A few years ago (ok, 13 years ago!) I entered the strange & scary world of life as a student-athlete in university. Immediately, I was faced with the daunting task of managing a full course load (including labs!), completing assignments, studying for exams, having a social life, and also training for the varsity soccer team. There was little room to do anything else, including eating!
As a naïve teenager, I figured I could get away with eating whatever I wanted. I was young, I would burn it all off anyway, right?!? Well, on a daily basis, I would find myself both mentally and physically exhausted, and it was only lunchtime! Often, I would fall asleep in class or not be able to stay focused. I would also go to soccer practice with barely enough energy to finish the warm-up.
How was I supposed to thrive if I could barely get out of bed every morning? I knew something had to change.
Luckily, our soccer team was provided an information session by a Dietitian. That is when everything changed! In just one short hour, I learned lessons that would fuel a lifetime of soccer and other physical activities.
Here are the 4 main points that the Dietitian delivered in her message to us, and that I continue to pass on to all of the athletes that I work with in my practice:
1) Breakfast – I grew up always hearing that breakfast is the most important meal of the day. It turns out that it is absolutely true! However, what you choose for breakfast has a major impact on your energy levels and how you function throughout the day. I always thought my bowl of Fruit Loops was a sufficient breakfast option. I quickly found out and experienced the difference when I switched over to a more nutritious and energy-boosting option. One of my favorite breakfast meals is a parfait using Greek yogurt, fresh berries (blueberries, raspberries and strawberries), and granola sprinkled over top. You can also try whole wheat toast with almond butter and a piece of fruit, homemade oatmeal with berries and a glass of milk, or even a sweet potato hash with roasted veggies and poached eggs on top. Aim to start your day with a balanced breakfast every morning. Try to include 3 of the 4 food groups to ensure you get the energy and nutrients to fuel your body for the day.
2) Snacking – “There isn’t any time to eat!” or “I don’t have room in my bag to bring food to school!” This is exactly what I used to say, and what I continue to hear from some of the clients I work with. Luckily, healthy snacking can be achieved fairly easily, and is more convenient than you may think. First off all, snacking is a great habit to get in to as a student-athlete. This is what keeps you fully fueled and energized throughout the day, and helps maintain that energy as you head to train for your sport. The great thing is, your snacks don’t have to be very big. A piece of fruit, granola bars, cut-up veggies, a small container of yogurt, trail mix, or cheese and crackers can all be packed into your school bag quite easily. Also, these items may be available at your cafeteria or campus store, so grab these instead of those unhealthy options that may be available. A good habit to get into is to have a snack every 2 – 3 hours to maintain energy levels. Think of it like putting wood into a fire to keep it burning!
3) Protein – When I first started life as a student-athlete I thought protein came from meat or protein powder only. So, naturally, that’s all I pretty much consumed. I didn’t know how much I needed, but just that I needed a lot. So, every meal usually had a meat product, and I would also drink a protein shake on a daily basis. Once again, the Dietitian who spoke to our team shed some light on this highly misunderstood topic. Protein requirements are higher for student-athletes than the regular person. However, the sources of protein vary greatly, and isn’t limited to just meat products. Whole grains, brown rice, quinoa, milk (incl. soy & almond milk), yogurt, cheese, beans, lentils, tofu, nuts, seeds, nut butters and many other products contain protein. When included as part of a balanced diet, these foods provide the body with all the protein that it needs. On top of that, these foods taste better than a protein shake. So, soon after learning this, I ditched the protein powder and focused on getting my protein from better sources. I have never taken a protein powder since, and my meat consumption is on the border of vegetarian. With proper planning and added variety to your diet, you can consume more than enough protein to supply your needs.
4) Fluid – It’s safe to say that most people, including active student-athletes, do not drink enough fluid, or they get it from poor sources. I know I certainly didn’t when I first started university. In fact, I seriously disliked the taste (or lack thereof) of water. That all changed after I started training at a level higher than I had ever before, and began suffering from symptoms of dehydration (headache, dizziness, poor performance, etc). I quickly got over my dislike of water and began consuming it by the litre. Not only did my physical symptoms improve, but I also noticed that I could concentrate better in class, and I had more energy. Water has this type of power! Most student-athletes should aim for at least 2 – 3 litres of water per day. Carry a water bottle with you throughout the day and continually re-fill it. Dehydration is a performance killer in both your classes and sport. Make it a habit to drink water all day, every day!
There is so much more information when it comes to nutrition for student-athletes, but implementing these four practices will have a profound impact on both your training and academic performances. Take the time to plan out your meals and snacks for the day, prepare them ahead of time, and pack them in your school bag. Make sure to carry your water bottle everywhere you go, as well.
Be the best student-athlete that you can be!
The Life of a Student-Athlete
by Luke Corey, RD