Jan 29, 2015Second Half Heroics
Looking for a way to ensure your football team plays the second half as strong as the first? Auburn University utilizes a specialized halftime nutrition plan.
By Scott Sehnert
Scott Sehnert, MS, RD, LD, CSSD, CSCS, is the Sports Dietitian at Auburn University, where he oversees the nutrition needs of all 21 varsity athletic teams. He also serves on the Board of Directors for the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA) and can be reached at: [email protected].
It is the second half of an important football game and one of the starting cornerbacks is in the locker room with the athletic trainer, the left tackle is slow off the line on every play, and the middle linebacker cannot seem to read the offensive line as well as he usually does. This scenario is a coach’s nightmare–and poor halftime nutrition could be contributing to the problem.
What players eat and drink during halftime of a football game will have a direct effect on their performance in the second half. Insufficient fueling of the muscles means they won’t fire as quickly, and athletes will slow down and lose power. Fluid and electrolyte losses that aren’t replaced can also cause an athlete to cramp.
And when the brain doesn’t get the nutrients it needs, a player’s ability to process what’s happening on the field diminishes, while also slowing their movements. Not only will the athlete not make the desired play, but a slower moving athlete is at higher risk for injury.
Here at Auburn University, halftime nutrition is an important part of our game plan. We never want a scenario like the one mentioned here to become a reality, so our players and coaches have all learned to take the athletes’ halftime fueling needs very seriously.
To be prepared for a second half of football, players should be replacing the primary nutrients utilized during the first half: carbohydrates, fluids, and electrolytes. Each player’s rate of utilization differs, and is dependent on many factors including, but not limited to, the geographical location of the game, time of day the game is played, and the player’s position.
For example, a place kicker in Minnesota will need to replace fewer nutrients than a linebacker in Georgia. The linebacker will be running and hitting more than the kicker, which burns more carbohydrates and utilizes more water and electrolytes via sweat to cool his body. In addition, because he is playing in a hot and humid environment in the South, he will expend more energy and use more fuel than an athlete performing the same work in a cooler climate.
There are several ways that athletes can make the necessary replacements. Fluid consumption alone will be sufficient for some, while others may benefit from also taking in a supplement and/or whole foods. While energy expenditure in the first half should dictate how an athlete fuels at halftime, personal preference plays a role as well.
Fluids are one of the most important aspects of halftime nutrition. Just a two-percent decrease in optimum hydration levels, which equates to four pounds of fluid lost in a 200-pound athlete, can negatively affect a player’s speed, endurance, and agility. As hydration levels continue to drop, the athlete’s ability to generate power will suffer as well. Playing in a single half of a football game, some athletes can lose upwards of eight pounds of fluid.
Water used to be the only choice for hydration during exercise, but sports drinks have risen to the challenge and do an even better job of rehydrating athletes. The addition of carbohydrates, sodium, potassium, and sometimes protein and other electrolytes gives sports drinks a greater osmolality–the measure of solute concentration–than water. This means the body will be able to pull in and store more fluid.
It is commonly known that sodium “holds” fluid well, but carbohydrates have the same ability. For each approximate gram of carbohydrate stored, three grams of water are also stored.
Sports drinks are a good option for replacing electrolytes, too. Those of greatest concern are sodium, potassium, magnesium, and calcium. These electrolytes are lost through sweat, and less than optimal levels impact the body’s temperature regulation, muscle contraction, and fluid balance.
In our locker room at halftime, we have water and a sports drink available. It’s left up to the players which beverage, and how much of it, they want to consume.
Supplements like sports bars, gels, beans, and shakes are some of the quickest and easiest halftime refueling options. They have a long shelf life, come individually wrapped, and are made of ingredients that are designed to quickly replace nutrients lost through exercise because they are easily digestible.
The main drawback to supplements is that they are more expensive than whole foods. I’ve also seen athletes get in the habit of always having a sports bar at halftime, and this can turn into a crutch where the athletes feels they need to have the bar in order to perform in the second half. But what if their good-luck flavor isn’t available at a big game?
In addition to a gel, we also have sports bars as a supplement option in the locker room at halftime. About 25 players tend to grab one.
Whole foods are the third way to fuel at the break. Fruit is a great option. For example, fruits like bananas and orange slices replace carbohydrates, some fluid, and potassium–three major nutrients utilized during exercise. Fig Newtons and Nutri-Grain bars are also good choices because they have the benefit of included fruit and are easily digestible carbohydrate sources.
Besides simply replacing essential nutrients, football players are often hungry at halftime because several hours have gone by since the pregame meal. The small amount of fiber found in fruit and granola bars can help give the athletes a feeling of fullness.
Though there are lots of good options for halftime fueling, there are plenty of bad choices, too. For one, football players should definitely avoid foods high in fat. Fat doesn’t replace the fuel that was lost (carbohydrate) and takes a long time to digest, so there’s a greater likelihood of suffering an upset stomach. While high-fat foods like nuts, peanut butter, and trail mix are good options for travel snacks and recovery fueling, they are not a good idea during games. We only offer bananas, sports bars, and gels that are low in fat and high in carbohydrate.
Other nutrients of possible concern are fiber and protein. They do provide some satiety, or fullness, so including them in small amounts helps an athlete not feel hungry, but foods rich in fiber and protein also take a long time to digest, so regulating serving size is important. Eating four apples and a large protein shake at halftime is not a good idea, but eating one banana and sipping on half of a shake likely won’t do any harm, and it will help the athlete feel full so during the contest their mind isn’t on what they get to eat after the game.
Sure, it would be ideal if you looked around the locker room at halftime and every player had a water bottle, sports bar, and banana. But it’s not that easy when you have 65 players who all played different positions for varying amounts of time in the first half–not to mention 65 different palates and hunger levels.
For example, a lot of athletes don’t want to eat anything at halftime for fear that it will make them sick once they return to the field. Don’t just dismiss these concerns. By halftime, the pregame “jitters” have disappeared, so it is probably a legitimate worry for them. An athlete who vomits during halftime isn’t just missing their position meeting–they are losing key nutrients and fluids.
For players who are wary of eating at halftime, I’ve found the best approach is to encourage a sports drink and maybe a gel packet. They just need to be sure to stop drinking about five minutes prior to returning to the field so the liquid has time to empty from their stomachs.
Citrus fruit like oranges can potentially pose a problem for some athletes as well because some are high in fiber and acid. If a player consumes too much fiber and acid, it may upset their stomach. It is best if players experiment with foods during practices before trying them at halftime of a game.
There are also players who just don’t have an appetite at halftime. I completely understand that they are not hungry and would not expect them to eat. But it’s important that they rehydrate with a sports drink. Usually, the athlete who isn’t hungry will at least drink fluids.
It’s also a good idea to keep an eye on any players who have been identified as heavy and/or salty sweaters. Encourage greater sports drink consumption and possibly an electrolyte supplement for these athletes at halftime. Players who sweat more than their peers or are salty sweaters lose electrolytes at a faster rate, so replacement at the half is paramount.
The athletic training staff here at Auburn identifies our heavy and/or salty sweaters during fall camp and the early part of the season. Our athletic trainers and strength and conditioning staff then help by making sure these high-risk athletes rehydrate with the right combination of sports drinks and electrolyte supplements.
Finally, some athletes are more susceptible to cramping than others, including salty sweaters. It is unknown exactly why an athlete cramps, but cramping can likely be attributed to one of two things: Skeletal muscle overload and fatigue, or the more common cause of a fluid and electrolyte disturbance. Halftime can be used to help both of these problems.
First, the break gives an athlete’s muscles time to relax and avoid overloading and fatigue. Second, it allows for rehydration and the replacement of lost electrolytes. Each athlete has an individual sweat rate, and carries different concentrations of electrolytes, so unfortunately, sports dietitians cannot give an entire team a blanket fluid and electrolyte replacement recommendation. Preventing cramping is often a trial-and-error process and must be tackled on an individual basis.
After devising a good strategy for fueling your athletes at halftime, I suggest sticking with just a couple of options. Too many choices in the locker room will only become a distraction–water, sports drinks, one type of sports bar, and one to two fruits are enough.
The athletic department sports dietitian isn’t always going to be in the team locker room at halftime. That means it’s important the team’s support staff works together to make sure the players get what they need. Strength coaches, athletic trainers, and team managers can all help.
One person should station him- or herself at the entrance to the locker room where a cooler or fridge is stocked with water and sports drinks, so they can hand bottles out to the players as they come in. Support staff members can then walk around the locker room, offering a banana or sports bar to each player. If possible, don’t leave everything on a table in the far corner of the locker room. If the players have to get up and grab something to eat, most of them won’t bother.
Though the coaches are plenty busy at halftime and don’t have time to harp on their players to make sure they’re taking in fluids and a little food, it’s still important that they understand why halftime nutrition is paramount. I like to think that the days of withholding water and food, “because it makes you tough” are gone, but it’s likely there are still coaches out there who have this mentality.
Every coach wants their team to perform better, so explaining why it’s important to have a small amount of food in the locker room at halftime will hopefully help them see that it can increase their chances of winning. Faster, clear-minded, and more powerful athletes who suffer fewer injuries are the stuff of coaches’ dreams, and fueling properly at halftime is one of the keys to making them come true.
Sidebar: HEAD START
Eating and drinking the right things at halftime of a game will be for naught if athletes have not properly fueled in the days leading up to a game. For a Saturday contest, especially in hot and humid climates, the “loading” of fluids, carbohydrates, and electrolytes needs to begin as early as Thursday.
Prior to and after Thursday’s lifting and practice sessions, athletes should be eating and drinking plenty of carbohydrate-dense foods and fluids. Good choices include peanut butter and banana, honey, and/or jelly sandwiches, granola bars, fresh and dried fruit, 100-percent fruit juice, cereal with milk, yogurt, bagels, and sports drinks.
After Friday’s walk-through practice, players should consume a sports drink and water, along with a carbohydrate- and sodium-heavy dinner that will help the athlete retain fluids. Dinner should include another sports drink, 100-percent fruit juice, water, and an electrolyte supplement. (For a look at a typical Friday night menu see the menu below.) The same kind of meal should follow on Saturday morning. (For an example of our gameday breakfast menu, see the menu below.)
Finally, shortly before kickoff, athletes should top off their fluid stores with a regular or carbohydrate-heavy sports drink. We also recommend electrolyte supplements as needed throughout the first half. This is especially important for the heavy and/or salty sweaters on the team.
Consuming all of these foods and fluids can sound daunting to athletes, but it’s imperative they understand why it is so important. The player who is educated about why nutrition plays such a key role in their performance will be more likely to follow through on these suggestions.
Friday night dinner menu: Baked mac and cheese (made with whole grain noodles and whole milk) New York strip steak (12 oz.) Cold peeled shrimp with cocktail sauce Twice baked potato with butter on the side Corn Collard greens with pepper sauce on the side Salad with croutons, reduced-fat grated cheese, light dressing Whole wheat rolls Fresh fruit bowl of cantaloupe, strawberries, pineapple, grapes, and blueberries Condiments like A-1, barbecue sauce, ketchup, and mustard Water and sports drinks Ice cream bar for dessert
Saturday morning breakfast menu: Omelets with cheese or scrambled eggs Pancakes with syrup and butter on the side Turkey sausage Lean ham steak Biscuits Grits with butter and cheese on side Oatmeal with raisins, brown sugar, and cinnamon Cereal with two-percent milk Fresh fruit bowl of cantaloupe, strawberries, pineapple, grapes, and blueberries Bananas Condiments like peanut butter, jelly, and honey Water, 100-percent fruit juice, and sports drinks