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October 16, 2010The question wasn't typical for a college football coach, but if anyone's used to being asked about every aspect of his program it's the University of Alabama's Nick Saban.
A reporter wanted to know about Amy Bragg, the athletic department's new Director of Performance Nutrition, and considering Saban's well-known attention to detail it was an opportunity he couldn't help but take advantage of -- both in the press conference and for his team.
"She hasn't been here long enough to change us all," he quipped. "I haven't gotten any better looking or lost any weight."
Long gone are the days when student-athletes would eat steak for protein or simply have pasta the night before competing, and if Bragg (RD, LD) has anywhere near the impact many expect few opponents will be laughing this season and down the road. Hiring her away from Texas A&M, making Alabama one of roughly 20 Division I athletic departments to have a nutritionist on staff, was one of the key ways the Crimson Tide hopes to both avoid and come back quickly from injuries, and survive the final seven teams on the schedule all coming off byes.
"The one area we didn't feel like we had the quality people that we wanted was in nutrition," Saban continued.
Those who saw the ESPN behind-the-scene special "Training Days: Rolling with the Alabama Crimson Tide" got a taste of how nutrition has become a priority when junior running back Mark Ingram showed viewers the bio-pod that measures body fat and subsequently teased teammates about their readings: "What did you get? Oh, you need to eat more."
That's not just being competitive to the end, but looking for any edge that can be found.
"We're had some guys make some significant improvements in their body fat, muscle mass, hydration, to be more geared toward consistency in performance, and really fueling and having the kind of energy that they need to perform," Saban said. "Really what you put in your body is the fuel to do it.
"I feel especially with this unusually hot period that we had for the entire fall camp, that some of the things that we did for the players, because of the nutritionist, because of what Amy's done, really helped us not have as many issues as we could have had with guys having heat problems, cramps and those kinds of things."
Take it a step further and her impact is becoming more obvious. For example, although a lot of fans didn't quite see it until sophomore linebacker Dont'a Hightower took off one of his knee braces for the Florida game, he reconfigured his body to move better - especially after sustaining season-ending knee injury last year.
"I lost a lot of weight from the spring to now, so I'm moving a lot faster," he said. "I have a better motor."
On the flip side has been someone like senior linebacker Chavis Williams, who throughout his career couldn't keep the necessary weight on and maintain it until this year. He credits Bragg with getting him in the starting lineup.
"They get food fatigue," she explained in general. "Some players, those who tend to get near the lower end of their weight range, when they get tired they don't care if they eat or not. Other body types when they get tired they eat more, instead of resting they eat.
"This is the point in the season where it starts to compound. You really start to see changes."
Which goes back to the arrival of Bragg, who is on the board of directors of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dieticians Association (CPSDA), and is also a member of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). One of the first things she did was not only begin a year-long assessment of the entire program and every team's approach to nutrition, which used to be partly based on the recommendations of faculty (who varied in their expertise), but survey each athlete while also taking note of everything, from what was being served on the road to daily snacks.
Just as important was getting entrenched, becoming a daily fixture and going so far as to visit grocery stores with athletes. Seeing her on the sideline of every practice became a habit for the football players, as did the emphasis on recovery.
"The keys are the points in time, thirty minutes, two hours and six hours," Bragg said. "Those are key windows in time after intense activity, after practice or after a game, when you need your nutrition to hit a high point. Recovery in that 30 minutes is the hardest, I think, on a daily basis, because they're coming off the field, they may have their study hall, whatever, they may need treatment, they may need to shower to get somewhere, so we have things outside on their way in."
Gatorade shakes and flavored malts are among popular post-practice items and meals have become even more performance-based. For example, a running back like Ingram needs more carbohydrates to meet his energy needs, but also calories for endurance. So his daily consumption contrasts greatly from, say, a lineman.
Extend that thought to other sports and it's even more extreme. Swimmers probably have the highest-caloric diets ("Everything they do is resistance," Bragg said, adding "they'll have clinical signs of being malnourished and they eat 4,000 calories a day), while tennis players have to fight the urge to not feel weighed down and continually hydrate. Gymnasts, who need balance and energy over short periods of time, require fewer carbs and more protein, but should also eat foods that will help with inflammation like nuts, olives, guacamole, tuna and salmon.
"Getting those calories in, one, it determines your time to exhaustion the next time you train," she said. "Two, it determines whether or not you rebuild and re-synthesize muscle. Three, it keeps up the immune function. Very key things that compound to week six, seven, eight of the season. What you were doing August 10 and before compounds to get us where we are now. So either you were maintaining muscle or you're not.
"If you're just looking at the scale, you don't really know what's happening. You might see two or three pounds change, but actually there's something much more monumental going on, shifting internally."
Of course, she also mixes in some fun foods, after all we are taking about college students. But while she's wouldn't recommend something like chicken tenders between two-a-day practices, it's certainly fitting as a reward afterward.
Mostly though, Bragg's promoting a way of thinking, making the change from mostly eating what you want and for pleasure to realizing what you in your body will directly relate and impact performance. The converts are making believers of those paying attention.
"She's been a tremendous asset to our team this fall," Ingram said. "Nutrition was emphasized before, now it's a detail."