With the U.S. Men’s national team pre-World Cup camp opening at Stanford University in Palo Alto, California this week, the attention shifts to the work at hand, preparing the 23 players that will represent the U.S. in Brazil this summer.
Any successful coach and organization knows that the preparation involved to get the best out of a group depends largely on the support staff, which is critical to any success.
One of the ways the U.S. men’s national team head coach Juergen Klinsmann changed the culture was through the mindset of the 24/7 professional. One of those catalysts for change within the team was through the addition of a performance fitness mindset, which included a keen focus on diet, nutrition and fueling for performance.
That’s why we caught up with Danielle LaFata, the team’s performance dietitian. She has been counseling individual athletes and sports teams on ways to enhance performance through proper nutrition & hydration. LaFata has worked with a variety of professional/elite athletes including those in the NFL, MLB, and NHL.
As camped opened I sat down with Danielle as the team begins final preparation for the 2014 World Cup.
AH: What is your role?
DL: As the Performance Dietitian I work with the hotels and their staff, and most recently our newly hired chef, on creating the breakfast, lunch and dinner menus for the team camps. I organize and stock our snack table with fresh fruit, yogurt, granola and other meal replacement bars as well as stock it with sandwiches, nuts, and trail mixes.
I organize nutrition education sessions throughout the year for the players and staff. I also continually educate the players on best nutrition practices.
Hydration is very important for us as we play in hot, humid environments and travel long distances, across numerous time zones in short periods of time. So I conduct hydration testing throughout our camps and post the results. I have also set up hydration protocols throughout the day and around training sessions to help prevent severe dehydration, heat exhaustion, and cramping. The players also receive pre-workout, in-game as well as post-workout hydration and fueling options.
AH: Why is hydration, fueling and refueling so important to performance?
DL: Biologically speaking it is important to understand that water protects our organs, helps to transport nutrients and oxygen to cells, regulates body temperature, and lubricates joints, to name just a few of its actions. Staying hydrated throughout the day and making sure to rehydrate as quickly as the body will allow you, is important for these physiological functions to operate in the right manner.
Fueling to support energy demands should be a top priority for athletes at all levels. We have come very far, in the last 10-15 years, to understand how proper nutrition and fueling and nutrient timing can affect an athlete’s well-being and performance. We can improve performance in the 2nd half of a competition, decrease risk of injury and illness, improve time to exhaustion, power output and many other parameters with structured and adequate fueling and hydration practices.
AH: How does the lack of hydration and improper eating affect athletic performance?
DL: Our brain and muscles consist of ~75% water and blood consists of ~83% water. Understanding these numbers can help us understand how important water is for the physiological functions mentioned previously. It is understood and typical for athletes to become dehydrated during training and competition. Therefore, the goal is to lessen the blow and create strategies for being hydrated going into physical activity, best rehydration strategies during activity as well as strategies for post-activity re-hydration. Soccer athletes have to make sure they are going into their training session and games hydrated as they have very few opportunities to rehydrate during these times. Food, overall, provides the building blocks and raw materials to support the body in performance and energy demands on the field and recovery off the field. Not taking in enough calories throughout the day, weeks, or season can lead to illness, fatigue, decrease in stamina and increased risk of injury.
AH: What are some rules of thumb that coaches can rely on when the topic of nutrition comes up?
DL: I like to revert back to the “10 Coaching Keys to Live By.” They are simple and foundational i.e. Come Back to Earth with Carbohydrates, The Less Legs the Better when choosing proteins, Eat Healthy Fats that Give Back, Eat a Rainbow, Break-the-Fast, Three every Three, Recovery in 3s, Hydrate, Smart Supplementation, and Quality Sleep
AH: How long prior to a game should an athlete fuel and hydrate?
DL: It depends on when the competition is. Professional soccer for example, is notorious for late night games i.e. 7, 8, 9 pm. Therefore it is important to start the day off right with a balanced breakfast and really make sure to have a balanced, solid meal 3-4 hours prior to kickoff, then “top off the tank.” The next fueling opportunity is ideally 1-2 hours prior to kickoff and should consist of a snack consisting of carbohydrate with a little protein and/or fat. The last fueling opportunity is 5-15 minutes prior to kick-off. If the competition is in the morning, the dinner the night before should act as the “pre-competition” meal. Then it is important to make sure to give yourself ample time in the morning to get in some fluid and take down as many calories as possible without giving yourself GI distress. Fueling about 2 hours prior to competition is ideal, however, if you can wake up early without comprising your sleep to get in two small fueling sessions then make it happen.
Danielle LaFata is a Registered Dietitian who earned her bachelor’s degree in business administration from Central Michigan University. She then went on to earn her Master’s degree in nutrition and food science from Wayne State University in Detroit, MI and is a board certified specialist in sports dietetics.
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