Eight weeks. That's about how long NFL prospects get to prepare for the biggest job interview of their life.
They enter that span still beaten and battered from the grind of their season, and ideally emerge at a mind-boggling level of physical condition.
"(We're) trying to get them to be the biggest and the fastest that they've ever been in their entire lives," says Roy Holmes, Performance Manager at EXOS San Diego. Holmes has helped hundreds of athletes prepare for the combine. He can go on for hours about the nuance of a 40-Yard Dash start or the keys to a quicker L-Drill. Yet in his eyes, the training program is not the most important component of the combine prep process—it's the diet.
"The huge aspect is really the nutrition. I tell the guys all the time, the faster you buy into the nutrition program, the better off you're going to be," Holmes says. Most players come in needing to gain lean muscle mass, and to add muscle, you must be in an anabolic state. This means you must consume more calories than you burn on a daily basis. Considering combine prep is likely the highest volume of training these athletes have ever endured, this takes a colossal effort. Nutrition is also synonymous with recovery, and with how much these guys are working out, they can't afford to run on Big Macs and Milky Ways.
"They're training three to four times a day. In here early in the morning until late at night. So having that perfect diet is where everything starts to change," Holmes says. "We have guys (coming in) with Lamborghini bodies, but they're putting Honda gas in there. They're not putting the right fuel in their body." For all but the most disciplined athletes, the new diet means significant changes.
"Everybody who comes in here for combine prep is going to get evaluated by me. So we meet and talk about their goals, what they want to get to. If they're not sure, typically, I have a general idea, the agent has a general idea, or the coaches (have a general idea). With that, we take their height, their weight, their body composition—we use ultrasound here to get a general idea of their body fat percentage," says Krysten McCaughey, Performance Dietitian at EXOS San Diego. "With that, and then the training data and any athlete restrictions the physical therapists give me, I'm able to calculate approximately their energy needs. (The diet) is very specific to them."
At EXOS SD, lunch, dinner and pre- and post-workout snacks and shakes are provided by the facility, who coordinate the menu (which rotates weekly) with a local restaurant. McCaughey sums up EXOS's combine diet philosophy with three mantras.
For protein, "The less legs the better." Fish is prioritized above chicken and turkey, which are prioritized above beef and pork. All of these are complete proteins and most of them will likely appear in a prospect's diet at one point or another, but the high omega-3 fatty acid content of most fish gives them a nutritional edge. These fatty acids are not produced naturally within the body, so we must receive them from dietary sources. They're also potent fighters of inflammation, making fatty fish like salmon a valuable option during combine prep. "A lot of guys are a little iffy on fish in general, but San Diego, being kind of an Ocean town, we have a lot of fish on the menu. Salmon is one that a lot of the guys will try and end up liking a lot," McCaughey says.
For carbohydrates, "Brown and close to the ground." The "brown" refers to choosing mainly complex carbohydrates over simple carbohydrates. Examples of complex carbohydrates, which tend to be more brown in color than simple carbs, include quinoa, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, whole wheat bread, sweet potatoes, steel-cut oatmeal and beans. Complex carbohydrates take longer to digest, providing more sustained energy than simple carbs. This makes them ideal for meals. McCaughey recommends using simple carbs mainly as a way to "top off your tank" before workouts.
"(You want) about 15-30 grams of carbohydrates about 15-35 minutes prior to activity," McCaughey says. "So that will be like a piece of fruit, an apple or small banana. Maybe a piece of white toast. Something that will be absorbed pretty quickly by the body." The "close to the ground" component of the tagline refers to choosing forms of grains, produce, lentils, etc. which are close to how they grow in nature rather than highly-processed versions.
And for fats, "Eat fats that give back." This refers to choosing healthy sources of fat that contain a greater volume of beneficial compounds. Think avocados, nuts, nut butters, seeds, eggs, fatty fish, extra-virgin olive oil, etc. "Typically, we have them focus more on the plant-based fats versus the refined fats. (Those) are going to have those anti-inflammatory fats," McCaughey says.
Pills and powders from Onnit are used to supplement the healthy diet and optimize recovery and muscle function. After workouts, each athlete is provided with a personalized protein shake. This year, EXOS combine athletes consumed a combined 26,304 scoops of whey protein.
"Pretty much everybody is going to get leucine. It's a teaspoon, which is about 5 grams of leucine. That's an amino acid that's just going to help the muscle-building process for them. Some of them will get glutamine, that's another animo acid more for recovery and gut health. Some of them will get creatine, that's going to support some of the things they're doing in the weight room," McCaughey says. "Then there will be some whey protein in there, again to kind of rebuild and repair that muscle. Then it will be blended with some fruit which will help with their carbohydrate needs to get the fuel on board for their training sessions (and) help replace their body's fuel stores for the next training sessions."
Prospects often utilize Onnit's Joint Oil supplement, as well, which includes fish oil along with turmeric extract.
Being unflinchingly strict about everything an athlete eats can cause them to rebel against the program. McCaughey has learned allowing them a little comfort food during such a stressful period can go a long way towards earning buy-in. "I tell them 80/20 rule. 80 percent of the time, try to have more of the healthy foods. Then 20 percent of the time, you can have your (favorites). It makes it a little more sustainable for them," McCaughey says.
If she can help make their comfort foods more supportive of high performance, all the better. Most prospects love fast food, so she provides tips to help make trips to the drive-thru healthier. Examples include choosing grilled options over fried, or picking guacamole in place of sour cream and cheese.
"I'm constantly meeting with the guys and seeing what they're eating at night and what they're eating out and giving them little tips. Why don't we order this instead of this? Or can you substitute this instead of this? Just to teach them that when you're out, it doesn't have to unhealthy," McCaughey says. "I think the guys will pick up on those little things and they realize all those little things add up over time."
When combined with intense and smartly designed training, the dialed-in diets can make for miraculous physical transformations. Body fat melts away and is replaced by slabs of lean muscle. Some of the Herculean physiques that turn heads in Indianapolis are purely the result of genetic freakiness, but most had to make serious sacrifices to achieve that body.
"The guys have to go up on stage at the combine in front of all the scouts and GMs and they're basically in their compression shorts and (nothing) else. So there's a huge aesthetic aspect to it," Holmes says. "We have two days a week that we call our beach body days—traditional back-and-bi's, chest-and-tri's type days. But also, we try to improve body composition through nutrition … This is the most demand they've ever had on their body, so it's really important that their nutrition is on point."
Beyond the eye test, proper nutrition allows for the significant increases in strength, speed and power needed to ace the combine events. STACK has visited a huge number of combine prep facilities over the history of our Path to the Pros series, and the refrain is always the same—the training can only take you so far. You need to eat right to see significant results. While athletes may rebound to some of their old dietary habits once the combine's in the rearview, there's often a lasting impact.
"Every little bit helps. It doesn't have to be perfect. Any little choice that they're making, little swaps here and there, are going to help with their overall performance," McCaughey says. "It's definitely going to be crunch time when they're here being on such a short time frame to get ready for combine or pro day. It's a shorter amount of time that they need to hit certain weights and certain body comp goals. However, with the education we do with it and the little tips and tricks we give then, we try to make it something that's sustainable."
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