What fuels that final sprint to the finish line, the perfect pass or the winning goal? Skill, talent, desire and training, of course. So does food. Coaches realize this. And so do some players. But do parents? Lacrosse coach Pat McMahon considers a good diet to be crucial for athletes. He plays on the championship team for the University of St. Thomas and served as a coach this month at the Cornell-Northstar Lacrosse Camp in Hopkins.

The secret to success? "It's simple. Eat three good meals a day," said McMahon. "Lots of good protein, complex carbs and tons of water. Breakfast is key."

McMahon likes to cook and prefers the control it gives him over ingredients when he is training. He went from 205 to 170 pounds by eating better and cooking for himself. The loss of weight and better food made him play better, too. "Eating fresh, unprocessed food is just better fuel," said McMahon. "Bulking up in the weight room and becoming strong are not one and the same.

McMahon is not alone in this. His teammate, also a coach, is Andrew Larson, who begins the day with eggs and more (English muffin, ham, cheese, whole-wheat toast) or a combo of fruit, oatmeal and whole milk. "The little extra fat helps fill me up with more calories to help sustain endurance," Larson said. For lunch, he goes with a sandwich on whole-wheat bread and fruit. Dinner might be a chicken breast with brown or wild rice, with lots of vegetables and fruit. "I keep a tub of carrots in the refrigerator to snack on," he said.

Both drink lots of water and avoid soda and caffeine. "Water is the best way to stay hydrated and fresh," Larson said. As for sports drinks and energy drinks? "These are OK, but only after you've hydrated with plenty of water," said McMahon.

Stick to real food

As for all those other forms of energy, the coaches say "real" is better.

"Athletes who rely on protein powder, bars and sports drinks are fooling themselves," said Chris Slocum, strength and conditioning coach for the Blake School in Hopkins who also works with many athletes at the Cornell-Northstar Camp. "Your body knows what to do with a tuna-fish sandwich better than it does with processed and packaged stuff."

The coaches agree that learning to eat well and taking care of yourself is critical for high school athletes who want to compete at an advanced level. Although parents and coaches may have some control over younger athletes, high school is the time to learn how to make good choices.

"Athletes compete all year long," Slocum said. "No one really gets time off, so it's really important not to get run down."

It's clear that food provides fuel. "What you eat before a big competition and then after a tough game or hard workout can be key," McMahon said. That means loading up on carbs for two days, not the night before, so it can be completely digested and absorbed. "Drink, drink, drink lots of water," said McMahon. After a big game or workout, both players rely on chocolate milk.

Slocum agrees. He has studied with Cal Dietz, an Olympic trainer who now works with University of Minnesota athletes. "Chocolate milk is a perfect drink for recovery," he said.

The advantage is that chocolate milk offers a balance of protein, carbs and sugars and it tastes good, said McMahon.

His best advice for athletes is basic. Along with plenty of good food and lots of water, teens need enough sleep. For him, that means eight to 10 hours of sleep, with an occasional hourlong nap mid-day.

Fueling athletics is simple, these coaches agree: Eat. Sleep. Play.

Beth Dooley is a Minneapolis writer.