Across the country, former collegiate football players are training to impress pro scouts at all-star games, the NFL Combine or their Pro Day. Here in Houston at CES Performance, I’ve had the opportunity to work with a group of pro football hopefuls as they prepare for their opportunity. My primary role is to educate them both as a group and individually, while also working with food services to ensure the players are meeting their nutrition needs.
Through my experiences, I’ve observed several common nutritional mistakes these athletes make, and I want to share some practical options on how to avoid them. Identifying potential obstacles ahead of time can help future prospects take a proactive approach to their nutrition when their time comes to train for Pro Day.
1. Weight Expectations
Scouts, coaches and agents often look for a certain size and build in a specific position. Each year, athletes come into training programs expecting to attain these ideal specs regardless of how drastic the change may be. Some choose unhealthy strategies to alter their weight in one direction or the other. They may consume excessive amounts of water before weigh-in or rely on high-calorie greasy meals such as fast food, rather than taking a healthier gradual approach.
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I have heard of athletes adding 5 or more pounds of fluid within a few hours of weighing in. Others dramatically cut food or water intake, or wear plastic sweat suits, or try other extreme tactics to reduce body weight. Unfortunately, these strategies can backfire, causing athletes to feel heavy, sluggish, weak or fatigued.
Then they show up to their Pro Day at their target weight, but running slowly, lacking power and appearing “soft.” They believe they’ll be described as motivated for making such a significant change to their weight, but they wind up viewed as out of shape after posting poor test results.
It is important for athletes to remember that though size is an important factor, so too are speed, agility and strength. All characteristics are scouted. If improving one results in a significant drop-off in the others, their chance of signing with a team may suffer.
No matter the goal weight, it is helpful to take a gradual approach, at least at the beginning, altering calorie and portion sizes as needed. Monitoring all aspects of performance—strength, speed and energy—as opposed to just the number on the scale, can ensure athletes are changing weight at an appropriate rate. Daily “readiness to train” surveys can tell us how fatigued or sore an athlete is.
2. Restaurant Eating
Players often elect to train at the facilities recommended by their agents. These facilities could be in cities or states they’ve never visited before and have no familiarity with. Many train for weeks or months to prepare for their Pro Day, staying in a hotel for the duration of their training. While the majority of meals are prepared for the athletes, they will choose to go out and grab dinner at local restaurants after training or on the weekends.
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It’s OK to go out and splurge on occasion. But it’s important to make responsible choices. Greasy or heavy meals, as well as alcohol, can lead to poor sleep and can throw off dietary routines. Each day of training serves a purpose, so one or more missed sessions can interrupt the entire process.
It’s important to understand how much lean meat, starch, veggies and fruit you should be aiming for. Visual aids—such as a deck of cards for lean protein or a tennis ball for starch—can be a helpful reminder of portion sizes. Providing local menus to athletes and having them review and make selections as a group can also lead to better decision-making once they do choose to go out. Meals at restaurants should not drastically differ in appearance from what they eat while at their training facility.
3. Daily Recovery
Training for six hours a day, then coming back to train again the following morning can drain an athlete. During training, athletes may lose pounds of sweat, while burning off most of their carbohydrate stores and breaking down muscle tissue. Athletes must find time to recover quickly each day.
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The process begins by being proactive during training. Consuming fluid throughout training can keep dehydration to a minimum. Weighing yourself at the start and end of training can ensure fluid loss is minimal. For athletes who lose excessive amounts of fluid, creating an individualized hydration plan can help.
Athletes should avoid losing more than 2 percent of their body weight from sweat. Repeated short bursts of high-intensity activity—such as the training that takes place at Pro Day camps—depend heavily on carbohydrate use. Using snacks and sports drinks throughout training can provide carbohydrates to help keep energy levels high, while also minimizing the reduction of carbohydrate stores. This decreases the amount of carbohydrates required after training to replenish stores for the following day.
Our athletes typically finish by 3 p.m., at which point we ask them to immediately consume protein, fluid and carbohydrates for recovery. Typically this is a liquid recovery option, as it is quick and easy to consume. A few hours later, athletes eat another meal, typically consisting of 4-8 ounces of lean meat for protein, starch and fruit for carbs, along with water or a sports drink. Prior to bed, they consume one last serving of protein and carbohydrates. Each meal has a goal of bringing the athlete back to a normal hydration status, maximizing muscle protein synthesis and replenishing carbohydrate stores that have been depleted during training. Doing this gives athletes the best chance of building strength and muscle, while also bouncing back fresh for the next day of training.