Sports nutritionist James Harris makes sure that University of Oregon athletes are properly fueled and ready to compete at the highest level.
For many years, football coaches have recognized that effective strength and conditioning programs are essential ways to help athletes achieve peak performance. Increasing numbers of programs now also understand that proper nutritional practices are just as important if you want to maximize an athlete’s effectiveness on the field.
For James Harris, Assistant Athletic Director for Student Athlete Development at the University of Oregon, making sure that athletes eat right, recover from workouts and remain hydrated is part of his daily life. A nutritional scientist by training, Harris oversees nutritional programs for all sports at Oregon, helping to ensure that all student-athletes at the school are primed to perform at optimal levels.
AFM recently asked Harris about the importance of proper nutrition in the overall mix of athletic training, the biggest problems facing football players during and after their playing careers and the use of Muscle Milk products as part of a nutritional and recovery regimen.
AFM: How important is good nutrition for athletes that want to perform at the highest level?
Harris: Nutrition is an important piece of the puzzle and plays an integral role in energy, body composition, muscle development, hydration and achieving maximum performance. It is an often overlooked component in today’s society but more and more athletes and coaches are singing the praises of sound nutrition practices.
Is there something that coaches and athletes can do nutritionally that can contribute to greater stamina and endurance late in the game like the Ducks offense showed so often last season?
To succeed late in the game on Saturday, you have to prepare Sunday through Saturday. We have very intense practices and set up stations to refuel them immediately post practice. Coach Kelly and I meet every week to discuss the nutritional needs of the team and he structures the schedule accordingly. This is a priority in our program and is stressed by our head coach, strength coaches, trainers and leaders of our team. We start game day with a great pregame meal to make sure we start the game with a full fuel tank and “refill the tank” at halftime with protein/ carbohydrate snacks and hydration. We also have a very structured hydration program that supports the demands of our style of play.
Are nutritional programs for football players custom-designed based on their positions and/or body type?
Our individual nutrition programs are based on four things: weight, body composition, position, and goals. Each player is given a goal weight range and weight is recorded every week. Each week, players are educated based on where they are within their range. Each position has body composition standards and players strive to achieve individualized goals through nutrition and their work with our strength staff.
You’ve worked with players after their playing careers ended to lose weight and build a foundation for solid nutritional habits in their futures. What can high school coaches do along these lines for athletes that will not be advancing to the next level?
First, coaches and athletes must realize that there is a playing weight and a life weight. Once a player’s football career is over, specific changes need to be made for the well being of the athlete. One significant change is the amount of food the athlete consumes. Once football is over, athletes usually burn fewer calories and therefore need to intake less food. There should also be an emphasis on an increased amount of fresh fruit and vegetables as well as determining a new way to burn calories. It is important to find a calorie burning activity that they enjoy and plan to stick to after football is over.
What role do Muscle Milk products play in your nutrition programs for Ducks’ athletes, specifically football players?
Muscle Milk products play a key role in quickly delivering protein and carbohydrates to enhance muscle repair/recovery and in replenishing glycogen stores post workout. We have the ready to drink product set up right outside the locker room and educate our athletes about the importance of post workout nutrients. We also use the powder to create customized shakes for athletes that need to add mass. During the summer months, we blend the powder with frozen berries to provide a refreshing change of pace. The products help our student athletes understand nutrient timing and the role nutrition has in maximizing performance. It also tastes really good so I don’t have to remind guys to pick up their shakes!
What are the biggest problems you face correcting bad nutritional habits of athletes coming out of high school?
The biggest problems are the “dollar menus” and quick meals. Athletes enter our program without a history of eating breakfast or fresh produce and have a strong addiction to fried foods. These poor habits are hard to break so we start off by adding foods to their plate rather than restricting the foods of poor nutritional value. As time goes on, we increase the lean meat, fresh produce and grains which naturally leave little room for the fried and high sugar “foods”. We also hear a lot about healthy foods that they “don’t like”. I often tell them that they may not like an exercise in the weight room or a drill in practice but they do it because they know it will make them better. The same goes with food! They might have to do a couple of sets of broccoli to achieve their performance goals.
What should high school coaches be doing differently to nutritionally prepare football players to succeed in college?
Coaches should be asking questions like what did you eat for breakfast, lunch and dinner and stress the importance of good food along with the other goals of the program. Coaches should also be good role models for their athletes. If a coach walks in with a big gulp and a fast food bag or has team meals full of fried foods and high sugar snacks his words of nutrition will mean very little to his athletes. Lastly, coaches should educate themselves or contact a good nutritionist for assistance.