By Dave Ellis, RD
Young male athletes playing power sports like baseball often dial in on muscle or weight gain strategies promoted by the popular press (supplement retailers on the internet, muscle magazines), loaded with “Bro Science” level information all designed to promote a dietary supplement solution over food. In reality, however, these athletes should trade in the “Bro Science” for a “Pro Routine” if they want to train their way into the body of a power athlete that can stand out against the competition.
My name is Dave Ellis, and I am the consulting registered dietitian (Sports RD) for MLB / MLBPA, and what I am going to present to you here is 30+ years of key learnings from working around some of the most successful teams in sports. If you want to outwork the competition, it’s all built on adequate amounts of quality rest, quality meals spread out strategically over the day and a lifestyle that doesn’t negate all the hard work at the degenerative hands of drugs or alcohol! Let’s focus on the fueling side of the equation first.
When it comes to fueling hard working athletes, the most important lesson they can learn is how to divide food into three categories that deliver unique benefits, such as minimizing workouts missed due to illness; energy to take on all the reps on the field and in the weight room that come your way daily; and all the building blocks you need to fix damaged muscle and support growth that the vast majority of you are still experiencing. This three-step approach to feeding athletes is called Fueling Tactics® and it is easily the most widely emulated approach to fueling in U.S. sports. Fueling Tactics® is taught to MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL athletes, as well as some of the top college and Olympic development programs in North America. Fueling Tactics® is a food-first approach that athletes implement to outwork the competition. It is really a life skill that will work for you long after your days on the baseball diamond have ended.
Step 1: Immune Health
The two biggest underpinnings of having a strong immune system are 1) adequate sleep and 2) putting some color on your plate at mealtime! If you are the athlete who is up late checking your social media and you have never managed to learn how to eat fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts or seeds, you may well be the most vulnerable athlete on your roster to get sick when the team starts traveling! You can have the most talented team roster, but if they are sick and not available on game day, that team is vulnerable to underperform! Sports RDs spend a significant amount of the fueling budget supplying fresh vegetables and fruit like you would typically see in a salad bar for our athletic training tables. We also supply immune strengthening soups loaded with vegetables, smoothies made with fresh fruit, and we keep healthy fats around like nuts, seeds, olives and avocados that help our hardest gainers meet their calorie requirements in a smart way. All of these foods are loaded with polyphenols* that help your immune system stay primed and ready for action when challenged. A well-primed immune system can minimize downtime due to an illness that leaves you missing classes, practices or games. Coaches notice athletes who show up to practice and train consistently. You play like you practice, so staying healthy gives you a fighting chance to impress your coach and move up the depth chart.
Polyphenols* - abundant in fresh produce, the antioxidant properties of polyphenols play a probable role in the prevention of various diseases associated with oxidative stress, such as cancer and cardiovascular and neurodegenerative diseases.
Fresh produce is typically better than frozen, and frozen is better than canned when it comes to the immune value of polyphenol-rich foods. That even goes for beverages like tea, with freshly brewed tea being better than bottled to get the maximum immune resilience to stress. The bad news for busy athletes is that fast food is typically a poor solution for fresh, polyphenol-rich foods. Sports RDs also have a much more difficult time helping athletes keep body fat off if they don’t eat fresh produce. Using a multivitamin to help augment polyphenols in your diet is fine, but the fresh produce itself just can’t be replaced. You have to learn how to get some color on your plate at every meal. Fruit and fruit smoothies are the easiest start for those who consistently miss the mark on polyphenol-rich foods. Soup and cooked vegetables are next, and eventually a salad with lots of freshly prepared dark greens, tomatoes, carrots, onions, olives, and seeds. If you want the edge on the competition, pull the plug on your video games and social media long before you plan to go to sleep, and get some color on your plates at meals!
Step 2: Energy to Work
Sprinting the bases, taking explosive reps in the batting cage, fielding balls and making throws over and over, all add up along with the work you are doing in the weight room. The preferred fuel for hard working muscle when doing repetitive high-intensity work is carbohydrate (carbs - starch and sugar). You also burn fat between burst activities, but when you take short rests between reps, the reliance on carbs is increased. When athletes do intense activities without enough carb onboard in muscle (muscle glycogen) Sports RDs often see vulnerability for muscle pulls. Do the same intense workout dehydrated, and you may also increase vulnerability for muscle cramps. You have to show up hydrated and fueled to do quality work, and to take the kind of high-intensity reps that translate to explosive game day performance potential. The good news is that carbs are not a hard sell compared to the foods in the first step, and carbs are inexpensive. However, not all carbs are the same when it comes to fueling workouts vs. our long-term health.
Slow digesting carbs that have more fiber and digestion-resistant starch are the smartest sources of time-released carbs for our long-term health. These slow digesting carbs are not flash-in-the-pan carbs that have you bouncing off the walls one minute and looking for a place to take a nap the next. This is why Sports RDs always have slow digesting carb sources around training tables for athletes to choose from, like slightly undercooked pasta (al dente - firm, not mush), potatoes with skin on (skin has more fiber), brown and white rice (brown has more fiber), whole wheat and white bread (wheat has more fiber) and cereals made with whole grains (go easy on the cartoon character brands). You have to build the base of your carb intake at meals from these slow digesting carbs, and you use more of them on days when you are training hard.
On the high end, up to half the food on your plate, or a couple of fistfuls, would be an active day feed rate for carbs. Is there room for some simple sugars that digest fast on days when you train hard? Absolutely! Sports RDs make sports drinks available during training for athletes, along with chunks of easy to digest, carb rich foods like bananas or cereal bars. The use of fast digesting carbs helps athletes top off the carb tank after a long day at the park, and you still have to muster up the energy to get in a lift. If it’s hot out, you burn carbs even faster when doing all this work, just like you do when training at a higher altitude. On top of all that, if you are the emotional leader of the team, you burn carb even faster (it’s an adrenaline thing).
So, think twice about showing up to a long day at the park empty handed. Plan ahead and pack some fueling solutions along with your daily meals, and yes – a PB&J could work to fill the gap up from lunch to practice lifting. Of course, you just can’t live off the low fiber, fast digesting carbs for all your energy requirements. They just digest too fast, like throwing hay in a bonfire. We will discuss fueling for inactive days shortly.
Step 3: Protein to Recover
Most athletes think about recovery along the lines of resolving muscle soreness that is typical of explosive work endured in the weight room, on the field when doing sprints, agility and power drills or those explosive reps in the batting cage. The more explosive and repetitive the activity, typically the more muscle soreness you will experience. It’s important that you understand the same protein intake that supports the tissue remodeling behind resolving post workout muscle soreness also supports growth. The vast majority of young male athletes are still experiencing vertical growth, which might not end for some until they are in college for a couple of years (late bloomers with late birth months). The biggest vulnerability that Sports RDs see with male athletes is not inadequate protein intake; rather, it is lack of diversity in their protein intake among animal, dairy and vegetable sources.
Why diverse protein sources? Some protein sources digest quickly, some slowly and some in between. Diversifying protein sources gives you a mix that ultimately offers a bigger recovery window between protein meals or snacks. Another reason is that you get different amino acid profiles from different protein sources, as well as some very important nutrients like the calcium from dairy proteins, iron from animal proteins and some unique protective properties we get from vegetable proteins that have cardiovascular and cancer prevention properties.
The most important amino acids that make up these protein sources is leucine. Leucine is a trigger to stimulate the muscle to start fixing itself after hard practices and workouts in the weight room. Globally, the most leucine-rich protein sources are used in formulating post workout recovery beverages and meals. For example, whey protein, egg white protein and soy protein isolates are the big three leucine-rich proteins used in the formulation of recovery beverages and bars targeted at hardworking athletes.
Do you always have to buy a high-leucine recovery product from a health food store? The answer is no. Milk is a great source of leucine-rich recovery protein, as are boiled eggs, so it’s not like you can’t pack along some food to get the job done. Most athletes enjoy cold chocolate milk post lift to fill the gap until they cool down and are ready to eat a meal. I won’t even rule out snack items like beef jerky post workout. Nuts and seeds or peanut butter have some protein in them too; you just have to eat more of them to get the same recovery bang per bite.
Sports RDs like to get athletes to think about hydrating and cooling down before we typically target recovery protein feeding. So, for example, after muscle cools down and rehydrates, it starts to ramp up the recovery machinery more efficiently, so it’s fine to wait on the protein intake until after you get out of the shower. Next stop, hopefully, is a meal with their family that would have animal, dairy and vegetable protein sources for some time-released, diversified protein.
Of course, sleep also comes into play when it comes to fixing damaged muscle. Deep sleep and enough of it, along with a smart distribution of your daily protein intake at meals and recovery snacks, set the stage for efficient recovery. Even a little protein before bed might be smart, too. Something as simple as a casein-rich protein snack like Greek yogurt before bed can help support deep sleep-stimulated muscle recovery. The clock is ticking until the next game, practice or lift; your fueling tactics off the field impact your ability to win on the field the next day.
Periodized Fueling: Active vs. Inactive Days
Sports RDs have to teach athletes how to periodize or change their intake of food for days when they are training (active days) in comparison to off days (inactive days). Your daily protein intake is actually pretty consistent, regardless of your daily activity. We are still fixing our sore muscle for multiple days after invasive workouts, thus hard-working athletes typically get into a routine or daily pattern on protein intake. However, you do have to keep protein sources leaner or lower in fat on inactive days. For example, you could eat skinless chicken (lean), as opposed to skin-on chicken or skin-on chicken that is fried. Sticking with the lean source of that chicken is the key when inactive if you want to stay lean over the course of a long season.
Most of the foods in the first step are high-water foods that don’t tip the scales of total calorie intake enough to necessitate lowering on inactive days. The healthy fats in the first step like olives, avocados, nuts, and seeds are important for our immune health, so while lowering fat from protein sources, you will want to make room for these healthy vegetable fats, even when inactive.
The biggest swing in calories from active to inactive days that you must be aware of comes from the carbs in the second step. Throttling back your simple sugar and total starch intake on inactive days is a key life lesson for athletes. The liberal capacity afforded athletes to dispose of blood sugar that elevates after digestion of sugars and starches diminishes when inactive, and sadly, diminishes with age and as activity declines. This is an important concept for a sport like baseball, compared to a metabolically fatiguing sport like basketball or ice hockey. When you are taking the high-intensity reps, you can be more liberal with your total carb intake from the second step, but when you have a break in training and have historically exhibited a vulnerability to easily gain body fat, you will want to reduce your total carb intake on inactive days.
Reductions of carbs on inactive days could be as simple as dropping sports drinks and any sugar-sweetened beverages or juices (stick with water, tea and fresh fruit). Instead of eating half the food on your plate from slow digesting starch (or two fist-sized servings), go down to a quarter of the food on your plate from the slow digesting starch (or one fist-sized serving). If you did a good job on carb fueling on active days, glycogen stores will be relatively full on inactive days. When your glycogen tanks are topped off in a muscle, running high blood sugars on an inactive day from excess carb intake will set the stage for fat storage. Thus, the concept of periodizing your total intake of sugar, starch and fat (non-protein calories) down on inactive days will pay dividends for life! Keep your protein lean, sugars low and starches moderated when inactive, and you will minimize the body composition vulnerabilities that challenge many baseball athletes.
You should also keep in mind that we periodize efforts in the weight room to train to gain lean mass (offseason) vs. phases of the year where we just hope to hang onto offseason gains (in-season maintenance). So, it is very important that you understand that not every day of the year is a weight gain day. That is an important concept for young males’ athletes focused on gaining weight, muscle and strength. This is not a hard concept for college, Olympic and pro athletes to understand, because they have organized strength and conditioning plans that are periodized over 12 months to achieve individualized and team goals.
The take home point here is that for athletes attempting to gain lean mass (muscle) in the offseason, resistance training is prioritized before exhaustive workouts in the heat, typical of a long day at the ballpark. You are going to be sore for days from some of these workouts so it’s critical that your sleep, diet and lifestyle are buttoned up if you want a big return on these offseason efforts to gain lean mass. The net result of multiple offseason efforts like this is a gradual filling out of your frame from gains in lean mass vs. fat mass. This process is closely monitored for those that go on to compete after high school in order to make sure athletes understand that it’s not just about eating yourself into a number on the scale. It’s about training your way in the offseason into functional gains in form of lean mass.
Offseason efforts to gain lean mass seem to immediately stir the curiosity of many young males to look in the locker of the most muscular athlete on the roster to see what dietary supplements they might be using. As a veteran sports dietitian, I have to warn you, however, that even at the highest levels of sport, we find all kinds of potentially dangerous dietary supplements in their lockers. Often, they come by these products honestly with a well-meaning family member making a recommendation. High profile athletes are frequently targeted by supplement brands that send the unrequested products to the athletes for free in the hopes of those products making it into the top of an athlete’s locker and eventually getting some TV time during an interview.
The take home message is that just because the person in the locker next you look like Tarzan, that hardly qualifies the dietary supplements in their locker as being well-researched or safe. Sports RDs spend a great deal of time tracking the research behind product formulations and the safety records of the dietary supplement brands. If fact, Sports RDs are trained to NOT bring in any dietary supplements to a team that have not been certified to be free of banned substances by organizations like NSF. The number of bad actors in the dietary supplement manufacturing space has made it too big a risk to trust that dietary supplements are free of banned substances that could cause a positive doping test for drug tested athletes. It’s that bad.
Sports RDs are certainly going to have a sports drink around for athletes to get through hard workouts in the offseason when training to gain lean mass. And we are certainly going to have a post workout recovery beverage that delivers some high-quality leucine-rich protein to trigger the recovery of that hardworking muscle. If an athlete chooses to use a recovery beverage that is a dietary supplement, the only source we bring in would have to be NSF Certified for Sport to ensure that it is free of any adulterants that could cause a positive doping outcome or adverse health event. The number of dietary supplements that are determined to contain drugs, on a weekly basis by the FDA only accounts for a fraction of what is actually adulterated in the dietary supplement marketplace. So, my advice is simple:
• Do not have a cavalier attitude about using any dietary supplements, even with something as simple as a multivitamin.
• Only move forward on selecting a dietary supplement after consulting with a health professional like a Sports RD to determine if you are a qualified candidate based on an assessment of your current diet quality and daily intake pattern.
• With the help of your Sports RD, identify only NSF Certified for Sport dietary supplements by going to www.nsfsport.com or downloading the NSF App free of charge for your mobile devices.
Sports Drink vs. Energy Drink
Sports drinks with a dilute amount of carbs in the formulation and electrolytes like salt and potassium to replace what is lost in sweat, by design, typically do not contain any kind of stimulant. The reason sports drinks are formulated with a dilute carb delivery is to make sure they empty from the stomach in a rapid fashion during activity, compared to something as concentrated as a soft drink. It’s very important you understand how quickly you can get behind on your fluid intake when competing or training in a hot, humid environment. Our wiring that stimulates our drive to drink lags behind the rate that we sweat, so you have to push yourself to drink when exercising. Dry mouth, dry eyes, dark urine, slow reaction time and poor endurance are all signs that you are behind schedule on your fluid intake.
Positions like catchers and starting pitchers are possibly the most vulnerable athletes on the baseball field to fall behind on their fluid intake. Hyper-hydrating (building up fluids) before a game for our biggest sweaters is probably a good idea to be safe. Sports RDs often feed athletes more liberal, high-electrolyte foods before events where they have to compete under hot, humid conditions (salty snacks, soups, high water foods like fruit and vegetables with liberal salt). Water and sports drinks should always be available before, during and after activity. Low sugar sports drinks that contain the electrolytes with low to no carb content might be a good fit for athletes who are not playing (pitchers in a rotation) but still exposed to the heat. Just make sure you don’t get sports drinks confused with energy drinks when attempting to combat fluid loss in the heat.
Energy drinks approach “energy” not from a carb profile, but primarily from a stimulant profile like caffeine or caffeine plus multiple stimulant sources in some cases. You absolutely cannot get sports drinks and energy drinks confused when it comes to striving to stay hydrated during the hot months of competition. The combination of dehydration, stimulant use, high blood pressure and exercising in the heat has a history of causing some severe heat related injuries. In some cases, the combination may have caused death in athletes with enlarged hearts.
The latest evidence shows that stimulants do allow athletes to do more work, partially by lowering the athlete’s perception of exertion, but that comes with a price. Doing a lot of stressful work in the heat can set you up for some exertional vulnerability where muscle can break down (rhabdomyolysis) and cause life-threatening organ damage. The bottom line is that stimulant-fueled muscle can’t dissipate heat as rapidly as the work being done requires and may well help explain the record number of emergency room visits being documented related to a cavalier energy drink or pre-workout supplement consumption (heart and heat-related emergencies).
Because professional athletes have such a challenging in-season travel schedule that often leaves them playing catch-up on sleep, NSF has allowed some energy drinks go through NSF Certified for Sport verification. The ceiling on caffeine per serving via NSF is a 200 mg of caffeine per serving limit, and they DO NOT certify any energy shots. Most Sports RDs prefer a simple cup of coffee or tea for some caffeine to ramp up after a short night rest. Sadly, the FDA is starting to identify some stimulant doping in coffees and teas, labeled as foods and marketed for “energy, focus and slimming” benefits. Typically, these kinds of products are sold in places like convenience stores and gas stations as beverages, shots or powders, so be careful; supplements or foods that make these kinds of claims that are NOT NSF Certified for Sport should be avoided at all cost.
These are the same precautions our MLB athletes have to take that are all part of a “Pro” Routine. If you want to keep up with the latest fueling news as it breaks on these topics, search #fuelingtactics on your favorite social media platform.
Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS is a contributor to the USA Baseball Sport Development Blog, and is a veteran Sports RD with over three decades of experiencing working at the highest level of sports. Dave was the first president of the Collegiate and Professional Sports RDs Association (CPSDA) and is currently CPSDA’s Ambassador over all matter Food and Supplement Security related. Dave is also the Consulting Registered Dietitian for MLB/MLBPA and USA Baseball.