I used to be a candy fiend. It was almost a running joke among my teammates. "Hey Ty, you got any gummy worms in that bag for me?" It was common for me to be seen strolling through campus eating a bag of skittles an hour or two before practice. On some level I knew it was bad for me, but I didn’t worry about it. How much did it really matter anyway?
Fast forward a year and a half. The jokes have changed. My teammates now poke fun at the healthy foods I eat. “What did you eat before practice Ty? Kale chips and some beets?”
So what changed? I used to believe that my training and my workouts were the entire picture. That they alone would shape the basketball player that I would become. But I realized that if I truly wanted to reach my goals, I had to gain every advantage I could. So last spring I visited a nutritionist and turned my attention to my eating habits. In the process I completely revamped my diet. The change in my game has been noticeable and I can say without a doubt that it has been worth the effort.
But don’t be persuaded by my story, here’s four reasons why athletes should focus more on what they eat:
1) Reach peak performance weight/body composition
If you’re 10 pounds above your ideal weight, it’s like playing the game with a 10 pound weight vest on. Every movement, step and jump is that much more difficult. When you shed that weight you feel like you can jump through the roof.
Sometimes its about staying the same weight but replacing fat with muscle. This is what I did. By changing my diet, I turned 13% body fat into 6.5% and gained enough muscle to almost completely offset the fat loss. For athletes, fat is essentially dead weight (once you're past the threshold for maintaining healthy body functioning). Replacing it with muscle allows you to be more explosive while still maintaining mass.
2) Improved recovery
I can’t overemphasize the importance of this. I spent years lifting extremely hard only to see marginal muscle gain. As soon as I started focusing on my post-workout nutrition my workouts multiplied in effectiveness. After lifting weights, protein is vital to help your muscles recover and grow back stronger.
Post-workout nutrition is also vital after basketball workouts and practices. After cardiovascular workouts eating something as simple as a banana can help your legs recover. After every practice this season, I eat a banana and a protein shake. The next day I feel fresh rather than sore and exhausted. For more detailed information on post-workout nutrition, look here.
3) Increased energy
Proper nutrition before and during workouts allows you to workout harder. It adds to your Willpower Pool (read my previous blogpost on willpower to learn about this concept). When you feel energized, its much easier to push yourself.
It also just plain makes you feel better. I’ve noticed that when I eat healthy, I’m in a better mood. I’m not sure how much science there is behind this, but it works for me.
4) Better stamina
For workouts lasting longer than 90 minutes (e.g. a game or practice), it's beneficial to consume a small dose of carbohydrates at the hour mark. This can be a banana, apple, or some kind of sports bar or drink.
At halftime of games, I’ve started taking electrolytes to replenish lost fluids. It’s helped me perform late in games when my opponents are tired.
It's easy to dismiss nutrition as unimportant. But serious athletes understand that proper nutrition can give you a huge edge against your competition.
As always, I want to hear your opinion. What role do you think nutrition plays for athletes? What experiences do you have with healthy eating in your training?