Strength & Conditioning

5 Ways Professional Strength Coaches Approach Nutrition

“How do they do that?!” If you’ve ever found yourself in awe and disbelief at a professional athlete’s mastery of their sport, you’re not alone. Several variables impact the development and performance of a pro both in-season and off-season, and nutrition is one such fundamental factor.

Most athletes play like they practice, and nutrition is no exception. That’s why strength and conditioning coaches view training and nutrition behaviors as inseparable factors to an athlete’s progress: one must support the other.

We caught up with Mark Fitzgerald, Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Anaheim Ducks, and Bar Malik, Director of Performance for the New York Knicks, to learn more about how they approach nutrition to fuel peak performance.

EVEN PRO ATHLETES START WITH THE BASICS

Both coaches agree that teaching the fundamentals of balanced year-round nutrition is key to fueling a well-nourished athlete.

“With the athletic population, balanced and healthy and simple is best.” Mark says, and he focuses on providing his athletes with attainable and realistic guidelines on how to put together a healthy plate. “It starts with real food and getting energy from that food.”

Mark has a window of opportunity to coach ideal nutrition behaviors to players in-season. He employs a “teach through doing” approach, helping athletes build well-balanced meals with visual cues. This includes tactics like teaching how much space protein, carbohydrate and fat choices should occupy on a plate for each meal, and how to use a hand to measure each portion.

During the season, Mark illustrates how healthy food options are both accessible and delicious, which he says is a huge factor in adherence to off-season dietary recommendations. This guidance empowers athletes to determine whether they have the right kind of food, in the right amount, for each meal to support their performance.

Even if a nutrition plan meets all the dietary needs of an athlete, it still may not deliver the best results if it gets too complicated for a pro:

“Being on the road, it can become extremely difficult get specialty food. So if I can’t deliver a consistent product, there’s no point in including fancy or trendy foods because it’s not going to be consistent,” says Mark.

His simple, effective, and replicable approach by design doesn’t leave room for confusion. An athlete’s nutrition should be uncomplicated and avoid centering on any one specialty food or supplement.

CARBOHYDRATES MATTER

“It’s your main source of fuel,” Mark says of the role of carbohydrates in hockey, a sentiment echoed by Bar for basketball. Both coaches cite the high-intensity nature of their sport as the reason carbohydrate intake must meet the demands of rigorous training and play.

As exercise increases in intensity, the body naturally starts to rely more heavily on carbohydrates for fuel. The high-octane nature of both hockey and basketball requires coaches to think critically not just about the amount, but the quality of carbohydrates to fuel their athletes.

“For the athletic population it’s a necessity,” says Mark. “You have to find good carbohydrate sources and do your homework.”

It’s easy enough for Mark to explain the difference between slow-releasing carbohydrates and fast-acting carbohydrates, and their roles in performance:

“Your slow carbs are better overall because they keep you level. The quick carb for sure gives you a little burst, but it’s going to go away fast; it’s kind of like cheap gas.”

YOU CAN COUNT ON SUPERSTARCH®

The world of sports nutrition is overwhelmed with quick-acting energy options that provide athletes with a short-lived burst of energy, often followed by a crash. Both Mark and Bar find SuperStarch® to be an innovative solution that can help overcome the deficiencies of more traditional sports fuels.

“We use carbohydrates that are sustainable so players feel the same in the first quarter as they do in the fourth quarter, when it really matters.” Bar says. SuperStarch fits neatly into his game- day strategy. He has his players fuel up with 1 serving of UCAN Performance Energy, powered by SuperStarch, about an hour after their pre-game meal to top off their energy before the game starts.

As most games are played at night, maintaining control of players’ blood sugar levels with SuperStarch throughout the evening prevents them from experiencing “foggy, sleepy feelings” during gametime. Bar says the feeling of blood sugar maintenance is pretty obvious to players who try SuperStarch for the first time in lieu of their normal peanut butter and jelly sandwich or bagel.

Mark finds the subtlety of SuperStarch to be it’s most powerful quality. “What they don’t notice is a crash. This product has to work, I know it works. That’s what resonated with me and with athletes, especially with ones that have had different products thrown at them with promises of ‘x, y, and z.’ With UCAN it’s not about promises, it’s just consistency. That’s a big deal for me as a coach. You want to be honest with your players.”

QUALITY COUNTS

A daily nutrition survey during the season keeps Bar’s athletes honest about their dietary patterns- including whether they’ve eaten breakfast and how many meals they eat when outside the training facility. Monitoring these habits provides metrics that Bar takes into consideration during his 1:1 biweekly meetings, aided by the team nutritionist. “We create short-term and long-term goals,” he says, and managing simple day-to-day nutrition and lifestyle behaviors is part of reaching those targets.

While consuming the right amount of calories is important, Bar lays the foundation of quality calories from day one: “Nutrient density is something we really focus on. A lot of people rely so heavily on only counting calories. We focus more on choosing whole, nutrient-dense foods, and eliminating simples sugars and processed foods.

Ultimately, applying the principles of optimal performance nutrition to a diverse group of individuals is a balance of science and art, one that requires Bar to constantly reassess his approach.

Bar encounters plenty of uncertainty surrounding the importance of food quality in a training setting. Laughing as he recalls a memorable instance when a young athlete showed up to a workout with a bag of chips, Bar admits that he himself used to think any type of calorie was sufficient to support him through rigorous training. Creating ambivalence about a pre-training food choice like chips helps Bar open a conversation about not just amount of calories, but quality of calories:

“There are a lot of athletes that just don’t know the value of nutrient-dense foods and how that can help improve performance,” he says. Bar finds himself regularly educating about how nutrient-dense foods can superiorly support performance, health, and body composition over nutrient-poor counterparts of similar caloric value.

IT’S OK TO HAVE A TREAT

Is there any indulgence better than pizza? Mark doesn’t think so, and he orders it for the team after many of their away games. Considering that his athletes eat healthy for the majority of their meals, a well-timed pie serves as a both morale boost while they’re away from home and a delicious treat. All in moderation of course: “Their caloric loss is so great that they want tangible food. It’s not the end of the world and it holds them over until they get on the plane.”

Bar is in the same camp, sometimes indulging in chocolate after a tough workout. As long as it’s part of a greater, long-term sustainable approach that’s aligned with athlete goals, Bar maintains that a sweet every now and then is perfectly fine.

About Bar Malik and Mark Fitzgerald

Bar Malik is the Director of Performance for the New York Knicks. He oversees all of strength and conditioning for the basketball team and is heavily involved with on-court player development and sports science. Prior to joining Knicks, he worked with Major League Baseball’s Pittsburgh Pirates for six years as their strength and conditioning coach. Bar received his Masters in Human Movement, is an NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with Distinction (CSCS*D) and received a Certificate of Excellence for work he did with US Army.

 

Mark Fitzgerald is Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for the Anaheim Ducks. Mark previously worked as the Head of Performance and Nutrition for the Canadian Hockey League, where he oversaw the combine development program and implemented many unique nutritional and educational programs. He also served as the strength coach for the American Hockey League’s Toronto Marlies from 2009-2014. In addition, he owns Elite Training Systems, a high-performance training center that caters to athletes from all sports. Mark is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), and is currently finishing his Masters Degree in Kinesiology via Cal State Fullerton University.