Football training camp tests what a player is made of. For the Pittsburgh Steelers, that means sweltering August afternoons in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, on the campus of St. Vincent College. The sun beats down on the fields as coaches and fans scout to see who's got the right stuff this year.
But before they hit the field, Leslie Bonci makes sure they have the right stuff on their plates. As the team nutritionist, she helps set the menu at the camp cafeteria and says good nutrition gets front-and-center attention at training camp. Rule No. 1: No skipping meals. Players must sign in at every meal, which means even superstar athletes can't sleep through breakfast.
"It puts the importance on the fueling," Bonci said.
Healthy, nutritious food — eaten at the right times — can make a difference for all athletes, kids included, she said. You might not be a Steeler yet, but you can follow Bonci's advice before beginning your preseason sports camps and practices.
Bonci likes to use the acronym SHOP with the players she advises. It stands for "Safeguard health. Optimize performance." That means no one should start their preseason workouts unless they're sure they're healthy. For a kid, that might mean getting a sports physical.
Lots of schools require these, which typically include an exam to check basic stuff like your blood pressure and weight. It's also a chance for a doctor to look at your medical history — info on current medical issues, previous sports injuries, and health problems you have had in the past or ones that run in your family.
The Steelers are no different. They get health checkups, too. In the past, Bonci has had to help players slim down after gaining weight in the off-season. For one player, she worked with the camp cafeteria to create special meals for him. While the rest of the team was having chicken wings for an evening snack, this player got a portion of grilled chicken with dipping sauce. Still a tasty, satisfying snack, but less fat and calories.
No, Bonci doesn't tell the Steelers to get to the field an hour early. But she does tell athletes to start preparing for practice 1 hour before by having a drink and a snack.
"That's part of your warm-up," Bonci said.
This is especially important when practices will be long and intense — the kind when you'll spend an hour or more doing conditioning exercises or actively practicing your sport.
Here are some before-practice menu options:
Drinks (choose 1)
8-10 ounces of water
Half a sports drink (10 ounces)
Snacks (choose 1)
Half a peanut butter sandwich
Yogurt and granola (Steeler Troy Polamalu loves yogurt!)
Small egg sandwich or wrap
These pre-practice snacks include carbohydrates (like the bread, granola, and oatmeal) for energy. They also offer some protein (peanut butter, yogurt, egg) to help athletes keep going during a long, tiring practice.
Also 1 hour before practice, think about what you'll need to pack. Most important? Enough water to get you through. Bring a large insulated jug of water rather than just one bottle. Don't rely on the water fountain, Bonci says; bring your own and enough of it.
Your body performs best when you're hydrated. When you're not, you may start feeling lightheaded and dizzy. Even mild dehydration can make it hard to throw that perfect spiral or go after the soccer ball. Sweating while working out means you're losing extra water. Try to take a drink every 15 minutes or so.
Pack a "recovery snack."
Bonci recommends a "recovery snack" — something to eat about 15 minutes after practice ends. At Steeler training camp, some of the players eat Popsicles as they walk off the field after afternoon practice. Other good choices include fresh fruit, granola bars, some dry cereal, or Bonci's favorite recovery snack — garbage can trail mix. What's that?
For large teams, you start with a clean garbage can with a liner. Dump in dry cereal (such as Chex), pretzels, and snack crackers. Give everyone a plastic cup to scoop some out and you have the perfect recovery snack.
Eating a little something after practice takes advantage of enzymes (chemicals your body produces) that help your body recover after a tough workout, Bonci said. A recovery snack has an added benefit: It makes athletes less likely to overeat later.
Wide receiver Antwaan Randle El takes his nutrition seriously, as you can see from this interview. Sure, the guy likes his Skittles, but it's spinach that keeps him going.
What's your favorite healthy food?
Spinach, I love spinach. I don't care whether it's sautéed or steamed, I love it. I hated it growing up though.
What is your favorite pre-game meal or snack?
I love a good steak. But if it's an early game, like a one o'clock start, then I like to get my egg whites, maybe some French toast sticks and one or two sausages.
What's your favorite post-game meal?
I always like to get some fruit in me. And I love chicken. Not fried though, I like mine grilled. And like I said before, I like to eat a good steak.
What's your favorite junk food and do you limit how much you eat?
I love junk food. I love barbecue Fritos and Sprite. And I love candy. My favorite is Skittles because you get so many flavors in one handful. But of course you have to watch how much you eat, because it will rot your teeth and you'll get fat.
Have your eating habits changed since you were a kid or teen athlete?
Man, I wish I could eat like I did when I was a kid, but I can't eat the same things. Now I eat everything grilled instead of fried. Even my fish is grilled.
Any food advice for kids and teens who are practicing and playing hard?
Just always eat things in moderation. You cannot be eating McDonalds and all those fried foods. And you have to exercise. You have to. You have to do it at least 60 minutes a day.
This recipe incorporates Randle El's favorites — spinach, chicken, and fruit — all in one Super Bowl! Have an adult help you with this dish, which requires some cutting, chopping, and use of the stove.