TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — Quietly walking past blocking sleds, Amy Bragg was lost in the crowd at Tuesday afternoon’s Crimson Tide football practice.
Hydration was likely her main concern as the furnace that is August in Alabama made life between the lines a chore yet again. Preparing the 100-plus players for another day’s work is the life of the athletic department’s new hire.
Her title: director of performance nutrition.
Her role: Keep athletes properly fed and hydrated to perform at the highest level.
Never miss a local story.
Hired in June, it’s up to Bragg to craft the menus for athletes before and after practices and games. She is one of approximately 20 in her line of work nationally and new to Alabama after performing the same job at Texas A&M for the past six years.
“I’m here to coach the players on eating for performance, first and foremost,” she said.
Given the record temperatures in Alabama this August, Bragg’s value rose faster than the thermostat. The preseason is already the most intense segment of the year with the most energy expended, but this heat pushes athletes to the brink. How well they prepare for workouts in a kiln makes all the difference.
Replacing fluids, electrolytes and sodium takes precedent in the evenings, just as designing the menu for the rest of the day. Bragg has seen athletes burn through as many as 7,000 to 8,000 calories per day while the average during a football preseason is closer to 4,000 or 5,000 daily.
Diets also vary greatly from one player to the next.
The skill positions — receivers, running backs, defensive backs — require more carbohydrates while linemen consume much more protein “to be massive and not get pushed around,” Bragg said.
A typical day for a football player begins with breakfast options including an omelet bar, cereal, toast, oatmeal, ham, steak and fluids. For lunch, there is a salad bar, deli bar and two entries. The linemen will get a higher calorie option, such as brisket, while the others get something on the lean side, such as chicken breast.
Managing body composition was one of Bragg’s directives upon accepting the job. For example, she said, a lineman that weighs 300 pounds with 75 pounds of body fat is in good shape. Add an extra body-fat pounds, and performance suffers and endurance drops.
Offensive tackle D.J. Fluker is a model of a player who drastically improved his ratio, although most of his progress was made before Bragg’s hire. He weighed close to 400 pound when arriving in Tuscaloosa last summer, but the 6-foot-6 lineman dropped 75 pounds and now carries a manageable 23 percent body fat.
Every week or so, Bragg meets with head coach Nick Saban. He has taken an interest in the body composition data that Bragg calls “the body’s scoreboard.”
Hiring Bragg, Saban said, filled one of the major gaps he saw in the program.
“I think we’ve already started to change habits when it comes to eating. I think we’ve had some really positive effects,” Saban said. “… We’ve had some guys make some significant improvements in improving their body fat, muscle mass, hydration to be more geared toward consistency and performance, and really fueling you and having the kind of energy they need to perform.”
There have been fewer cramping issues and heat-related injuries this August, Saban said.
Part of that could be attributed to the recovery process that Bragg stresses. Upon leaving the practice field, players find Bragg with several options for their return to normal. Watermelon, plums, orange sections and pickles on ice for those needing sodium are at their disposal. Smoothies are new to the menu this year.
Bragg also played a role in linebacker Dont’a Hightower’s return to playing shape after he went down with a season-ending knee injury last September. She kept him away from fried foods and pushed vegetables to help him return to a manageable 260 pounds from a weight he laughingly withheld from reporters Tuesday.
Tide running back Mark Ingram called Bragg “a tremendous asset” to the program that stressed nutrition in the past but not the same way.
“It’s just more taking action than anything,” Ingram said.
Now that two-a-days are finished, the nutritional focus turns to the all-important pregame meals.
Bragg couldn’t reveal that secret menu, in part because it is still under construction.
“I need a few games under my belt with this team, seeing them eat in a game situation,” she said. “I can tell you about my previous team all day long. I know general volumes and eating habits, but, in a game weekend situation, every team is different.”