrients you eat that day will be broken down and settled into your cells by kickoff," Prohaska says. Focus on easily digestible foods that will prevent hunger during the game without upsetting your stomach. Good dietary fat and protein will keep you full, but you also need potassium-rich foods like bananas and peaches to prevent cramping. Aim to drink at least 12 ounces of water so that you'll have enough hydration reserves to push into the fourth quarter.
The “Strong All Season Long” Meal Plan
Your muscles need mucho calories and nutrients to stay intact from the pre-season through the post-season. Feed them right with this in-season eating plan from Prohaska. The sample day below is designed for a 180-pound athlete; it can be scaled down for lighter players or up for heavier ones.
- 2 whole eggs (144 calories)
- 4 egg whites (34 calories)
- 3 strips turkey bacon (35 calories)
- ½ grapefruit (41 calories)
- 1 cup oatmeal with no sugar added (165 calories)
- 3 capsules or 1 Tbsp. fish oil (27 to 123 calories) “Fish oil fights injury-spurring inflammation and ups your levels of omega-3 fatty acids, which help you stay focused on the field,” Prohaska says.
* Can be replaced with a meat-and-nut breakfast (see below).
- ½ cup raw nuts (depends on nut type, but about 400 calories)
- 6 oz. organic meat jerky (420 calories)
- 8 oz. 90% lean ground beef (400 calories)
- 1 green pepper mixed with beef (200 calories)
- 1 cup brown rice (188 calories)
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil (120 calories)
- 2 Tbsp. organic peanut or almond butter (188 calories)
- 1 small apple (77 calories)
- Whey protein (120 calories per scoop)
Pre-Workout Snack (30 minutes before practice or weight training)
2 scoops BCAAs (optional). Branched-chain amino acids account for 35 percent of the essential amino acids in muscle proteins, according to The American Society for Nutritional Sciences. According to Prohaska, BCAAs aid muscle growth and don’t require the body to route recovery-aiding blood away from muscle fibers and to the stomach for digestion.
Post-Workout Snack (30 minutes after training)
- Whey protein (120 calories per scoop)
- 2 Tbsp. honey (128 calories)
- 1 mango, banana, or ½ melon (optional) (94 to 135 calories)
Post-Workout Meal/Dinner (60-90 minutes after training)
- 8-10 oz. fish, seafood, chicken, buffalo, steak (180 to 240 calories)
- 1-2 sweet potatoes (103 to 206 calories)
- 1 Tbsp. extra virgin olive oil or ½ avocado (161 to 240 calories)
- 2 cups green vegetables (about 108 calories)
- 3 capsules or 1 Tbsp. fish oil (27 to 123 calories)
1-2 Hours Before Bed
- Whey protein (120 calories per scoop)
- 1 cup berries (depends on type of berries, but about 52 to 64 calories)