Before Game 1 of the NBA Finals this year between the Cleveland Cavaliers and Golden State Warriors, I was reminded of the insignificance with which some athletes view nutrition. During pre-game, someone reported that Iman Shumpert was eating chicken tenders because he believed the best tenders in the league were made at the Oracle Arena. I had to laugh. Here's a guy about to play the biggest game of his life and he's eating something I wouldn't put in my body the night before a workout, let alone a couple hours before a championship game.
A large part of maximizing a body's potential is understanding what to put into it, when, and why.
There is food. And then there is performance food. A NASCAR or Indy car driver is not going to drive their race car to the nearest gas station and fill up with the cheapest grade of unleaded fuel. The driving team is going to fill that car with the highest octane/highest efficiency fuel. It should be no different for an athlete. An athlete however, is not a machine. The athlete needs a wide variety of high-octane fuels. But the athlete also has cravings and taste buds that can influence low efficiency fuel choices.
You might have heard of the "anti-inflammatory" diet. To understand and embrace anti-inflammation diet principles, it's important to first understand why inflammation occurs. Inflammation is an immune response. For example, when someone becomes infected with flu, the aches, pains and fever are not caused by the flu virus itself. It's a result of the immune system kicking into overdrive to make the environment in the body difficult for the virus to reproduce. The symptoms are there to limit viral reproduction until the T cells, B cells and antibodies join the battle to destroy or paralyze viruses already spawned in the body.
So when a food causes an inflammation response, it should be a warning signal that what is being put into the body is to an extent toxic. Therefore the immune system triggers an inflammation response to deal with the mess. If the inflammation response becomes continuous with consistently bad food choices, the body becomes susceptible to long-term diseases such as heart disease and cancer.
With so many toxins being consumed, the body runs out of storage room. So the body responds by creating more fat cells. This is part of the reason why calorie counting is overrated because it's not necessarily how much is consumed but what is consumed that is most vital.
But if we are eating correctly, we shouldn't necessarily have to put an anti-inflammatory label on it. The primary goal should be to eat foods that simply don't cause the immune response. By eating foods that don't cause inflammation, an athlete can improve the consistency of his or her performance and dramatically cut down on their post-activity recovery time. A non-athlete can drastically reduce aches and pains while improving energy and focus. Whether someone is an athlete or not, performance food can go a long way toward eliminating the presumed need for pain killers or anti-inflammatories. Unfortunately in this country, we are programmed to medicate issues. It's been estimated that 99% of pain killers used are done so by people in the United States. Too many believe that these drugs will fix their issues. But anti-inflammatory drugs don't correct issues. They mask them. And by masking them, a person can mask the body's internal communication system (pain is the body's signal to fix an issue or rest).
Foods that cause inflammation are sugars, refined carbohydrates, processed foods, processed breads, non-organic foods (foods with chemicals), and wheat which contains gluten. Foods that contain pesticides, preservatives or food coloring all contain chemicals that activate the inflammation response. I've had athletes and students alike ask me about Gatorade, Powerade, and other sports drinks that are available. My response is that you can get everything you need to perform out of an avocado, banana, or watermelon without adding processed sugars and dyes that trigger the inflammation response in your body.
In my experience, I've noticed a sizeable difference in how hard I'm able to push through my workouts in comparison to when I was a young athlete. The twenty-one year old college athlete me could not keep up with thirty-nine year old me. But the 21-year-old me knew very little about the importance of nutrition other than "I gotta get my protein".
A college football player I once trained recently came back home from out of state. I invited him to run routes with me and my group. The first day he joined us this summer, he looked at me like I was crazy because I'd run a route, sprint back to the ladder I had set up near the line of scrimmage and complete the process with a foot-quickness drill. The college receiver would walk or at the very most slow jog back to the line of scrimmage following a route. When he met me to weight train it was the same thing; he struggled keep up with the pace.
I attribute what that athlete is putting into his body as one of the main reasons for his poor stamina. Certain foods can make someone sluggish. If the digestive system is in overload, then the pace and strength during the workout is going to be compromised. Cutting way back on meat is an adjustment I made over the years that helped my stamina tremendously. Meat is tough for the body to digest. Humans are not designed to eat a lot of meat. Our small intestine is a coiled tube that extends 20 feet. A lion's small intestine extends about three feet. That's because meat-eating animals are genetically designed for that meat-digesting purpose while a human's digestive system is designed to primarily break down fruits and vegetables.
I also attribute an athlete being sluggish to when they are consuming foods. I have been involved with athletic training for 23 years. I have found that my workouts are at their peak when I wake up and immediately workout on an empty stomach. I can do this because I will calorie/carb load the night prior to my workout. I began eating large portions of spaghetti the night before a lift and it caused my strength and muscle mass to increase, but I started to slowly feel more sore after workouts, or stiff on speed training days. I developed an ache in between my shoulder blades. So I modified that by increasing my consumption of organic oatmeal shakes and avocados the night before an intense morning session. I was able to maintain my strength without creating the aches and pains I experienced with gluten.
The correct balance of carb loading is vital to strength performance. I have noticed that without the ideal calorie load the night before, the amount of repetitions I can perform on a 225-pound bench press will decrease by as much as five reps. My relatively empty stomach keeps the blood circulating in the body instead of going to work in the digestive system. Consuming a large amount of good complex carbs, good fats and good proteins the night before helps maximize my strength during workout sessions.
I would suggest the same game plan to any player who has morning sessions during training camp. Hydration is also a vital part of the process. I drink at least two or three large glasses of water when I wake up in the morning. I would suggest watermelon, avocado, a protein shake and a salad between sessions. Meat shouldn't be consumed until night when the physical part of the day is completed.
On game days, I would consume fruits such as watermelon, cantaloupe, pineapple and avocado to go with an easy-to-digest protein such as a protein shake or eggs at least three hours prior to a game. During the game or at halftime, I would strongly encourage eating some watermelon. I will sometimes have to double up a workout session. For example, I might do a speed workout and then finish the workout at the Pilates studio. If I have watermelon and a light protein shake immediately after the speed workout, my strength and focus to complete what is necessary at the studio are like night and day compared to times I wasn't able to properly refuel.
There are two diets that have recently become popular over the last couple of years. One is the Paleo diet. Many athletes have tried it and saw improvements in performance and recovery. It's referred to as the Paleo diet because our caveman ancestors ate primarily plants such as fruits and vegetables, along with animal meat they hunted during what historically is considered the Paleolithic era.
The Paleo diet will be effective for just about anyone looking to get to their ideal body weight. For an athlete, there can be issues. I lost too much strength and weight. I've read where some professional athletes experienced the same issue. Because an athlete is extremely active, he is going to need extra carbs. Specifically, complex carbs to maintain strength. I have found oat or brown rice carb-loading necessary to add to the rest of my diet that is basically Paleo.
The second diet that's increased in popularity is a diet in which the food consumed is primarily alkaline in nature. All foods carry a PH level. Diets that are acidic in nature can lead to inflammation and disease if they are the primary foods being consumed. Processed foods, processed sugars, pesticides, many canned fruits or vegetables and most animal products are all acidic when consumed by the body. An acidic environment is what allows viruses and bacteria to breed and thrive. They can't breed in an alkaline environment. That's why some drink lemon water or a small amount of apple cider vinegar daily. There are also those in the health industry who believe that cancer can be eliminated by eliminating sugar and acidic foods from the diet. My mother recently became an organic convert when a friend of hers who was diagnosed with cancer sent that cancer into remission by going on an organic juice fast consisting primarily of vegetables.
Most health professionals agree that approximately two-thirds of a diet should be alkaline in nature. And if one were to consume acidic foods, to do so after some alkaline foods have first been consumed. Consuming the alkaline foods first prevents the acidic effect from occurring in the body. So for example, I will have a salad with olive oil and either lemon juice or balsamic vinegar and then consume an acidic meat.
Unfortunately, the process to eliminate inflammation doesn't end there. I recently learned that these dietary practices might not always be enough to prevent inflammation. Someone I know that is a diet and exercise fanatic had a blood test that showed extremely elevated levels of inflammation in spite of her strict diet. She brought those levels back to normal by eliminating the use of a microwave to reheat food, as well as not buying or eating foods in plastic containers.
Hopefully the Pittsburgh Steelers are practicing optimal nutritional values. The days of a player eating or drinking whatever just to refuel should be long gone. Gone from the Steelers' cafeteria should be sugar snacks, processed bread foods and non-organic foods. The players should have a plethora of organic fruits and vegetables at their disposal with great fat options such as avocado and olive oil. Anti-inflammatory spices such as garlic, ginger, and turmeric should be available to sprinkle on salads; cinnamon to add to fruits; protein shakes in the afternoon with oat shakes or oatmeal, and brown rice (even quinoa) for complex carbs. If there's coffee at the facility, it needs to be organic. Coffee is extremely acidic because of its high pesticide content. I once helped a colleague eliminate the need for acid reflux medication by getting her on a high quality organic coffee. They should have plenty of water on the sidelines, but they also should have water jugs filled with watermelon slices instead of Gatorade. These steps will go a long way toward improved or consistent player performance, player recovery and injury prevention.