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Strength Report: Practical Nutritional Strategies for the Collegiate Athlete

by: Adam Feit
Head Sports Performance Coach, Eastern Michigan University
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As collegiate strength and conditioning coaches, we have learned that there are many more facets of performance that need to be targeted other than simply being strong and in shape. We pride ourselves on faster running times, increased weight room numbers and decreased rates of injuries. However, one of the most overlooked components of athletic performance is the nutritional lifestyle of our athletes. We must remember that performance and recovery are significantly affected by the nutritional choices our athletes make throughout the day. It’s up to us to help our athletes make better choices so that they can train and compete at the highest level.

As a former collegiate athlete, I know how difficult it is to properly fuel up for optimal performance; but it can be done. Lack of cooking space, limited meal plans, and overall lack of nutritional knowledge severely affects the choices our athletes make on a daily basis. What we as coaches must do is educate them on proper nutritional habits. Understanding their constraints with money, time and knowledge will allow us to be creative with our methods of reaching them. Here are a few “practical” ways of getting through to your athletes on the importance and benefits of performance nutrition.

Strategy #1: Putting Together a Grocery List Handout

We’ve all done it. We’ve put together a “ powered” performance shopping list for our kids only to see them come to a training session unprepared. My experience has brought me to believe that simply typing foods on a sheet of paper won’t get the job done because either our athletes don’t know what the foods look like or they don’t know where to find them. By listing out the foods with how they will look at the grocery store and tips on what to do and where to find them, we have a better shot of them buying the foods they need, not want.

Also, give them an option to schedule a grocery tour with one of your coaches. Many athletes spend their time in the middle of grocery store aisles, where highly processed, refined and “easy-to-cook” foods are found. Encouraging your athletes to shop the perimeters of the store aisles will increase the chances of them buying high performance foods, instead of what they have been accustomed to purchasing (See Table 1).

Strategy #2: Sample Kitchen Set-Up Handout

Many coaches or nutritionists lecture on the importance of cooking your own food but don’t take into consideration a collegiate athlete’s budget or living arrangement. On-campus housing prevents many athletes from making food inside their rooms and most athletes living off-campus don’t know how to make the one-time investment to outfit their kitchens with the basic necessities to prepare food. Before we start prescribing recipes of the week, we need to make sure they have the tools to succeed. Have you ever asked your athlete what they have in their kitchen? Chances are, it is a bunch of pre-boxed and bagged snacks, sodas, and five-minute microwaveable meals. Taking the time to show athletes what food preparation supplies to buy and where to buy them can do wonders for body composition and performance (See Table 2).

If an athlete has a stove and a refrigerator (either in an apartment or dorm floor kitchen), a basic kitchen toolbox can be set up for under $100. Split that between 4-5 roommates and it’s only $20-$25 per person. Purchasing items from a dollar store or a local retail store like Walmart can save both athletes’ and their parents substantial amounts of time and money. Also, many items are heavily discounted during the latter parts of July for back-to-school sales. Outfitting a kitchen with a starter set of pots/pans, a George Foreman grill, and various cooking utensils and prep items can set any athlete on the right path for proper nutrition.

Strategy #3: Fast Food Index Card

Let’s face it. As much as we don’t want to believe it, our athletes are eating fast food and they are eating it on a regular basis. Instead of ignoring the empty wrappers in the locker room, take the initiative and turn this negative into a positive. The good thing is that they are eating. Unfortunately, it’s probably a quick and unhealthy choice. However, with the pressure from the media and government, more and more fast food establishments are providing healthier options on their menus. This gives both coaches and athletes more options to choose from when prescribing or ordering food on the run.

A convenient way for athletes to make better choices is to provide them with a “cheat sheet” that they can carry around with them in their wallets, purses or book bags. Typically, if athletes are going to eat fast food, we want to make sure they do not over-indulge themselves with empty and damaging calories. Our criteria for the top items to be featured are the following:

1. Low or lower calorie items (<500 if possible).
2. Maintain between a 1-1 and 1-2 ratio of protein to carbohydrates.
3. Low amounts of saturated/total fat content.
4. Low amount of sodium.
5. Easy to order (minimal substitutions and changes)

Obviously, certain restaurants may specialize in certain specialty items, which may not fit all parts of the criteria. The important concept to remember is that if athletes are eating on the run, we want to make the best choices possible. Choosing a medium over a supersize or a grilled chicken sandwich versus a quarter pounder makes a significant difference in caloric intake. With all the variations of snackers, wraps, and dollar menu choices, it’s very easy to find an item that is “performance friendly” that doesn’t involve just salad (See Table 3).

These are only a few strategies to help with the lifestyle of our athletes. As coaches, we cannot assume that our athletes know that eating certain foods will hinder their performance, nor can we assume that our athletes know how to make proper food choices. By giving athletes the tools to make proper nutritional decisions, we are setting them up for success in the long run. Making small adjustments to add practical information to your nutritional education for your athletes can make a significant difference in strength gains, fat loss, and performance.

About the Author: Adam Feit is in his first season as the head sports performance coach at Eastern Michigan. He previously was an assistant coach for athlete development at the University of Louisville. Feit also coached at both The Citadel and Arizona State and is a graduate of Springfield College.


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