NFL players work out hard, both on the field and in the gym. But for them, training is only part of the equation. They also need to eat right. "If you're only [focused on training] you might not get the body you want, and you may increase your risk of injury," says Leslie Bonci, RD, director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center and team sports dietitian for the Pittsburgh Steelers.
Contrary to popular belief, eating everything in sight isn't a plus in the NFL. Barry Rubin, head strength and conditioning coach for the Philadelphia Eagles, says having an unhealthy body weight will only slow you down and make you more sluggish and susceptible to injury. "You can't outrun your calories," he says. "If you start doing that, you're going to get hurt and over train."
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If you want to get in shape like an NFL pro, you need to eat like an NFL pro. That means getting enough protein and the right balance of nutrients in your diet.
Cincinnati Bengals safety Chris Crocker says, "Diet is very important to me as a player. High protein is my main focus along with incorporating more carbs the night before the game."
There's a reason pro athletes like Crocker won't go anywhere without their protein. It's an essential ingredient in every cell of the body, including the muscles.
During a workout, your body goes into a catabolic state where it's breaking down muscle. Once you're done lifting, you want to put it back into an anabolic state where it builds muscle again. Rob Livingstone, a strength and conditioning professional in Norcross, Ga. who has trained many pro athletes, says, "It's so important post-workout to get something in your body to start that anabolic phase."
Bonci says the goal with eating protein is to optimize performance and build lean muscle mass. Ideally, you want to get in a serving of protein both before and after a workout, she says.
When you eat your protein, don't take it solo. "You've got to have some carbohydrates," Livingstone says. "There's got to be some sugar in that protein to increase the absorption." Carbs not only help your body grow muscle, but they also provide you with fuel for your workout.
A lot of NFL pros get their protein on the go. A quick protein fix in bar or shake form is great when you're at the gym. But it shouldn't be your only source of the nutrient. "To me," Bonci says, "a meal is not a shake or a bar. I think there's something to be said for utensils and chewing. But they really can help somebody get to their goal and they're really convenient. It's a little hard to whip a turkey leg out of your [gym] bag." Bonci recommends using whey protein isolate, a straight shot of protein that you can add to shakes, peanut butter, oatmeal, and just about anything else you eat or drink.