A lot is made around the country — and at BYU — about strength and conditioning, weight rooms, “going hard” in practice and having the athletes in peak shape for the start of the season. However, to get the most out of all of these opportunities, it takes fuel.
But not just food. The right food for the right person eaten at the right time of day.
Rachel Higginson, BYU’s sports dietician and nutritionist, is a friendly mother-of-two who spends her professional life doing everything she can to give the Cougars — in all sports — the fuel they need to blast off to success.
“Obviously, we’re concerned with performance now,” she says. “But, as a dietician, I’m also concerned with teaching them skills that will help them eat well throughout their lives.”
Getting them off on the right foot
Education is at the forefront of any dietician’s job and, for Rachel, that is especially true. She team teaches (with sports psychologists Tom Golightly and Jared Klundt) a class to freshman athletes when they first arrive on campus.
“We give a foundation to these athletes about how their relationships, positive and negative outlook, and nutrition all affect performance,” Rachel says. “For a lot of them, this is their first experience away from home, so they are learning these things for the first time.”
“We give a foundation to these athletes about how their relationships, positive and negative outlook, and nutrition all affect performance.” —Rachel Higginson, BYU’s sports dietician and nutritionist
As part of the class, Rachel teaches basic cooking skills, recipes and gives each player a dietary handbook she developed.
While a general class is helpful in teaching basic dietary health, Rachel’s best work comes in personalized meetings with athletes. She sits down with each athlete and develops an eating plan that is healthy, maximizes performance, gives them the fuel to make it through workouts, and will help them peak at the right times. However, she also knows the food needs to be palatable or else most won’t eat it.
“You have to be realistic,” she says. “All types of food can fit into a good, balanced diet. However, we talk about moderation and timing. You may have Spam as part of your diet, but we don’t want to have it just before practice.”
Rachel works with strength and conditioning staff, trainers and, on occasion, coaches to assist players in reaching their full performance potential. Sometimes that includes meeting with an entire team that may not be finishing practices strongly.
Timing is everything
With several classes, practice, games and travel, BYU student-athletes are often pressed for time. Ideally, Rachel would see most athletes eating less food per meal, but eating more meals per day.
“We talk a lot about instinctive eating practices and listening to your body,” she says. “In general, these athletes should be eating something every three to four hours.”
Rachel suggests to athletes that each meal contain three food groups with one of them being a protein. Suggesting three food groups encourages variety and helps them develop realistic eating habits.
“They can do three food groups per meal,” she says. “That’s not too overwhelming.”
Recovery is key to athlete success, too. Immediately after practice (within 45 minutes), athletes have BYU Creamery chocolate milk, which provides protein from the milk and carbohydrates from the chocolate. The water content hydrates, and the extra sugar, calcium and sodium help retain water and regain energy.
Center of attention
A relatively new addition to the athletics facilities includes two nutrition centers — a large one in the Student Athlete Building and a smaller one in the Smith Fieldhouse. The nutrition center is stocked with a variety of healthy snack options that allow athletes to have energy options on the go.
“They are given a fuel card that gives them access to the centers,” Rachel says. “They simply place an order associated with the card and then our staff gest what they requested ready for them. We want it to be easy to get the protein they need.”
The nutrition centers include protein bars, fruits (fresh and dried), vegetables, chocolate milk and green smoothies full of spinach, kale, broccoli and other greens that boost immune systems and maintain a healthy microbiome.
“While the journey is different for every athlete, when they understand what a healthy diet does for their performance and affects how they feel, it’s amazing,” Rachel says.
Rachel does a lot of her work with freshmen and sophomores because more experienced athletes have already seen the benefits of eating right.
And Cougar fans everywhere hope these fueled athletes see the benefits on the field, too.
Eating Like an Athlete
While most of us will not win any major athletic competitions or need the power to lift twice our weight, principles of athletic eating still apply for us to achieve better health and function. Here are three:
1. Eat less more often.
Skipping meals — or waiting too long for them — can lead to overeating. Eat small amounts of food more often throughout the day. Plus, the body goes into fat-storage mode if we space our eating too far apart.
2. More fruits and veggies.
Consider dried fruits you can carry in a bag or keep at a desk. Smoothies are a popular way to increase greens without tasting all of the green-ness.
3. Listen to your body.
Instead of eating based on what the clock says, plan ahead and bring snacks and meals you can eat when your body is hungry. Then, eat enough to fuel the body, not fuel several bodies.