Being a college athlete represents a unique challenge. The demands of full time education need to be balanced with the additional pressure to perform well on the sports field. The ability to simultaneously manage both can be challenging, considering that student athletes often undertake training programs similar to that of professional full time athlete. University athletes are at a transitionary period in their lives; many have moved away from home, and are striving to make a breakthrough in their sport from junior to senior ranks. While athletes generally tend to be quite good at organising their training schedules, sometimes it is lifestyle factors away from the sports field where they need most support. The competitive edge is so fine in elite sports that adjustments to lifestyle factors may prove to be the critical factor. One such lifestyle support we provide to students athletes in UL is nutritional support. College athletes are unique in that their nutritional requirements are greater than the typical student, which poses a challenge for the student athlete who now suddenly finds themselves responsible for their own food decisions for the first time! Often students possess inadequate nutrition knowledge and practical cooking/preparation skills to support their training programmes. To help with this transition, each year we host a healthy cooking workshop that equips athletes with basic culinary skills. We aim to show students how easy it is to cook nutritious meals in a timely and efficient manner.
The next level of support we provide is an assessment of the athletes’ diet. This requires the athlete to record their food, fluid intake and exercise habits over a normal training week. Over the same time period the athlete wears a metabolic armband which is used to estimate daily energy expenditure amongst a few other variables e.g sleep, sleep efficiency, total number of steps, total exercise time and the intensity of this exercise. Data gathered from the food diary and metabolic armband is used to determine the following.
- The athletes’ daily calorie intake
- Macronutrient breakdown and distribution over the course of the day
- Potential micronutrients deficiencies (e.g. Iron, Calcium, Vitamin D, B Vitamins, Magnesium, Zinc)
- Adequacy of pre and post exercise meals
- Estimated Daily Energy Expenditure
- Estimated Energy cost of different training sessions (e.g. pitch sessions vs. running sessions vs. weights training)
The nature of the intervention is very much dependent on the athletes’ goal which usually falls into one of two categories a) eating to maximise performance or b) eating to obtain an optimal body composition. As a sports science provider working in a multidisciplinary support team our job is to explore all options with the athlete. The formulation of nutrient or exercise based interventions must be carefully considered and guided by evidence based practice.
The main aim of our sports science nutritional support for student athletes’ on campus is to get the basics right! This generally involves determining energy availability and ensuring that the athletes’ calorie intake is sufficient to match training demands. However for athletes’ whose goal is to reduce body fat or increase lean tissue mass, some form of dietary and or physical activity modifications will be necessary to bring about the desired outcome. Establishing the athletes’ macronutrient breakdown (Carbohydrates, Protein, Fat) allows us to determine carbohydrate availability, protein and fat intake and whether or not the athlete meets the dietary recommendation for their sport. The final part of the dietary assessment specifically looks at the athletes’ peri-nutrition which simply relates to the food an athlete consumes before, during and after training. Essentially we want to ensure athletes’ are adequately fuelled going into training sessions (particularly high intensity exercise) and that recovery strategies are optimal and appropriately timed to enhance training adaptations. Today, just like training, sports nutrition has become periodised whereby practitioners have moved away from prescribing fixed energy and macronutrient intakes and tailoring them to the training demands of the athlete on a given day.
The above outlines some of the basic nutritional supports we provide student athletes however research is progressing at an incredible pace in the sports nutrition domain. Athletes are now beginning to explore other aspects of training related specific nutrition with a view to enhancing sports performance, body composition and metabolic responses e.g. low carb high fat diets, intermittent fasting, ‘train low – compete high’, ‘train high – sleep low’ and supplementation. Sometimes it can be difficult for the athlete to know where to begin. This exploratory process is something that should be guided by a suitably qualified professional. Finally, practitioners must remember that each athlete is unique and that their nutrient gene interactions, metabolic profile and health needs may not always be shared by their athletic peers – highlighting the importance of personalised sports nutrition.
Rosemary Daniels is UL Beo Experiemental Officer in the Department of Physical Education and Sport Sciences at the University of Limerick. Contact Rosemary via email at Rosemary.Daniel@ul.ie.