5 Strategies for Winning the Minor League Nutrition Battle – Part 2
Written on August 15, 2014 at 7:43 pm, by Eric Cressey
Today, we've got part 2 of a guest post from Andrew Ferreira on the topic of nutrition in the minor leagues. In case you missed it, be sure to check out Part 1. -EC
Strategy #3: Back-load Your Carbs.
Carb back-loading simply means saving your carb intake until later on in the day. Personally, I've found it advantageous to eat most of my carbs at night, predominantly after the game. There are several reasons why I suggest you employ this strategy:
A) Maintain sympathetic dominance when it's time to work
Minor leaguers consume a LOT of energy drinks. They consume so many, in fact, that I wouldn't be surprised if our population could keep energy drink companies in business all by ourselves.
Because the majority of minor league games are played at night, we work when our bodies' natural circadian rhythm wants to unwind and relax with the setting of the sun. Sure, your biological clock can adjust, but there is a physiological ideal that your body operates most efficiently under. In a perfect world, cortisol levels are lowest during the evening, fueling relaxation and a smooth transition into restful sleep. Clearly, these are conditions that are not conducive to high performance. At a superficial level, moderate stimulant consumption is understandable.
Unfortunately, two to three energy drinks a day doesn't quantify as moderation consumption. Stimulants are ingested at extreme levels and I think a big part of it stems from our half-haphazard approach to nutrition. Let me explain.
When we have to perform mechanical work, we want our sympathetic nervous system (SNS) to be locked in. Our sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) excites us and floods our blood stream with catecholamines, providing us not only with energy, but the ingredients to be locked in and focused.
When we wake up in the morning, this is our bodies' natural state. Cortisol levels are high and we're ready to take on the day. The problem is that our bodies' enthusiasm for getting stuff done all but goes out the window when you stop at Chick-Fil-A and eat a bunch of refined carbs.
Ingesting carbs causes a spike in blood glucose levels and, consequently, a rise in insulin. Glucose and insulin promote a shift from the SNS to the parasympathetic nervous system. You start to feel groggy, sluggish, and tired because your body is more concerned with digesting the food you just ate than whatever task you were focused on beforehand. So what do you do? You shotgun that Red Bull, prompting a shift back to the SNS, and consquently unneccesarily stressing the adrenals. If your pregame meal looks like anything like your first meal, then you'll again feel sluggish – prompting another energy drink.
We want to avoid this cycle.
If you back-load your carbs and focus on protein, healthy fats, and vegetables during the day, you will trigger a much smaller spike in insulin and in all likelihood stay locked in to sympathetic mode, allowing you the mental acuity to adequately handle the necessary mechanical work without disrupting the balance with the autonomic nervous system.
B) Stay Leaner.
In the minors, we're not fortunate enough to have post-game five star spreads similar to what is available to major leaguers. There's not ever going to be steak or a piece of wild caught fish waiting for us after the game. The economics of the situation simply make it impossible. What we're largely going to get is a staple of refined carbohydrates. The last team I was with had a steady rotation of pizza, fried chicken and fries, and lasagna as our three main post-game meals. Because we pay for the food out of clubhouse dues and the fact that our hunger after the game relegates any notions of health conscious behavior to the background of our minds, we're going to eat whatever we have in front of us.
Though the choices aren't going to be ideal, if we back-load our carbs, we can mitigate damage. Whatever glycogen debt we created from either training earlier that day, pre-game sprint work, or actually playing in the game will be refueled with the post-game carbs, preparing our body to be ready to go for the next day.
Further, back-loading our carbs is going to keep us leaner. I guarantee if you eat nothing but refined carbs all day, you're going to gain fat. Has not having a six-pack ever kept someone from being a major leaguer? Absolutely not. Over the short term, it's really not going to make a significant difference; yet, habits just don't go away. You'll fall into a habitual pattern of eating refined carbs and over time you're going to be a “bad body guy.” It's not a stigma you want attached to your name. I have seen a player (a top prospect, in fact) have to go to Instructional League and do nothing but work out all day because he finished the season in incredibly bad shape. It's a situation that can be easily avoided.
C) Sleep Better.
Sleep is the greatest recovery tool we have. If we want to survive the duration of the season and stay healthy, it's imperative that we sleep well. Sure, it's difficult to get quality sleep when you’re traveling on a crammed bus for eight hours overnight. That's why we must optimize sleep when we can.
Our energy drink consumption becomes most problematic in terms of sleep quality. You may be able to get to sleep after drinking that energy drink in the 4th inning, but the quality of your sleep is going to suffer. Caffeine shortens phases three and four (REM sleep and dreaming), which are the most restorative for the brain (Keenan 2014). Continually short-circuiting our bodies' ability to recover is like taking the pin out of a live grenade. Eventually, something is going to blow up.
Back-loading carb intake does a few things for our sleep quality.
First, as I mentioned earlier, glucose intake (carbs) and a rise in insulin promotes a shift to our parasympathetic nervous system. Inducing parasympathetic nervous system dominance at night is crucial to recovery and allowing for high quality digestion, absorption, and cellular uptake of nutrients.
Second, carbohydrate intake inudces a release of serotonin. Serotonin release, through a series of chemical interactions, promotes lasting, quality sleep.
By back-loading our carb intake, sympathetic dominance can be maintained while we have to train and play. When we have to turn our bodies off and relax and recover, ingesting ample amounts of carbs (healthy or not) prompts a shift to our parasympathetic nervous system, facilitating restorative sleep and optimal recovery.
Tip #4: Supplement Wisely.
In terms of in-season supplementation, inducing incredible gains in the weight room isn't priority #1. Sure, that latest pre-workout you got may be the equivalent to cocaine, but is getting a pick-me-up to power through your low volume, moderate intensity in-season lift all that necessary?
Rather than setting a new squat max in July, I want to be sure our physiology is optimized to facilitate proper recovery. I understand that I keep hammering home the importance of recovery, but it's incredibly important on a day-to-day basis.
Take a reliever, for example. Say my max velocity is 92 and another reliever's max velocity is 95. On the surface, the other guy is more valuable. Yet, overlooked is the fact that I am able to pitch at near 100% effectiveness every day while reliever B is only able to utilize his premium ability twice a week. Now who is more valuable? The answer is clear.
Enhancing one's ability to recover is our top priority in terms of in-season supplementation. There are five that I think are essential to facilitate adequate recovery.
1) Fish Oil – For reasons I mentioned above, supplementing with a high-quality fish oil is essential to fighting off inflammation.
2) Athletic Greens (or some form of greens supplement) – Cooking vegetables is the bane of my existence. I just don't do it near as often as I should, partly because it's just not sexy or appealing to my brain's limbic system. Delayed positive effects on my testosterone levels are just not enough positive justification to cook up a batch of broccoli alongside my steak and 'taters. Athletic Greens is my nutritional insurance. It's loaded with about every health food known to man just in case your vegetable intake is as bad as mine. You'll never feel better, I promise.
3) Vitamin D – I know what you're thinking... the minor league season is played in the heart of summer, why the need for Vitamin D supplementation? Valid point, but for many AA and AAA leagues, you don't see the sun in April and May. You're miserably cold and I'm sure your vitamin D levels are not optimal. Additionally, once the season gets going, most guys wear sunscreen, so actual sun exposure is lower than you might think. Supplement with vitamin D until the seasons turn.
I know what you're thinking at this point - and, no, leaving the newest fad testosterone booster off my list wasn't a mistake. Stick to the basics during the season and put your focus on optimizing your body’s ability to recover when it comes to supplementation. It's bland and boring – but bland and boring works.
Tip #5: Include Super Shakes to Maintain Weight.
In order to get to “The Show,” it's all about continually producing favorable adaptations and taking steps forward. Most athletes’ off-seasons place a predominant focus on gaining quality weight: the more muscle, the better. Everything else held constant, more mass will equate to greater force production and, in all likelihood, a better athlete.
So all off-season we focus on eating BIG. Force-feeding oneself into near sickness at the dinner table and thousand calorie shakes a couple times a day become the norm. Compound these eating habits with a quality strength program and we gain 20 pounds by the time we leave for spring training. We look and feel strong as hell and because of the weight gain, our velocity experiences a nice jump.
Your body wants to continually maintain homeostasis. Keeping your bodyweight is an important metabolic homeostatic process. By eating BIG the entire off-season, you forced your body to adapt by disrupting homeostasis and gaining weight. The problem is that your body chooses the path of least resistance when it comes to maintaining homeostasis. Metabolically, it's a whole lot easier for your body to maintain 200lbs than it is to maintain a new 225-lb frame. So, eating big for just one off-season isn't going to cut it if you want to maintain your new frame, strength, and velocity. You have to keep pushing adaptation until your body establishes a new set point and you are better able to maintain your weight without having to consume 5,000 calories a day like you do in the off season.
All too often, I hear stories of guys gaining all this weight and strength in the off-season – but they struggle to hold on to any of it during the season. By the time the season ends, they are back to where they started the previous year. It's a perpetual cycle that keeps them playing catch up each off-season rather than using the time to build on the foundation and keep pushing favorable adaptations to take them to the next level.
Maintaining your off-season eating habits during the season is necessary if you want to maintain your weight. Unfortunately, with our schedule, it's easier said than done. It's nearly impossible to feel comfortable playing when your stomach is full from a gigantic breakfast and lunch.
Enter the super shake. It's a whole lot easier to drink 1,000 calories than it is to eat them. Implementing one or two a day may be what you need in order to keep pushing your body to establish a new set point and maintain your new frame.
A good place to start in constructing your super shake is using the formula EC wrote about in this article: low-carb protein powder, almond or whole milk, coconut oil, fruits, natural nut butters, greek yogurt, oats, ground flax, and veggies.
It's not rocket science, nor is it sexy. With the above ingredients, the combinations are literally endless, the calories dense, and the product healthy. Unless you literally have no other option, which I can't imagine, avoid the standard weight gainers you’ll see on the market. They are processed crap.
Ever since I started my professional career, I was in search of a new model to adequately handle in-season nutrition to give me the best shot of making it. The results of my search gave birth to the model constructed above.
It's not revolutionary, nor is it a model that's going to lend itself into a New York Times' Bestseller. However, it has allowed me to stay lean, maintain my strength, and most importantly feel good throughout a 142-game season. The minor league baseball season is a beast with so many less-than-ideal environmental variables. The ability to adapt is foundational in order to be successful. To adapt adequately, having a workable framework is a necessity. The model above is a start.
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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