Nutrition is Crucial for Athletes—Here's How ACFC Players Fuel up09.01.23
Katelyn Best | Editor, AngelCity.com
Think about the life of a professional athlete, and you probably envision lots of hard training sessions, technical drills, and strength and conditioning workouts. But as important as training is, it only makes up a couple hours of an athlete’s day.
What’s at least as crucial is how players use the rest of their time to maximize their recovery and, by extension, their performance. A major component of recovery is how they’re fueling up to train and play.
That’s why it’s fitting that one of the first people players see when they get to practice in the morning is Gary Arteaga, who serves the two meals the club provides on training days.
“In the morning, I do all the cooking here onsite for breakfast,” Arteaga explains. “And then any cold stuff for lunch, like the salads, the fruit, any side stuff like toppings for tacos and things like that, I prep in the morning. Then the hot food comes from our Moorpark facility, which I pick up and bring back here for lunch.”
Arteaga, a former DJ, also keeps the tunes bumping in the kitchen and buffet room.
The meals are a team effort, and Arteaga is just one piece of the puzzle. His coworkers at Command Performance Catering, the club’s catering contractor, do a lot of the prep and cooking; his manager, Maya Chrestensen, plans the menus; and Krysten McCaughey, Angel City’s nutritionist, in partnership with the club’s medical staff, helps guide the whole process.
Elite athletes’ nutritional needs are different from the population as a whole. “There's so many nutrients that athletes need a lot more of than the general population,” McCaughey says. “Probably the two most well-known ones are carbs and sodium. So for example, the governmental recommendation for sodium is very low, because it can contribute to high blood pressure.”
Athletes, on the other hand, need more salt to replace what they lose to sweat.
“Same with carbs,” McCaughey continues. “The general population, even if people are working out, has a much lower activity level. So their needs are lower in terms of both overall calories and also carbs and proteins.”
McCaughey collaborates with the technical staff, including Head Athletic Trainer Manny De Alba, Head of Medical Sarah Smith, and Head of Sports Science Dan Jones, to determine specific needs. She then goes over the menus to make sure they’ll allow the athletes to meet those needs.
Rather than counting calories or macronutrients, McCaughey’s approach is largely educational. One tool she uses is an illustration of a plate, showing different proportions of different food groups depending on the meal. Before training, for instance, athletes need lots of readily available energy in the form of carbohydrates; after training, they need more protein to start rebuilding the muscles they just worked.
With players at all different stages of their careers on the team, different levels of education are called for. “With newer players, there's so much room for education because a lot of times they haven’t had it before, which is great,” says McCaughey. “But on the flip side, younger athletes recover a lot quicker, so they don’t always recognize the importance of nutrition.”
As athletes get older, on the other hand, things like nutrition and rest have to become bigger priorities. “As you continue in your career, typically you start to notice the difference,” says McCaughey. “The nutrition piece is going to help with that recovery process and the longevity of your career. And I think the longer you're in the league, the more you're like, ‘okay, I really need to focus on that,’ because you obviously are dialed with everything sport- and activity-related, so now any little thing you can add in makes a difference.”
Of course, the food has to taste good if anyone is going to eat it, which is where Chrestensen and Arteaga come in. Far from stereotypical chicken-and-broccoli athlete fare, meals are inspired by a range of different cuisines, with lots of variety both within each menu and from day to day.
One day the team might get yakisoba noodles, Korean-inspired chicken or tofu, and stir-fried veggies; the next day could be Mediterranean, with seasoned rice, a choice of grilled chicken or Impossible meat, and pita with hummus and other toppings. Salad and fruit are always on offer, as well as at least one cooked vegetable dish, and there’s always a vegan option. Menus rotate on a two-week schedule to keep things interesting.
Chrestensen, who’s also worked with the Rams, also takes into account the unique needs of elite athletes. “Anti-inflammatories like turmeric, and hydration from fruit are big ones,” she says. “I also look for alternative proteins, so it’s not just straight chicken every day—we can also use garbanzo beans and stuff like that.”
She also tries to minimize foods like dairy that some athletes might not eat; cheese, for example, is always served on the side. Ingredients that might be divisive taste-wise—cilantro is a big one—also go on the side, Arteaga adds.
For McCaughey, her responsibilities don’t start and end at the training facility. One of the bigger challenges of her job is helping the club coordinate meals on the road.
“That part is tricky because the quality is so unpredictable,” she explains. “We use a combination of the hotel, outside caterers, and restaurants. The post-game meal we usually have delivered to the stadium if the stadium doesn’t have a caterer.”
And of course, because players don’t live at the training facility, they’re not eating every meal there, so McCaughey also gives tips on what athletes can eat at home to optimally fuel their performance.
Arteaga gets to do a little education as part of his job, too. “My favorite part of the job is probably introducing people to new items,” he says. “Like Coach Dan [Ball, ACFC’s goalkeeping coach], I love getting feedback from him. There's stuff that he's never tried before and he trusts me to try and it's always a big hit. So getting that feedback and seeing the reactions to different items that people haven’t tried before is really cool.”