Former Syracuse University athlete Matt Cady is a distance runner built like a linebacker. Naturally larger than his fleet-footed brethren, Cady found navigating the dining hall in college a challenge -- especially when he was trying to maintain racing weight. "When food's there, you want to eat it," Cady says. "When you're training really hard, you know, 80-, 90-, 100-mile weeks, there's this mentality among runners, and I definitely had it, that you can eat whatever you want. But that's not the case."
His sophomore year, Cady severely restricted his diet in an attempt to "lose weight like crazy." Then he developed anemia. As he recovered, Cady worked to discover the dining hall balance that's the key to success on and off the track. "It's striking a fine line between watching your calories, but making sure every calorie counts," he says.
For a distance runner, a balanced diet is as important as putting in the miles. "Nutrition is part of your equipment," says Leslie Bonci, MPH, R.D., director of sports nutrition at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. "You cannot perform at your maximum if you are not internally equipped." Here are some tips for eating at the campus dining hall that may help you to achieve optimal performance.
Before you even approach the food in the dining hall, you can limit your intake by not grabbing a tray. Then, every decision you make in the dining hall has to be deliberate. Says sport nutritionist Barbara Lewin, R.D., L.D., "Studies show that the more food choices we're faced with, the greater the tendency to overeat." Without a tray, you can't grab the hamburger, the fries, the grilled cheese and the cake. Plus, going tray-less has eco benefits: It cuts down on food waste and water used for washing.
Once you've got a plate, a simple rule is to mentally divide the plate into thirds, Bonci says. One-third should be reserved for some form of protein, like tofu, chicken, eggs, yogurt and so on. One-third needs to be reserved for a color food, such as fruit, a salad, the vegetable of the day or a vegetable soup. The last third should be a whole grain, like whole wheat bread or pasta. This strategy will help ensure you get the nutrients you need.
Healthy fats are an essential part of any diet. Runners sometimes avoid them, but this is a mistake. "It's not how low can you go in terms of fat," Bonci says, "but how inclusive can you be in terms of getting everything you need on your plate." Add olive-oil-based dressing to your salad, peanut butter on your bread, or have some guacamole (if it's offered) to get healthy fats into your diet.
If you're working out more than once a day, make sure you're refueling your body after a workout, even if the dining hall isn't open. "Students have to be creative," Bonci says. "You don't want to be carrying turkey and ham around all day long. What things can you have with you? Maybe some dry cereal, dried fruit and nuts from the dining hall salad bar and, ta-da! Your own trail mix."
So your parents never made you a curry while you were in high school? Keep an open mind. Ethnic foods tend to be infused with more spices and herbs. "Ginger and turmeric [found in Thai and Indian dishes] are among the heavy hitters when it comes to spices that have an anti-inflammatory effect," Lewin says. Ethnic selections also traditionally incorporate ingredients that are high in iron and fiber.
Bonci suggests a two-handed approach to eating: one hand for the plate and the other for the glass. College athletes need to replenish fluids lost through sweat. Low-fat milk is a great source of calcium and vitamins for keeping the body healthy. Juice tends to be unexpectedly high in calories, which is good for some runners and a problem for others. So don't forget good old water.
Distance runners often worry that the number on the scale doesn't match their expectations. They think it's too high. But the number might not be an indicator of your future performance. Different people have different body compositions, and restricting your necessary caloric intake puts you at a higher risk for injury. "The more time people spend dwelling on the number," Bonci says, "the less time they have to spend on what they should be spending time on: academic performance as well as athletic performance. There are only so many brain cells to go around."
If your athletic department has a dietitian or nutritionist on staff, and you feel uncomfortable about your eating habits, make an appointment with the experts. Their role is to help you develop a specific eating plan based on your body composition. If you're dissatisfied with the dining hall, use the comment cards or send a polite email to the dining hall manager. Your feedback might help bring about changes that enable you, and others, to have a healthier dining experience.