Nutrition: The Final Piece

This article was provided by Training and Conditioning

Could your athletes’ nutrition be the final piece to the puzzle for success? As the Texas A&M University track and field team found out, time spent creating individualized diet plans was well worth it.
By Amy Bragg

Amy Bragg, RD, CSSD, LD, was recently appointed Director of Performance Nutrition at the University of Alabama. She previously held the same position at Texas A&M University and can be reached atabragg@ia.ua.edu.

The pieces are in place: A highly decorated and successful coaching staff, beautiful facilities, and most importantly, an outstanding group of elite athletes. When a team is already poised for success, what can you add to make it even better?

Not long ago, the Texas A&M University track and field coaches asked themselves this question, and the answer they arrived at was an emphasis on sports nutrition. “Paying attention to nutrition enhances our student-athletes’ opportunities to be successful, and when integrated with coaching, it leads to greater achievements,” says Head Men’s and Women’s Coach Pat Henry. “We have great coordination between the coaching staff’s and nutrition staff’s educational message, and we position nutrition as a lifestyle commitment.”

Of course, the main challenge in providing nutrition guidance for track and field is the sport’s great diversity–sprinters, distance runners, throwers, and jumpers all have different needs and goals. It may seem impossible to provide customized advice for so many different types of athletes, but that is exactly what we strive for every day. Doing so means evaluating the demands of each type of athlete, optimizing their eating environment, and formulating nutrition goals that individuals can work toward throughout the year.

FUELING WITH PURPOSE
In our program, we want to link daily food choices with performance outcomes. We tell athletes that they train a certain way to achieve a desired result, and they should eat a certain way for the same reason. They need to understand that lifestyle and nutrition habits have a cumulative effect that produce tangible changes in performance, energy level, body composition, and injury recovery.

Body comp testing provides a nutritional scorecard we can analyze and interpret along with nutritional habits. We use it regularly along with 24-hour food logs as a starting point for talking with an athlete about making changes.

Most track athletes at Texas A&M undergo body comp testing four or five times per year. During a couple of those testing periods, we will also record the student athlete’s nutritional intake over the 24 hours prior to the testing appointment. Accuracy is stressed since a nutrition professional is taking this information directly from the athlete while prepping the body comp exam. Timing, recovery choices, and sleep and wake time are included along with the quantity and quality of food items. Simply holding this discussion in tandem with the body comp testing is educational, but there’s a wealth of information taken in during those appointments.

For instance, if a body comp test reveals that dropping fat would help an athlete improve performance, we’ll look at one or more 24-hour logs to see if there’s an especially problematic time of day or a poor choice in food quantity or quality that needs addressing. Other times, an athlete will tell us that they eat healthy most days, but an occasional “off day” of high fat and calorie consumption throws them off track.

Education is another essential part of our approach, so we use team presentations to help convince athletes of the value of optimal nutrition. Food logs might tell us that only 40 percent of the team is getting adequate nutrition at breakfast and lunch. There’s a target message for a quick team presentation: importance of breakfast in energy level, weight maintenance, and performance, along with 10 easy breakfast options so the athletes can see how simple it is to make an improvement.

On other occasions, we may administer a poll over the course of a full day of team body comp tests. This leads to customized team presentations, and allows student-athletes’ interests to drive a portion of the content.

For example, armed with that information, I can go to the coaching staff and report that 70 percent of the team members are dining at campus eateries for the majority of their meals and 68 percent of their athletes are interested in learning more about using nutrition to boost immunity, while only 12 percent feel they need guidance in the grocery store. To me, it sounds like this team needs a mini nutrition talk at the start of flu season and a nutritionist to visit a couple of campus dining facilities to show them optimal menu options.

The questions that arise from these sessions are always encouraging, because they show us the athletes are taking our message seriously and are truly interested in finding ways to better fuel themselves. Some recent examples include:

• Each year at the same time, I seem to struggle with fatigue–why does it happen and what can I do?

• I’m focusing on a certain aspect of my performance right now. How can nutrition help me with it?

• I had an injury last season. Is there anything I can do with my nutrition to help prevent a recurrence?

Fueling for performance means different things to different athletes at different stages of development. So once they’re armed with a foundation of knowledge, we delve into specifics through individual consultation. And if the athletes follow our advice, we let the results speak for themselves.

CASE STUDIES
The examples below illustrate how I’ve been able to convert broad sports nutrition concepts into targeted advice for different types of track and field athletes dealing with various challenges. Each case is unique, and I find that one-on-one counseling is by far the best way to achieve success.

Tired jumper. In the middle of last season, one of our jumpers came to the nutrition staff complaining of low energy levels. His food logs revealed that his meal selections were consistently very good, but the overall quantity of food was too low, leaving him with inadequate amounts of total calories, carbohydrates, protein, and fat. In addition, he kept pre-activity nutrition very light due to a preference for feeling “weightless” at practices and meets. His body comp history evidenced a tendency to lose weight and lean mass toward the end of the season, and the lower quantity of food was the likely culprit.

Our first intervention strategy focused on increasing food intake and calorie density throughout the day. After discussing the times of day when he didn’t want to eat (particularly before practices), we decided to target breakfast, the recovery period after workouts, and the evening.

He added more calorie-dense foods to his breakfast, such as peanut butter and granola. After working out, he had a snack consisting of other calorie-dense options, such as whole grain breads, guacamole, and peanuts to kick-start his recovery. (This was in addition to his normal lunch and dinner.) At night, I encouraged him to eat a snack such as frozen yogurt with toppings. Foods like these support weight maintenance without requiring large portion sizes, which was important for someone who wasn’t interested in adding a lot of food to his diet.

It seemed like we had solved the problem, but before long, the athlete came to me again and reported “never feeling good” on this new eating pattern. The breakfast changes weren’t a problem, but he told me that snacks didn’t “sit well” for him. After more discussion, we determined that frequent eating made him feel undisciplined, as if his intake was excessive. The issue was as much mental as it was physical.

Because he understood that he still needed more calories to improve his energy level and prevent unwanted weight loss, we decided to try other options besides the calorie-dense ones he had been using. He started snacking on fruit frequently throughout the day. Because it was whole food and not something out of a package, he could snack on things like apples, oranges, and bananas and still feel like a “disciplined” eater. We also increased the amount of 1% chocolate milk he drank after workouts, which boosted his intake of calories, carbs, protein, and fat. As a result, he’s been able to maintain his weight, particularly near the height of his competitive season.

This case was a great learning experience for both sides of the consultation. Sometimes the assessment and advice is totally on point, but it just doesn’t work in practice for the athlete. Just as a coach continues to develop the athlete’s workouts, so does the sports nutritionist adjust the nutritional plan. This athlete needed several touch points with the dietitian to build trust and try alternative strategies. His nutritionist needed knowledge of body comp history at her fingertips, a rapport with the athlete, and an appreciation for the psychological aspects of nutrition and performance.

Combo platter. Combined-event athletes train and compete in a wide variety of venues. The decathlon, heptathlon, and pentathlon comprise a mix of running, jumping, and throwing events such as the 100 meters, long jump, shot put, high jump, 400 meters, 110-meter hurdles, discus, pole vault, javelin, and 1,500 meters. The athletes compete in multiple events on consecutive days, and in many ways, it is the ultimate test of strength, speed, agility, and endurance.

Recently, a young woman joined Aggie track for combined events. She had previously competed exclusively as an endurance athlete, burning a massive amount of calories due to the prolonged aerobic nature of the sport. When she switched to track and field, the lower overall energy requirements meant she was eating too much.

In her first year in our program, she was able to maintain her muscle mass but also experienced an increase in fat mass and body fat percentage. The pattern continued the following year, so we scheduled a meeting.

Early in the discussion, it was clear that food and weight were sensitive subjects for this athlete. Based on her food log, I observed that she was overusing energy bars, eating three to four each day in addition to breakfast, lunch, dinner, and pre-training and recovery snacks.

“But I’m doing what I’ve been told: fueling frequently throughout the day to maximize my energy,” she said. She obviously understood the basics of nutrient timing and consistency, but her eating habits weren’t tailored to her actual energy needs–a common problem for athletes who switch sports but don’t change their diet accordingly.

With this athlete, I offered a lot of positive feedback on the good food choices she was making at mealtimes, and focused on the bars as the source of unwanted extra calories. Because she was used to those frequent energy boosts, we talked about spreading out her calories by eating a little less at breakfast, lunch, and dinner, while adding healthy snacks throughout the day in place of the bars.

For instance, instead of having fruit salad as part of her lunch, she would save it for an afternoon snack in place of her usual pre-workout energy bar. At breakfast, she would eat a slightly smaller meal, then have a muffin or bagel with cream cheese in mid-morning instead of a bar. I threw out suggestions, and let her preferences determine the strategies she pursued. Using this approach, we were able to decrease her overall calorie intake without creating periods of the day when she felt tired or hungry.

In time, she realized that she ate the same portion sizes at meals whether she had an energy bar or not. For this athlete, the bars didn’t give her any satisfaction, and with her mastery of meal timing, they really weren’t serving any purpose. “I’m just eating them because they’re here,” she realized.

MUCH TO GAIN
How far-reaching is nutrition’s role in performance? Texas A&M athletes who sharpened their focus on quality and consistency of nutrition choices have seen benefits including improved energy level, better management of inflammation, higher peaks in training, faster rehab, and even a reduction in injuries.

And besides all that, a great nutrition regimen feeds their confidence in competition. When athletes see nutrition as a performance optimizer and know they’ve done all they can to fuel themselves for competition, they get a valuable mental boost that complements all the physical effects. They also start to take pride in their smart decision making.

In the words of longtime Assistant Coach Vince Anderson: “The longer I coach, the more I believe it’s impossible to measure how critical nutrition is. I’m fascinated by the fact that it’s so often the ‘last frontier’ for athletes who are struggling to push their limits. So many athletes will do everything else before they truly focus on their nutrition, but once they do and they experience all the benefits, they never go back.”

Sidebar: OPPORTUNITY THROUGH INJURY
Injuries happen. And for a determined sports nutritionist, they could be a blessing in disguise. Even the most noncommittal athlete may finally become receptive to nutrition coaching during rehab or injury downtime. The
I-can-eat-whatever-I-want-and-never-gain-too-much-weight guy and the fast-food-got-me-here-so-fast-food-will-fuel-me-here girl may suddenly feel a need to change their nutrition habits.

Connecting with the athlete during rehab is not only ideal for a speedy return to play, but also provides a touch point with those athletes who may have viewed nutrition too narrowly in the past. Simply working with an athlete through an injury recovery process offers them support, both psychologically and medically, and in many instances I have found it’s a great entry into working with a resistant athlete. The support you offer during that process will always be remembered, and can completely change the dynamic of how nutrition’s role is integrated in the athlete’s overall performance.

Focusing interventions on relevant nutrients is a great way to start, with a more global assessment of calorie and protein needs falling in behind. Are you getting enough vitamin C and calcium? What about protein? Knowledge of weight history easily segues into recommendations for limiting calorie and protein intake, which may even need to be higher to support the recovery process for an injured athlete. In short, the time to improve nutrition is always now, and in whatever mode most resonates with the athlete.

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