With all the time you spend training to perform well on the volleyball court, you don’t want to overlook one of the keys to maximizing your potential: a proper diet. Here’s a quick guide to fueling your body for success.
One of the perks of my job editing and writing volleyball stories is that I get to talk to a lot of smart people who know plenty about their area of expertise. In the case of Shawn Dolan, that expertise is food. Or, more accurately, nutrition.
Shawn has a PhD and other titles – RD, CSSD – and her official job is sports dietician for the United State Olympic Committee. Probably the best way to describe what she does, though, is this: She helps athletes, including the men’s and women’s players on the U.S. national indoor volleyball teams, eat and drink in a manner that drives them to a higher level of performance when they’re on the volleyball court.
2 ways to improve nutrition
I called her recently to ask what she thinks is most important for young athletes to focus on when they’re thinking in general terms about how to improve their nutrition. She emphasized two:
- Balancing the nutrients in each snack so you get quality carbs and protein. In other words, choose a peanut butter sandwich on wheat bread over snack crackers or candy. (More info below in the section on recovery snacks.)
- Prioritize fueling when it’s important. All too often, players skip a pre-practice snack, then go out later in the day for dessert with friends. Shawn’s advice: Skip the dessert run and eat a healthy snack at the right time so you have energy to play your best volleyball. It’s not that Shawn is anti-fun. If it’s somebody’s birthday, go enjoy some dessert, she says. But save treats for special occasions rather than making them the focal point of time with friends.
“You can plan social times around things other than food,” she says. “There are lots of good things you can do with your friends that don’t involve eating.”
Bettering athletic performance
Two and a half years editing Shawn’s column has given me a front-row seat in a really good nutrition class, and there are a lot of things worth passing along. Most volleyball athletes understand that diet is linked to better athletic performance, but here are some specifics that I’ve learned from Shawn that I think you’ll find useful:
- Eat a recovery snack after you train. A couple of hours of practice or a strenuous match necessitates refueling. Within 30 minutes of leaving the court, be sure to have some food so you put some of the carbohydrates you burned back into your muscles. Good choices include a piece of fruit, low-fat yogurt, pretzels, a peanut butter sandwich, string cheese, carrots, turkey wrapped in either a tortilla or a piece of bread. Low-fat milk or low-fat chocolate milk are good choices, too.
- Have a sports drink instead of water if you haven’t eaten recently. We all know that hydrating is important, and we also know that water is a great thirst-quencher. But a sports drink may be a better option if you are deep into a practice and it has been more than two hours since you’ve had a snack. Sports drinks contain carbohydrates that will help you maintain your energy level. Shawn recommends drinks that have 10 to 15 grams of carbohydrate for every eight ounces of fluid.
- Carbs are important. Carbohydrates have taken a lot of knocks in recent years, but as Shawn says, they “aren’t the enemy they have been made out to be” – and they are essential for athletes. Unlike someone who sits in front of a computer all day, a volleyball player who trains and competes on a regular basis needs carbs for optimum muscle contraction. So if you’re going to practice for two or three hours, you’ll benefit from an extra cup of cereal (but one that doesn’t list sugar as either the first or second ingredient) for breakfast, an apple with your sandwich during lunch along with a sports drink or snack during practice. Other lunch and dinner options: a piece of chicken with brown rice, sweet potatoes, vegetables, even a moderate portion of whole wheat pasta with red sauce.
- Smoothies – healthy and fast. Most volleyball players have busy schedules, with school, studies, practices and matches filling up most of their days. If you can make a meal that is nutritious and tastes good in less than five minutes, that’s a good thing. Here’s a tasty one recommended by Shawn:
- 1 cup frozen strawberries
- ¾ cup plain low-fat yogurt
- ½ cup 100 percent orange juice
- 1 tablespoon of honey
- 1 tablespoon ground flaxseed.
- Get enough vitamin D – Most volleyball players seem to have a basic understanding of why it's important for athletes to get the right amount of major nutrients such as carbs, protein and healthy fat. Often overlooked, though, is vitamin D, which helps the immune system ward off common colds and the flu while increasing the body’s ability to handle inflammation and also reducing muscular pain or weakness. Most of our vitamin D comes from sunlight – it’s good to get a few minutes of sun each day, just don’t overdo it – but what you eat helps, too. Fortified milk, egg yolks, fatty fish (salmon, tuna, sardines) and sun-dried mushrooms are just a few of the foods that boost vitamin D.
- Super foods are good, not magical – There are many, many superfoods, and there are also a lot of foods that don’t necessarily fall under the heading of “super” but are nutritious and beneficial to your health and athletic performance. My point: Don’t feel the need to cram every imaginable super food into one meal or snack. Rather, mix them in as often as you can, but don’t obsess over them. Some of Shawn’s favorites for volleyball athletes include sweet potatoes, kale, walnuts, beets, cherries, coconut, quinoa, salmon, Greek yogurt and low-fat cottage cheese.
- Fat is not a synonym for “bad” – Volleyball players who have intense training routines need fat. For one thing, fat is your main source of fuel when you’re resting after a workout, practice session or match. Also, fat has nutrients that help keep you healthy. And fat has another benefit – it makes you feel full and satisfied. That means you’re less apt to make unhealthy snack choices to ward off hunger pangs. The key, of course, is consuming mostly good fat – for instance: avocados, olives or olive oil, nuts, seeds and wheat germ – and limiting foods like burgers, dessert pastries, pizza, and fried foods to special occasions.