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Nutrition for Volleyball Players


It’s been a long time since those days when the coach told you that drinking during workouts was for sissies. Remember how they used to chastise you if you complained of thirst after only 2 hours of practice? And, oh those salt cubes. I made a feeble attempt at wrestling during high school. All of the nutrition advice that our wrestling coach told us was wrapped up in two words, “salt cubes”. I still remember the tin coffee can – the wrapping that used to cover the can had probably been discarded many years before this rusting, filthy coffee can made it into our practice. At the bottom of the large can were these brown cubes that the coach said we were to take to replenish the salt that we sweated out of our bodies during wrestling practice. At the time, we didn’t know any better. We were too ignorant about nutrition to know any better so there we were wondering if it was better to chew the cube or just wash it down with a big gulp of water. My, how times have changed!

I do not in any way pretend to know all there is to know about nutrition nor am I a nutritionist. I am, however, a coach who has studied this topic for many years with a view towards proper nutrition for the volleyball athlete. I am a volleyball coach, not a football, tennis or other sports coach. The below nutrition recommendations are directed toward the volleyball athlete. They are only recommendations to be used as a guide for your further research. With those disclaimers and caveats, below is information that I hope you find useful during this volleyball season as to what to do on game days — before, during and after the volleyball competition. Obviously, circumstances will dictate what is available for you. If you are attending an out of state tournament, your choices may be limited.

A year ago this month, I spent four nights at the Olympic Training Center attending the High Performance Coaches Clinic and the required classes to obtain my CAP III certification. While there, I was able to learn and discuss issues with the top experts in the field of volleyball and nutrition for the volleyball athlete. I have attended webinars regarding proper nutrition for the volleyball athlete. One of the best webinars was led by Shelley Bradford, Ed. D., University South Alabama, Aaron Brock, MS, ATC, PES – Director, Sports Medicine & Performance USA National Teams and Diana Cole, Director of Training, Manager, Education and Grassroots Program Director for USA Volleyball. From these two events along with other independent studies, I have gained a greater appreciation for proper nutrition not only after competition but before and during competition.

Breakfast Proper nutrition starts with, and this isn’t a myth, breakfast. Yes, as hard as we try to rush out the door, we are skipping the most important meal of the day. Just think about it. The word “breakfast” is comprised of the two words: “break” (verb) and “fast” (noun). Therefore, if you do not break the overnight fast, then your body will fast until the next meal which is usually lunch. That means that your body may fast for 12 – 18 hours between dinner and lunch the next day. Aaron Brock states that, “The Men’s Olympic Volleyball Team practices every morning and lifts weights in the afternoon – if they don’t eat an adequate breakfast, they will not have enough energy for a quality practice.” He suggests, “pancakes with syrup, whole grain toast with jam, and orange juice are quality breakfast choices, but add low fat yogurt, skim milk, lean sausage, eggs, or egg whites to obtain protein.”

But what if you don’t have time to fix a big breakfast? I recommend loading up with carbohydrates from a delicious fruit smoothie with low fat yogurt, whole grain cereal, or yes, even an egg (eggs get a bad rap but we won’t go into that).

As recommended by the folks at the webinar, a large meal should be eaten within four to six hours before a major competition. As the competition approaches within 2 – 3 hours, the athlete can eat a lighter meal. Within 1 hour before the competition, the player should only eat a snack. These meals should contain no more than 10 – 15% of their calories from protein. Protein is great for repairing muscles but is not considered a source of energy. The majority of the calories (70 – 90%) should be from carbohydrates.

During the Volleyball Match The player should maintain their carbohydrate levels during the competition in order to avoid the run down, tired feeling. Good sources of carbohydrates during the match are sports drinks, energy bars and fruit. During the competition, I would like to see an increase in the amount of carbohydrates consumed and a lower amount of protein and fat. It is important to stay hydrated. As a former marathoner (10 marathons), I know from experience that an athlete should consistently hydrate and not wait until they get thirsty. Once the player is thirsty, the player is already showing signs of dehydration and it is hard to get adequately hydrated until after the match, if even then.

Avoid fried foods during the tournament. Preferably, in order of best to worst, a player should eat grilled, broiled, roasted or baked before eating anything fried. They should have fresh fruit and try to avoid canned fruit. If necessary, bring frozen fruit and let it thaw out by meal time.

For some of you who have heard me speak at Hutch Camp or who have been parents on some of the volleyball teams that I’ve coached, the following will not be news; to others, this may be hard for you to believe. One of the best recovery drinks is chocolate milk. In an article published June 2, 2009 in Medpage Today, Kristina Fiore, Staff Writer, covered a presentation made by Michael J. Saunders, Ph.D., of James Madison University, at the American College of Sports Medicine meeting in Seattle. According to Ms. Fiore, Mr. Saunders, PhD., and his colleagues stated that, “fitness experts are increasingly calling chocolate milk an effective option for post-exercise recovery as studies show it to be just as effective as some commercial sports drinks in helping athletes re-energize after a workout.” How much to drink is up to the individual through some trial and error. With my current volleyball team, I recommend about 4 – 6 ounces of the good stuff. I wondered about the credibility of these recommendations so I asked Aaron Brock about this. I asked him, “What do you think about chocolate milk as a recovery drink?” His exact words were, “I love it.”

After the Volleyball Match In order to develop a game plan for proper post-competition nutrition, it is important to understand the role that glycogen plays. It is imperative to keep the glycogen levels consistent throughout the day of a tournament. The body is most receptive to the replenishment of carbohydrates (glycogen) within 15 – 20 minutes after physical activity. Some athletes replenish their carbohydrate levels with solids while others prefer liquid carbohydrates. There are many studies that describe the need for replenishment of glycogen levels soon after physical activity. Some studies have looked at the difference of supplying only high levels of protein to supplying a carbohydrate-protein complex and discovered the benefits of the carbohydrate-protein supplement over just a high dosage of protein. (See, Journal of Applied Physiology, K.M. Zawadzki, B.B. Yaspellkis 3rd and J.L., Ivy., Vol. 72, Issue 5, 1854 – 1859). Therefore, it is important to consume a mixture of protein (for repairing muscle fibers) and carbohydrates (to replenish energy sources) after a volleyball match. At the end of the day, a good meal should consist of 4 grams of protein for every 10 grams of carbohydrate.

Sources of Carbohydrate and Protein Good carbohydrate sources can be divided between simple carbohydrates (quicker to be broken down by the body) and complex carbohydrates (take longer to break down). Examples of simple carbohydrates are: orange juice and other 100% fruit juices, all fruits (e.g. raisins, apples, strawberries, grapes, bananas).

Complex carbohydrates that are great to put into the body at the end of the day are: breads (whole wheat or whole grain), pasta (wheat) and rice. I know that some will ask about fiber. Fiber is great for the digestive system but, unfortunately, it isn’t a source of energy. Starches are the best source of complex carbohydrates to consume in order to replace the glycogen stores of the body.

I may add more to this blog entry but I thought that I should send this out to parents as soon as possible. If you have any questions, please feel free to post you question. If I can’t answer it, maybe one of the readers will be able to do so. Also, please share with the rest of us what you have found that works for your player during tournaments. We are always looking for new idea.


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