Written by Gabby Guzman, AB, and Jeanne McPhee, BA.
The transition into college for any young person can be difficult, but entering school as a college athlete, subject to a demanding training schedule, can bring with it added challenges. How do you eat enough to keep up with your workouts? What should you eat, and how much? How do you cope with the changes that your body might undergo? How can you find time for sleep to relax your mind and your muscles? How will you make time for studies and friends and fun?
The physical demands of being a college athlete are likely to result in shifts in eating behaviors and diet. College athletes (much like professional athletes or Olympians) often must eat more than others to adequately replenish and fuel the body for sustained peak performance. If it’s mentally hard to understand these changes in appetite or required intake, think back to your last grueling practice to remember exactly why you are recharging yourself with each meal or snack. Remember that the cost of eating inadequately will be exhaustion — physical, mental and emotional. Exhaustion can of course impact athletic performance (and even result in injury). It can also affect academic performance and a sense of general wellbeing.
It might be hard to find the right diet. If so, there are many resources out there for you: ask your team’s trainer for help, consult your university’s counseling center for a referral to a local dietitian, or consider guidelines proposed by the National Collegiate Athletic Organization or the American Dietetic Association.
Sometimes, the right diet combined with the right workouts for your sport can result in the wrong body image. College athletes, in achieving optimal fitness, may wind up with a body shape or at a weight that does not fit a popularized (and often problematic) vision of “ideal.” For instance, sports like soccer, ice hockey, and rugby require athletes to do frequent heavy weightlifting which commonly leads to increased muscle mass. If it’s difficult to accept these physical changes as healthy and desirable, remember that being strong is beautiful in its own wonderful way. Talk with your teammates to create a positive body image team attitude and carry this attitude home from practices with you.
Even if the proper nutritional plan is in place and you’re finally reveling in the newfound strength of your body, it can still be hard to keep an eye on your overall mental health. To stay mentally healthy while physically active:
- Check in with yourself. Be honest about you are feeling on a particular day. Fine tune your athletic performance and self-care accordingly so that you’ll have energy to be your best in the moment that your team needs you the most.
- Keep an eye on the time. Time management is essential for your wellbeing. Make sure your daily schedule allows time for meals and rest between classes and practices. Don’t forget to designate some time for fun with friends off the field!
- Snack for recovery. It is a good idea to walk around with energy bars or fruit so that you always have something on hand after a workout or during a class (a money-saving tip: take them from the dining hall after the meal you eat before practice!).
- Rest well. Getting a good amount of sleep every night is essential. If it’s hard to unwind after an evening practice, trying developing a nightly bedtime routine. If your roommate tends to keep you up typing on her laptop, try a white noise app. Remember, naps might help with productivity too. A good amount of sleep every night is essential.
As with your performance on the field, putting in the time and effort to figure out what will work best for you to maintain physical and psychological health as a college athlete will pay off. It will take practice, and likely a few tweaks in strategy along the way, but it will get easier in time. Until then: stay strong and go team!