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Proper Nutrition, Hydration Keys to Optimal Athletic Performance

July 16, 2013 - Life as a scholarship student-athlete can be a trial. Managing a full load of classes along with daily practices and frequent games can tax student-athletes physically and mentally. Some are pushed to the point of exhaustion with one vital component – which can be both ally and antagonist - being overlooked: nutrition.

at bat

From not skipping meals to avoiding binge eating and ensuring all meals are balanced, nutrition is both a significant challenge and a major component in a student-athletes' success.

Piling poor nutrition on top of the pyramid of demands a student-athlete already faces can be ruinous.

"Prioritize your health," an NCAA publication advised student-athletes. "Remember your current decisions regarding food, exercise and weight impact you today and for the rest of your life.

"Be sensitive to your body. Warning signs like fatigue, sluggishness, irregular or no menstrual cycle or chronic pain, are medical issues that should not be ignored. Your health is being compromised if your optimal body composition for performance includes these symptoms."

In short, a student-athlete getting the most out of his or her body comes down to what he or she puts into their body every day.

And that means eating smart.

"Athletes need the energy to compete and train, which carbohydrates provide," said Oliver Twelvetrees who is Eastern Florida State College's inaugural men's soccer and strength and conditioning coach.

"It is important to get energy from foods not filled with simple carbohydrates (sugar) such as white bread, donuts, cakes, French fries, chips and candy. Instead focus on nutrient dense complex carbs such as brown rice, whole wheat bread, vegetables, fruits and beans. These will provide long lasting energy as opposed to spikes and dips in your energy levels."

Eating on a schedule to maintain energy levels also is important, especially before and after practices and games. But eating smart on that schedule also is crucial.

Oliver Twelvetrees

"It is important to increase your consumption of protein when in a strength and training program," Twelvetrees said. "Protein is used for growth and repair so extra protein obviously helps when trying to build muscle, strength and repair damaged tissue. Try to consume protein directly after exercise if possible. Good forms of lean protein are white fish, grilled chicken, egg whites, skim milk, soy and turkey.

"Red meat also is a good form of protein but also has a lot of cholesterol and fat, as does dairy. So stay away from the red meat and dairy as your major protein sources."

And the best way to approach preparation, growth and repair, is naturally, Twelvetrees said.

"There is no doubt that there are some products out there that give fantastic results," he said. "However the cost is high and effects on your body long-term are unknown. As a student-athlete my advice would be to try and be the best you can be naturally. This also eliminates the sudden changes in your body that you will lose just as quickly if there is a drop in training or injury. Building muscle and fitness naturally with the correct nutrition will give you high quality sustainable muscle that is strong and resilient."

Another challenge student-athletes face is managing their money, balancing expenses against expenditures, especially when it comes to spending money on nutrition. High quality food can be expensive but there are ways of staying within a budget.

"You can maintain your energy cheaply by buying lots of whole-wheat pasta, whole-wheat bread, brown rice and cooking up large batches to always have on hand for a meal pre or post workout," Twelvetrees said.

soccer match

"For muscle growth and repair extra protein is needed. Buying in bulk is the answer. Purchasing frozen chicken breasts, cans of tuna or other white fish, and beans are very good sources of protein and are reasonably priced. Mixing the carbohydrates and proteins with a small amount of a favorite sauce will give you numerous high energy, high protein meals. For example rice, chicken and black beans or tuna, pasta and sweet corn are both simple tasty meals packed with energy and protein.

"For a cheap post-workout protein shake try using skimmed milk powder and water combined with chocolate sauce, yogurt or a banana for taste and you have a protein shake just as good as the expensive alternatives from health food stores."

Snacking also cannot be overlooked with wise choices being just as vital.

"Nut and seeds are much better snacking foods than chips and candy that will only increase your blood sugar dramatically giving you a short burst of energy followed by a low and feeling of hunger again," Twelvetrees said. "Snacking on apples, bananas, almonds and pistachios will give your body a more sustained energy boost."

And lastly, nutrition is not confined to solid foods. Hydration is a must, especially in the fiery Florida summers and it can be done both effectively and within a budget.

"A way to rehydrate quickly, efficiently and cheaply is by making your own energy drinks," Twelvetrees said. "Combine your favorite juice such as orange or apple with water in a 50/50 mix. This gives the drink the ideal amount of sugar for your body to take on board quickly, not having to spend too much energy digesting the sugars.

"Some energy drinks have way too much sugar which is hard for your body to break down therefore taking away the supposed benefit of immediate hydration and recovery. Gatorade has a relatively new line of G2 drinks which are more watered down than the original and easier for your body to digest."

Rising Eastern Florida sophomore baseball player Austin Leeney can attest to the value of good nutrition.

Austin Leeney
Austin Leeney

"I try to practice good nutrition as best I can," said Leeney, a catcher from Indialantic, FL and Melbourne High School. "My body is very important to me because of the abuse I subject it to playing baseball. I keep it healthy and in its best shape by eating fruits, green leafy vegetables, lean meats, chicken, fish, beans, pasta and nuts.

"In season it is very important to eat healthy because you are constantly pushing your body and the only way to make sure your body is able to compete every day at 100 percent is to replenish it with the foods that restore the vitamins and minerals you lose while competing."

NCAA Guide to Nutrition

Between early morning workouts, classes, weight lifting, and practice, it is difficult to take the time to prepare meals or snacks, let alone sit down and eat. No matter where you are heading, you have time to grab a nutritious snack. The key is to plan ahead and be prepared. Whether you are in a hurry to go to a meeting or just want a snack for later, here are some ideas from the NCAA.

Snacks to throw in a backpack: It's a good idea to keep a stash of some of the following items in your room or kitchen to grab on the run:

  • Bagel
  • Muffin
  • Raw veggies
  • Popcorn
  • Juice box
  • Nuts
  • Dried fruit
  • Trail mix
  • Low-fat cookies
  • Graham crackers
  • Raisin bread
  • Cheese sticks
  • Fresh fruit
  • Fig bars
  • Cereal
  • Granola bar
  • Pretzels
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • Vending machines:
  • Almost everywhere you go you can find a vending machine. It is not always easy to find nutritious snacks here, but some are better choices:
  • Cheese crackers
  • Graham crackers
  • Zoo crackers
  • Peanut butter crackers
  • Dried fruits
  • Chocolate milk
  • Pretzels
  • Juices

Starting off right:

Breakfast is the most important meal of the day; choose nutrient-rich foods.

• Get a quick carbohydrate boost before the morning training session. Eat a balanced breakfast that combines fiber (whole grains) and protein for sustainable energy. Choose eggs, whole grain toast with peanut butter, cereal and milk, fruit or 100 percent fruit juice, whole grain waffles topped with fruit, or yogurt

• Plan ahead: Have portable performance foods in your backpack for re-fueling every two to three hours between meals and around training.

• Adapt to your needs: Know what foods sit well with your body. Don't try new foods or meals on days when you have an important training session or competition.

• Select meals that are carbohydrate-rich, moderate in protein and low in fat.

• Make lunch count by choosing lean meats to help you recover from a morning session and complex carbohydrates to replenish your body for an afternoon workout.

• Nutrient-rich lunch options are pasta with chicken and tomato sauce, steamed rice with vegetables and lowfat milk, grilled chicken sandwich with a fruit and yogurt smoothie, instant oatmeal with dried fruit and low-fat milk, a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, chicken noodle soup with crackers, chicken or turkey wrap, or sliced turkey on a bagel.

Maintain energy during training:

• If your training will be longer than an hour, plan a small carbohydrate-rich snack or beverage immediately before and during the activity.

• A sports drink during training or intense physical activity provides fuel and replaces lost fluid and electrolytes.

• Nutrition during training: granola or sports bars, bananas, dried fruit, and bread with jam or jelly.

• Drink water when consuming carbohydrates during practice to avoid stomach problems.

Replenish your body during recovery:

• Plan to have a meal within one hour after training. A meal of carbohydrate rich foods, high-quality protein, and ample fluids will meet your recovery needs.

• A recovery snack, eaten within 30 minutes, is critical if you don't eat a meal within one hour after training. This is especially important on days with multiple training, competition or tournament sessions.

• Recovery nutrition: Low-fat chocolate milk, trail mix, cereal and milk, yogurt parfaits and fruit smoothies.

• Student-athletes do not always have access to food immediately after practice. Be sure to pack recovery snacks in your gym bag so you can quickly begin to refuel.