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Inside Access: Athlete Nutrition

GAINESVILLE, Fla. -- The University of Florida is one of six schools in the nation that has four full-time dietitians on staff to work with its sports teams. Two of them are dedicated entirely to working with the football team, ensuring the Gators get the proper nutrition to develop over the course of the offseason. GatorBait.net got a chance to peek behind the curtain on Thursday morning, meeting with director of nutrition Sarah Snyder. Here's an outline of how Florida's nutrition program works.

Refueling after practice is one of the key steps to building muscle, and the UF's nutrition staff stays on top of that.

Overview

Florida nutrition program is broken down for athletes to make it as simple as possible. The nutrition staff helps guide athletes on the right foods to eat to meet their goals in the strength and conditioning program -- whether that's adding weight, staying the same weight but building muscle or shedding some unwanted weight.

The program is broken down into five basic components to make things simple on the players: Fuel up, Fuel frequently, Hydrate, Recover and Approach.

Below, we'll walk you through what each one means.

Component #1: Fuel Up

The Fuel component of the program is quite simply what goes into making up each athlete's diet. One of the essential things is training athletes as they come in on the proper dieting techniques to provide the building blocks for athletic growth.

Protein is a major component of that. Athletes are taught about the usefulness of protein, but also learn how to balance protein intake with carbohydrates and healthy fats.

There are three basic levels of food intake: Lean, Maintain, Gain.

Director of Nutrition Sarah Snyder oversees Florida's athletes to make sure they're eating right and maximizing athletic and muscle growth. / Photo by UF Communications

Lean athletes are trying to lose weight. Typically, their carbohydrate intake will be about 40 percent of their overall diet (Note that they only drop to 40 percent for a short period of time until they reach the proper weight). The Maintain athletes are looking to stay roughly the same weight while adding muscle and generally fall into a 50 percent carbohydrate intake range. Finally, Gain athletes will up their carbohydrate intake to around 60 percent to gain weight.

The fuel component includes a food intake that recommends athletes eat three meals per day, plus two to three snacks per day. Snacks can include foods like power bars, beef jerky or a half-sandwich.

Generally speaking for football players, caloric intake is set between about 3,000 calories and 6,000 -- with the higher end of that spectrum being for bigger athletes like linemen and the lower end for skill players.

Protein intake recommended for football players is a gram of protein per pound of body weight (i.e. a 300-pound lineman should take in 300 grams of protein per day).

"We try to push a lot of this information as freshmen so that they can take those tools and utilize them the whole time that they're with us," Snyder said. "We talk about the proteins, the carbs, the fats; the correct choices with those, how much."

The way the process works in terms of setting target weights for players is a pretty simple chain of command. Coach Will Muschamp will generally have an idea for a playing weight he'd like a player to be at. He'll pass that down to strength coach Jeff Dillman, who then works with Snyder to formulate a coordinated workout and dieting plan.

Snyder is in the weight room watching guys lift so she can monitor progress and make sure they're fueling properly throughout the day.

Component #2: Fuel Frequently

One of the biggest mistakes Snyder sees younger athletes that haven't had much exposure to proper dieting and nutrition techniques is not fueling up enough.

Many freshmen arrive without ever having had a routine breakfast. They'll drink water but go to practice without eating a meal beforehand. That's a big mistake, Snyder said.

Athletes that do that tend to find themselves starving by the time practice is over, and muscle breakdown occurs much quicker than in an athlete who fuels up regularly. That can be detrimental to the desired muscle growth the nutrition and strength staff are seeking.

Rather than simply eating more calories at set meal times, players should be eating three meals a day and supplementing that with two to three snacks throughout the day to promote maximum muscle growth. If you're not eating every three hours or so, you're losing out on potential muscle growth, Snyder said.

The nutrition staff is allowed to provide players with snack foods such as smoothies, bagels, fruits and nuts, which they encourage players to eat at various times throughout the day.

The second step in the nutrition plan is one that might be overlooked most often by athletes coming in.

Snyder and her staff make sure incoming athletes learn quickly how vital it is.

"When a freshman athlete comes in, they might come in without a lot of resources," she said. "Maybe they didn't feed themselves enough for the activity that they did in high school, so we see major growth when they first come in. Not just with muscle tissue but with all these things. Protein makes up your hormones, it makes up your joint tissue, it helps with recovery, muscle ability and then it helps with enzymes just breaking down food.

"It's very interesting to see that for freshman when they first come in, and then very automatically many of them put on 20 pounds."

Snyder estimated that 70 to 80 percent of freshmen coming in are almost entirely uneducated on how to properly diet for maximum muscle growth.

Component #3: Hydrate

Hydration is the next vital component of the nutrition program. Especially in Florida, when temperatures can often hit in excess of 100 degrees during summer months when athletes are putting in the most training hours, it's important that athletes are properly hydrated.

"We're constantly bombarding guys to hydrate every day," Snyder said.

Florida uses a mnemonic device to help players remember the steps for proper hydration. The term G.A.T.O.R. is plastered all over team facilities.

So what does G.A.T.O.R. mean?

G - Gauge your sweat

* Players need to be well aware of how much water they're losing based on how they sweat. Snyder said she tells guys to monitor and compare how much they're sweating compared to their teammates to give them a better idea how much more they're losing to have a better idea on how to properly hydrate themselves.

A - Always drink water/Gatorade

* Players should always be taking in liquids. Snyder said the proper amount of hydration equates to roughly half an ounce to an ounce of liquid per each pound of body fat (i.e. a 200-pound player would take in 100 to 200 ozs. or about three-fourths a gallon to a gallon and a half).

T - Track water consumption

* Players are encouraged to bring a bottle of water around with them that they can easily monitor level intake. This is why players will frequently cruise around campus with a gallon of water on them.

O - Observe urine color

* One of the easiest ways to detect hydration level is the color of your urine. Players are trained to watch their urine color for proper hydration levels. In team facilities, there are urine-color charts above each urinal that help players easily match their hydration level based on color (clear indicates well-hydrated, yellow indicates dehydration).

R - Remember to carry your water bottle

* This reminder is constantly hammered home to players, and most players are excellent about keeping water on them at all times.

Component #4: Recover

This component ties into all three of the above. In short, players have to immediately begin thinking diet and nutrition after workouts.

Refueling is a big part of that, and smoothies or post-workout beverages are a major part of the refueling process. The team naturally also uses Gatorade to significantly aid the recovery process, using Gatorade's three-part product line that includes energy chews as a pre-practice step, Gatorade as a during-workout step and protein Gatorade shakes as an after-practice step.

Snyder also said that athletes should begin refueling within an hour after a workout for maximum benefit, to avoid muscle tissue beginning to break down after a practice or workout.

The team can help here significantly. The NCAA allows the program to provide one "training table" meal four times per week (Monday-Thursday), and these typically occur after practice in-season.

The training table meal room is divided into two sections, one for Lean athletes and one for Gain athletes, designed to help players more easily get the food types they need for their target goals.

As an added bonus, these training table meals sometimes provide excellent meals such as live sushi rolling or crab legs. Snyder said the nutrition staff does limit these types of meals to keep them special for players.

Roughly 250 athletes use the training table meal room and only scholarship players are allowed to use it. The training table meal is mandatory, Snyder said.

The nutrition staff also gets players to get in the habit of eating right in the training room, performing plate checks, especially on younger players. The rule of thumb is you must include three categories: Protein, Carbohydrates and Vegetables.

"All of our freshmen that come in are very good about it, they're trained," Snyder said. "Like, 'Look, Sarah, three colors.' When you see a plate that looks like cardboard and white, it's very obvious to the dietician."

Component #5: Approach (80/20 Rule)

This is perhaps the trickiest component, getting athletes to stick to their approach on the nutrition plan. The 80-20 rule is essentially this: Eat 80 percent healthy and you can eat 20 percent unhealthy (bad fat type foods).

The major point of emphasis here is to avoid fried foods in the 80 percent and to eat meat with "less legs."

In other words, fish and chicken tend to be better sources of nutrition than steaks or red meat. That's something players are asked to consider. Additionally, fried foods like fried chicken can contain almost six times the amount of bad fat as grilled chicken.

As far as getting the athletes to stick to the 80-20 rule, Snyder admits it can be a bit more of a battle with some athletes than others.

But it isn't necessarily about eating less, it's about eating right. For example, Snyder will recommend an athlete who's going to eat a fried chicken sandwich to eat two grilled chicken sandwiches instead.

That's a point Snyder and her staff try to hammer home.

"You have some kids who are like, 'I got here and I'm doing just fine how I do and I don't need to change,'" Snyder said. "It's hard for them to perceive the future. But it's an investment and a way to start eating healthy now.

"I've seen the professional athletes and how they come around to the nutrition by the time they're 25 or 30. It becomes important for them then, but for some people your career is over at that time. So it's like, 'How long do you want to extend your career?'

"A lot of them have goals to go to the NFL, so I can kind of reach on that and use that as a reason to take care of your body now."

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