April 10, 2006
Softball is a game of immense skill. In order to be a competitive softball player in the ACC, you must be skilled in the position that you play in addition to being devoted to a strength and conditioning program that develops speed, strength, power, and agility. Other factors that contribute to success that are sometimes overlooked are things like adequate sleep, injury prevention and/or treatment, stress management, and nutrition. The focus of this discussion is the role of proper nutrition in a high level softball player, and looking at specific situations such as doubleheaders and tournaments where special nutritional considerations should be made.
Overview of the Sport
A college softball game is made up seven innings. A single game lasts on average an hour and a half to two hours; however, the dynamics of the game can certainly shorten or lengthen the duration of the game. There are nine players on the field (not including a batter) with the most activity coming from the pitcher and catcher. The other fielders must be prepared for short bursts of energy - sprinting, fielding, and/or throwing - to react to a hit ball. Each fielder will also be in the battling line-up and may be up to bat anywhere from two to five or six times during a game. Batting is similar to the action seen in the field, where the player must rely on short bursts of energy. In addition, speed and agility are relied on to maneuver around the bases. The energy systems that are developed on a day to day basis and are used during a softball game determine the daily nutritional needs of the athlete. For softball, the anaerobic and adenosine triphosphate creatine phosphate (ATP-PC) energy system is relied on most heavily. The aerobic energy system may be used during lengthy training sessions or in pre-season conditioning.
Daily Nutrition Needs
A softball player should focus primarily on consuming an adequate amount of energy throughout the day to fuel her training sessions and practice. In addition, focusing these efforts on the right balance of nutrients is important to maintain a healthy body.
Carbohydrates are the primary fuel for working muscles. However, not all athletes are created equally. The more aerobic your sport is, the more carbohydrates your body need to perform optimally. As was discussed above, a softball player relies very little on her aerobic energy system. Therefore, her carbohydrate needs are not as high as some other athletes. Using a range of 4 - 6 g/kg of carbohydrate will supply a softball player with enough carbohydrates to fuel her muscles during workouts and practice without providing too much. She should rely on whole wheat/grain products and high fiber fruits and vegetables to meet her daily carbohydrate needs.
Protein is necessary to help maintain, build, and repair damaged muscle. It can be used as an energy source, but is a less efficient source of fuel and is therefore not the preferred substrate. For a sport like softball that relies more heavily on the anaerobic/ATP-PC energy systems and who work on developing strength to help their game, the protein needs are slightly higher. Using a range of 1.5-1.8 g/kg of protein will provide her muscles with enough fuel for building and repairing muscle. The best sources of protein are lean meats, fish, poultry, and eggs. By including a good source of protein at each meal, the athlete can rest assured that she is meeting her needs.
Fat plays an important role in hormone production, body temperature regulation, protection of body organs, and in the absorption of fat soluble vitamins. The American Heart Association recommends getting no more than 30% of total calories from fat and this same guideline applies to athletes as well. Among athletes, it is important to focus the majority of their daily calorie intake on carbohydrates and fat, while stressing the important of including healthy fats in their diet as well. Polyunsaturated and monounsaturated fats have proven health benefits that even athletes should consider. Olive oil, canola, oil, nuts, and seeds are all excellent sources of healthy fats that athletes can include on a daily basis.
Combined with appropriate nutrition on a daily basis, this meal is a good way to top off your energy stores and ensure that you are entering competition fully fueled and on top of your game. This meal should be eaten between 3-4 hours prior to the start of the game to allow for adequate digestion and absorption and so that the softball player doesn't feel burdened by a full stomach. This meal should include carbohydrate-rich foods balanced by a lean source of protein and minimal fat. Foods that can cause gas, heartburn, or other gastrointestinal (GI) upset should be limited or avoided all together. High fiber foods, spicy foods, fried foods, or milk-based foods are all examples of choices that might cause GI upset in some individuals. The following examples are appropriate pre-game meal ideas that provide the right balance of macronutrients:
- Grilled chicken sandwich with side salad, pretzels, and sports drink.
- Subway sandwich with deli meat, baked chips, and lemonade.
- Oatmeal, 2 pieces of toast with peanut butter, and orange juice.
- Pasta with sliced grilled chicken, steamed broccoli, topped with marinara sauce, and water.
As game time approaches, smaller carbohydrate-rich snacks are appropriate if the athlete feels the need. Bagels, pretzels, animal crackers, trail mix, granola bars, fresh fruit, nutria-grain bars, energy bars, sports drinks, and saltine or graham crackers are good examples of carbohydrate-rich snacks that the athlete can easily pack and bring with her to have on hand.
Nutrition It is easy for athletes to focus a lot of attention on pre-game or pre-practice meals, and forget the importance of recovery nutrition. Recovery nutrition is a newer concept that has more and more research to support its efficacy. Because the human body stores carbohydrate in the form of glycogen in very limited amounts, it is important to maximize the amount that can be stored, otherwise the athlete risks running out of fuel before the workout, practice, or game is over. The enzymes that are responsible for taking in fuel and storing it in the muscles are elevated during and after exercise. Immediately after exercise, there is a 30-45 minute window of opportunity where these enzymes are at their highest level and when a recovery snack should be included. The following chart outlines what research indicates is a good rule of thumb for determining what a recovery snack should be made up of.
|Body weight (lbs.) / 2 = Grams of carbohydrates that should be in your snack (this is the least amount to include).
||The ratio of carbohydrates to protein in a recovery snack should be somewhere between 4:1 and 3:1.
||Fat has a role in recovery nutrition; however, the actual amount should be minimal.|
|Example: A 150 lb. individual should have approximately 75 grams of carbohydrates.
||Example: A 150 lb. individual should have somewhere between 18-25 grams of protein with ~75 grams of carbohydrates.
||Example: Limit fat to < 7-8 grams.|
A very high percentage of a softball schedule is made up of doubleheaders and tournaments. When this is the situation, the softball player must pay extra attention to refueling between games. Her fuel supply is diminished after each game and should be replenished as quickly as possible. There may be time constraints that present obstacles to refueling, but by preparing ahead of time and packing nutritionally adequate snacks to have on hand, this obstacle can be eliminated. If there are only a few minutes between games, the softball player should focus on the same carbohydrate-rich snacks mentioned above (bagels, pretzels, animal crackers, trail mix, granola bars, fresh fruit, nutri-grain bars, energy bars, sports drinks, and saltine or graham crackers, etc.). The snacks are easy to pack, can be eaten quickly, and are digested fairly quickly so they will be available immediately for energy.
If time permits a meal to be eaten, it is important that this meal follow the same guidelines as the pre-game meal. Too often what happens is that players are forced to rely on concession stands or nearby fast food restaurants. The nutritional options available from both of these places are limited. Packing a meal ahead of time may be the best bet, but may not be ideal for the player. Sandwiches (peanut butter, turkey, ham, etc.) with baked chips or pretzels, granola bar, piece of fruit, and a sports drink is a good packable option. Grilled chicken sandwiches, sub sandwiches, or deli meat wraps are all good options from common fast food-type restaurants. Hamburgers, fried fish or chicken sandwiches, and french fries are not ideal between-game meal ideas. Keep these meals light in order to provide fuel for your body without overloading it, making you feel sluggish or heavy.
As with any collegiate athlete, softball players can improve their overall health and physical condition by paying attention to some basic nutrition guidelines. Making yourself knowledgeable is the first step.