I remember heading to college my freshman year. A huge mix of excitement and nervousness for what was to come. Not so much for classes, honestly, more so for my new intense practice schedule as a swimmer.
I knew I had so much potential coming from a swim team that worked hard, but didn’t have as much time in the pool as many other athletes and had next to no weight room experience. Still, as I wondered how my body would handle the training adjustment, even as a nutrition student, the role of snacks and my eating schedule in adapting never crossed my mind.
So, I learned the hard way. I made good choices at actual meals and allowed myself cookies and ice cream after dinner when I wanted them. I definitely wasn’t too low on calories my first two semesters. However, overall nutrients? Protein timing? Hydration? Not things I was knowledgeable enough to recognize I was doing wrong. Looking back, heading to 2 hour AM workouts on an empty stomach and avoiding sports drinks because I thought they weren’t healthy were bad ideas. That’s probably what led to late night cravings for calzone delivery (I did get broccoli in them at least) or mini-binges on Butterfinger and Reese’s. Snacking during the day between breakfast and lunch or at least before another intense afternoon workout? I can’t recall any of that except for maybe an occasional PowerBar Harvest bar.
I not only had a quad injury by our first meet in October, but I also wasn’t recovering well and my energy levels were not that of someone with an extremely high fitness level. My times improved slightly by the end of the year, and I surely gained muscle mass, but my body was not performing the way it should. I didn’t know any better, though.
Now I do. And that’s what I love about my career. I think my #1 all time favorite thing to do is speak to high school and college athletes. I get so excited while providing them with this valuable information, so they can feel empowered to maximize their training and performance. I always tell them nutrition is part of their training, not a separate piece.
And, healthy eating for an athlete is not the same as healthy eating for a non-athlete. No two are alike in what they need for their own body as well. Still, there’s 10 items that can be helpful to any athlete. Here’s my picks for your dorm room.
1. Whole Food Snack Bars
You can make it really quickly and pack it with plenty of other ingredients (see below!) for added nutrition. That way, if you happen to be running late in the morning, instead of skipping the dining hall and breakfast all together, you can get in a balanced meal. Actually, oats are great anytime of day, so this wouldn’t be a bad idea if you’re hungry after an early dinner. Or, it can act as a preworkout snack without the add-ins!
3. Shelf Stable Milk or Soymilk
Stock up on these sources of not only protein, but essential vitamins and minerals, too. I’d steer clear of almond, cashew, rice, etc. milks since they are NOT a protein source. When it comes to calcium, this important nutrient is used in every muscle contraction! Plus, if you’re playing a high impact sport, there is more stress placed on your bones. For these reasons, athletes require more calcium than the average person.
With a tiny dorm room fridge, you can store a bunch of these under your bed or futon and have more delivered over parents weekend. I recommend cooking oats with the milk to boost protein or carrying around the single serve packs to have with snacks or after practice during the day. It’s also not a bad addition to a PB & banana sandwich a couple of hours after dinner, so your body has all the nutrients it needs to recover while you sleep.
4. Fresh Fruit
I don’t expect you to roll onto campus with tons of fresh fruit, I know it will spoil. I also know most campus’ aren’t going to have easy grocery store access and athletes don’t have time to shop as new students adjusting to school anyway!
Here’s the super easy hack, so you can snack on fruit whenever you need to replenish energy stores, amp up your antioxidant intake for repair, or grab a quick preworkout snack:
Take a piece of fruit with you at least after two meals each day from the dining hall! Often the bananas aren’t ripe enough (for my taste) anyway, so you can let them hit their peak for preworkout perfection in your room. Those meal plans are expensive enough, anyway, for those of you heading to school without a full-ride. Just keep the fresh fruit where you’ll see it so it doesn’t spoil!
5. Nut or Seed Butter
It’s quick, nutritious, and goes with practically everything. You should probably get a few of the cost club size, not these standard sized ones I happen to have in my pantry right now. Along with them, nut or seed butter single serve packs like the Barny’s ones shown are great to keep in your backpack.
While a lot of people think of peanut butter and nuts as protein sources, they’re a much better way to fit in healthy fats. The mono-unsaturated fats in nut butter and seed butter are great for managing inflammation, which athletes have a lot of due to high stress on all of the body’s systems. Peanut, almond, and sunflower seed butter are also all great sources of Vitamin E! Most Americans do not meet needs for this important nutrient that acts as an antioxidant and also supports blood health, immune health, joint health and skin. Skip the powdered PB that is without E!
Sunflower are great, but here I’m talking about my top seed trifecta: chia, flax, hemp. While nuts provide healthy fat, the one nut that contains omega-3 in note-worthy amounts is walnuts (typically not a favorite for my clients, unfortunately). Chia and flax are the best omega-3 sources with hemp providing some, too. I recommend chia for oatmeal and smoothies, ground flax for the same and yogurt, and hemp seeds for practically everything since they add a nice texture. The chia also contains some calcium and lots of soluble fiber, which is great for your good gut bacteria. Flax also has this fiber and magnesium, which supports the functions of calcium. Female athletes take note: hemp seeds are a good source of iron, which you’re at high risk of being deficient in. They also provide more protein than chia and flax.
Pro-tip: buy the travel packs and bring them to the dining hall to mix in with morning oatmeal or, for hemp seeds, to add to a vegetable side.
7. Mini-Foam Roller
Where were these when I was a college athlete? Not in the UConn strength rooms and definitely not in my dorm. The half sizes can fit just about anywhere though so you can roll out your aches and knots when you’re finally relaxing in front of the tv. I’m sure my hip health would be so much better now if I was using foam rollers back in the day! Full body massages aren’t on most athletes schedules during a busy semester, so this is the next best option.
8. The Stick
Now these we did have in the training room, but in hind-sight, I needed my own. The stick gets those places that are really bugging you and extra hard to reach with the foam roller. You may have to recruit your roommate to help you reach that awkward place under your scapula, but it’s also great if you’re prone to plantar-fasciitis pain. Just don’t roll it right over bones.
9. Arnica Gel
This homeopathic remedy for muscle soreness and bruising is a favorite of mine. It has research backing it and in my personal experience is effective. Better though, it doesn’t leave you sticky, burning and smelling strongly of mint.
Note: if you start bruising really easily, it may be a sign of iron deficiency anemia. Keep iron intake up!
10. A Lumbar Support Pillow for your Desk Chair
I know for some of you it may feel like you’re going to school to be an athlete and not a student, but that attitude can catch up to you really quickly. You’re going to be not only sore but fatigued from an intense training schedule, so slouching when you study will be even more likely. This pressure influences your posture, potentially activating sciatica pain at your young age, impairing training and performance. It can also cause imbalances in shoulder strength that throw off your strength, too.
What other must-have dorm room items can you think of to support performance and reduce stress? I’d love to add them to a future list!