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Written on August 14, 2014 at 8:21 am, by Eric Cressey
Today, I have a guest post from professional baseball player, Harvard student, long-time CSP athlete, and all-around fitness and nutrition enthusiast, Andrew Ferreira. Enjoy! -EC
It's approaching midnight in a town whose name I can't pronounce in a state I've never been in. The game – our 19th in 20 days – was an extra inning affair. Typically, it's no big deal but today is a “getaway day,” meaning we have a nice 8-hour drive ahead of us on the way to the next series.
Having gotten to the field at 2pm that day for some fundamental and early work, noting that my teammates and I are tired would be an understatement. The caffeine spike from the midgame energy drink (the second on the day, for most of us) is starting to wear off and our tired minds are fixated on one thing: food. In a world where PB&Js and deli meat sandwiches are the norm, post-game spreads typically don't arouse too much excitement.
Today, we got “lucky.”
As we walked into the clubhouse, a half-dozen large pizzas were staring us right in the face. Let's call a spade a spade here and make it known that it's certainly no deep dish from Chicago or Nochs from Harvard Square – but at this point, it doesn't matter. Despite how health-conscious I try to be, I'm still going to eat it despite the fact that it could be the worst pizza in the world. In fact, on most nights, I'd venture to say I eat the most slices. Calories are calories and my fatigue-beaten mind simply has no willpower to exert against consuming loads of refined carbohydrates.
The above scenario is all too common in my world. Minor league life is tough. Money is tight, travel is long, and the nutritional options are even worse. With frequent long travel, good sleep is rare – and subsequently, the “grind” (as some would call it) is only tolerable because stimulants and energy drinks are the minor league equivalent of water. It's certainly not favorable when high performance is needed day in and day out over a grueling 140+ game season that spans from March to September.
Now, it's a fair assumption that having a good, productive off-season is critical to having a good season while staying healthy. Certainly, there are outliers whose performance isn't indicative of the fact that they didn't touch a weight or pick up a ball until Spring Training. As frustrating as it may be to the hard-working non-elite, freaks do exist. And yet, while the off season is important, I'd argue how you handle the off-the-field in-season period variables plays a much larger role in facilitating high performance than most of us players think.
What I've garnered in my three years of professional experience is that it all starts and ends with nutrition, and quite frankly, most haven't a clue on how to manage it effectively. While a general plan or framework needs to be in place, for most, it is nonexistent.
A typical day average (in terms of nutrition, not ability) player looks like this:
Meal #1: Fast food on the way to the field. Whether that be Zaxby's (a staple where I was), Chick-Fil-A, or the gas station, something quick is the predominant option before the field. First energy drink or coffee of the day.
Meal #2 Pre-game spread at the field. Most days it’s a whole lot of PB&Js and deli meat sandwiches. Possibly a protein shake mixed in at some point. Second energy drink or coffee of the day.
Meal #3 Post-game spread at the field. It varies, but carbs (usually refined) are a staple.
You don't need a PhD in nutritional sciences to realize in any profession, that set up won't lead to high performance. While most professions solely require a sharp mind to handle the mechanical work, in order to make it to “The Show,” we need both our bodies and minds to be operating at an elite level. Eating like that, while possibly sustainable over the short term, isn't going to produce favorable adaptations in our pursuit of high performance.
Minor league baseball players need a new model. It must be one that is both sustainable and feasible, given the environmental (money, travel, etc.) constraints under which we must work. Here is the framework I have used and would suggest others adopt to facilitate adequate nutrition for better levels of recovery and performance.
Strategy #1: Control the “Controllables”
Controlling damage is imperative to be successful nutritionally throughout the course of the season. Eating well on the road is tough. Sometimes you're stuck in a hotel where the only options are McDonald’s and Burger King, and the bus driver has no interest driving you 20 minutes out of the way so you can go to Chipotle. Over the course of a 140+ game season, situations like this are sometimes unavoidable, which mean that we have to do everything in our power to:
A) Eat “Better” At Home
The beauty of playing predominantly night games is that report time isn't until about 2-3pm. Despite the fact that we run on nocturnal schedules, often not getting to bed until one or two in the morning, that still leaves plenty of time to at the bare minimum cook yourself one good meal at your apartment or hotel room before heading to the field.
If you manage your time reasonably well (i.e., not sleeping until 1:30pm every day), picking up fast food on the way to the field should never be the go-to option.
In an ideal world, I would take it a step further. Have a pre-field meal at home and then food prep your second meal to bring to the field so you can avoid the standard pre-game spread that often offers nothing of nutritional value.
I'll get into the “why” a bit later on in the post, but during the season, I'm a big believer in backloading your carbohydrates. I'm a firm believer that the first meal(s) of the day should be largely devoid of carbohydrates. Protein, fats, and vegetables are my early day staples. If carbs are mixed in there, it'll be by necessity, not choice.
An example day for me would look like:
Meal #1: Bulletproof Coffee (grass-fed butter w/coconut oil) – copious amounts of saturated fat make this a meal and an advantageous way to get calorically dense healthy fats in your body if you're hurting for time
Meal #2: 6 egg (cage-free preferred) omelet with spinach
Meal #3 (pre-game): Protein variation (chicken, beef, fish) with side of vegetables
Meal #4 (post-game): the post-game spread, on most days
It's by no means nutritionally perfect, but we don't live in a vacuum where everything goes according to plan every single day. There are going to be days when you just can't get out of bed and have no time to make yourself a couple meals. Having a framework or general routine will allow you to overcome and still win the days you don't feel like it.
B) Prep Meals in Advance
By about mid-June, you'll be sick of cooking. It's happened to me on numerous occasions. Making three meals a day isn't a chore in April when you're excited about the impact that handling your nutrition can have on the season. Then, the months drag on, cooking becomes monotonous, and that fast food ride with your buddies pre-game becomes all the more appealing.
When cooking becomes a “grind,” turn to meal prepping. It may take you an hour or two one day, but then you have food that lasts you a week and all you need from that point is a microwave. Saves you time and boredom. Brian St. Pierre's chili recipe is a good place to start; it's phenomenal.
Strategy #2: Eat More Real Food
Our bodies are going to get beat up. It's inevitable throughout the course of an incredibly long season.
Last season, I can vividly remember feeling great all the way through about mid-July. My body felt good, my arm felt even better, and I was enthusiastic about the possibility of playing winter ball once the season ended. Then, the first week of August hit and both my arm and body had seemingly hit a wall and with it went my enthusiasm for baseball, much less winter ball.
That bicep tendon (the one you thought felt surprisingly good considering how many innings you'd logged over the year) is starting to bark – and you know what that means: anti-inflammatory pills. Forget the negative consequences on our gut health, the only thing we're concerned about is that NSAIDs for breakfast, lunch, and dinner is going to make that shoulder bark all but disappear – at least temporarily.
If we're going to make it through the season without regularly taking enough NSAIDs to kill a small animal, we must become masters at managing inflammation. It starts with nutrition. In terms of our ability to recover, you are what you eat.
Being able to manage inflammation all starts with optimizing our Omega 6:3 ratio. For our purposes here, going into the nitty gritty scientific and anthropological details isn't necessary. What's important to note is that a body overloaded with Omega 6s is in a pro-inflammatory state. A body with an optimized ratio is in an anti-inflammatory state. In order to survive the season without overdosing on Alleve, it behooves you to optimize your fatty acid intake. Here’s a quick plan:
Step 1: Reduce refined carb intake as much as possible. Refined carbs, because of vegetable oils, are loaded with Omega 6s. Don't cook with vegetable oils either.
Step 2: Optimize the quality of your animal protein. Grass fed beef, cage-free chicken, and wild caught fish are best – even if they are expensive on our budget. Start with pastured eggs. They're not much more expensive than regular eggs, with a much better fatty acid ratio.
Step 3: Take a high quality fish oil. If the rest of your diet is awful, this will serve as nothing more than a Band-Aid, but it's better than nothing.
There are other things we can try and tackle to construct the perfect anti-inflammtory diet, but it's overkill. Keep it simple, stupid. Eat more real food, optimize your Omega 6:3 ratio, and you'll put your body in a much better state to recover and handle the grind of the season.
In Part 2, Andrew will outline three more strategies for improving nutritional approaches in the minor leagues.
About the Author
Andrew Ferreira is a current Harvard student concentrating on human evolutionary biology. He currently writes for Show Me Strength - a site dedicated to improving all aspects of human performance - and was previously drafted by the Minnesota Twins. Follow him on Twitter.
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