May 23, 2013
By Anna LaBonte | Maryland Media Relations Student Assistant
COLLEGE PARK, Md. - Athletes train hard to compete hard. While people think about the reps they take in the gym, less consideration goes into the food they use to fuel their bodies.
Director of Sports Nutrition Colleen Davis began working with Maryland student-athletes in January to ensure they are following the proper diets to produce results.
Davis grew up as a gymnast, which led to her initial interest in sports nutrition. Since gymnasts have to follow rigorous regimes to stay in shape, Davis wanted to educate herself on how to prepare better.
"A lot of gymnasts have eating issues or learn a lot about food and nutrition, so that's when I became interested in nutrition and how it relates to performance," said Davis. "When I was in high school, I started looking for colleges with nutrition programs."
Davis studied nutritional sciences with a specialization in dietetics at Cornell University, and was captain of the varsity gymnastics team. Davis was the 2006 ECAC and Ivy League vaulting champion, and she graduated in 2008 with a 3.5 grade-point average.
Davis began to educate student-athletes on nutrition while completing her master's degree at the University of Florida. She worked with the university's two full-time nutritionists to develop meal plans and educational materials for UF's football team.
Sports nutrition is rapidly growing in collegiate athletics. Maryland is the eighth school in the Atlantic Coast Conferece to have a full-time nutritionist. As athletes get better and work harder, nutrition is seen as the next step to get to the next level.
"When I started at Cornell, I think there were very few nutritionists in Division-I athletics. ... Each year, it's grown slowly," said Davis. "I think now, more and more colleges are recognizing that nutrition is the last key piece. We have strength and conditioning, we have athletic training, we have great coaches, but what are our athletes fueling with? It's becoming more and more popular."
Although creating plans for student-athletes across 20 teams can be daunting, Davis enjoys the diversity that comes with each athlete. Her nutritional education begins the same way for each team: with regular team talks about how to properly fuel.
"The basic sports nutrition principles are going to be the same for all athletes in terms of the right types of fuel," said Davis. "The right types of carbohydrates, protein, fat, as well as nutrient timing. Pregame meals, pregame snacks, recovery nutrition, hydration, all those things are going to be pretty similar across the board."
As student-athletes come forward with more individual needs, like putting on lean muscle or losing weight, Davis works with them one-on-one to reach their goals. Davis has found athletes from Olympic sports are more interested in nutrition and ask more detailed questions about their plans. For athletes less familiar with nutrition principles, Davis works more individually to teach them about the basics.
"Some athletes, for football and basketball, their education is a little bit more informal," said Davis. "I'll sit down with them at dinner and say, `Hey, what's that on your plate? Why do you have no color, where are your vegetables?' For other teams, it may be a bit more formal. They're maybe more interested in nutrition, so they ask a lot more and deeper questions."
Davis has a hands-on approach to working with the student-athletes. She texts with various athletes to make sure they are remembering to eat breakfast or proper snacks, or they text her pictures of their meals to make sure they have the right balance of foods.
In her few months with Maryland Athletics, Davis has changed not only the eating habits of student-athletes, but also of their support staff. Davis created a weight-loss challenge for Department of Intercollegiate Athletics staff. Participants began competing in pairs to lose weight and learn more about nutrition and living healthily.
"It's a great way to help everyone buy into nutrition and a healthier lifestyle. It's important that if our staff is doing it too, then our student-athletes are going to see that and they can be role models for the student-athletes."
Davis sends bi-weekly emails to the ICA staff along with the sports medicine and strength and conditioning staff with tips on how to eat better. She also runs the UMD Sports Nutrition Twitter account to share information with a broader public.
"It's a challenging job," said Davis. "There's so many athletes, and there's only one of me. But I love working with student-athletes. I understand what they're going through. It's a challenge, but I love helping them."