Nutrition for Athletes

An Interview with Dr. John Berardi

As most T-Mag readers know, John Berardi's been around the block so many times, he makes the mailman look like a slacker. A nutrition consultant to everyone from hockey players to soccer moms, when this guy talks sports nutrition - you'd better listen. Need more convincing? Well, how's this work for ya?

Dr. Berardi is currently the director of performance nutrition for the Canadian National Cross Country Ski Team and the Canadian National Alpine Ski Teams. He also consults with a number of elite level individual athletes, sports teams,and Olympic training centers including:

The Toronto Maple Leafs

The US Bobsled Team

The Canadian National Speed Skating Team

The Canadian National Canoe/Kayak Team

The Calgary Sports Centre/Olympic Oval (Calgary, Alberta)

The Manitoba Sports Centre (Winnipeg, Manitoba)

The University of Texas Women's Track and Field Team

In fact, individual athletes in nearly every sport including professional football (NFL and CFL), professional hockey (NHL and AHL), professional baseball (MLB), and professional basketball (NBA) hire Dr. Berardi to get the absolute best results. To say this guy is busy is an understatement.

Since some have called him "the greatest sports nutrition mind in the world today," I just had to find out if this guy was the real deal. So I bugged... and bugged... and bugged the heck outta Dr. Berardi for months before he finally agreed to work with me on a project near and dear to my heart - nutrition for wrestlers and grapplers. HOWEVER, let me quickly state the majority of the info in it applies to almost any athlete!

Out of that project came the following phone interview. It was so damn good that I transcribed it, cleaned up the ums and aahs, and made it available for you today.

(To listen to the interview in its entirety, come download it for free at

First, what's the value of a good nutritional program for today's athlete? I mean, so many athletes skip meals and, you know, they're constantly eating sugar, they're constantly eating fast food. You've seen the movie Super Size Me, right?

JB: Sure.

MF: Well, for those of you who haven't seen it, the star of the movie was sedentary and ate all this fast food for a few months, ending up extremely out of shape with his blood profile in the toilet. Well, aside from the sedentary thing, many grapplers I meet - young and old -follow something close to the Super Size Me diet. So how does skipping meals, eating fast food, and eating lots of sugar impact athletes? Or even better, how can improving their nutrition improve their performance?

JB: Actually, Mike, that's an important question - one that not enough folks ask. Most just assume that good nutrition will "help" them. But they have no idea what kind of help to expect.

Here's what the International Olympic Committee has to say about how good nutrition can impact performance, this taken from the IOC Sports Nutrition consensus statement from 2002:

"The amount1, composition2, and timing of food3 intake can profoundly affect sports performance. Good nutritional practice will help athletes train hard1, recover quickly2, and adapt more effectively3 with less risk of illness and injury4."

"The right diet will help athletes achieve an optimum body size and body composition to achieve greater success in their sport"

MF: Common sense stuff - so why are most athletes missing the boat?

JB: Three words: high energy expenditure. As most competitive athletes train hard and often, their high energy expenditure can easily mask poor nutritional choices. And when I say mask, basically what I mean is that although, on the inside, you're a mess, you look just fine on the outside - after all, you don't look overfat - so you must be ok.

So, basically, many athletes are masking poor nutritional choices with a body that looks well nourished and healthy. And when an athlete looks lean they seem to think that things are "dialed in" and that they must be doing everything right. Well, leanness doesn't mean well-nourished.

The problem is, most athletes don't really understand how outstanding they could be if they did take care of their nutrition. And rather than just use some sort of nebulous term like "outstanding," let's speak about specific ways of measuring.

First, recovery. Whenever you work out, you're attempting to sort of destroy the body in a specific way. You want to destroy what your body is today so you can make it better tomorrow.

Let's just use the example of weight training – if I want to do biceps curls today, the reason is because I'd like for my biceps to be bigger or stronger tomorrow. This means the way that my biceps are today is inferior to what I'd like them to be. So I want to break them down and I want to build them up later in a way that makes them "better" biceps, if you will.

So, every time an athlete trains, basically what we're talking about here is destroying something and building something up that's better, right?

Now, the best way to do that is essentially to increase the amount of training we can do in a given period of time. Because if we can do more training in a certain period of time, we should get a better response, assuming adequate recovery.

I call that training density - the higher the training density with full recovery, the more adaptation - the more destruction and rebuilding. And the only way to really accelerate recovery besides periodization and stuff like that is to actually take care of nutrition.

So the first thing we talk about is recovery - eat right and you can do more density of work, and by doing more density of work you can get a better adaptation faster.

MF: Great answer. What else?

JB: Another thing that athletes characteristically are subject to if they don't pay attention to nutrition is micronutrient deficiencies. So when I say micronutrients, I mean vitamins and minerals. When athletes aren't paying attention to their nutrition, they're going Super Sizing or whatever, they can develop serious deficiencies in certain minerals.

And since you mentioned the Super Size Me movie, we'll stick with that theme. That guy was eating in excess of 5,000 calories a day. Which is just a ton, right? But nevertheless, when he went to have his vitamin and mineral loads tested, many were about 50percent of where they should be. So he was overeating tons of food but he was still under-nourishing.

This happens all the time with athletes. Over eating bad foods, under eating good foods, ending up with nutrient deficiencies.

Now I'm not suggesting that if these athletes pop a few multi-vitamins they'd be fine. The best vitamins and minerals come naturally in food.

So now we have two reasons for making sure that you eat properly:

1. Increasing recovery and being able to adapt to your training faster.

2. Avoiding deficiencies – which are usually inevitable with hard training athletes that aren't nourishing properly.

Of course, more reasons are discussed above in the IOC statement; these are just two that pop into my head immediately.

MF: Okay, now you kind of touched on something that's kind of dear to my heart. I have a 13-year-old who looks like he's straight out of a Men's Fitness Magazine. He's got a great little physique, and I'm not saying it because he's my son. Everybody that sees him says it, but his nutrition is just terrible. I mean, he's a typical 13-year-old.

So with all this talk of having a good looking physique but yet having poor nutrition, what can I do to make sure that he's not really setting himself up for trouble in the future. Can anything be done to prove the true value of someone's nutrition?

JB: You mentioned your 13-year-old son, but whether we're talking 13 year old boys or athletes all the way up to the highest levels of sport, athletes tend not to eat so well unless they learn about good nutrition.

I remember when I first got into consulting with high-level athletes. When I first started working with Olympic teams, I assumed that since their training was pretty solid that their nutrition would at least be reasonable. Like, they'd be meeting some basic minimums of good nutrition.

So I show up to do a seminar with them and many showed up with bags of fast food. I'm thinking, "Whoa, what are these guys doing coming to a nutrition lecture with bags of fast food!?"

So it was kind of puzzling to me. But when I dug deeper I just realized that these athletes know two things: 1) they're really active and 2) they needed a lot of calories. So they did what it took to eat a lot of calories. Unfortunately, as discussed above, they over ate calories and under ate nutrition.

This became a real problem for many of the female athletes who were developing iron deficiencies. And it became a problem for many of the male athletes unable to get enough dietary magnesium.

However, back to your question, there are certainly blood assessments of vitamin and mineral status that people can have taken. But, to be honest, I often avoid these. You see, they're often expensive and don't even offer much reliable information. What do we do if we find someone deficient in magnesium? Supplement with a magnesium pill? Perhaps it's one way to go about it. But that's not my preferred way. When someone's actually deficient in a micronutrient that tells me they need wholesale dietary changes, not just the addition of a vitamin pill.

Really, the best thing to do is have these athletes eating more of the right foods and less of the wrong ones. And that goes for your 13 year old. He doesn't likely buy his own groceries, right? So stock up your house with good foods and he won't have a choice. In my Grappler's Guide to Sports Nutrition, I've come up with a list of 21 "Super Foods" that all athletes should have in their fridges and cupboards. Make more of these foods available and he'll be ok.

Also, while he's adjusting to the new food selections, start teaching him the 10 habits. For those unfamiliar with the 10 habits, we've also got them outlined in the Grappler's Guide to Sports Nutrition book along with my 10 Habits "Cheat Sheet" - a card that they keep in their wallets or purses and bring with them every time they're planning a meal. If they use the sheet, short of any serious nutrient metabolism problems, I can virtually guarantee they'll have no deficiencies and their nutrition will be in check.

MF: That's awesome. Now, you've written many articles about nutritional timing and it's great to see that people are discussing this more and more, especially with respect to workout nutrition. Can you summarize what nutritional timing is all about?

JB: Well, understanding nutrient timing is simply understanding that the body is most receptive to certain nutrients at different times of the day. Let me give you an example.

Our bodies are pretty well equipped to handle carbohydrates, especially if we're lean, athletic, and participate in sports. However, not everyone has the same carbohydrate tolerance - some being far worse than others. Regardless, everyone's tolerance is dramatically increased during the time that we're working out and the time immediately after we're working out.

So I'll give you a really, really basic example. In fact, it's so basic that it's probably a bit off the mark. But I just want to illustrate this point as simply as possible, so here goes.

Let's say that I eat 100 units of carbohydrate. I call these "units" so we're all clear that this is an arbitrary example. Anyway, let's just say that I eat these 100 units of carbohydrate for lunch and I haven't had any physical activity in a few days. Well, since my body is operating under normal glucose tolerance conditions, perhaps 50 units of those carbohydrate units go toward liver and muscle glycogen replenishment.

So what happens to the other 50? Well, some of them are burned off in different tissues of the body. And others of them may be used to increase stored body fat. So, basically, under non-exercise conditions, this represents a 50percent efficiency ratio for storing carbohydrate in lean tissues.

However, ingest those same 100 units of carbohydrate after exercise and, because you just worked out, carbohydrate efficiency increases. If efficiency increases up to 90% at this time, 90 of the units are then stored as muscle glycogen while only 10 are burned off in different tissues and stored as fat.

Again, these numbers are completely made up but they illustrate the point. When you haven't exercised, carb efficiency is down. When you have, it's up. So that's one aspect of nutrient timing. Feed higher carb meals after exercise and you're more likely to have a more rapid recovery as well as a better body composition.

MF: Well, every athlete I know would benefit from that!

JB: For those interested in learning more about the nutrient timing concept, I detail it in the Grappler's Guide book. Also, I worked on another book with John Ivy at the University of Texas called Nutrient Timing.

But, in the end, here's what I tell my athletes. During training and immediately after, they need to take in protein and carbohydrates. Now, certainly if you're working out with any intensity, you can't sit there chewing on a meal of protein and carbs. So you need to take it in a liquid form.

Now there are certainly drinks that are designed specifically for this. I developed one myself; it's called Surge. I think it's the best on the market, but if you can't find it or you can't afford it, you can easily make your own mixture.

Either way, the point is that if you want to feed appropriately, to use nutrient timing properly, you need to get some protein and carbohydrates during and after your workout.

Next, as your carbohydrate tolerance remains pretty good during the two to three hours after your workout (although not quite as good as it was just after your workout), you want to eat more of a food meal.

I recommend eating a more balanced meal at this time - something that's kinda got the Zone composition (30g protein, 40g carbs, 30g fat). You get a bunch of carbs and you get a bunch of protein and you get some good fats in there.

Then, for the rest of the day, you would just eat protein, fruits and vegetables, and good fats.

So, all the other types of carbohydrates that people normally gorge themselves on like pastas and breads and stuff like that, you would just save for those two to three hours after the workout and the rest of the day your only carbs would come from fruits and vegetables.

MF: That's great. Let's talk a little more about recovery drinks. A lot of my athletes (young athletes) don't have much money to spend on nutritional supplementation. How can they get the most bang for their buck when it comes to recovery drinks?

JB: Well, I kind of rank the workout and post-workout options like this - high octane or regular octane. It's like buying gas. Gas is gas... but there are different grades.

So, the highest grade of recovery "gas" is Biotest Surge. This product contains hydrolyzed protein, a mix of carbohydrates, and additional amino acids that have been shown to enhance recovery.

But, you can make a recovery drink with regular whey protein and Gatorade, both of which you can pick up at most grocery stores nowadays.

Of course, mixing your own drink means that you don't get the hydrolyzed protein and the amino acids that Surge contains. So this gives it a lower rating on the recovery "gas" scale. But, if you're strapped for cash yet want the recovery benefits, the benefits of whey and a sugary drink are nothing to sneeze at.

So, either way, make sure to grab a shaker bottle, fill it with a liter of water, and dump your Surge or your Gatorade and Whey powder in there. Sip during and after exercise and you'll receive recovery benefits immediately.

MF: Let's talk supplements. What do you see as the value of supplementation? My aunt has a PhD in Kinesiology and she always says supplementation is just that. It's a supplement - above and beyond your normal diet. What do you think?

JB: Well, there are two ways to look at it. First, based on the conditions and dosage, supplements might give you a 2-3 percent performance advantage in competition. So let's look at the other 97%. Good genetics, good training, good nutrition, good recovery make up that other 97%.

So let me ask you this question. Could you just eat properly and become a successful wrestler?

MF: Ah, yeah, I think I could.

JB: You could?

MF: Yeah.

JB: Without proper training?

MF: Oh, no, no, sorry. Without training, no, no, I couldn't.

JB: Right, you couldn't. Proper training, proper recovery, proper nutrition - they're all essential. Of course, good genetics are important too. Get them all right and you get a 97% on your physical preparation test. And 97% might be good enough to beat most opponents. But add in the other 3% from supplements and you'd likely beat all opponents.

However, you're a fool if you think that you can neglect diet and training, pulling only a 75% on your physical preparation test and succeed at the highest levels by just taking some supplements. Even if they give you the 2-3% advantage you're looking for come competition day, you're still pulling a C average.

MF: I'm with ya.

JB: So that's my view on ergogenic aids - in other words, supplements designed to specifically boost competition performance.

However, there's another group of supplements that are more like food, things like protein supplements, recovery drinks, carbohydrate powders, fish oils, greens powders, etc. These supplements provide calories, energy, macronutrients, and micronutrients. And these supplements are great for everyday use and are considered, in my opinion, part of the "nutrition" component of the physical preparation test above. If you can't get to a whole food meal (which I prefer recommending most of the time), you should take them.

MF: That's definitely a distinction I wasn't making. I see a lot of people with what looks like a pharmacy in their gym bag, thinking they're going to be a great athlete because of the supplements. So I'm glad you brought up the distinction.

JB: Of course, there's no question - I take a bunch of supplements myself - most of the ones I mentioned above. My athletes also take a bunch of supplements. Let's run down the list.

First, all my athletes have recovery drinks. They sip them during and after their workouts.

Next, all my athletes take fish oil supplements.

I would say that probably 80-85percent of my athletes take creatine; whether they're losing fat or trying to get bigger or trying to get faster or trying to improve their aerobic endurance. Now with the specific population of wrestlers who need to weigh in, that becomes a little hairy because they MAY need to get rid of as much water as possible.

With them, though, 2 to 3grams (half a teaspoon) of creatine a day, taken over longer periods of time, helps prevent water gain. But they still get the performance benefit so it's an interesting way to take it.

So we've got recovery supplements, fish oil, and we've got Creatine. The next thing is protein powers and veggie powders. I don't know if you're familiar with Greens Plus?

MF: Nope. No, I'm not familiar with it.

JB: Greens Plus is basically ground veggies formed into a powder. As you know protein powder is essentially just milk protein that they took all the fluid and most of the non-protein components out of. Well, Greens powders are the same thing done with vegetables. So they basically take all the fluid out and most of the calories and leave you with a high concentration of veggie extracts and micronutrients.

Most of my athletes have a jug of protein and a jug of Greens Plus sitting around so that if they're in a pinch, like they have to run out the door, they make a quick shake. Or if they're on the road and they're traveling, in a business meeting, whatever the case may be, they can have a quick shake that provides them with great nutrition - more than just some protein and sugar.

But remember, as I mentioned above, these are emergency things - maybe they have one shake a day consisting of protein, greens, mixed nuts, berries, and other goodies. And another shake if they're in a pinch.

MF: Cool. Let's get back to grapplers and wrestlers. The biggest problem these guys have is cutting weight. Most of them simply cut calories and fluids while working out like crazy for a week prior to competition. Then they step on the scale dehydrated and have a few hours to replace fluids. What's the best way to do that?

JB: Well, to be honest, it all depends on how much weight loss through dehydration they experienced. If it's minimal, in 2 hours they could get about 2 liters of water back into their bodies (2 liters - 4.4 lbs). If they've lost more weight, they'd still end up a bit dehydrated.

Here are a couple of strategies to maximize the rehydration.

First, from the time between weigh-in to the actual competition, they've gotta sip a huge diluted carbohydrated beverage like Gatorade with a bit of sodium added to it. I'm talking about 2 liters of fluid. Make up 2 shaker bottles with 1L of water, 1 scoop of powdered Gatorade, and 1 teaspoon of salt in each. Sip them throughout the 2-hour post weigh-in period.

Second, glycerol is a carbohydrate-like substance that increases fluid uptake and retention. Throwing some glycerol into the drink above might help drive more fluid back into the body.

Now, the important point here is not how to recover from dehydration. It's not to dehydrate in the first place!

Dehydration of just 2% of body weight (for a 200lb individual that's 4lbs of water loss) is performance reducing. Maximal power as well as aerobic capacity is diminished. So why not just learn how to eat to manage body composition in the first place and don't worry about exercising with rubber suits in a sauna!

MF: Yep, after you taught me the weight reduction and safe cutting tips that you included in the Grappler's Guidebook, my athletes and I have been doing quite a few things differently and trying to avoid, or at least manage, dehydration.

And I've heard testimonial after testimonial with athletes losing weight quickly and easily leading up to tournaments - without having to exercise a lot or having to skip meals.

But back to dehydration – for those who insist on still dehydrating for competition - what about food during your replenishment period?

JB: There's research showing that liquids are absorbed faster than solids, even if ingested in the same meal. So you don't have to avoid eating during the replenishment period. However, you might want to focus on replenishment first (with the liquid drinks above) and snack lightly on some food just to settle your stomach. But don't pig out! Snack lightly while sipping your drink. Spread out your food and drink during your replenishment period. Don't slam either your food or your drink down, no matter how hungry and/or thirsty you are.

MF: Okay, good. What about athletes competing three or four times a day during a tournament? What should they be eating? I know for myself I had an incident this past summer where I was wrestling in a tournament and my family had to leave, but they took my cooler and food with them. I was going into the later rounds of the tournament with absolutely no energy. I don't ever want to feel that way again.

JB: What's fundamentally happening as you fatigue during a tournament day is that your muscle carbohydrate stores are getting depleted, your liver carbohydrates are getting depleted, and the carbohydrates in your blood are getting depleted as well.

And, truth be told, it's the blood sugar drop that really gets you feeling rundown. When your muscles start to run out of energy, yeah, they don't contract as well. But really, that feeling you get where you simply can't produce as much force any longer is really low blood sugar.

So you have to be sure to keep your blood sugar constant throughout the day. Don't let it dip or you'll crash. Now, there are lots of ways to do this but based on my research and experience, here's what I think is best.

Throughout a tournament day, sip a protein-carbohydrate drink. Constantly. It will ensure adequate blood levels of protein and carbohydrate. However, don't just do this. Snack lightly on easily digested foods. Pick foods that you like that have a high water content, and that are easily digested. Snack on those throughout the day in addition to your protein carb drinks.

MF: Great suggestion. Okay, let's wrap this interview up. Any last words for today's athletes?

JB: Sure. There's no question that whether you're an elite athlete, recreational athlete, or amateur athlete, the principles of good nutrition go beyond athletics.

Certainly many of you may really only be motivated to change your nutrition because you want to be better at your sport. But what we try to do - myself and my team at Science Link - is come up with nutrition plans that do essentially four things: (1) improve athletic performance; (2) improve health; (3) improve body composition, and (4) develop lasting habits.

There are nutrition programs out there that help with body comp but that can actually degenerate your health. And there are nutrition programs out there that might help with athletic performance acutely but that can actually be detrimental to health and body comp in the long run. And there are nutrition programs out there that are supposedly healthy but that reduce performance and body composition.

The best nutrition programs get all the bases covered above with one simple set of recommendations. And that's what our goal is; to improve your health, to improve your performance, to improve your body composition, and to help you develop habits that you can keep with you for life.

MF: Thanks, John.

JB: No problem at all!