I was a Division I athlete...now it seems like a lifetime ago that I was leaving after a morning workout while it was still dark outside, or sitting in class in my Adidas-issued "groutfit" (grey outfit). While most students set up camp at libraries to study, my teammates and I were mastering the art of taking notes on a bus and then decoding the seizure-stricken handwriting later. I took the majority of my final exams in hotel rooms. I caught up the latest celebrity gossip based on what magazines were laying around the ice baths. When people ask what my degree is in, I sassily tell them I majored in softball with a minor in dietetics. I'm not fishing for pity because I sincerely loved playing for my team and being a student athlete. It defined who I am today and molded my views as a developing professional. I worked for the University of Wisconsin Sports Nutrition Department throughout my college career and was able to simultaneously experience both sides of the field: as an athlete and as an aspiring sports dietitian.
There are three aspects to developing a good team: recruiting talent, developing their athleticism and maximizing performance. It takes a village to cultivate an athlete and many collegiate athletic departments are incorporating a new tool address this third issue of maximizing performance: nutrition. Madison, Wisconsin has long been known as the land of booze, brats and badgers. I have to admit that as an eager freshman, I dove headfirst into the dairy-land culture and paid the price with a cozy layer of insulation just in time for a frigid northern winter. I didn't concern myself too much though because the extra weight wasn't anything that the spring season wouldn't get rid of! As a dietetic intern, I now know what a missed opportunity the lack of attention to my diet was. I can't blame myself though because many student athletes underestimate the impact that strategic fueling can add to their performance.
Collegiate strength and conditioning departments around the country are catching on though. The pressure to compete within the powerhouse conferences like the SEC, Big Ten and PAC 10 is pushing many teams to rethink their own strategies. One of the most popular tools is now a sports nutrition department. Sports dietitians are taking on these responsibilities to give their players a unique edge, for example:
1. Recovery shakes are customized for specific performance goals like weight loss, weight gain or anti-inflammation with regards to injury.
2. Fueling stations are equipped with a variety of protein, carbohydrate and anti-inflammatory choices including labels and descriptions for educational purposes.
3. Cooking demonstrations and presentations are added to the teams' schedules like any other class or practice.
4. Meticulous sorting of supplements to ensure compliance with NCAA standards.
5. Routines for travel include meal planning at restaurants and an overabundance of healthy snacks and forms of hydration.
6. The food is thoroughly regulated based on the idea that high quality fueling results in high quality performance.
Their end game? It's nothing new really. Eat more fruits, vegetables, lean proteins, and complex carbohydrates to feel more energized. The ideas behind the tools used in sport nutrition are what dietitians have been preaching for years but their application in the collegiate sports arena are becoming highly prized. Conor O'Neill, the starting linebacker for the Wisconsin Badgers, has two Rose Bowl appearances under his belt as well as a Big Ten Championship. He worked hard on the practice field during his freshman year but saw no playing time because he was undersized for his position. He worked with his both his strength coach and the Wisconsin sports dietitian to gain weight "the right way" and eventually earn his trip to the Rose Bowl.
Conor worked with his dietitian to target adequate pre-fueling and refueling around his workout sessions to ensure that no bench press went to waste. However they faced an even bigger issue; his demanding workout and practice schedule requires A LOT of calories. Maintaining weight served to be difficult with this excessive energy requirement, let alone gaining weight. To combat this, he starts a typical day with 6 scrambled eggs, a Greek yogurt and some fruit. His morning snack includes a 1000-calorie protein shake with an apple on the side. The employees at Chipotle greet him by name as he orders his veggie, meat and bean packed burrito that requires a second tortilla to hold everything in. He packs three sandwiches (pb&j, turkey/spinach and peanut butter/banana) to carry in his backpack to his afternoon classes along with a few protein bars just in case he is still hungry. As dinner rolls around he packs one plate full of brown rice, tops it with heaping grilled veggies and loads a couple of chicken breasts on the other plate. Conor then rounds out the day with a thick protein shake later that night while studying.
Conor's story of improved performance through strategic fueling is similar to many athletes whom I worked with throughout my time in the Wisconsin athletic department. My unique position as both an athlete and assistant to our dietitian forced me to "practice what I preach"; my teammates followed my example and asked a variety of questions that put my knowledge regarding sports nutrition to the test. Thankfully my diet was tailored to that of a softball player, meaning there were not any 1,000-calorie protein shakes involved!
People would gasp at the sight of Conor's food recall but this is very normal for a college football player. And it works. His approach to weight gain facilitated by his sports dietitian allowed him to maintain his speed and endurance while drastically increasing his strength and tackling ability. He is now a feared opponent on the football field. Wisconsin's secret to success is not solely based on their newly development sports nutrition department however, on a player-to-player basis, "small changes are adding up to big results". It is because of examples like this that the world of collegiate sports has now begun welcoming dietitians into their facilities as an added weapon to their arsenals.