Improving performance: Universities using nutrition to help their athletes play better

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 24 2013 7:45 p.m. MDT

Beth Wolfgram, a dietitian at the University of Utah, assists Utah football player Lucky Radley and other athletes with their food at the Spence and Cleone Eccles Football Center Monday, Sept. 9, 2013.

Scott G Winterton, Deseret News

SALT LAKE CITY — Before Karl Williams met Beth Wolfgram, the University of Utah running back thought good nutrition meant making sure he was full of food — any food — before practice.

“I would eat whatever,” said the senior. “I thought a box of pizza from Little Caesars was good carbs. I thought I could eat that, lift and be fine. I had no nutritional ideas whatsoever.” Even when he sat through high school health classes at Layton High, he didn’t think the admonishments to watch what one ate applied to him.

“I thought, 'I’m an athlete,'” said Williams, who started his collegiate career at Southern Utah University before walking on at Utah in 2010. “'I burn 4,000 calories a day. I don’t need that. I’ll burn the calories no matter what they are.'”

It wasn’t until he started to research the NFL athletes he admired that he realized that not only wasn’t he having the college career he could, he probably couldn’t succeed at the next level without making significant dietary changes.

After his hard work earned him a scholarship, he made an appointment with Wolfgram and came up with a plan to lose weight and gain muscle.

“It definitely changed everything,” he said of the nutrition and hydration programs created by Wolfgram, the University of Utah’s sports dietician. “Every college should have a Beth.”

Williams lost 30 pounds and feels faster, stronger and more clear-minded. He also stopped cramping during games, a situation the U. dealt with differently this summer after Wolfgram created a hydration monitoring program complete with weekly urine tests.

“Every game last year I cramped,” he said. “I was tired of cramping in the fourth quarter when my team needed me.”

Changes for the better

Wolfgram is a registered and certified dietitian who received a Master of Science degree in nutrition from the University of Utah and a Bachelor of Science degree in exercise science from Northeastern University in Boston. She preached the gospel of healthy food in the private sector for nearly two decades before the University of Utah hired her six years ago to oversee all 17 of the school's sports. Her job is to advise players and coaches on what to eat to succeed athletically, as well as how nutrition impacts their individual and team goals.

“Sometimes they see me as the food police, and I hate that,” she said. “I really actually hate that. My job is not to make them feel deprived or punished. It’s to help them succeed as student-athletes.”

What she teaches them will not only help them get more from their bodies, but also sharpens their minds, keeps them safer, and improves their long-term health. The problem is that many college athletes come from backgrounds where fueling is simply a matter of eating what’s available.

“Sports nutrition ... is kind of in its infancy,” she said. “There are actually still in the country only 43 sports dietitians at NCAA institutions (and there are more than 1,000 of those). When you look at that compared to athletic trainers, where there is one for every team, it’s a lot different. Eventually sports nutrition will go that same way, but right now we’re convincing people why they need us.” She said the initial effort is to change the culture.

“For example, with soccer, they need halftime fuel because they’re playing so long,” she said. “That’s just the reality and the science of it. But none of them are used to it. We really need to educate the young kids because that’s where it starts. That way when they get here, they’ve always done it.”

Making it easy

She said more and more athletes are embracing the value of nutrition in an athletic career, even if they don’t always understand it.

“The interest level has really grown in my six years here,” she said.

Wolfgram’s efforts to help student-athletes make good food choices is a lot easier since the U. opened its new football facility last month.

“We have a dining hall right here,” she said. “We can control everything we cook and give to them. We can design the meals. There is a plan to it; it’s not just random.”

It also can’t get much easier.

Woflgram and her staff have color-coded every food item in the new dining hall, which is a buffet with chefs that will make some items to order.

“We have the stoplight system,” she said, explaining that green foods can be consumed in unlimited quantities; yellow implores the consumer to eat in moderation; and red suggests it might be a once-in-a-while item.

“It’s not to say you can’t have those red foods, but you have them only occasionally or only for part of your meal,” she said. “We try to teach them to find balance at each meal.”

Meeting needs

What she does extends far beyond the field as she starts her relationship with every athlete by conducting a health screening. That’s where she learns about problems, allergies and issues that may be solved with dietary changes.

Wolfgram and her staff help the athletes learn to shop, how to fuel for workouts, and how to use food to accomplish their goals.

“Food is enjoyable,” Wolfgram said. “It’s part of our culture. ... My job is not only to make them feel good and well-fueled, but to help make it fun.

“The reality is it took a long time to integrate into the team,” she said. “Now thankfully I’m part of the sports medicine team.”

She oversees the team’s pregame meal, something Williams said prompted the team’s leadership council to make other nutritional changes.

“Our pregame meals are not one plate,” said Williams. “It used to be a buffet. We get steak, chicken or salmon and then salad bar. We used to have three or four steaks. ... The leadership council just felt nutrition is important. We felt slow last year, and we didn’t want to have issues.”

They also drastically altered their pregame snacks.

“We used to have bacon, chicken wings, ice cream, tater tots, hot dogs, hamburgers at 10 o’clock,” said Williams, laughing along with teammate Nate Orchard. “We decided we didn’t want that. Now we can have one scoop of sherbet, fruit, and you can have a turkey or roast beef sandwich — nothing too heavy.”

The athletes, even those who were reluctant to buy into the program, said they were convinced because of how they felt and played.

Like Williams, junior running back Lucky Radley ate whatever he could get his hands on before practices.

“I had nearly no clue what good nutrition was or that it was a big deal,” said Radley, who graduated from Taft High School in California. “Sometimes in the middle of practice, I would hit a wall. I’d just get tired. I didn’t know what (the problem) was. ... I used to cramp a lot, but I thought that’s just what was supposed to happen. Our practices are long, and I thought you were supposed to hit a wall.”

That wall felt significantly worse when the fuel was fast-food tacos and burritos.

Orchard, a junior defensive end, said he needed help gaining and maintaining weight. “I grew up on ramen noodles and cereal,” he said, smiling. “Those were my favorite foods.”

Like Williams, he realized the guys he was competing against, and the guys he hoped to replace in the NFL, were bigger and stronger.

Both young men said the changes at the dinner table have made them better on the football field, and it’s a change head coach Kyle Whittingham sees.

“If you look back over the last several years, I think (nutrition) was the area where we were the furthest behind. And now I think we’ve caught up.”

Buying in

Wolfgram said student-athletes are buying into the program earlier and with more commitment.

I see the transition now,” she said. “If you want to be in a bigger-time athletic program, if you want to play at this level, if you want to push yourself to the max, then this is what you need to do. The more we hear of other schools doing this, of professional athletes focusing on nutrition, I think you’ll see them really grasping on to it.”

Wolfgram knows that changing lifelong habits isn't easy, but said athletes are more willing to participate if they understand why it matters.

“Sometimes they see it as another thing to do,” she said. “But (then) you explain, ‘I’m only trying to help you get to be a better athlete. This is not punishment; this is not drudgery; I’m not doing this because I don’t like you. I’m doing this to help you be a better athlete.'”

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Email: adonaldson@deseretnews.com

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