Carolina Panthers star Greg Olsen knows what it takes to stay healthy in the NFL.
The Pro Bowl tight end hasn’t missed a game since 2007, making him a consistent and reliable target for MVP quarterback Cam Newton. Olsen led the Panthers in receptions during the 2015 season, setting a new career high in receiving yards in the process.
Olsen’s play helped the Panthers start the season 15-0 before making a run to the Super Bowl. And while playing that deep into the postseason can sometimes make it hard for players to come back fresh the next year, that doesn’t appear to be a problem for the former Miami Hurricanes product.
For Olsen, health and longevity are the product of his commitment to pre-game preparation, nutrition, and understanding his body.
“I probably have the longest pre-game warm-up in the NFL—it’s actually gotten longer over the years,” Olsen tells Men’s Fitness. “I try to be pretty in tune with my body. If you play this game long enough, you’re going to wake up and one day your knee is going to hurt or your back is going to hurt.” But even with that preparation, Olsen has had some help along the way: “It’s lot of communication with the training staff and the nutritionist—it’s a big part of what we do.”
Team dietician Jennifer Brunelli, M.S., R.D., L.D.N. is at the forefront of that effort, helping players stay on track with their diet and overall nutrition. Brunelli, a former All-American swimmer herself, has worked with the Panthers since 2014, and during that time the team has been using nutritional science, body composition analysis, and individualized blood testing to specifically target areas of improvement for each player on the roster.
“I’m lucky to walk into an environment where we have an athletic training staff and a strength conditioning staff who saw the need for something like this,” Brunelli says. “It just opens the doors for me that much more quickly to come in and try to help each player much as I possibly can.”
Another area of focus: hydration. The two shared their knowledge about the topic while making an appearance at Johnson C. Smith University as part of the the Gatorade Beat the Heat campaign, which helps “raise awareness among athletes, parents and coaches on how proper hydration can help reduce heat-related illnesses during athletic activity.”
Olsen and Brunelli spoke with Men’s Fitness about nutrition and diet tips for football players, the reasons you need to stay hydrated while working out, the best way to train during the offseason, and the best post-workout meals.
(Editor’s note: This interview has been edited for clarity.)
MEN’S FITNESS: What are you hoping to accomplish by participating in the Gatorade Beat the Heat program?
GREG OLSEN: I think the biggest thing is trying to get these lessons and information to kids at as young of an age as possible. Make sure they understand why hydration and taking care of your body while you’re practicing and working out is so vital. We’re just trying to help get that message across, and that’s something that Gatorade has done a great job with.
What do you hope athletes, coaches, players, and parents take away from your work with the hydration and heat safety program?
I think the biggest thing is people realizing how important it is to take care care of your body. Preparation and recovery have really come to the forefront of what it means to be an athlete in the last few years. In the past it was all about how well do you play, and how much do you lift, and how often do you run, and how fast are you. Now all of those things are a secondary byproduct. Can you play game after game? How do you recover in between practices? Are you able to handle this game physically? That has just become such a huge part of football, from the NFL all the way to Pop Warner. I think that’s something that people have really started to open their eyes with—the hydration is a big part of it.
During minicamp and training camp, when temperatures can get into the triple digits, what are some of the ways you make sure to stay hydrated?
I think our biggest thing is, pretty much everywhere we look around our facility there’s Gatorade products. They have the Prime stuff—those shell packs of carb drinks—I drank those before I even worked with Gatorade, before every single practice my entire career. I started that since I was in Chicago. Then fluids during practice. Those are all products that we use on a day-to-day basis. They work, they help take care of your body and it’s something that we all believe in wholeheartedly.
The way the organization handles nutrition has seemingly had a positive influence on the performance team over the past few years—how does that affect your personal routine?
During the offseason I work with Jennifer. I send her all my blood results and she takes a look at them and coordinates with the chef who prepares my meals in the offseason. They will cook according to what that blood work finds, like minerals and vitamin deficiencies, and try to correct those things. While you might not always 100% stick to that at all times, it’s a nice baseline of resetting your body and making minor changes that can have lasting impacts.
Again, it’s not going to make you run faster or jump higher, but body recovery—how your body absorbs injuries, how it recovers from injuries, soft tissue injuries—much of that stuff is preventable to a degree. I think it’s a responsibility of the players to try to exhaust all measures to get some of those things to not occur. It’s a constant chess game and no one has all the answers, but you’ve got to try to do the best that you can to stay on the field and stay ready and do what they tell you to do.
You haven’t missed a game since joining the Panthers. What do you do to help prevent injuries and keep yourself on the field?
If you play this game long enough you’re going to wake up and one day your knee is going to hurt or your back is going to hurt. It’s just kind of the nature of our world. Really being in tune with your body of what’s going on, what imbalances do you have, what’s not exactly acting right and knowing how to approach it and nip it in the bud is almost just as big of a challenge as actually playing the game. A lot of self-maintenance and communication with the training staff and the nutritionist is a big part of what we do.
How many meals do you usually have per day?
I usually have three standard meals filled with different sorts of snacks or kind of sub-meals in between. Jennifer and our staff there do a really good job with our meals. I’ll eat during the weekdays—breakfast and lunch is provided, and then the different supplement drinks and recovery and prep drinks we take before and after our workouts. When we’re not at facility, I have someone who prepares my dinner meals with Jennifer’s guidance to make sure I’m eating the right things that my body needs depending on what we find with the tests.
What are some of your favorite foods to eat while training?
Breakfast is pretty straightforward: eggs. For dinner, it rotates. I like a lot of fish, a lot of lean meats—any sort of lean proteins with a lot of vegetables or healthy grains. With some sort of combination of those, you can’t really go wrong.
What is your training like during the offseason? How does it differ from what you do during the regular season?
During the offseason, when you don’t have the worries and the grind of the games and the wear and tear of your body, you can really attack the training element a lot harder. More load on your body, more stress—whether that be through running or in the weight room with the lifting program that you’re doing at the time.
During the season it’s probably a lot more maintenance-oriented, recovery-oriented—range of motion, staying active, blood flow, and just encouraging your body to continue to move and stay loose. You need to be able to absorb hits, run, and do everything physically that you’re asked to do. I think that’s a whole different mentality once there’s games in the picture, because that really becomes the priority. In the offseason the priority is for us to get healthy, to best try to optimize our physical qualities, get faster, stronger—make sure our body is prepared for this long run and in a good place to try to prevent injuries.
What is your pre-game routine like?
I think the biggest thing on game day is I go out every pre-game with [quarterback] Derek Anderson, and we have our set routine down in the end zone. I gradually get into my movement patterns and my movement stuff to warm-up and just catch a thousand balls—I have him throw it at me at every angle, every turn, every cut, every angle. You’re not running real fast. You’re not cutting real fast, but you’re trying to see the ball from as many angles as you can and just get your body in tune with that.
Read the interview with Panthers team nutritionist Jennifer Brunelli below >>>
MEN’S FITNESS: What are you hoping to accomplish by participating in the Gatorade Beat the Heat program?
JENNIFER BRUNELLI, Carolina Panthers nutritionist: I think the science has been there for a long time and Gatorade has been leading that. With Beat the Heat, it’s teaching these kids that are young and maybe don’t have a person around all the time with the science right behind them on a regular basis saying: “Hey this is what we need to do to be safe so that there’s not an increased risk of injury.” Then just to make sure that they are getting as many opportunities as they can as they get older and stay within a sport as long as possible and see where it might take them.
What do you hope athletes, coaches, players, and parents take away from your work with Gatorade?
Beat the Heat is awesome because it involves things we do on a regular basis. The chance to come in and speak with young athletes and share some of what we do—whether it’s weighing before and after workouts, knowing how much body weight is lost, and knowing how much fluid to replace—those kind of tricks of the trade that can help them regardless of where they are within their careers, so it’s fun to see Gatorade sharing.
Every player on the roster has different needs—Cam Newton, Luke Kuechly, Greg Olsen—how do you determine programs for each player?
The benefit of my role is the ability to work individually with athletes—that’s the role of the sports R.D. at this point. It’s starting to expand to be able to serve individual needs rather than coming up and speaking collectively to what might be the need within a sport. When we’re able to take some real individualized results—whether it be from that blood work or body composition of where players are sitting in the moment, it just allows us to be a lot more specific and individualized to an athlete. We can then ask coaches and ask staff where we want these guys to really be and what they’re going to ask them to do throughout the course of the season.
What is the advantage of working with players individually?
I try my hardest to get as much face time as I can with each player. For example, an NFL player who literally is stretched to the absolute max with what’s being asked of him—being able to ask what their preferences are and what they really, actually, truly enjoy—allows me to get creative around what I offer. We can look at players preferences and figure out how we can make that workout as great as it possibly can be, but doing it in a way that emotionally and mentally, 16 weeks into a season, they’re going to want to do it again, and again, and again.
The Panthers have had a great run of success over the past few years. What helps the organization stand apart from other teams in the NFL when it comes to nutrition?
This is a great organization. When I came in three years ago, we had no kitchen directly for the players. Since I’ve been here, that was something that I’ve been able to push, and they saw enough benefit to put the money and the work to do that. Now, based on those individual needs, we can say, “Oh, okay, you have these preferences. Let’s fit the needs with the wants and make it happen so it’s as enjoyable as it possibly can be.”
What types of meals and foods are best for pre and post-workouts?
You can only absorb so much protein at once, so you need that to be consistently coming in. Your pre-workout might be a little bit more carbohydrate heavy in the bread, rices, pastas, potatoes, but that category also covers things like vegetables and things that are going to be a bit more nutrient dense. You also would want some of that lean protein in there, whether that’s coming from chicken, or fish, or a lean cut of beef—it also can come from nuts, or seeds, or something to that effect. It needs to be well-rounded and definitely a little bit more carb-heavy with some protein there to delay muscle breakdown.
Post-workout, you’re still going to be carb heavy, which I think is something that people tend to shy away from because we think we reintroduce those calories, it means it’s not going to potentially be a benefit around a weight loss category. The downfall of that thought process is that then what happens three, four, five, eight hours later when the day’s over and I’m starving? I missed the opportunity to replenish that fuel from carbohydrates that I needed, but I got enough protein. That can help to a certain extent with muscle recovery, but what about energy need? You’re still going to get a good carbohydrate and protein-rich meal post workout, but, yes, it might be a little bit more protein than you were going to eat in a pre-workout setting.