The life of a college athlete is a busy one. It’s challenging trying to juggle training, competing and schoolwork. Between the gym, classes and trying to get lots of sleep it can feel like there isn’t time for much else.
As a result, for many college athletes their nutrition gets placed on the backburner. Which is too bad, because it can be precisely the thing to help you train and study better, as we will see shortly.
During my own college athletic career (swimming) there were countless times where I knew I could be eating better, but convenience and bravado born of ignorance insured that I was instead regularly crushing slices of pizza by the half-dozen in the SUB.
“I work out lots,” was always the excuse. “I don’t have time to make healthier meals.”
But when you make the decision to take control of your nutrition some cool things begin to happen:
- You recover faster between workouts. You bounce back faster after those huge sessions in the gym or in the pool, which means better workouts, more often.
- You perform better during and after competition. For athletes who need to be able to crush multiple top-tier performances over the course of a weekend being properly fueled up helps you perform at your peak more often, and more frequently.
- You have higher, more consistent energy levels. One of the little talked benefits of keeping a grip on your food intake is that your overall sense of well-being and energy is way higher. This is especially key when your schedule starts to get hammered from all sides around exams.
- You get sick less. Being sick, well, kind of sucks, doesn’t it? Training gets dialed back, and worst case scenario you can’t train at all. The better you eat, the less often you are going to get ill.
How Well Do College Athletes Actually Eat?
Simply because an athlete is an elite performer on the court, on the field, or in the pool doesn’t mean that they excel in the kitchen.
With the added demands that their bodies require you’d think that athletes would be more in tune with their nutrition. As some of the research on the dietary habits of collegiate athletes below demonstrate, this is rarely the case.
College athletes are frequently not meeting recommended daily requirements.
High level athletic performance requires diligence in the weight room, but also focus and consistency in the kitchen.
Hitting those daily macronutrient targets can be tough, especially during bouts of hard training when the thought of preparing healthy food is the last thing on your mind after limping in from a full day of workouts and school.
A study took 85 female swimmers from six different Michigan-area universities and colleges and found that a staggering 95% of the athletes were not meeting their daily requirements for their macros.
Not only is their nutrition lacking, but general knowledge of nutrition, hydration and supplementation is poor.
Although athletes will say—“I know, I know” when it comes to eating properly and hydrating, the fact is they don’t.
In 2012 a survey was performed of nearly 600 NCAA athletes, coaches, athletic trainers and strength coaches. They were given a test that contained questions on basic nutrition, supplementation, hydration and weight management.
Of that initial group 185 were athletes. They scored an average of just 9%, well below the target score of 75% that would demonstrate “adequate sports nutrition knowledge.”
In other words, it’s very likely that there is substantial room for improvement with your nutrition.
But where to start?
Nutrition Tips for College Athletes: How to Perform Awesome in the Kitchen
Recently I reached out to a group of 20 of the top NCAA sports nutritionists and dietitians for their top piece of advice for collegiate athletes.
No matter what your dietary preferences or sport there is some golden advice here from top-level experts in the sports nutrition field.
There are some common themes that crop up—not missing meals, eating breakfast, using food as fuel for recovery, and being prepared.
Some of the tips will be things you already know, but aren’t implementing into your training regimen, probably for the same reasons that I cited above.
Here we go:
1. Consistency matters.
If you are looking to improve your diet (and we almost all are in some measure), it’s important to be consistent with your food intake.
The benefits of being consistent in the kitchen allow you to more smartly troubleshoot dietary and performance issues. Sure, being consistent might sound boring, but it can help you and your dietitian better solve things as they come up.
“One of the first things I try to push my college athletes to do is to develop consistent dietary habits,” says Brett Singer, Head Sports Dietitian at Houston Baptist University.
“They’ll come to me to ask for help on how to gain weight, or why they feel sick to their stomach during practice, or whatever it may be. If they have inconsistent habits, it’s not always easy to identify what needs to change, and it’s hard to provide them with any specific recommendations.”
You already know that consistency in the gym and in training yields the results you want–it’s no different when it comes to how you fuel yourself.
It starts with consistency. Once you develop consistent dietary habits, it becomes easier to identify what’s working, and what needs to improve.
Brett Singer, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, Head Sports Dietitan, Houston Baptist University @bsinger10
2. Replenish quickly after tough practices and long games to recover fast.
After a grueling session in the gym it can be tempting to forget about taking care of our bodies. In order to recover quickly you need to help your body by replenishing stored energy, electrolytes and lost water.
“Do this within the first 45 minutes post-workout,” advises Denise Knapp, MS, RD, CSSD, and sports dietitian for athletics at Kennesaw State University.
“You can do this by hydrating every 15-20 minutes (sports drinks encouraged with 60 minutes or more of activity) and eating mostly fast-digesting carbs with a small amount of protein (3:1 ratio), which could include an energy bar, fruit with peanut butter, or chocolate milk,” says Knapp.
Key to a quick recovery: Start replenishing your stored energy, electrolytes and water lost within the first 45 minutes post-workout.
Denise Knapp, MS, RD, CSSD, Sports Dietitian, Kennesaw State University
This was a common piece of advice from the experts that we spoke to.
“Refuel & charge up your recovery by eating a carbohydrate and protein snack (e.g., low-fat chocolate milk, PB&J, etc.) as soon as possible following training, practice or a competition, or at least within 30-60 minutes,” says Joey C. Eisenmann, Ph.D, director of Spartan Performance at Michigan State University.
Fueling your body for optimal performance is about eating the right foods in the right amounts at the right times.
Joey C. Eisenmann, Ph.D, director of Spartan Performance at Michigan State University. @MSUSpartanPerf
Refueling with a mix of carbohydrate and protein 15-45 minutes post-workout will maximize the body’s ability to repair and build muscle after a hard workout.
Amy Connell, Director of Sports Nutrition, Columbia University.
3. Don’t let yourself go hungry.
Seems like an obvious thing to say, but don’t let yourself go hungry. If you have, your blood sugar is down and you will need some time after eating in order to have the energy to workout.
Be packin’, advises Kristine Clark, Ph.D, RD, and director of sports nutrition at Pennsylvania State University.
“Carry food with you at all times,” she says. “Keep trail mix, energy bars, peanut butter crackers in your back pack, car, or locker so you don’t wind up going to class without eating something and wind up at practice starving!”
Between classes, studying, training, sleeping and what passes for a social life your nutrition can end up taking a backseat. But, as your coaches and parents have probably told you a hundred times over the years, fueling yourself properly is critical to how you end up performing.
“Your body needs amino acids as well as healthy carbohydrates throughout the day. Skipping meals deprives your body of the important nutrients that protect your muscle mass and maintain your energy needs,” she adds.
Never let yourself get hungry– carry food around with you and don’t skip meals.
Kristine Clark, Ph.D, RD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition, Penn State
Fuel frequently throughout the day by eating a balanced breakfast, lunch and dinner with snacks in between! Fueling every few hours with a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat will allow the athlete to be properly fueled for workouts, practices, games and class, along with helping to prevent fatigue, illness and injury.
Alyson Onyon, MS, RDN, Assistant Sports Nutrition Director at Virginia Tech IG@appetitealy
4. Don’t turbo load on calories at the end of the day.
This is something I struggled with in college–crushing plates and plates food in the PM because of skipped meals and long hours in the pool. Remedy this by starting the day off with a good breakfast, which will also help you stay fueled up all day long.
“Many athletes, especially college students tend to skip breakfast and load up on calories at the end of the day. Start the day with a nice mix of complex carbs, protein, and some fruit,” says Tara (Gidus) Collingwood, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD/N, who manages sports nutrition for the University of Central Florida and is the team dietitian for the NBA’s Orlando Magic.
“Follow breakfast with either a snack or meals every 2-4 hours throughout the day to maintain energy and prevent muscle mass loss,” she adds.
Focus on staying fueled all day long by starting the day with a nice mix of complex carbs, protein and some fruit.
Tara (Gidus) Collingwood, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD/N; Team Dietitian, Orlando Magic; Nutrition Consultant, University of Central Florida Athletics
Eating consistently and evenly over the day will help dampen those late night stuff-your-face marathons.
Fuel early and often! I find many athletes who don’t eat enough early in the day and then find themselves very hungry in the evenings and night time. They end up over eating at night, instead of eating more earlier in the day to fuel their training and competition. Start the day with a balanced breakfast and eat something every three to four hours.
Auburn Weisensale, RD, LDN, Sports Dietitian at the University of Pittsburgh
5. Fill half your plate with veggies and fruit at each meal.
We all know the importance of our veggies, and that we should be eating lots of ’em. But really, how much of them are we actually eating?
A simple rule you can follow to make sure you are getting enough of the green stuff is to load up half your plate each time you sit down to chow.
“At each meal, fill half your plate with fruits & veggies,” advises Leah Thomas, RD, LED, CSSD, and sports dietitian at Georgia Tech University.
“These foods contain antioxidants to help you fight inflammation that occurs with heavy training. Additionally, these antioxidants boost your immune systems and have a high fluid content, contributing to overall hydration,” she adds.
Focus on staying fueled all day long by starting the day with a nice mix of complex carbs, protein and some fruit.
Leah Thomas, RD/LD, CSSD, Georgia Tech University @GTSprtNutrition
Athletes tend to eat too little produce. Fruits or vegetables should be included in every meal or snack to provide micronutrients to allow the athlete’s body to function optimally.
Randy Bird, MS, RD, CSCS, Director of Sports Nutrition, University of Virginia @Sports_RD
6. Seriously…don’t skip breakfast.
One of the common themes that nearly all of the dietitians we talked to is the overwhelming importance of breakfast.
It’s understandable why this meal slips–we wake up frenzied, in a hurry, groggy, late for class or practice, and let it fall between the cracks.
Besides fueling yourself for the workouts to come, eating a balanced breakfast also helps you ward off those late night cravings later in the day.
Make sure to eat breakfast. Good balance of carbs and protein at least. That way your fueling for the day and decrease risk of binge eating later at night!
Kelly White, MS, RD, CSSD, LD, Sports Dietitian at Mississippi State University, @HailStateFuel
Additionally, research has shown that for college students eating breakfast has been connected to improved academic performance.
And of course, the effects of skipping breakfast have a very real impact on how you train and compete.
“Many college athletes struggle with morning fueling, and the side effects of skipping breakfast can involve reduced time to fatigue, increased rate of perceived exertion, difficulty concentrating, and increases in body composition over time,” notes Jill Joseph, MS, RD, LDN and sports nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania.
“Starting the day with a healthy, balanced, full breakfast is the key to success from both an athletic and academic standpoint,” she adds.
One of the ways you can insure you are powering up your days with an awesome breakfast is to engage in regular meal prepping.
“Set yourself up with healthy breakfast options beforehand such as overnight oats, scrambled egg muffins, and quick yogurt parfaits. This can ensure nutrition is still the focus, even when time is limited.”
Breakfast gets the metabolism revved up, primes the muscles, and feeds the brain, resulting in a high level of performance throughout the day.
Jill Joseph, MS, RD, LDN and sports nutritionist at the University of Pennsylvania, @pennperformance
7. Load up your backpack with food.
Right beside your water bottle, sneakers and school books should be enough food to help you get through the day. As mentioned, it can be easy to get lost in the grind that is being a student-athlete and neglecting our nutrition.
Lauren Trocchio, RD, LD, CSSD, and sports dietitian at George Washington University tells her athletes to load up their bag with food to help keep them fueled up over the course of the day. Stock your bag with things that won’t immediately go bad when you inevitably forget about them in there:
- PB & J sandwiches;
- Trail mix;
- Dry-roasted chickpeas;
The benefits of loading up your bag for the day means that you are also making less impromptu runs to the convenience store or restaurants for food, saving you some cash along the way as well.
“If they are willing to take it to the next level, I suggest an insulated lunch bag,” she adds. “Options open up to things like yogurt, chocolate milk, cheese sticks, hummus snack packs, and turkey sandwiches. Bringing these things along for the day not only keeps them fueled but also can save them money.”
Keep a well-stocked backpack. Collegiate athletes are highly susceptible to going long stretches of time without meals or snacks. They bounce from practice to class to class to practice, sometimes without having time for a sit-down meal.
Lauren Trocchio, RD, LD, CSSD, sports dietitian at George Washington University
8. Plan ahead and stay organized.
One of the areas where athletes get into trouble is where they don’t plan ahead, meaning that they end up eating out of convenience instead of eating for performance.
“The number one thing athletes can do to fuel up correctly is to get organized,” says Hilary Horton-Brown, RD, CSSD, CPT and Director of Sports Nutrition at Boise State University.
Even with the athletes that do have the proper knowledge on how to fuel themselves there is sometimes a disconnect between knowing and doing.
“An athlete can have all the sports nutrition info in the world, but if they don’t take time to plan their fueling, it ends up not happening,” adds Horton-Brown.
Shopping for healthy, easy foods to always have on hand, packing these foods along on busy days so they can fuel before and recover right after practices/lifts/competitions, and knowing how to bulk cook so healthy meals are ready to go at home are essential.
Hilary Horton-Brown, RD, CSSD, CPT; Director of Sports Nutrition, Bronco Sports Dietitian, Boise State University @BroncoFuel
Staying organized means hitting the bulk aisle when you hit the grocery store and also keeping your workout bag loaded up with food.
“Purchasing food on the fly typically breaks the bank often with less nutritious, impulsive food choices,” says Lisa Dorfman, MS, RD, CSSD, LMHC, FAND-The Running Nutritionist®.
“Buy breakfast bars, shakes, nut/nut butter packs in bulk (Costco, Sam’s Club, BJs) and throw a few in your training bag, sweat pockets to ensure a few calories are always in reach,” adds Dorfman. “And don’t forget to restock night before AM training.”
Plan ahead and save money! Purchasing food on the fly typically breaks the bank often with less nutritious, impulsive food choices.
9. Stay on top of your hydration.
Your coaches have been on you since you started playing sports about the importance of staying on top of your water consumption during practice and competition.
The consequences of dehydration are very real:
There is a drop in performance as soon as there is a decline in body weight of 2-3% from sweat loss. Additionally, your core temperature goes up, perceived rate of exertion increases, and you open yourself up to muscle cramps and headaches.
Recent research of a group of 263 NCAA division 1 athletes across a variety of different sports found that a majority of them were dehydrated before practice.
If that wasn’t enough to get your attention:
“Hydration is often the first limiting factor in performance in even a properly fueled athlete,” says Christopher Algieri, Performance Nutrition Coach at Stony Brook University. (He’s also a former WBO World Junior Welterweight Champion.)
Here is how he advises that you keep those pesky performance declines at bay:
- Hydrate throughout the day and “top off” with 16-20oz during the two hours before practice.
- Have 6-8oz of water for every 15-20 minutes of activity.
- Replenish each pound lost during activity with 20-24oz immediately after.
He also notes that “in activities longer than 60 minutes, sports drinks should be incorporated to aide hydration.”
Hydration is often the first limiting factor in performance in even a properly fueled athlete.
Christopher Algieri, Performance Nutrition Coach at Stony Brook University
10. Make nutrition a priority in your training.
“Be a 24 hour athlete!” says Diana Nguyen MS, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition, North Carolina State University
This starts with making nutrition a priority in your schedule and as a result, in your training.
“Use your off days to ‘meal prep’ for the week,” she notes. Having a well stocked kitchen means that you are less tempted to hit the fast food place on your way home after a rough practice.
Nguyen advises loading up on rotisserie chicken, lean ground meat, fish or canned tuna, whole wheat bread, instant brown or wild rice, whole wheat pasta and frozen vegetables.
It’s not fast food, it’s food fast! Keep your kitchen stocked with convenient options so you aren’t tempted to stop at a fast food restaurant on your way home from practice.
Diana Nguyen MS, RD, LD, CSSD, Director of Sports Nutrition, North Carolina State University @
11. Mix up your meal plan.
One of the common worries of those who are starting out with meal planning and meal prepping is the boredom of eating the same meals over and over again.
Besides the fact that you are likely already eating most of the same meals repeatedly, meal prepping doesn’t mean eating the same food till the end of time.
“Eating the same thing every week can get tedious and boring,” acknowledges Dr. Enette Larson-Meyer, Ph.D, RD, LD, CSSD, FACSM and an assistant professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Wyoming, where she also serves as director of the nutrition and exercise laboratory.
“This and the fact that different foods are available during different seasons- particularly when grown locally—are reasons to periodize your meals much like your training,” she adds.
Being responsible and focused in the kitchen doesn’t have to equate boredom–there are lots of ways to keep your nutrition power-packed while keeping your taste buds intrigued.
Eating the same thing every week can get tedious and boring…periodize your meals much like your training.
Dr. Enette Larson-Meyer, Ph.D, RD, LD, CSSD, FACSM, assistant professor of Human Nutrition at the University of Wyoming.
12. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.
As an athlete you get feedback with your workouts. You perform a specific drill you learn a movement better. You lift a weight enough times you get stronger.
Because the influence our nutrition has on us isn’t always as obvious it can be tempting to brush it aside.
Conversely, because it can seem like there is so much information out there it leaves us feeling a little bewildered. The key to getting through the analysis paralysis?
Keep it simple and seek assistance where you can.
“Master the fundamentals,” says Melissa Ireland, MS, RD, CSSD, RYT, and sports dietitian consultant at Pepperdine University. “Don’t overlook basic performance nutrition principles: hydration, healthy eating/ fueling for your sport, recovery and safe supplementation.”
Don’t be hesitant to make use of the resources available to you.
“A sports dietitian can help you dial in a plan specific to your sport, performance goals, and lifestyle,” she adds.
Master the fundamentals and don’t overlook basic performance nutrition principles.
Melissa Ireland, MS, RD, CSSD, RYT, sports dietitian consultant at Pepperdine University Athletics
The nutrition experts at your school are there to help you craft an individualized approach to your nutrition. What works best for your friends or teammates might not work in your particular case, and a dietitian can help you navigate your energy needs so that you kick butt both on the field and in the classroom.
“To optimize an athlete’s diet I like to use a combination of structured resources and an individualized approach,” says Anthony Paradis, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, USAPL, USAW, Director of Sports Nutrition at Tennessee Tech University.
I also meet with them one-on-one where I assess their readiness to change and use a motivational interviewing process to guide them to the habits they need to focus on first.
Anthony Paradis, MS, RD, CSSD, CSCS, USAPL, USAW, Director of Sports Nutrition of Tennessee Tech University
The Next Step
The way you perform on the field and in the classroom are important to you.
You work hard, long hours in the gym in order to get the most from yourself when it comes to competing. When your nutrition reflects this level of commitment and focus you begin to appreciate the powerful effects that a purposeful diet can have on how you play and even how you study.
Put a couple of the tips in this guide to work over the course of the upcoming season and let your nutrition and diet go to work for you.