To stay at our best as NFL athletes, the understanding of nutrition is key to our performance. Being knowledgeable about healthy foods and supplements is only half the battle. Having a complete nutritional plan is important to reaching your goals.
Recently I sat down with our team nutritionist, Glen Tobias, to learn more about sports performance nutrition. For what we do as NFL offensive linemen, weight gain or loss is an important component. If you are too light, you are more vulnerable to bull rushes and speed-to-power moves by defensive lineman. If you are too heavy, you may not be able to move quickly enough to stop the speed rushers on the edge. Both situations, light or heavy, if not addressed can lead to poor performance, health issues and/or injury.
I was eager to speak with Glen about how one puts on healthy weight because this was an issue I have identified with in college as well as in the NFL.
"In terms of gaining healthy weight, we're going to talk about lean body mass gain," Tobias told me. "When you have somebody who is younger and they're thin and having trouble gaining weight, they're depending on hunger levels to get them further. And in terms of sports performance nutrition, hunger is really not a factor. If you're hungry, it's already way too late. You should just be eating because it's time to eat, and following your plan."
Listening to Glen say this was very interesting to me. I don't think I ever thought of hunger in this way, but it made sense. (Read Ferguson's piece on his food choices as a student athlete at the University of Virginia.)
"Weight training, resistance training is going to be critical for it," he said. "And you want to make sure that you're eating enough to support the lean body mass that you have and to actually grow more. So you're going to have to be in a caloric surplus. There has to be more calories coming in, but you have to be working out or you'll just store it as fat."
Having a nutritional plan and a weight-training plan seemed like the proper recipe for success, but what did that nutritional plan actually look like?
"For athletes, we're talking about 50 to 60 percent of your day should be carbohydrates, 30 percent is going to be protein and then about 20 or so from fat," Tobias said. "And then, depending on if they need to gain weight, I would probably drop it down to, like, 15 percent."
Just trying to eat and figure out these breakdowns is not practical without a solid nutritional plan. But another way athletes try to reach some of these nutritional goals are by using supplements. I wanted to learn more about the role of supplements and the extent they should be used in relationship with strength training and performance. Speaking with head strength coach Justus Galac, I was able to gain that perspective.
Coach Galac picked up right where Glen Tobias and I left off.
"A macronutrient is a carb, a protein, a fat," he said. "Then, you go into the micronutrients, which are basically a broken-down form of that. An amino acid is a breakdown of a protein. Amino acids are found in protein. It's a more simplified protein."
What Coach Galac said next gave me a deeper understanding of the role of supplements and how to use them in conjunction with food.
"Sometimes we rely on supplements more than we rely on food. If you had a choice of drinking a shake or eating food, you should always eat food. That's not always the case with lifestyles and running around and things like that. I think we sometimes think that if we get that micronutrient in our body that it's going to be as good as sitting down and eating a meal," he said.
"If we cram 500 calories in a shake, well, that's not as good as 500 calories of food. It's not going to work out to be the same. Now there's a time and a place to use those supplements or the micronutrients versus the macronutrient format, but most of the time when we talk about supplements and taking stuff in, it's usually directly or immediately after a workout."
I was indeed guilty of doing this, I thought.
"We talk about that window of opportunity to cram the micronutrients in," Coach Galac continued. "The reason the micronutrients are important there is because it's less work for your body to do. So when we talk about fast absorption of those micronutrients, if they're already broken down a little bit more, it's that much easier for your body to break down and use immediately, rather than if you go sit down and eat a meal right after a workout.
"Now, it's going to start breaking down, but the absorption rate is going to take longer. A meal takes anywhere from an hour to three hours to digest and properly break down in your stomach and your intestines. That's where we use the micronutrients."
Coach Galac really helped to put supplements in their proper place. At times, we can overuse supplements thinking we are gaining a greater benefit, but the proper usage of a supplement lies in its definition — it is merely extra or additional in our attempts to reach our nutritional goals. Athletes who understand nutrition and apply it to their daily regimen truly have the advantage. Developing a complete nutritional plan, with the input of qualified professionals, allows us to perform our best.