Pivot and Adapt: Team fueling in the new normal by Becci Twombley, RD, CSSD

Becci Twombley, is the team sports dietitian for the Los Angeles Angels and the sports nutrition consultant with the Los Angeles Lakers.  She is a founding board member of the Collegiate and Professional Sports Dietitians Association (CPSDA), a member of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND), the American College of Sports Medicine, the Professional Baseball Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association as well as the Sports and Cardiovascular Nutritionists (SCAN) practice group of AND.

To say this year has been challenging is an understatement.  Challenging in every aspect of our lives is more like it.  As a veteran sports dietitian from the college ranks who had learned through coaching turnover, rule changes, administrative scandals, FBI investigations – I’d thought that I had seen it all.  A global pandemic halting the sports world, however, seemed like an obstacle too tough to overcome.  On March 13, I learned that I had potentially been exposed to COVID-19 and, like the rest of the Lakers organization, we had to quarantine for 10 days.  Later that day, the league announced it would be going into a hiatus followed by Major League Baseball (MLB) suspending spring training across the league on March 14.  For the first time in 14 years, I didn’t know how to do my job.

As weeks without sports turned into months without competition, the Zoom meetings and questions without answers piled up, and then something incredible happened – teamwork emerged.  The MLB and National Basketball Association (NBA) meetings that I was privileged to be a part of, while frustrating at times, showed that the sports performance teams were capable of creating safe and effective protocols that could get the players back on the field at a time when our country needed a distraction. The players were willing to sacrifice time with their families and their “normal” lives, and risk exposure to disease to do what they love most.  Everyone poured their expertise into the plan to overcome the nightmare in front of us, and the chaos was quenched.

The biggest hurdles initially were in adjusting expectations.  While the science, goals and requirements for fueling didn’t change, the mode of delivery was challenging.  Athletes, who were accustomed to a buffet line with made-to-order meals that met their needs of both function and appetite would no longer be allowed.  Instead, prepackaged meals, which fit into reheatable containers and could be eaten in isolation, took their place.  Each stadium and training center had to ”pivot and adapt.”  At Angel stadium, our kitchen staff was cut to 6 people.  In the NBA bubble, in Orlando, there were 6 burners and a staff of 8 people to feed 8 NBA teams and staffs. Preparation for 3 meals and snacks for 120 people (home and visitors) had to be done with efficiency, and menus had to be pared down to essentials.  Not only did we need to fuel the athletes for their sport, energy systems and recovery, but this season required menus that would support immune function, which would help those recovering from COVID-19.

The athletes were incredibly understanding.  We had a huge focus on education, upon returning to training, which set the stage for their habits and process.  We focused on the importance of polyphenol and carotenoid intake to reduce inflammation as we increased the training load about twice as quickly as in a normal season.  We dove into protein needs for recovery and used plant-based options to supplement animal proteins as a way of increasing fiber, nutrient density and glycogen loading.  We discussed the importance of blood flow – nitrate intake, hydration and electrolyte balance, and explained that our normal hydration protocols (urine specific gravity) were no longer an option.  This education regarding the “why” of what we were providing on the menus – made it easy for the athletes to create new habits that would sustain them throughout the season.

Antioxidant intake was the easiest to handle.  The chef and I made a list of foods high in both carotenoid and polyphenol and made sure to include them in the side dishes. Aside from the typical fruits and vegetables like carrots or spinach, we mixed in sweet potato hash, meats encrusted with pistachios, and salads containing young kale or tomato.  Tart cherry juice was encouraged as well as fruit cups with assorted berries, mango, or watermelon.  Athletes created habits to include these foods in their process each day, making their intake consistent and effective.

Proteins were more challenging.  Typically, athletes define themselves as either meat eaters or vegetarians – not both.  Including beans, nuts and seeds in the menus was challenging at first but proved to be easy and enjoyable as the athletes got used to it.  With limited kitchen staff to prepare multiple protein options at each meal, we chose two protein options for each meal and accompanied them with legumes, whole grains and their vegetable options.  With varied protein sources, we felt confident they would have adequate protein and micronutrient intake. The hope was to support intestinal health by adding fiber from the legumes, nuts and seeds, because each enterocyte would be working overtime to keep up with the metabolic demand of the season. As a bonus, we looked for improved endurance with all energy systems loaded and ready to work.

On the hydration and blood flow front, we had to adjust our normal objective process for a slightly more subjective and proactive approach.  In a typical year, we use USG measurements to assess hydration status prior to competition.  Given the airborne risk of the virus in public restrooms, we opted for a more proactive approach.  Bottles of water and filling stations for reusable water bottles were strategically placed at the testing facilities (temperature and COVID testing), in and near the athletes’ lockers, and in the training room, the weight room, the dining room and in their “stalls” in the bullpen or dugout.  Similarly, the NBA athletes had hydration stations at all locations with the addition of cases of water brought to their rooms every other day.  Athletes were then given a hydration prescription for when and how much to drink each day as a part of their normal process.  These habits, along with the addition of pregame electrolytes, juiced beet and greens, helped to form a repeatable ritual to ensure hydration, limit soft tissue injuries, and to promote optimal reaction time, focus and performance.

This year is proof that old dogs can learn new tricks.  I’m eternally grateful to my coworkers for sharing their knowledge, to our food service team for finding a way to make prepackaged food look and taste delicious, and to the athletes for buying in to the new fueling process, despite new obstacles. As the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) embarks on their season and the NFL now in full swing, I look forward to learning from the sports dietitians, in the trenches, to see how they respond to the challenges they face.  While I sincerely hope this is the only season of my career we have to deal with the limitations of a pandemic, I am grateful to take away new strategies and options that I will continue to implement in my craft as we move into the new normal.