Athletes need to plan their food

Every player needs to carry a tiffin box to practice. Every player needs to pack emergency foods for travel. Which food, and how much is dependent on what activities a player has for the day and for how long.

On a flight recently, I met two tired cricketers returning from a game. We settled into the flight together and started a conversation that turned into a sports nutrition counselling session. Tired and dehydrated, and with little food in them, we broke down their day:

* Rise for breakfast and get to the ground in a hurry by 9 a.m.

* Play a 50-over match with the mandated breaks for drinks and lunch.

* Finish playing and head back to the hotel, and then check out and leave for the airport.

All these sound too familiar for all my athletes. Golfers, tennis, football, hockey and basketball players, all face a similar uphill task of an arrangement — from travel and accommodation to food.

So for me, I had to download the issues related to food. I told these travelling cricketers that you can play without an accommodation or tickets, but you cannot play without eating. But both disagreed with me.

I quickly subjected them to a simple brain test to check their cognition and reflexes. Looking at their eyes and tongues, I could see they were dehydrated, but the players were not aware of it, except for the fact that one of them complained of a mild headache. As I pointed out to the chinks in their armour, that they were feeling awesome, confessions began on what they felt and what were their issues. I summed up, a change of attitude in the way they prepare was the key issue.

After the journey, I kept asking myself, ‘How do I change the way athletes think? Can I make them realise that food is the emperor of their performance — not any food, but the right food, in right quantities and at the right time?’

I think there are three steps:

1. You need fuelling every three hours of your life.

Unlike a common person who has breakfast, lunch and dinner, an athlete needs more meals in a day. Why? A player has more calorie consumption in an active day. Sometimes a player burns four times the calories that a normal person does. So three meals are not enough. This is why I tell all athletes that they don’t have a breakfast, lunch and dinner option. They have Meal 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8 option only. The philosophy behind these meals is: ‘What am I going to be doing for the next three hours?’ And accordingly, the strategy of what you eat and how much is decided. If a player follows this consistently, then muscle recovery and glycogen replenishment (energy-boosting) will happen. This is a 365-day, sunrise-to-bedtime discipline.

2. You need to carry your own fuel.

The problem that every player faces is, the food they eat at home is almost always not available during travel and with caterers at the local tournaments. So the players end up eating whatever is available.

One solution to the problem is for the academies and sports managers to work with a good nutritionist to plan the menu before, during and after training/matches, and then work with vendors to get hygienic, nutritious food cooked and served to the athletes. The two cricketers I met on the flight complained of badly cooked rice and very cheap food during their tournament. One of them commented, “At least we got some food. Last year they expected us to go outside the stadium and have samosas and tea!”

This is where the discipline during travel needs to kick in. Carry your own protein powder, nuts, puffed rice, peanuts, tetra packs of milk to the training arena or competition. When I did mention this to one of the cricketers, he rolled his eyes saying “Nahi yaar, panga mat le!” We opened his backpack to find a set of big headphones, neck pillow, a book, a tube of muscle-sprain gel, one bottle of water, a tablet, phone charger, and so many other things. But not a food item. I asked him how much his kit weighed. He said 40 kg total baggage. Did he have any food or supplements with him? He said no.

I then asked him, if he missed his kit could he still play. He said, yes. I next asked him, if he did not eat for a day or two would he still be able to play. At this point he got what I was trying to hint.

Every player needs to carry a tiffin box to practice. Every player needs to pack emergency foods for travel. Which food, and how much is dependent on what activities a player has for the day and for how long.

The older generation of players used to carry large tiffin carriers from home. Even cricketers like Pravin Amre and badminton coach Pullela Gopi Chand told me that in their younger days they used to carry huge tiffin carriers with them. Today, players order from commercial places with their e-commerce apps. Little do they realise that restaurants use the cheapest of ingredients to maximise the profits of their dishes. Don’t order online or from restaurants outside. Carry your own food. It’s the secret of your energy.

3. You need to respond to your body’s signals.

Of the two players on the flight, one had a sore knee after taking a diving catch, and the other a headache. I asked them what did they do for their problems, and they mentioned icing and painkiller. And when I asked the players about the food they had that could help them recover, they both looked bemused. They were surprised that food can help heal an injured cartilage and a bad headache.

Over the next 30 minutes I explained the shelf-life concept of an athlete. Just like food, athletes have an expiry date. The ‘Best Before’ date is when every athlete is at his/her peak. When your eyes get dry, it’s a sign that you are dehydrated. When your skin is dry, it’s a sign of good fats being low in your diet. When your paunch begins to poke out, it is time for you to get your diet in order.

Bowel movement for most athletes is normally twice a day. If it’s more than that, you have a digestive or psychological issue. If your muscles hurt two days in a row after a day’s rest, then your diet is low in protein or your calcium or Vitamin D is very low.

There are hundreds of symptoms and signs that I look into during a session with an athlete. The key is to keep a diary and note down the good, the bad and the ugly signals.

The ultimate aim is to plan your food. Carry your own home-cooked food as much as possible, ensure that your food suits your liking and your sports nutrition requirements. The tiffin box is not a bad option. The larger the better.

I helped both athletes on a flight with a generous serving of the nuts from my laptop bag and a gluten-free energy bar.

Outside the airport, I walked them to the subway and showed them the options they could choose from. They said they were not hungry. Their last meal was over six hours ago! With a dejected smiled, I wished them all the best. It was time to find smarter athletes!

For a list of foods that an athlete can safely carry for the day, email [email protected]