If you play soccer, you know the sport demands a lot from your body. You need strength and stamina to move to the ball, take control, and boot it into the goal. But what does it take to play at the highest level, like the U.S. Women's Soccer Team?
Lightning reflexes? Fierce determination? Kris Clark, the team's nutritionist, agrees with those, but would add another: healthy food that's packed with energy and nutrients.
Clark works with the team to help players understand the power of good nutrition. She holds team meetings and also talks with players individually about making smart choices.
Fueling Your Body
"Nutrition is really a training tool," Clark said. "We always want to focus on what you want your body to do. Your body is a machine."
And that machine needs more than just calories, Clark said. All food contains calories, which are units of energy that your body then uses to function. But healthier foods contain more vitamins and nutrients, so those calories are packed with stuff your body needs to work as well as it possibly can.
"We want to make every calorie the best calorie. Yes, any calorie will give you some energy, but a nutrient-packed calorie will help your body operate at its very best," Clark said.
At dinnertime, that might mean choosing pasta with tomato sauce or a meat sauce instead of just noodles with butter and cheese. You'll get vitamins from the tomato sauce and protein from a meat sauce, Clark said. Players need those nutrients to perform well in their 90-minute games and 3-hour-long practice sessions.
Clark stresses the need for protein, especially among players who tend to avoid red meat. Female athletes often neglect protein, but they do need an adequate amount of protein to maintain the muscles they have, Clark said. She points them toward lower-fat sources of protein, such as chicken and eggs, as well as non-meat protein sources, such as tofu.
With all the physical demands on the U.S. team, it's not enough to have energy some of the time, so Clark also aims to keep the players' energy level up throughout the day. Smart snacking is part of her strategy for avoiding highs and lows. She teaches players that feeling hungry means energy levels are falling.
"Eating frequently throughout the day is really critical for people who burn a lot of calories," Clark said.
But that doesn't mean just any snack — or unlimited amounts. She suggests a piece of fruit, a serving of nuts, or celery with peanut butter. And she doesn't recommend those 100-calorie snack packs. They may be 100 calories, but most are not rich in nutrients, like fruit or nuts would be, Clark said.
Players also must pay attention to energy and calorie needs when they are injured. An athlete might be in such a set routine that she just keeps eating as usual even though she isn't playing or practicing as usual, Clark said. To avoid weight gain and stay strong, she tells players to continue eating their favorite healthy foods, but to reduce the portions and switch to water as a drink.
Drinks are an important part of the overall nutrition strategy, Clark said. She encourages sports drinks, but only during practice and games when players' energy supplies are depleted and they need to refuel. Her top beverage picks are milk, water with a squeeze of lemon, smoothies, and 100% fruit juice.
"When we're at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, I'd rather see them drink a nutritional beverage," said Clark, who is also director of sports nutrition at Penn State University.
The women's soccer team travels all over the world to compete. It's Colorado one day and Sweden the next. That means the players spend plenty of time away from their home base and lots of hours in airports. Clark still encourages the "make every calorie count" approach even when the team is on the road.
In airports, she tells players to choose fruit, yogurt, salad with lean protein (such as egg or chicken), sandwiches with lean protein and veggies, or trail mix.
Even at a fast food restaurant, players can find what their bodies need, Clark said. She suggests this fast food meal: milk and a grilled chicken sandwich. Still hungry? Clark tells players to order another chicken sandwich instead of adding French fries.
The Olympic Menu
Eating abroad was extra challenging during the 2008 Olympics, when 18 of the players traveled to China to compete as the U.S. Olympic team. They took home the gold! But they couldn't perform at their best without good nutrition. Due to concerns that the food supply in China was unsafe, the U.S. Olympic teams shipped in their own food and brought their own chef.
Clark encouraged the soccer players to take their own snacks and supplemental foods. They packed dried fruit, peanut butter, sports bars, cans of tuna, and even beef jerky, said Clark, who serves on the U.S. Olympic Sports Medicine Advisory Committee.
Clark said she shared this recipe with the team because it offers a strong combination of nutrients in an easy-to-make dish. You'll get protein from the chicken; more protein, vitamin D, and calcium from the cheese; and vitamins A and C from the tomato sauce.
Soccer Star Personal Pizzas
What You Need
1 whole-grain English muffin, split in two
2 tablespoons tomato or spaghetti sauce
2-3 tablespoons shredded mozzarella cheese
½ cup diced cooked chicken
Equipment and Utensils
What to Do
With an adult's help, preheat the toaster oven to "broil."
Spread the sauce evenly on the muffin halves.
Top the muffin halves with chicken.
Sprinkle the cheese over both halves.
Place the muffin halves on an oven-safe tray and broil for 1 minute or until the cheese melts.