ORACLE TEAM USA’s Craig McFarlane on Sports Nutrition

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Head Athletic Trainer Craig McFarlane knows a thing or two about nutrition: He designed the nutrition program that fuels the sailors of ORACLE TEAM USA, Defenders of the 34th America’s Cup. Here, he dishes on the design of the program, plus the Paleo diet, recovery foods, and more.

This is the second of three interviews with McFarlane. Get to know him, and learn how he transitioned from training rugby players to training sailors in our first Q&A. And stick around for the final installment, where he talks about ORACLE TEAM USA’s training program–and how it’s prepared these elite athletes for the most challenging race of their lives.

Can you give a brief overview of the nutrition program?

The program is structured around the sailors’ health profiles, and includes foods that work for everyone. On site, there are two main meals: breakfast and lunch. The hot breakfast includes things like egg whites, scrambled eggs, an omelet bar, oats, porridge, baked beans (low-sodium!), and breads and bagels. The cold version has sliced tomatoes, cheese, rolled oats, seeds, nuts, dried fruit, fresh fruit, and plenty of non-dairy milks, like almond milk and rice milk. For lunch, we have lean meats or fish; starches like pasta, rice, potatoes, and quinoa; and plenty of vegetables and salad.

What’s one of your favorite meals on base?

Definitely breakfast. My favorite is scrambled eggs, ham, and chopped tomato on whole-wheat, and I throw the whole thing in the toaster. That’s breakfast number one. For breakfast number two, I like rolled oats with pumpkin seeds, sunflower seeds, raisins, banana, strawberries, blueberries, and almond milk or Greek yogurt.

What about snacks?

The sailors also get snacks in between meals, like homemade Paleo snacks with a decent amount of protein, healthy oils, and a mix of carbs. They’re low-GI, dense, and great for energy.

Do any of the sailors have dietary restrictions?

Yes. Some of the guys are lactose intolerant, some have high cholesterol; everyone is a little different.

Do you make custom dietary recommendations?

My process is to start with the red-flag individuals who need guidance and go from there. We have a consultant nutritionist who helps with that education. We talk to the guys and create a baseline, and then help guide them in making better choices. We complete regular body composition (skinfolds) and we weigh the sailors every day; the crew’s weight has a significant impact on the boat’s performance.

How strict is the nutrition program?

Not too strict! The sailors have various jobs in addition to their roles on the boat, and they’re on different schedules, so when and what they eat depends on those factors. These guys work hard on and off the boat, so they’ve got to have to balance. If I’m too strict, they’ll start to lose interest and enjoyment and will eat the wrong foods. But they’ve got to eat healthy for peak performance. So the program is all about the right education, making the right food choices, and maintaining a balance. I’m not going to stop people from eating cheese–as long as they’re within a respectable range of their body fat composition!

How many calories per day do the sailors eat on a typical training day?

It varies by person, but an average might be 8,000 to 10,000 calories per pay. They definitely eat more on harder training days. Depending on their position on the boat, they can burn anywhere from 3,000 to 6,000 calories alone just training, which is 4 to 6 hours. They also end up burning about 1,000 calories working out. And then they burn off another 2,500 just living, so they have to eat somewhere in the neighborhood of 10,000 calories just to maintain their weight.

What does 10,000 calories a day look like?

The sailors eat six to seven meals a day–breakfast, lunch, and dinner, plus three or four lighter meals. It’s really hard to get them enough food when they’re on the water for five hours. The conditions are challenging-the wind, the sea state–and with a fixed wing on the boat, it will just keep moving. When they’re on the water, the guys want to keep racing, and get in as much sailing as possible. You’ve got to make sure they stop for 15 minutes so they can eat and get their calories. If they don’t get enough calories, they get tired, they get injured, they get nothing from training. It’s high risk.

What kind of food do you send out on the boat?

At the moment, they’ve got wraps, burritos, rice salads or potato salads, lean meats, fruit, and Clif bars.

How important is the quality of the calories when the guys are training so hard?

It’s important–they’re training hard but they still need sugars, they’ll burn through them. Ideally, right before or after the training window is the best time to eat sugar. After training means it will go straight to the blood and replace their muscle glycogen stores.

In the evenings, some of the guys get slack and eat sugary, processed foods. One of my challenges in this culture is better education. In the past, they got away with high body fat composition. But with this new sailing format and the physicality that it requires, we can’t afford to allow that anymore. I counsel every day I walk in.

How is advising elite athletes on nutrition different from advising an average person?

Not that different. Both require a balanced diet. If anything, athletes just need a higher amount of proteins and oils.

What pre-match or recovery foods do you recommend?

Pre-match, about three hours out, a meal should consist of lean, easily digestible proteins like fish or chicken; slow-releasing carbs like grains, potatoes, whole-wheat pasta and rice; and veggies and salads.

You need quality proteins for muscle recovery, and you need carbs to replenish muscle glycogen stores–that gives the sailors the energy they need for the next training or sailing session. Supplementation with high-protein shakes and smoothies that include branched-chain amino acids starts the recovery process instantly. We also use a rehydration product called SOS. It has various salts, minerals, and mixed sugars, and provides medical-grade hydration before and after training.

Are there any particular challenges to keeping the team on track with diet?

Everyone’s from all over the world, so they’re going to be into different things. It’s all about finding that balance and making good choices. There are a couple of guys who are big into Paleo, I think that helps–having a structure for the choices you make.

When the sailors go out, do they stick to the nutrition plan?

When the guys go out to a restaurant, they’ll eat what they want and I can’t stop them. Body weight isn’t the key issue; it’s body fat composition. So it all depends on where they’re starting from.

For example, the grinders do most of the work on the boat. Then you’ve got trimmers, who do less work but are in key positions. You can’t expect the grinders to drop too much weight–they’d losing muscle; their power output and energy would decrease; and there’s a risk of them getting sick. So the guys who are in positions on the boat that require comparatively less work need to drop weight to allow those in highly demanding positions–such as the grinders–to maintain their weight.

Is there anything that’s off-limits for the sailors during training?

Ground beef, sausages, and dishes that have protein and starches mixed together are examples–those foods are too high in bad fats. For instance, I love lasagna, but I take it off the menu! No burgers, no meatloaf. The shore crew hated me!

If you could only give one piece of nutrition advice, what would it be?

Don’t overdo it at either end of the spectrum, and you’ll be fine. If you must eat processed, sugary foods, eat them in moderation, and only when you’re training. If you’re going eat junk food, you have to do plenty of training.

That said, some people need to find their way first, and that might require making a drastic change upfront and then striking a balance.

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