Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning


Dave Ellis, RD, CSCS, PBSCCS Advisory Board Member, Colorado Springs CO

Dave Ellis is an accomplished Sports Dietitian and President of Sports Alliance, which provides consulting services to athletics and the food industry.  Dave has earned a reputation as a pioneer and leader in the field of applied sports nutrition and is celebrating his 25th year of practice athletics in 2006.   As the Director of Performance Nutrition support services at the collegiate level (20 years combined – Nebraska and Wisconsin Universities), Ellis orchestrated the most highly evolved performance nutrition and body composition support service models in the country.  Dave also Chairs the Nutrition, Metabolism & Body Composition Special Interest Group of the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA) and is an advisor to the Professional Baseball Strength & Conditioning Coaches Society (PBSCCS) Advisory Board, USADA and the Taylor Hooton Foundation.

In nutrition you have to think about the meals at home and on the road, and be involved with keeping a team fueled throughout the year.  It becomes a tactical experience of management.  You have to really be able to look into the future and see how the team is moving and where they’re moving and have a bit of an instinct to make the best recommendation to get them well-fed and hydrated to and through the ensuing competition and the training that comes before.  So, fueling tactics as a topic really makes a lot of sense for the applied sports nutritionist, somebody who really works in an applied setting with athletes, becoming a tactician to some degree.  Subsequently, that’s how the idea of fueling tactics began.

Philosophies Behind Fueling Tactics

Fueling tactics is a three-step system every time we write a menu.  Whether we’re eating at home or on the road, these three steps are accomplished with regard to the food items offered at the meal.  Educationally, the athletes are taught how to selectively think about these three steps, evaluating their plates and trays as to how well qualitatively they have done in selecting a meal that satisfies these three steps.  To make it easier, we have divided the foods at our training tables so that they are merchandised in three separate buffets which distinguish each of these three steps.  That is a tactic which makes it easy for us to see who’s got room for improvement in their eating habits rather than having to get the athletes write down what they’re eating.  By watching them use the three buffets you can see the weaknesses in their diets.  It becomes obvious and you are literally doing online quality management, doing dietary assessment based on just the kinetics of their moving through the three buffets.  That is necessary in a situation where you are dealing with a large number of athletes who are eating with the repetitious nature that they do in collegiate athletics.  Stopping and getting dietary recalls for the amounts these individuals eat is very cumbersome, so this makes our initial assessment process on a qualitative basis of what they are eating simple.

It is easy for us to target what the weaknesses of the athlete are as far as their diets and eating habits and then start working on those individual issues as well as those involving the overall food supply, which keeps the diverse number of international athletes that we have happy, which is not easy.   Fueling tactics is really about food, and making it simple for people to understand the complexities of eating in a system that is one, two, three as far as its simplicity.  It has really worked well and we have had a lot of people emulate it over time.

Downloading Training Table Principles for Coaches and Parents 

Once you have a chance to review the simplicity of the three step fueling tactics you will see just how often we come up short when defaulting to the food supply that surrounds us daily.  It is not uncommon for us to see better eaters from families who still eat together and have some structure at home vs. those who default to the drive through.  So it is important for parents to understand this approach to eating so they can shop and build meals that fit the bill at home.  It would even be helpful to play a bit of a game by having family members try and classify which foods apply to each of the three steps.  It will very important for parents and coaches to instill in the minds of the young athletes that just because everyone around them is defaulting to the drive through doesn’t mean it is the right thing to consistently practice, especially for a highly stressed athlete.  In addition it is a good idea for a group of parents to organize a rotating schedule where you are assigned to bring certain items from the three-step philosophy in an effort to provide pregame meal and if playing in a tournament, just as importantly, a post-game meal.  Optimally we look to eat pregame meals about 3-4 hours before competition.  Quite often in amateur athletics the ability to provide this level of structure can be limited by demanding schedules and limited resources. Hopefully, between the exposure at home and with sports the athletes over time will really start reaping the benefits that nutrition has for them.  This is only possible however with the consistent application of these three fueling tactics.  Just focusing on the meal before competition is really not going to get it done.  Fueling tactics is all about supporting the athletes through the rigors of the day-to-day, week-to-week, and month-to-month training.  If the athletes have less down time due to illness, better energy levels and faster rates of recovery they will have the potential to outwork the competition.  Smart work, and more of it.

Step One-Stress Reduction Through Natural Sources of Vitamin A, C, and E

The first step in fueling tactics is that we want people to incorporate fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds into their meals.  What we want from these foods are natural sources of antioxidants which are found in abundance in fresh food.   These foods are loaded with natural antioxidants like Vitamin E in nuts and seeds, Vitamin C in fruits and some vegetables, Vitamin A in the form of caratenoids that we get from vegetables and some fruits and a host of compounds called bioflavanoids with similar antioxidant properties.  Those are all nutrients that are known to have antioxidant properties, and antioxidants are things that help scavenge reactive oxygen and nitrogen species called free radicals.  These nasty things are by-products of stress.

What most people don’t understand about hardworking athletes is that they are a healthy population, but they are under tremendous stress, the most obvious being the physical work they endure on a daily basis as a result of their training.  The metabolic by-product of their hard work is going to produce an insult of free radicals.  If we don’t have a diet that is adequate relative to the work load in these antioxidants from these good sources of fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds, then we are going to have an athlete who is more vulnerable to the cumulative stress of their training, which begins to degrade the integrity of tissue, and that breaks down on a functional basis.  First this happens peripherally in the muscle doing the work as a natural start to the inflammatory signaling process that initiates healing. If the insult is too great and too frequent that results in a systemic response that is indicated by the monocytic production of cytokines which can lead symptoms characteristic of overreaching, overtraining and a compromised immune status. It’s the natural inflammatory process that can potentially go too far.  Factors that are indicative of who is more prone to suffer a systemic inflammatory insult definitely involves controllable factors such as diet and lifestyle.

What we see as the first manifestation of a weak fruit, vegetable, nut andseed eater is that they get upper respiratory illnesses quite easily.  This is very common to athletes.  If they are under stress and not eating these foods, one of things that is affected is their immune system.  It knocks their work capacity down and it knocks them out of training and academic participation, which always puts them behind.  We can’t afford that especially in the off season when there are small windows for adaptations.  Some sports have only one annual widow of opportunity for adaptations for off season gains.  If that athlete is sick half the time, I can promise you they will fall significantly behind over the course of their career.  That could be the difference between being first, second or third on the depth chart, not making the team at all or losing your scholarship.  Athletes cannot afford to have unnecessary downtime because of a vulnerable immune system.  Stress is not only metabolic work, it’s also affected by environmental conditions.  Heat, cold, pollution and environmental stresses all contribute.  If an athlete trains in a heavily polluted area, that is also another stress source.  Visual distractions and loud noises can also contribute, such as being in a tournament situation.  You also have metabolic and emotional stresses.  Athletes who are worried about their position on the depth chart and maintaining their scholarship, ensuing competitions, academics (especially at the end of the semester), all are stressor situations that produce these free radicals.  In addition, they are human  beings and have stress in their personal lives.  Athletes have very high levels of stress that can come from all angles.  It can be overwhelming and build up over time during the long grind of the season.  The athletes who did not grow up eating fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seed and who express a greater amount of stress-inflammatory response are definitely more vulnerable when a virus makes it’s way through a campus.  For those who are doing the three-step dietary program, especially step one hopefully we can minimize the down time.  Being taken down for a day or two is much better than missing a week or more.

Vitamin A, C and E Supplements

In a pinch, you might be able to reduce the stress of not having fresh fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds in the diet by taking supplements.  But in the long run, you never want to bank replace fresh food form sources.  There is so much going on in these foods we don’t understand physiologically and biochemically.  No matter how sophisticated the dietary supplement is, it most likely lacks something that exists in our food supply.  Also, anytime

food is canned or frozen for a long time, the nutrient yield diminishes.  Fresh foods require shopping, cooking, chopping up, etc. but are worth the work considering all the nutrients they bring into our diet.  This is a return to the times when some shopped for the family weekly and people ate at home together as a family.  We have become dependent on a ready-to-eat food supply that tolerates little loss of profit due to spoilage of fresh produce.  Vendors are more likely to sell foods that they can pull from the freezer prior to cooking.

All stressed people could benefit from some higher standards when it comes to step one.  Athletes for sure need to have higher standards because of the stresses they endure, and that is why there are training tables.  But don’t worry.  You can do this at home at some restaurants, and even some fast-food establishments, like a sub shop.

Eating Practices

Breakfast is typically a good time to get the sources of fresh fruits.  We try and get our athletes to lean toward those fresh fruits as sources of Vitamin C, particularly those heavily pigmented fruits, such as cantaloupe and tangerine, which also have Vitamin A.  Because most people don’t find nuts and seeds palpable in the morning, it’s a bit harder to get that Vitamin E intake.  For lunch, salads and sandwiches are appealing.  Dark greens are desirable, as are nuts and seeds on a salad.  Also, the oils from the salad dressing are excellent sources of Vitamin E, so there is such a thing as good fats.  For dinner, cooked vegetables are available to the athletes for a source of Vitamin A activity.  Dark (red, green, orange) pigmented vegetables, such as squash, cooked greens, asparagus and fresh snap beans.  Athletes love the nuts and seeds as quick and healthy snacks en route to  class.  This brings me back to my point that not all fats are bad.  The fat-o-phobia among Americans these days has left the athletes vulnerable to not taking in enough of the good fats listed under the vitamin E sources on the three step poster.  Athletes have a tremendous potential to dispose of calories from monounsaturated vegetable fats so don’t shy away from them. Sunflower seeds are the most concentrated Vitamin E source and like fruits are portable, so they are easy to eat on the go.

We are more likely to have success getting our worst fruit and vegetable eaters to try watermelons and tangerines first.  Jumping right to the tomatoes may be a bust.  But if they can start eating soups, marinara sauces and salsa, they can eventually move up the more heavily pigmented vegetables that are so rich in antioxidants. For a full list of foods high in vitamins A, C and E refer to the accompanying step one of the performance meal guide poster.  You will see a list called “High Priority Sources of A & C”.  These foods deliver a good source of both antioxidants from one food so they are a priority for the athlete who is just learning to eat these foods. For the chronically training athletes, we fortify antioxidants into the sports drinks as they are training.  This is a fueling tactic that yields antioxidants into the blood stream relative to the stress insult.  The more stress the athlete is under, the more consistently they should fulfill step one when eating.

Article provided by Performance Conditioning Baseball/Softball the Official Publication of the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Society

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