J. J. Watt and DeMarco Murray have different skill sets. Watt spends his Sundays terrorizing NFL offenses while Murray spends his running away from Watt and other defenders like him. But the two players agree that nutrition is hugely important to their performance.
Watt and Murray shared their approach to game-day eating, with help from Roberta Anding, Director of Sports Nutrition at the Houston Children’s Hospital and former dietitian for the Houston Texans.
DAYS BEFORE THE GAME: Hydration is Key
Murray can’t afford to cramp up after the kickoff. So he pays close attention to his fluid intake well before Sunday. He says, “Hydration isn’t just about game day. You have to be focused on it in the days leading up to it.”
Murray often gains about 10 pounds of water weight heading into a game. That might seem a bit extreme, but his advice to start thinking about hydration prior to game day is spot on.
“If you wake up the morning of the game and your pee is the color of apple juice, even if you chug a bunch of water before kickoff, your muscles aren’t going to see it,” Anding says. She suggests monitoring your urine throughout the week and drinking enough water to keep it in “lemonade range,” light yellow in color, which indicates you’re properly hydrated.
Weighing yourself before and after practice is also smart. If you lose several pounds during a session, much of that is probably water weight. You need to drink extra fluids the next day to reload. You can also pack in fruits and veggies. “Produce is the water you chew,” Anding says. “It won’t give you gallons of water, but every drop counts.”
ON GAME DAY: It’s All About Carbs
Since most NFL games kick off at 1:00 p.m., players’ pre-game meal is usually breakfast. Watt eats oatmeal and wheat toast in the morning, taking in complex carbs, which supply sustained energy throughout the game. He says, “There have been situations where I didn’t prepare the right way with my nutrition before I played. It hasn’t happened in a long time, but you can completely tell when it does because as an athlete you know your body so well.”
Anding recommends that athletes follow the “4-2-1” method. If you’re eating four hours before a game, have a complete meal with long-lasting carbs, vegetables, protein and fat. Your plate should be roughly one half carbs, one quarter protein and one quarter produce.
If your meal comes two hours before game time, make it slightly heavier in carbs and go easier on the protein. Protein builds muscle, but it also makes you feel full. Eating a 12-ounce steak before a game can leave you feeling bogged down when the action starts. High-fat pre-game meals should also be avoided.
If your schedule is super tight and you’re eating an hour or less before kickoff, focus on simple carbs and fluids—energy bars, sports drinks, bananas—things that give you quick energy but won’t cause stomach troubles.
After kickoff, Watt and Murray take in simple carbs like fruit or energy gels. Running out of carbs during a game can make you feel like you’re moving under water. Your first step is slower, you have trouble finishing plays and your reactions aren’t as sharp. According to Anding, “Human bodies don’t necessarily stop when they run out of carbs, but they do slow down.”
A lot of young athletes mistake this slowing down for a lack of conditioning. Anding says, “They feel their performance suffering, and they immediately think they need to run more sprints or improve their conditioning. They rarely ask themselves, ‘is this because I didn’t fuel correctly?’”
Halftime is Your Pit Stop
At halftime, you have approximately twelve minutes to grab food that gives you quick energy but doesn’t make you sluggish. “Some people like energy bars or energy gels. Others prefer fruit like oranges or bananas. You can even eat something like a jelly sandwich with a bit of peanut butter. It’s all about what you tolerate best,” says Anding. “I once worked with a pro basketball player who would eat four dates every halftime. He found what worked for him and stuck with it.”
If you’re not sure what’s right for you, experiment by trying different foods during long workouts or practices.
In Case of a Carb-Emergency, Break Here!
Anding recommends keeping some “emergency carbohydrates” in your travel bag so you’ll have fuel anywhere, any time. Things like energy bars, granola bars, cereal bars or bagels in an airtight container provide the kind of carbs you need and are good to keep on hand.
The 6-foot-5, 288-pound Watt loves starting his day with a mighty meal. “I’m a huge breakfast guy,” he says. “I recently started making cottage cheese pancakes. They’re something new, but I’m a big fan.”
Cheese curds in a pancake may sound icky, but they’re surprisingly tasty—and nutritionally potent. Anding says, “Cottage cheese contains casein, which is a slow-acting protein. It’s time-released throughout the day. So if you combine that with things like buckwheat and blueberries to make a pancake, that can give you a really good way to start the day.”
- 1 cup unbleached all-purpose flour or buckwheat flour
- 1/2 teaspoon baking soda
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 3 tablespoons unsweetened applesauce or pureed blueberries
- 1/8 teaspoon of cinnamon
- 4 eggs
- 1 cup low-fat cottage cheese
- 1/2 cup low-fat (1%) milk (or substitute Greek yogurt if your stomach is sensitive to milk)
- 2 tablespoons canola oil
- Non-stick spray
- Place the fruit, cottage cheese, milk and eggs in a food processor and pulse until blended.
- In a large bowl, mix flour, salt, cinnamon and baking soda. Add the cottage cheese blend.
- Preheat the griddle and use non-stick spray to prevent sticking.
- Cook your cakes! If you use berries, your pancakes will be blue. If you want them to look “natural,” go with applesauce.