Nutrition Basics for Beginning Roller Derby Players
Hello everyone, I am Octavia Hustler, skater for Angel City Derby! When I’m not on skates, I work as a registered dietitian in Los Angeles. So why am I writing about this? Batty Davis from ACD reached out to me a few weeks ago to make a post about nutrition for all of you who have made it past the recruitment stage and are now starting your serious derby journey!
If you haven’t thought about it before, think of yourself as officially being an athlete. You’re doing combinations of off-skate workouts (aerobic and strength building) as well as skating for up to 8hrs a week! In addition to that, depending on your size and how much you do during practice, you can burn somewhere between 350 to 700 calories per hour doing derby! That’s a lot of exercise. For comparison, the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans by the Department of Health and Human Services recommend either 150 minutes of moderate-intensity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity exercise per week.
Nutrition is a very important component of building and optimizing your athletic performance, so I have written up a few basics on eating as an athlete. As a side note, I am not going to go into specialized diets and athletic performance (that is beyond the scope of this post). Of course, as you become more involved and increase your level of participation, your habits surrounding food may change and you’ll find out what works best for you. You may want to also consult a professional like a registered dietitian to help you with your nutrition and fitness goals.
Without further ado, here are the basics.
If you would like to read more details about these basic nutrition notes as it relates to athletic performance, I highly recommend reading the joint position paper between the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, Dietitians of Canada and the American College of Sports Medicine on Nutrition and Athletic Performance (and it’s open access!).
You may think that because you’re doing so much exercise, you can eat whatever you want because you will “burn it all off anyway.” This is not true! The body is very complex, and getting what your body needs from a variety of foods is important. Even if you take a multivitamin, there are certain interactions within foods that can make vitamins, minerals, phytochemicals, and macronutrients affect your body in synergistic ways that an isolated nutrient cannot. If you need a refresher on the food groups, check out MyPlate (which replaced the Food Pyramid).
You will likely need to eat more than you do right now. Everyone’s nutrition needs are different, so there isn’t one set calorie intake or frequency of eating that you need to follow. There are several formulas out there that can calculate how many calories you should have per day, and some apps include calorie calculators.
For some of you, eating around roller derby is going to be a major life change. What will make all of this easier is adapting to your eating as a lifestyle and not something you must suffer through to achieve what you want.
Let’s all take a deep breath together and say “Carbs are not bad.” Carbohydrates are found in beans, fruit, vegetables, dairy products, and whole grains. Yes, they are also found in other foods that are not considered healthy (sweets, junk food, etc) but carbohydrates cannot be demonized without any nuance of understanding. Carbohydrates are the primary energy source of your body, and what your body is going to rely on to get you through a workout. Typically between 45 to 65% of your energy intake should come from carbohydrate sources according to the Institute of Medicine. If you want specifics on how many grams of carbohydrates are recommended for certain activities, I recommend checking out that position paper. Further details about carb intake prior to/after workouts are noted below.
Current research recommends that athletes get between 1.2 to 2g of protein per kg of body weight (quick math: 1kg= 2.2lbs). This is enough protein to account for muscle maintenance, growth, and inflammation from intense exercise. MyPlate gives a list of protein foods and their one ounce equivalent (1oz of a protein typically gives 7g protein, though individual foods vary). It is entirely possible to obtain all of the protein you need in your diet without using protein powders, or without eating meat (if you are vegetarian or vegan). Check out this post by the Rebel Dietitian for a bunch of charts detailing the protein content of vegetarian protein sources.
Fat is one of the important macronutrients that your body needs to function well. Fats are needed in every cell in your body and they serve several functions. Fat cushions your organs, it’s used as a secondary energy source, fats are required to absorb fat-soluble vitamins (A, D, E, and K), and it does a lot more! Yes, we should be limiting trans fats and saturated fats (and watching our intake of the foods that contain them). We should also be getting enough mono- and polyunsaturated fats (found in nuts, seeds, fish, aquatic plant life) to help our normal functioning and mediate our inflammation response. Current guidelines say between 20-35% of your caloric intake should be from fats, with<10% calories from saturated fat.
Dietary supplements are always a tricky subject to talk about. Theoretically, if you are eating a diet that contains enough fruits, vegetables, protein sources, grains, etc. then it shouldn’t be necessary to take any supplements (with the exception of some chronic conditions). The existing research is also mixed on whether certain supplements enhance performance or not. Also note that some supplements can affect certain health conditions or have food-drug interactions.
On a food safety side, I do have other concerns about dietary suppplements. The Dietary Supplement Health and Education Act of 1994, otherwise known as DSHEA, significantly impacted the FDA’s ability to regulate dietary supplements and ensure that they meet certain standards. As a result, some dietary supplements don’t contain the things they say they do. Some overstate the effect of certain components (without the same regulation as health claims from food). There can even be supplements on the market that can cause adverse health effects.
This is not to scare you away from using supplements entirely. Some companies do extensive lab testing and get their products certified by independent entities that may have very high standards to bring safe products to their consumers. It really is up to you if you would like to try different supplements and see how they affect you. If you do want to try supplements, you should do research on them (or ask a health professional) before you spend a bunch of money.
Eating Around a Workout
Now that you know some of the basics, let’s talk about how to put some of this into practice.
Before the Workout
Your day of fitness starts off well before you make it to the gym, warehouse space, or wherever you may be working out. Eating enough before a workout helps prevent fatigue and makes sure your body is using the correct energy sources while you work out. Optimally, you want to eat somewhere between 1 to 2 hours before you exercise. Otherwise, you run the risk of getting cramps or feeling sick because your body is attempting to focus on two different bodily systems at the same time.
If you’re eating close to the two hour mark, a balanced meal containing some protein, carbohydrates and fats is good to have. Protein and fats help slow the digestion of carbohydrates, so you may not get hungry during the middle of practice. If you’re eating at this time, it should be okay to have more whole grains and complex carbohydrates. You have a longer period of time for your body to digest them and make the energy available during workouts. If you’re at the one hour (or less!) period, going for simpler carbohydrates is going to be best for quick digestion before your activity. If you want to look up food and their glycemic index/load (which is a measure of how quickly the carbohydrates are broken down and absorbed), look at the GI Database from the University of Sydney.
During the Workout
During a practice, it is very important to maintain your hydration. Always have your water bottle with you, and always refill it when you need to. Don’t be afraid to tell your trainers when you need a drink of water (sometimes they forget you need breaks). Whenever you have breaks in-between exercises or practicing a technique, take a few sips of water. If you chug a lot of water at one time, you may feel it sloshing around your stomach and feel nauseous when you return to skating.
I do like using some sport drink mix in my water to give me some continued energy and replenish my electrolytes during practice. Plain water or coconut water (which contains electrolytes) are also excellent. Typically, I’ll end up refilling my water bottle so that I end up with a diluted sports drink anyway.
It is recommended that if you’re doing exercise for longer than an hour, a small carbohydrate snack is helpful in helping you maintain your energy. We often don’t get the chance to stop for a snack during practice, but if you start feeling weak or dizzy while exercising, I recommend taking a break and eating something. I like to carry raisins or other dried fruit with me for this reason, but a quick granola bar or other snack can work as well.
After the Workout
You should eat after practice. Think about it – you just spent hours skating, pushing, falling, etc. and your body has used up all of the energy it stored to power you through a lot of activity. To help your body’s energy restoration, look for carbohydrate sources that are easily digestible (low fiber, high glycemic index). If you’re looking to build muscle, eating somewhere between 20-40 grams of protein within the first two hours after a workout is recommended. And of course, continue to hydrate after you’ve finished practice. Some things that I eat after a workout include grits and eggs, peanut butter and apples, or a high-protein yogurt with granola.
BONUS! Daily Tips and Other Advice
- Stay hydrated all of the time. Try carrying a water bottle with you or some other reminder that you should drink water, tea, or another hydrating beverage
- Eat snacks throughout the day! I think this is especially important if you don’t eat breakfast in the morning. Snacks can help you meet your energy needs throughout the day that you may not be able to achieve through meals alone
- Be smart about your alcohol intake. It’s best not to drink a lot the night before you have a practice/workout. Even if you don’t feel different the next day, it can have a negative impact on your performance.
- Listen to your body! If you’re feeling extremely tired the day after a workout or for several days at a time (not related to any existing chronic condition), it may be a sign that you’re lacking something! It can be a vitamin deficiency, an energy deficiency, or you could also not be getting enough sleep. Constantly check in with yourself to see that you’re doing alright, and make changes as needed.
- Your weight is not always the best marker of how healthy you are. You may gain weight because of muscle, or lose weight because you’re not eating enough. Notice how you feel day to day, your progress in physical performance, the definition of new muscle or other changes in your body. Weight is only one anthropometric measure used in health assessment, so don’t let that number get you down.
- For ideas on recipes and snacks, Greatist is a really good website to check out for their Eat section.
- Need help tracking your intake of food and energy? Try a food record/tracking app like MyFitnessPal.
This was a rundown of some of the basics for sports nutrition. As you begin to integrate these principles into a healthy eating pattern, you’ll feel a difference in your body on and off skates.
Good luck on your roller derby journey and see you on the track!
Featured photo by Carl Grooms