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The athlete's plate: Eat right to go the extra innings

MLB.com

Want to improve your skills on the field? Working out and practice will only get you so far. To boost your performance, try taking a closer look at the food on your plate.

"Baseball and softball are fast-paced games that require strength, power, speed, quick judgment and fast reaction time. Nutrition and hydration really matter for performance," said Julia Bell, MS, RD, LDN, a performance dietitian at Inova Sports Performance powered by EXOS. Inova is the official sports medicine partner of the Washington Nationals. Inova Sports Performance powered by EXOS offers performance training and nutrition services for individual athletes and teams.

Want to improve your skills on the field? Working out and practice will only get you so far. To boost your performance, try taking a closer look at the food on your plate.

"Baseball and softball are fast-paced games that require strength, power, speed, quick judgment and fast reaction time. Nutrition and hydration really matter for performance," said Julia Bell, MS, RD, LDN, a performance dietitian at Inova Sports Performance powered by EXOS. Inova is the official sports medicine partner of the Washington Nationals. Inova Sports Performance powered by EXOS offers performance training and nutrition services for individual athletes and teams.

For athletes, food is more than a meal. "It's not just a hamburger or a salad. What you put in your body affects how you play and how you recover for your next training session or game."

Building a Balanced Plate

Athletes are usually good about focusing on health and nutrition on days they need to perform well, Bell said. "On game day you're more in tune with what you're eating, making sure you get plenty of sleep and hydration. What if you did that every day? You'd train better, practice better and recover better - and that shows up on the field as well," she said.

A good place to start is by building what Bell calls a balanced plate. To do that, she recommends athletes focus on four key areas:

Fuel. Whole grains and other healthy carbohydrates give the body energy to fuel performance.
Build. Lean sources of protein (think chicken and fish) are important for repairing and building muscles.
Prevent. Fruits and vegetables contain vitamins, minerals and antioxidants that protect against disease.
Protect. Modest amounts of healthy fats (like nuts and olive oil) protect the heart and the brain and can help decrease inflammation throughout the body.

When filling your plate, Bell recommends avoiding processed foods. That means choosing sweet potatoes over chips, oatmeal over sugary cereal. "With every step in processing, you lose nutrients. As much as possible, we should eat foods that are whole and natural and come from the ground," she said.

Game Day Nutrition

While good nutrition should be a daily habit, there are some game-day basics to help athletes perform their best, Bell said.

Pregame: The night before, fill half your plate with healthy carbs, such as whole-wheat pasta or brown rice. Devote a quarter of your meal to lean protein, and the other quarter to fruits and veggies. Stick to foods you know; before a game is not the time to experiment with anything new. Avoid fried or cheesy sides or other high-fat foods, which can weigh you down. Fill up with a similar meal three to four hours before the game. "Just like going on a long road trip, you want to fill up the tank before you go," Bell said. Thirty to 60 minutes before you hit the field, top off your tank with an easy-to digest carb source, such as a banana or a granola bar.

Start hydrating early, too. Bell recommends drinking 24 ounces of water 3 hours before the game, 16 ounces 2 hours before, and another 8 ounces 1 hour before go time.

During the game: The goal is to maintain your energy. After multiple innings, carbs, fluids and electrolyte levels can become depleted, leading to fatigue and impaired performance. Sip water or an electrolyte beverage every time you come off the field. If you need a snack, top off the tank with a piece of fruit. (Applesauce and fruit cups make convenient and portable options, Bell said.)

Postgame: Before you celebrate, help your body recover. Refuel with carbs, Bell said. "I suggest tart cherry juice, which contains a powerful antioxidant that helps decrease inflammation and can reduce the damage to the body caused by the game."

Then start repairing muscles with a protein source. Chocolate milk is a quick and easy postgame snack, Bell said. Or you might grab a banana with a protein shake, or Greek yogurt with berries. "The main thing is to consume it as soon as possible to start the recovery process."

Within a couple of hours of the game, have another meal to fuel your recovery, creating the same balanced plate you had before the game.

Every Athlete is Different

Good nutrition can make the difference between a good athlete and a great one. Whether your meal habits need a major overhaul or just a little tweaking, it can help to get some expert input. "Everyone is different. People often try to do what a teammate is doing or what their brother or friend is doing, but nutrition has to be about you: your goals, your habits, your schedules and your individual fuel needs," Bell said.

Dietitians take those factors into account to design a personal nutrition game plan. Their recommendations rely on scientific fact, not fads. Plus, nutrition experts can help athletes adopt a healthy mindset, Bell said. "Anyone can find nutrition rules to follow, but we can help athletes change their behaviors to really apply these principles."

To make an appointment for an individual or team nutrition consultation contact Julia Bell at jbell@teamexos.com

Washington Nationals