Tim Tebow, quarterback of the Denver Broncos, is one of the most talked-about NFL players this season. While sports commentators have questioned Tebow’s abilities as a quarterback, others have wondered exactly what it takes to stay in peak shape as a professional football player. For many professional athletes, including Tebow, maintaining an athletic physique is not something that comes naturally but is a result of years of dedication to strength training, cardiovascular exercise and maintaining a healthy balanced diet.
Though Tebow’s autobiography Through My Eyes states that he was raised on “Coke and Popsicles” at his uncle’s farm, it is unlikely that he maintains a high-sugar diet today.
“Every athlete will have different needs, but typically you’d like your athlete to eat cleanly all year long,” said New York-based performance coach Chris Matsui, who has worked with high-level athletes including the Carolina Panthers. “A football player’s diet shouldn’t change drastically in the week before a game, but what they specifically eat is dependent on their individual needs and food allergies or intolerances.”
For most of his clients, Matsui recommends fueling with plenty of lean meat (fish and chicken), healthy fats (avocado and nuts), fruit (blueberries and strawberries), vegetables (kale, broccoli and spinach) and complex carbohydrates (quinoa or brown rice).
“During the game, they’ll need more simple carbohydrates to quickly refuel and hydrate, typically Gatorade and water,” said Matsui. “During and post-workout, they’ll need to refuel with protein and simple carbs, and then eat a clean meal afterwards.”
NFL player Darnell Bing, who has been a member of the San Francisco 49ers, New York Jets, Detroit Lions, and most recently, the Houston Texans, believes in eating a simple, basic diet.
“I only eat fish, turkey and chicken – no beef or pork,” said Bing. “I eat lightly so that I can operate well with any activities at any time. I eat the same way all year round and maintain healthy eating habits during the off-seasons so that I won’t have to readjust myself when the season begins.”
While some athletes, including long-distance runners, believe in loading up on carbohydrates the night before a big event, the same is not true for most football players.
“If the athlete has been consistently eating cleanly throughout the season, then their body should be sufficiently fueled in preparation for the big game,” said Matsui. “Carbo-loading the day before is not an effective method for boosting muscle glycogen levels. Consistency is the key here, eating meals with a lot of colors from fruits and vegetables, adding in lean meat and good fats will better fuel your body than “carbo-loading” the night before.”
Denver-based trainer Richard Ruiz believes that there is no magic food formula for football players.
“Believe it or not, one of the simplest, and least expensive foods an athlete can use to recover is 2% chocolate milk,” said Ruiz. “It has the perfect nutritional balance of protein, carbs and fat for post-workout or post-game recovery.”
Ruiz also noted that healthy eating is easier for NFL players than for the average person, as most NFL facilities make a concerted effort to provide nutritionally-dense meals for players.
“As with anything else, one has to be responsible for one’s self,” Ruiz said. “A lot of players seek advice from trainers or nutritionists during the off-season, because prior to a game is not the time for a player to experiment with his diet.”
While it is important for players to seek nutritious meals, most football players are larger than the average person and need to eat more calories.
“Tim Tebow is approximately 240 pounds, so his daily calorie needs lie in the 4,000-5,000 range,” said Coach Joseph Potts, Director of Sports Performance Training at TopSpeed Strength & Conditioning. “Of those calories, 50-60% should come from complex carbohydrates, 15-20% from protein and 20-30% from fat.”
“For an athlete of Tebow’s approximate size that would be a range of 190-250 grams of protein per day,” Potts added. “Therefore the diet should consist of the above mentioned foods; plenty of whole grain carbohydrates, fruits, vegetables, lowfat dairy and lean meats. To reach the protein intake requirement many athletes will use protein supplements, the two most popular being whey and casein protein powders.”