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Bears and Titans

Courtesy of Bill Smith, Chicago Bears photographer

Chicago Bear Brandon Marshall catches a pass during Sunday's win against the Titans.

Eat and train like a Bear

by Debra Lipson
Nov 06, 2012


Chicago Bears Football Club

Rusty Jones directs the Chicago Bears' physical development and discusses how players bear down for nutrition and physical needs.

From running at lightning fast speeds to bearing the brunt of 300 pound tackles, NFL football players need serious calories a day to keep up the pace. These athletes may seem superhuman but, in order to compete, they need an equally grueling practice and exercise regimen to go with the nutrition.

While the secret to Jay Cutler’s trim 220-pound physique remains under wraps, Chicago Bears physical development director Rusty Jones reveals the science that goes into bearing down for players in general.

In training, reactive neuromuscular training (RNT) and a running program are key components. RNT is a type of rehabilitation practice which focuses on restoring muscular balance and instability from repetitive motions (think throwing a game-winning pass over and over again). Macronutrients - such as lean proteins, carbohydrates and dietary fats - hydration, and Bod Pod fat-weight and lean-mass measurements all come into play.

Q. What nutritional factors do the Bears focus on?

A. In terms of nutrition, we follow a philosophy based on two main aspects and then refine diets further to meet individual needs. The first deals with macronutrients in the diet. Energy and glycogen depletion problems arise due to intense running and lifting, but vary for different positions.

Overall in this sport, which is highly anaerobic, carbohydrates are an issue. You need muscle glycogen (sugar stored in the muscle) to perform. The body doesn’t store an abundance of glycogen so it must be replaced daily. The player who has depleted his glycogen stores is more susceptible to cramping and muscle pulls. This holds true for marathon runners as well as wide receivers having to run for 2 – 3 hour practices several times a week.

The second focus is on hydration. Sodium and chloride are big factors in our hydration program. A gram of glycogen stores 3 grams of water with it. The combination of various types of carbohydrates at the proper time and the right fluids makes for a player that can compete at the high intensity levels it takes to win in the NFL.

Q. Are players required to follow specific diets?

A. Some players may have issues such as gluten or lactose intolerance. In the end, we have to make sure players receive the nutrition they need to avoid physical ailments such as muscle pulls and dehydration. An overweight lineman may not handle carbohydrates as well as other position players, so we’ll switch that player’s intake. Generally, we do not have many players with gluten intolerance but it may occur.  

General principles change based on the athlete. We’re able to see how dietary intake affects body composition when we put players in the Bod Pod. The Bod Pod is a two-component system, which measures the player’s fat weight and lean mass. Lean mass represents everything that is not fat on the body (including bone, glycogen and water) and can be a measure of body water that has not been replaced. If an athlete is dehydrated, the lean mass drops.

For instance, someone may be losing lean mass or gaining too much weight in fat. They may not be getting enough or excess of a macronutrient, which doesn’t allow for a balanced diet. For specific players, we prescribe diets based on body composition. From their lean mass, we are able to estimate one’s resting metabolic rate and calculate an appropriate daily caloric intake. We then can create computer-generated diets and handouts with a shopping list that meets the player’s needs.

Q. What are some guidelines given to players not on specific dietary plans?

A. If a player needs to decrease body fat, we might advise him not to eat after 7 p.m., to increase  fruit and vegetable intake and stay on the lower glycemic carbohydrates as well as other guidelines. There are so many ways to approach cutting calories or changing the diet. In some cases, a player may limit dietary fat to 40 grams/day. We teach him how to read food labels and have handouts with grams of fat in foods so he can keep an accurate daily count.

Our conditioning manual contains caloric diets ranging from 1800–2800 calories per day with the proper macronutrient percentages. This also illustrates a variety of foods and portion sizes. There are all kinds of different methods. Some players are so regimented, they will eat what you tell them for six months and never change. Some need variety.

Q. What about consumption come game or practice time?

A. The biggest factor pre-game or the week before the game is not to be eating a high fat and/or protein diet. This will deplete energy stores as well as cause dehydration. We make sure players consume carbohydrates.

Cold can be an issue. When the weather becomes cooler, players may stop drinking (the process is called cold-induced dehydration). We push them to take the sodium solutions they need since the body passes fluids more readily and they don’t realize the need to continue drinking.

At the end of practice or post game, our fluid intake is a formulation of carbohydrates and protein that have a 3:1 or 4:1 carb to protein ratio in order to replenish glycogen as well as protein synthesis to minimize catabolism (breakdown) during recovery. We usually are giving guys high glycemic treats post practice since insulin is low and we want a boost. As more time passes, post practice, we suggest lower glycemic carbohydrates.

We want players to get carbohydrates and glycogen back from the high intensity experienced. It is hard to get all the carbohydrates just from fruits and vegetables. Players can’t avoid grains. We remind them each week to get their required nutrients.

We know when a player is not getting what he needs. He may be abnormally stiff when stretching, which can be a result of not eating right. He may be lacking sugar in the muscle or is dehydrated. Players run so much in 20 weeks; it makes recovery essential. Guys will break down. Our situation is different from the normal population. We have such intensity through the length of our season that it is crucial to get a recuperative energy source.

Q. What goes into planning an NFL team’s strength program?

A. When working with 60 to 100 players, there must be a solid base program. Our fitness or conditioning regimen encompasses a player’s functional movement and utilizing the Functional Movement Screen [computer modeling of personal movement and size]. We must know if the body is in balance – two main areas prone to imbalance are the shoulders and pelvic girdle. The overall program progression would be the screen, finding areas of restriction, reactive neuromuscular (RNT) training, then improving strength and power. Each player’s program may be different based on our findings. For instance, one may be strong but not powerful. We dissect and do things individually to make the player better, and this includes our running program as well.