1 August 2017

Eat Like a Cowboy: How Nutrition Impacts Injury Rehabilitation

Daniel Gallan (@danielgallan)

They say an army marches on its stomach and the same could be said for an elite NFL team. The Dallas Cowboys have a new member in their ranks but he’s not responsible for tackling, running or throwing. Instead, Scott Senhert, Director of Sports Performance at the Cowboys, is tasked with the job of making sure his assets eat right and maintain a high performing diet. 

Dallas Cowboy features in most valuable sports team for 2017, according to Forbes Magazine

Dallas Cowboy features in most valuable sports team for 2017, according to Forbes Magazine

Valued at $4.2 billion, the Dallas Cowboys topped as Forbes most valuable sports team for 2017. But unlike some of the glittering names below them, including the New York Yankees, Manchester United and FC Barcelona, being a financial powerhouse has not seen a recent addition to their trophy cabinet.

In fact, it has been 7862 days since Hall of Famers Troy Aikman, Emmitt Smith and Michael Irivn led the Cowboys to a 27-17 Super Bowl victory over the Pittsburgh Steelers, their third in four years and fifth overall, in January 1996. For the world’s most valuable team, that is a run more barren and dry than the Chihuahuan Desert that covers the south-east of Texas.

With A new addition to their high performance unit, they are planning to inject new energy into the franchise and provide a unique perspective on how to return the once mighty Cowboys to their glory days. No, we’re not talking about first draft pick Taco Charlton, though much will be expected of the 6ft 6in 22 year old defensive end, but instead Scott Sehnert, Director of Sports Performance at the Star in Frisco who has a very particular day job.

90% of what I do revolves around nutrition,” Senhert says. “I’m constantly thinking of tailored meal plans, as well as educating the team on nutrition and working out specific programmes for injured players.”

During seasons, Senhert spends 2 meals a-day with his athletes, as well as pre/post practice refueling session. This one-on-one interaction, coupled with replenishing the athlete’s bodies with what they need, means that Senhert is one of the most important members of the Cowboys unit, and in order to perform at his best, he needs complete buy-in from players.

“In any population across the globe there will be a group of people who think they know what proper nutrition is but will be off the mark,” Senhert says. “I’ve seen athletes who have achieved so much despite poor nutrition and bad habits can creep in, that are hard to break.”

In order to win the trust of athletes, Senhert uses the carrot more than the stick. In elite sport, longevity means money and in a sport like American football, where the average career length is between 3.3 and 6 years (depending on who you ask) any extra variable can help with longevity and is used to get players on board, with programmes that may be unfamiliar to them.

“It’s about establishing rapport,” Senhert continues. “A modern pro athlete is constantly faced with self-proclaimed ‘gurus’ who claim to have their best interest at heart, so naturally they’re often guarded. 

If there is one situation where a sports practitioner needs complete trust of an athlete, it is during an injury. Athletes build their livelihood on their bodies, and when they encounter a mechanical failure, it can have repercussions that extend far beyond the confinement of the playing field.

That is why Senhert speaks at great length on why a well thought out and hyper intensive nutrition programme, can reduce the time spent on the sidelines, as a result of an injury.

“Injury is just a big state of inflammation for the most part,” says Senhert. “Thinking about this in a simplified manner, helps deal with the problem. Any sports practitioner’s goal is to reduce inflammation at the right time, and there are foods that injured athletes should avoid. When Senhert says “at the right time” he emphasizes the importance in the rehabilitation process. If the inflammation is reduced too early, there can be negative effect.

“Initially, you want to avoid anti-inflammatory foods like fish oil or cherry juice,”Senhert goes onto say. “You want to allow the natural inflammation to happen. But there is a point, perhaps preoperatively, where you want to decrease the inflammation, and want to eat more foods that contain those anthocyanins and strong anti-inflammatory nutrients.”

As Senhert explains, once the inflammation has started to subside, foods high in saturated fats and sugars that increase inflammation, should be avoided during injury. When positioned to Senhert, these foods should probably be avoided at all times by an elite athlete. He points out that during healthy periods the negative effects of these foods are easily navigated. Besides, sometimes an unhealthy meal can combat the mental pressures of being an elite athlete.

“People down in the South love fried chicken and comfort foods and we incorporate morale boosting meals into the programme,” Senhert says. “Certain foods stimulate something in our brain that is calming and reassuring, and they certainly have a place in a nutritious week. It’s important to celebrate a win with a good meal. The comradery that takes place over some steak and cheese cake is all-important to team morale.”

Injured athletes have to be more disciplined, as their energy output will be greatly diminished during periods of inaction and depending on the injury, will either have to increase or decrease their consumption of certain foods.

If an athlete has suffered a stress fracture in a bone, loading on vitamin D and K can help with the absorption of calcium. Similarly, high intake of protein is necessary for muscle injuries that require remodelling of the muscle.

“Quality proteins that include essential amino acids are needed here. Some athletes think that they need to consume less protein when injured because they associate protein consumption, with weight gain but that protein is going to be important, because there is greater damage to the muscle. 

For ligament injuries, which accounts for the majority of injuries that occur in elite sport, exciting new developments have come to light that can combat these ailments, through a simple addition to an athlete’s diet.

According to Senhert, innovative methods coming out of the lab of Keith Baar, a professor at the University of California, Davis, have found of way to combine small amounts of gelatin and vitamin C, to help with collagen formation and ligament strength.

“Recent research shows that 15g of gelatin and about 15mg of vitamin C (less than an average sized orange) an hour before loading can help strengthen ligaments.” The researchers used a jump rope to load the ligament and found that there was a benefit in consuming small amounts of gelatin and vitamin C. It’s still early days, but this is an exciting development that will help with injury prevention and rehabilitation.”

Senhert says that educating athletes, at the top who have access to a wealth of information, is still a great challenge. However, with more exposure and continues gain of the athletes and teams trust, he is hoping that the mental association between nutrition, injury prevention and rehabilitation becomes a natural link. 

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