In-season Football Nutrition to Minimize Body Composition Loss and Maximize Injury Recovery
American football is one of the most systemized sports in the entire world. It contains most of the best athletes and greatest genetic specimens alive today. Every detail about football is covered at a very high level all the way from strength training, conditioning, recovery from exercise, recovery from injury, scouting, strategy, gameplay communication, video footage, ideal weight/height/limb length for each position, academics, etc.
You name it, football has a statistic and system for it.
Because it is one of the most highly competitive sports on the planet today from both a physical and business standpoint. Everybody wants in on it and if you’re an athlete on a high profile team, somebody out there is trying to take your job every day. Every single day.
You know what that means?
The scary reality that you may be replaceable.
And yet, knowing even all of this, athletes and coaches on a regular basis dismiss the importance of nutrition. Or, they understand its importance but don’t put forth the effort or finances to ensure that they are applying the correct information towards their athletes that is going to have the biggest impact in the gym and on the field.
Today I’m going to talk about how football athletes should be approaching their nutrition in regards to their in-season body composition management and recovery from injury.
Why these two topics?
Well, when we run through our list of priorities for what’s most important during the season, staying in shape and staying healthy are right at the top. Body composition (the ratio of lean muscle mass to fat mass) is something a lot of football athletes actually regress with quite a bit during the season. This can be due in part by the decrease in resistance training frequency to make room for games, practices and in-season conditioning. But, when it comes down to it, when football athletes dial their nutrition in there amount of muscle mass loss is drastically diminished and their amount of body fat gain can be next to none (and in lots of cases, even a decrease in body fat will be seen due to the hectic schedule that the in-season demands).
Too many guys, whether intentionally or not, change up their eating habits during the season due to a busy schedule plus a lot more travelling. Many reading this are probably juggling either a job or school and going to football at least 3x per week during the season. In some cases, there will be people working, going to school and doing football. On top of this, you are also expected to continue with your strength and conditioning.
That’s a lot on your plate, but unfortunately with my observation of most athlete’s, nutrition is the first thing they drop. They keep doing everything else and then just eat whenever they can and normally this means opting for quick and convenient options. Often opting for justifications such as:
“Well this isn’t that bad”
“At least if I’m eating out, I’m not eating McDonalds”
Blah blah blah….
Opting for quick and convenient options isn’t exactly a bad thing, but it can be if you’re completely ignoring what your daily intake should be looking like in regards to your protein, carbohydrate and fat daily totals. Additionally, quick and convenient shouldn’t always mean that you’re eating out. There are tons of options of stuff you can bring with you along your way.
All these little comprises in food choices and overall low man on the totem pole status that athletes give to nutrition is really the heart of where guys lose muscle mass and strength during the season. Not enough respect to nutrition and how critical it is towards your recovery (be it from a game, workout or injury), performance and body composition.
After body composition we will cover injury recovery, if any athlete in sports is going to be susceptible to injury it’s going to be football players. Football is an incredibly high impact game and anybody who has been on the field long enough has incurred some sort of injury.
Whether it be a structural upper / lower body injury or it be a concussion, most football players at some point in their playing career suffer something along these lines and staying on top of your nutrition can be the difference between a 7 week healing process and a 5 week healing process. It’s important to care about this because not only can we aid in the speed of recovery, but we can also increase the quality of the recovery process.
Anybody who has seen a highlight “football hits” YouTube video can attest to my sense of importance here. People are getting absolutely smashed on a weekly basis and some positions even have an expected “drop out” rate after so many years in the game.
Let’s tackle both body composition and injury recovery guidelines during the season one at a time and put everything together in the end with some solid take home advice to follow so you can make the best of your next season.
BODY COMPOSITION MANAGEMENT
Before moving forward with the discussion, let’s first briefly define the three states of energy balance (calories in vs. calories out) one can be in before continuing for those who are unfamiliar with the world of sports science nutrition.
- Hypocaloric state: This is a term that is used to represent a situation where the calories in are less than the calories out so therefore you will lose weight. This state is typically characterized by somebody who needs to drop a little bit of body fat in order to improve performance or body composition. This must be done carefully as to not sacrifice performance or muscle loss.
- Maintenance: This is a term that is used to represent a situation where the calories in are equal to the calories out so therefore you will neither gain nor lose weight. This is normally the situation I see people in whom are currently at a plateau in either direction of body composition goals. Some people feel they are doing everything right and can’t seem to drop body fat, conversely, other people feel that they “eat all the time” and can’t seem to gain any body weight. I hate to be the bearer of bad news my friends but if your body weight has been stuck at a certain number for a month or two now the odds are quite high you’re hanging out at maintenance.
- Hypercaloric state: This is a term that is used to represent a situation where the calories in are greater than the calories out so therefore you will gain weight. This state is typically characterized by the athlete who is looking to gain some body weight to improve his performance or muscle mass size. This must be done carefully though as to not sacrifice nutrient partitioning and gain unnecessary body fat.
Some football players and coaches have the old school mentality out there where the offseason is truly the “off” season. They really don’t do anything at all in regards to strength, conditioning, body composition changes, nutrition, skill work, etc. You name it, they’re not doing it. They’ll spend most of the summer hanging out with their buddies, partying, going on vacation and playing some recreational summer sports. Throw in a little Call of Duty and you got yourself an Offseason training system.
Then when the in-season rolls around they figure “Ok now’s the time to get into shape. I need to kick everything into gear”
In reality, this is exactly backwards to what you should be doing. Any and all major body composition changes should occur during the offseason when you have the time to eat well and train with a more comfortable schedule. This is especially true during the beginning stages of the offseason where specificity is at its lowest and you can really grind for body composition change and work on your weak points.
In addition to this, during the in-season performance has to be the #1 priority. No other component ranks higher than this. If you want to be the go-to player on your team or you want to be that player people take notice of from the stands, you had better be putting performance as the top priority. You can’t expect to make maximal changes in body composition while at the same time exert maximal performance out on the field, your recovery capacity won’t allow it.
“Yeah, I get that. Performance of course should be #1. But can’t I change my body composition at the same time?”
In most cases for most people, no, you can’t. Not with performance being #1. At least not to any drastic degree.
Performance throws a real wrench into body composition changes during the season and we’re going to talk about why. As a side note, this is why working with an intelligent coach and conducting your yearly periodization is so important. There are certain points in the year where focusing on certain goals makes the most sense. On the flip side, there are also points in the year where focusing on certain goals can be backwards or even downright detrimental towards your performance.
Let’s say you’re a smaller guy and you want to gain some muscle mass during this in-season. That’s all fine and well but we run into some issues right away with both your training and nutrition.
To gain an appreciable amount of muscle mass you need to be training with an optimal training frequency and volume. That’s just the problem right there, this isn’t possible during the season, not without the degradation of performance, and we can’t forget that performance is #1 during the season. Our priorities always have to be straight in our head when we make any decisions.
A standard training frequency for muscle mass and strength gains hovers around the 4-6 sessions per week mark with the aim of overreaching your maximum recoverable volume so that you can super compensate, recover, and build new lean muscle tissue. This type of training is simply too difficult to sustain during the season without letting performance suffer. It’s either one, or the other.
The average football athlete should be resistance training 2-3x per week MAX during the season with the aim of maintaining/improving strength, conditioning and power levels. The augmentation of body composition for muscle mass gain is simply too difficult to sustain for the period of time that it would require to actually have any benefit to it. Building muscle is a long, energy costly process.
In addition to this, a muscle mass gaining phase is typically characterized by not just a high training frequency and volume, but also a hypercaloric diet.
That’s a problem all by itself right there isn’t it?
Because if we are training the way we should be training during the season (2-3 resistance training sessions per week typically consisting of less volume than the offseason) introducing a hypercaloric diet is a recipe to get a lot fatter. You can’t train less, eat like it’s a mass phase and expect that weight to be lean muscle mass. It doesn’t work like that. To gain muscle mass you do want to be in a hypercaloric state, but this is a state you want to avoid when you aren’t training hard enough in order to maximize the potential of the phase. This is a great way to increase your susceptibility of fat storage, the additional calories will have nowhere else to go.
Now let’s have a look at it from the other perspective, let’s say you’re looking to get really lean this season and get that six pack you have always wanted.
Anytime you introduce a hypocaloric state during the season performance is going to suffer, it’s a recipe for disaster from both a performance and injury perspective. Even disregarding the research conducted on performance in a hypocaloric state, anybody who has dieted can tell you that their performance suffered. This only becomes magnified when you are juggling all the things you need to be juggling during the season.
Games + practices + conditioning + resistance training + school/work + travel is simply too much to take on in a hypocaloric state. Don’t get me wrong people can do it, but they will be doing it at the expense of performance whether they know it or not. We don’t compromise performance during the season, that’s not what proper nutrition or proper periodization is about.
The only caveat here that is acceptable is if the person is blatantly overweight and could use some trimming down. In this case, dropping the weight will actually improve performance as opposed to decreasing performance mainly due to the increased speed and agility they will see. Additionally, the more overweight you are to begin with, the less susceptibility you have to lose muscle mass during the beginning phases of a diet.
But if you’re somebody who is already relatively lean and you’re looking to get even leaner, this can definitely come at the expense of your performance where it actually counts, out on the field.
If that wasn’t enough, that type of schedule in combination with a hypocaloric state can create altered endocrine and immune function where testosterone levels typically drop, stress hormones typically increase and your ability to fight off colds/sickness decreases. Not exactly what you’re looking for during the season when your team is depending on you to do your job out there.
So where do we go from here?
What I like to recommend football athletes do during the season is begin with 4-6 weeks of maintenance eating. This will be enough to support performance and training load while still allowing for progress to be made in strength development, power, conditioning and speed.
You want to keep every last piece of progress you made during the offseason throughout as much of the in-season as you can. Now is where you need to perform, we need all those physical qualities year round. This cannot be done without an intelligent approach to your yearly training and nutritional periodization.
Begin the season with 4-6 weeks of maintenance eating and adjust accordingly from there based on your needs. In addition to supporting the above mentioned qualities, maintenance eating also allows you to still make some body composition changes. This is known as “recomposition”. Where your body weight doesn’t actually change, but your body composition can.
For example, if you’re 200lbs and 12% body fat and you successfully executed a recomposition phase you would exit that phase still around 200lbs but around 9-10% body fat. You both gained some lean muscle mass and lost some body fat at the same time while kickin’ around the same total body weight. Not a bad trade off if you ask me, especially while keeping performance #1.
You probably have some questions such as:
Is there a problem with body composition change during the season?
No, of course not.
So is the problem then for those who actively seek body composition change during the season?
Yes, because it comes at the expense of performance. Those who slack off during the offseason and expect to hit two birds with one stone during the season are in for a rude awakening, or will simply just not be very good players.
You can’t make major body composition goals during the onset of a season.
This is why I like my athletes starting at maintenance. No worries here at all. We are supporting everything we possibly can while simultaneously potentially reaping some recomposition benefits along the way.
That’s how I recommend you guys attack this season. There is no wrong here.
Start at maintenance for 4-6 weeks and adjust accordingly if needed after that in respect to your current body composition, training schedule, field schedule and goals.
You know above I said a lot of guys drop the ball on their nutrition, but here is where most everybody drops the ball on everything. They get all upset that their injured, think they can’t do anything about it and just throw everything that is beneficial out the window until they are healthy again. There are lots of strategies to accelerate healing, but to keep this from being a novel, let’s keep the discussion nutrition specific again.
The typical football injury recovery strategy normally consists of you having a permanently imprinted butt mold formed on your couch in combination with way too much Netflix and PlayStation.
Am I right?
Maybe your injured foot is elevated and your girlfriend or mom is making you some soup?
Come onnn. Open the windows and get up!
Before we talk about the nutritional strategies and implications I have to mention sleep. Sleep is the king recovery strategy for any and all things, including exercise and injury. When you’re sleeping your body is in full on recovery mode repairing and rebuilding any and all things within the body.
I have discussed sleep in depth throughout seminars and webinars. If you aren’t sleeping well, this would be the #1 priority for injury recovery before we move on the other strategies. This has got to be in check.
Although when it comes to energy balance, it’s an interesting conundrum because your activity levels are substantially decreased. You’re just flat out not training as much or on the field as much so you’re need for calories drops. Even if you are in the gym or on the field, odds are you’re not exerting the same level of effort as before during this recovery phase.
But when we look a little deeper into the physiology of repair, injury recovery requires the synthesis of new structures. Whether this be joint, muscle or tendon related. At the end of the day, your body needs the raw materials to repair and rebuild this tissue damage.
Where does it get that?
Food provides the raw materials your internal repair systems require to patch up that flat tire you got there. If you start dropping calories low now (“because I’m not training”) and you combine that with low activity levels you’re also putting yourself at a greater risk for muscle loss.
So what’s the best approach?
Once again, maintenance energy balance to the rescue.
Maintenance calories makes the most logical sense here because we don’t want to go hypocaloric and risk a longer recovery time (due to inadequate raw material availability and the possibility of reduced endocrine and immune function) plus greater muscle loss as well. But we also don’t want to go hypercaloric and risk a bunch of unnecessary fat gain due to the forced inactivity.
Maintenance will put us in that sweet spot of optimal recovery with the greatest chance of maintaining your current body composition even during a lay off. Of course, the longer you’re down the greater chance you have of diminishing your body composition, that’s unavoidable.
But if you compare two guys who are both injured and one is focusing on his nutrition and the other is not, the one who is focusing on his nutrition will both have a better composition and a quicker recovery time, guaranteed.
That sounds like a no-brainer to me.
Here are some quick guidelines to follow when injured and wondering how you should be eating:
- Protein should be 0.8-1g per pound of body weight per day total.
- Meal frequency should be 4-6 meals per day spaced apart by 2-4hrs. This is to ensure round the clock amino acid availability to both your skeletal muscle (to reduce muscle loss) and the injury site (to enhance time under recovery).
- Carbohydrates and fat are individually set. Carbohydrates should typically match activity level which is why I can’t make any real recommendations here. An injured construction worker is going to have a greater carb intake than an injured desk worker. Although it should also be noted that even if you’re injured and not working, you don’t want to eliminate carbohydrates completely because carbohydrates secrete insulin and insulin is not only anabolic to the body, but also to injury sites.
- Eat at maintenance calorie levels.
- Keep multivitamins, fruits and vegetables in the meal plan at all times. The body needs these vitamins and minerals for proper repair processes to occur.
Beyond the nutritional application towards in-season training, I want to finish this article off with some mind set talk.
The priorities change, but your level of effort should not.
Yes you aren’t on the field and maybe not even in the gym right now but you’re level of effort should be no different. The only thing that has changed is that you have different priorities right now, your team and your coach are depending on you to take this seriously and do whatever you can in order to get better.
Don’t mope around and act like a baby. Nobody is going to want to be around you and you will lose sympathy very quickly. Football players don’t “milk it”, babies do.
Study strategy, watch video footage of your team, watch video footage of opposing teams, Google football skill work stuff and stay on top of your nutrition.
If you mope around you’re going to have a few week transitioning phase until you actually get back into it and start performing like you used to.
But if you do all these things during your off time you’ll come back like you haven’t even missed a beat and could even be a better and more experienced football player for it.