We are fully immersed in my favorite time of the year, the holidays. At Sparta, we have MLB offseason in “full go,” NFL Combine prep in order, and with all the recent rain it’s beginning to feel festive in the Bay Area. As great as this time of year can be, it’s a good reminder that many professional athletes are feeling pressure to prepare for the upcoming season (buying gifts depends on performance). Some of those athletes have body composition goals to hit as well, and with all the traditional holiday meals and festivities coming up there can be confusion on what, or how much to eat over the holidays.
“It’s not information overload. It’s filter failure.” – Clay Shirky
Demand coming from your boss to look better is stressful enough, but really everyone (not just athletes) has pressure from magazines and social media to look better. This day in age, we all have access to far too many “guru” trainers and diet “experts.” The problem is that we are constantly comparing our “behind the scenes” look with someone else’s highlight reel – and filter use, at that. Many individuals, myself included, have been guilty of trying to look a certain way, instead of performing optimally. For an athlete, training for a six pack won’t always transfer to an improved 40-yard dash. What is the goal of your training? That is the real question to be addressed.
The problem with not passing the “eye test” is that looks don’t often have much to do with performance. Look at examples like Pablo Sandoval, Prince Fielder or CC Sabathia, all who perform their best at a higher body fat percentage. In my experience as an MLB strength coach, we were often told to have someone lose “x” amount of weight because they weren’t “fit.” This is common in many sports today, but the problem is that weight is not a valid metric in performance. How well do you move that weight? Often times, athletes are thrown in “Fat Camp” involving additional hours of “conditioning” that does nothing but hinder movement quality, and kick-start excessive cortisol (think opposite of testosterone) release in the body.
Long, slow distance running (often prescribed to lose weight) can negatively affect power production in burst sports such as baseball and volleyball by limiting neuromuscular adaptations, and prohibiting motor learning. Continuous aerobic exercise can also hinder intermittent sport athletes like soccer and rugby players by creating a catabolic hormonal profile, and increasing the risk of overuse injuries such as shin splints and tendonitis. When hormones are in disarray, finding ideal body composition and improved performance will be close to impossible.
Anyone looking to improve how they look and feel should address nutrition first and foremost. Eating less and exercising more is not the answer. In fact, The Department of Physical Therapy, Exercise and Nutrition Sciences at the University of Buffalo has done extensive research on the effects of acute exercise combined with inadequate nutrition. In their estimation, many athletes consume about 25% fewer calories than they expend, leading to low intake of essential micronutrients and fats. Intense exercise has been shown to increase inflammatory immune factors (weaken your immune system), increase oxidant stress (those pesky free radicals everyone is always talking about), and increase stress hormone levels (cortisol). Low nutrient levels, specifically low glycogen (sugar) and fat stores are shown to have the same effect, compounding the problem. When your body is put in a stressed state, either through intense exercise or deficient nutrition (or both), performance suffers and the risk for infection rises dramatically.
Nutritional needs vary for each individual, but there are a few things we preach to our athletes at Sparta. It starts with mastering the fundamentals, and instead of following a specific diet plan – just keep it simple.
Eat when you are hungry.
Eat real natural foods from properly sourced protein, vegetable and fat sources.
Don’t eat crap
We use the Sparta Scan to assess how an individual sequences, or produces force. We typically see a large Load to Explode ratio when excessive mass decreases movement efficiency. Load is absolute, so typically the more mass (even fat mass) on the individual the more force that is put into the ground. Explode is a relative variable, therefore moving an ideal weight will cause an uptick in Explode, or the ability to transfer that weight. That being said, when athletes are moving better we see a more relative Load/Explode ratio. Not only can we see how the individual is sequencing, but we can also see if it actually makes them more efficient by using less energy!
At the end of the day, improved nutritional habits and performance go hand in hand. Beyond the macronutrient intake, creating an optimal hormonal profile by implementing better regeneration habits (nutrition/sleep/etc) will lead to an improved life. The extra slice of pumpkin pie is nothing to worry about when the proper habits are in play most of the time.
Absolute body weight is a poor measure when the goal is health or performance.
Relative strength can be a much better measure: but skipping meals and “extra conditioning” are rarely the solution
With a lifestyle of quality nutritional and regeneration habits, don’t stress and enjoy the holiday food!