Nutritional Challenges for Collegiate Triathletes

IMG_7259By Mercedes DeCarli

The Struggle to Stay Healthy While Eating in the Dining Halls

Triathletes stress their bodies more than the average person – add a full college course load and a part-time job on top of that and you have a recipe for immune system disaster.

Stephanie Bruggink, who was on the Colorado State University triathlon club team for four years and graduated in May ’15 with a bachelors in health and exercise science and a minor in nutrition, says that one of the biggest downfalls she encountered was that she would be stressed and stay up late doing homework and still try to get all of her practices done the next day. She recalls getting sick often as a result of those habits.

“Plan ahead so you don’t end up going to bed late,” Bruggink says. She also says that looking back her nutritional habits could have been improved. She lived in the residence halls and then in a sorority house for two year.

“I think it made it harder [to eat healthy],” Bruggink says. “They had healthy options but they also had unhealthy options all the time. It was hard to choose and the healthy options weren’t always that appetizing.” She used the example of there always being greasy pizza and sugary cupcakes but the healthier options were less appetizing and more bland.

Being a student athlete in any sport at any college has its fair share of trials and errors. Lack of time to do homework due to intense practice schedules, late nights staying up to finish assignments, and stress eating are just part of the things that student athletes endure; most college students have trouble balancing time management, homework and assignments, a social life, and eating a well-rounded diet, but student athletes have it amplified due to the physical stress, on top of mental stress, that they put on their bodies. College campuses are also a pathogen’s dream location to hang out with so many people encountering each other daily. Stress and poor diets break down the immune system and become a welcoming home to illnesses.

A sample of my weekly workout schedule via Training Peaks:
A sample of my weekly workout schedule via Training Peaks:

A typical student triathlete will put in anywhere from 10-15+ hours of training: about 5 hours of swimming, 4.5 hours of biking, 4 hours of running, and 1-2 hours of strength and conditioning; sit in a classroom for up to 15-20 hours: 5 classes at 3 hours per week; and work on homework for upwards of 15 hours per week: 15 credits with 3-5 hours of outside classroom work. This means that both the brain and body are stressed for long periods of time. Add all of that up and that means that these athletes are putting their bodies under at least 50 hours of stress each week. Stress adds extra tax on the body and wears out a person both physically and mentally, especially if they have poor nutrition habits.

How can the overstressed, overstretched triathlete maintain a healthy diet while balancing the stresses of college?

Tess Mattern, a master nutritional therapist, level 1 USAT certified triathlon coach, NASM certified personal trainer and the Colorado State Triathlon swim coach, says, “As a student-athlete, the demands put on your brain and body are very high. Nutrition can either aid in helping you function to the very best of your ability, or hinder your ability to perform well in the classroom and in sports.”

One of the biggest mistakes that Mattern has seen within her work is a lack of planning ahead – which includes grocery shopping, and meal planning and packing which can take up valuable time.

“Look at your schedule for the week, and figure out when you will have time to shop, cook and prep foods,” says Mattern. “Taking time to do some simple things like wash and chop veggies, will make them easy to grab and eat when you need a fast snack.”

Mattern explains that each meal and snack should contain good amounts of proteins, fats and carbs which are the macro nutrients that our bodies need daily.

“Having all three of these each time you eat will help keep you satiated, provide some energy, help build and maintain muscle, and give your body the nutrients it needs to keep your immune system functioning properly.”

IMG_7507It’s a simple concept but after a hard workout, anything with calories sounds good to an athlete. Food is the only thing on their mind and if you hand it to them, they will most likely eat it without thinking of its nutritional value.

“The better prepared people are to have healthy food available, the more likely they are to eat those healthy foods,” says Mattern. “Too often an athlete is very hungry after a hard workout, and if they do not have a healthy food option with them, they will eat anything that is presented to them.”

How I’ve overcome nutritional habits and stress in the dorms:

I’ve lived in the dorms for three years and have been on the triathlon club at Colorado State University for those three years. In the first year that I was in college I struggled a lot with weight gain and balancing my time management. I come from a home that eats healthy and I was good at managing my time in high school, even with sports, but the dining hall food was a shock to my system, and the workload was much more intense. Walking into a freshman class of 4,000 also was an adjustment coming from a graduating class of 18; homework took hours longer to complete and the physical stress of practices all resulted in stress eating.

I gained 15 pounds my freshman year which I attribute to a list of different circumstances: different foods and not being able to control what goes into them, being unknowledgeable about a food allergy, the cold weather (I come from a tropical climate), overall homesickness, and the amount of stress that I was putting on my body both physically and mentally.

What resulted was that my body was a ticking time-bomb of waiting for the right moment to be broken down enough to get sick – and not just sick, super sick. Two weeks after returning home from my freshman year, I completed the Ironman 70.3 Hawaii for the second time. Three days later I was diagnosed with both walking pneumonia and a relapse of mononucleosis. These two illnesses made it a rough few summer months for me and it took a while to feel back to my normal self.

What I have learned from that horrible freshman year is that it is possible to maintain a healthy lifestyle while being a student athlete and maintaining the schoolwork that goes along with college. On top of working hard to manage my time more efficiently, I have become more aware of what I put in my body. Crock Pot and over-night oat recipes have become my go-to for quick and healthy meals when I can’t make it to the dining hall. My favorite meal to cook in my dorm room is sweet potatoes, broccoli, whole-grain pasta and chicken. When I do go to the dining hall, because I have a dietary restriction with dairy products, my options are limited but I try to maintain a well-rounded diet. Most days that consists of either a sandwich with meat and veggies, or pasta with meat and veggies. I also take multiple dietary supplements each day to give extra aid to my body to stay healthy in the cold and under stress. I exercise at least once a day and now have a better understanding of what I can do in college to keep a healthy body and a healthy mind.

Staying healthy in college is a mental choice that you have to make. For me, that means giving up a lot of refined sugars and forcing myself to go to sleep early knowing that I have time to complete an assignment the next day. Making my own food has also been a big difference this year, but I know what is going into my food and it’s nutritional value. At first it is hard to break those habits, but once you begin to see results and feel better overall, you won’t want to go back.

Typical Day of Meals from a nutritionist:

It is hard to determine what each person needs to intake nutritionally each day. There are so many variations factors such as age, sex, activity levels, food sensitivities/alletgies, just to name a few. A very general guideline that Mattern would recommend for a student-athlete would be along these guidelines:
Breakfast- 2 eggs with sautéed greens (spinach or kale), onions, mushrooms, 1/4 avocado, and 1 piece of fruit on the side.
Lunch- 4-5 oz chicken with 2-3 cups veggies (raw or cooked), 1/2 sweet potato, and a handful of nuts.
Snack- Chopped veggies with hummus, or a piece of fruit with some nut butter.
Dinner- 4-5 oz meat or fish with 2-3 cups veggies, 1/2 c brown rice with butter.

It’s really up to each person individually to figure out what types of foods work best with their bodies and activity level. It is important to remember that each body works differently and has different abilities. Don’t get discouraged when something isn’t working the way you would want it to, you just need to take a step back and figure out the best way to improve the situation.

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