February 20, 2012
New breed of athletes seeking edge through food
Some Cardinals players make fast-food runs at lunch before dispersing into meetings. A prominent ex-Suns player wolfed down greasyÂ breakfastsandwichesÂ on his way to practice and never gained a pound. All this internal sabotage, and no one ever knew the difference.
“The one thing that is not emphasized enough in the world of sports isÂ diet,” Suns forward Grant Hill said. “Maybe it’s a bad analogy, but you don’t want to put regular gas in a high-performance car. But for some reason, nutrition has never been a priority.”
Slowly, that’s beginning to change. For 30 years, athletes have benefitted from huge advancements in strength and conditioning programs, and many are seeking another edge. Steroids are out, HGH testing is on the horizon and performance-enhancing drugs are taboo, and those who get busted risk public condemnation.
To a new breed of athlete, nutrition is the final frontier. To them, food is the new drug of choice.
“There are three big benefits,” said Dave Ellis, a renowned sportsÂ dietitian. “There’s less down time. People don’t get ill as often or as easily. Those missed man days are huge setbacks to teams.
“The next big thing is energy. Athletes who don’t know what they’re doing with their diets can come to work and put in a mediocre day. Physically and mentally, their coach-ability is down. Too many of those days, and you lose.”
The last component is recovery, and Hill can attest to the recuperating powers ofÂ properÂ nutrition. The Suns star is currently mocking his age (38), having missed only three games in his past three years.
Hill and teammate Steve Nash pay careful attention to their diets and have sworn off sugar, making the Suns “the most health-conscious team in the NBA.” Both are convinced that their diet is largely responsible for their youthful performances.
“I’m of the mind-set that food can heal,” Hill said. “If we wanted, we could eat anything we want and still look in shape because we burn so many calories and because we’re always running around. But this is about how you feel. And at the end of this past season, I felt great. I wasn’t sore at all. I was ready to do things like climb Camelback.”
Asked to summarize his own nutrition plan, Hill said simply:
“If it was around 50,000 years ago, I’ll eat it.”
The trend towardÂ betterÂ nutritionÂ can be seen on a grass-roots level. Last week, the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Conference was held in Scottsdale, and guest speakers were stunned by the amount of young people in attendance.
Tom Osborne, the former Nebraska football coach, is considered a pioneer in the field. While scouting Alabama’s team some 30 years ago, he discovered the Crimson Tide had something called an “off-season program.” He began to realize that little things such as nutrition made a big difference. Along with a dedicated training table, Osborne asks his players to abstain from alcohol.
“There are 1,700 alcohol-related deaths in college ever year,” Osborne said. “So the idea of college students drinking responsibly is nonsense.”
Osborne also said the growing focus on athlete nutrition is an idea “whose time is past due.”
Currently, 25 Division I college programs employ 31 full-time sports dietitians. Like most schools, Arizona State does not have a nutritionist dedicated to the athletic department, citing prohibitive costs.
For now, funding is a major obstacle.
Yet Ellis expects the number to double in the next two years, spawning a new industry as sports franchises and athletic programs realize the rewards justify the cost.
“It’s a growing field, and a lot of new research keeps coming out,” said Chrissy Barth, founder of Live.Breathe.Nutrition. in Scottsdale, where 50 percent of her clients are athletes.
“People are realizing the importance of following a sport-specific nutrition program to prolong their playing time as well as preventing injury.”
Bottom line: Athletes are always looking for an edge. That’s universal. And as long as the trend doesn’t involve a syringe or illegal drugs, that’s progress.
Maybe even the start of a clean, new era in sports.