Nutrition a Game Changer at Florida

It's often overlooked, however, sports nutrition can really impact a team. Scout's FightinGators.com gets an inside a look at a critical piece to the puzzle.

Success does not happen overnight. It takes a lot for teams to get ready for game day. Several pieces need to come together in order for a team to attain the success they want. A lot is placed on the head coaches, assistants, strength and conditioning, and the players' talent, however, there is one big piece often overlooked. 

"One of the things that often goes unnoticed is our nutrition staff," said Florida football head coach, Jim McElwain. "We've been able to increase awareness, and how the guys are actually using and being able to be educated in the nutrition piece." 

"Over the past five years, the sports nutrition programs have really started to develop. They are the new cutting edge," said Director of Sports Nutrition at Florida, Stephanie Wilson. "Twenty years ago strength and conditioning was the new thing that was added, before then it was athletic training, now it's sports nutrition. It has definitely grown. It has become the differential factor in a lot of schools." 

During football spring practice, a lot of eyes zeroed in on Thomas Holley. Holley lost 60 pounds in the off season in hopes to have a healthier fall. One woman part of helping Holley achieve his goals was Collier Perno. Perno is a Coordinator of Sports Nutrition at Florida, focusing a lot of her time with the football team. 

"The hardest kind of challenge [with football] is finding whats going to motivate them," said Collier.  "Why should they pay attention to their nutrition? Why is hydration so important? When they come to our classes and we are educating them, I like to show them the whys, because if they don't know the hows and the whys, they are not going to be as motivated to do it. 

"So really it's about buying in," she added. "If it's about energy levels, decrease risk for injury or even just having enough recoveries to sleep better and feel better, less sore."

McElwain and his staff have really changed the culture around The Swamp when it comes to nutrition. 

"Coach Mac is so supportive. We have been very lucky to have him," said Perno.  "Not only does he help the guys, remind them that it is important to hydrate, it is important to grab meals, but also helps us choose the right options." 

"Really making an emphasis on nutrition as a whole," added Wilson. "We actually have two people that travel with football, which is more than most programs." 

A lot of emphasis is placed on the recovery aspect. Practices are intense, so Perno offer plenty of snacks as they exit the practice facility. Some of these snacks include: protein shakes, fruits and the new popular option, "Gator juice." 

"Everything in our Gator juice uses Gatorade products," she said. "It's got the electrolytes, the carbs, the proteins, everything you are looking for in a recovery option." 

For Perno and the nutrition staff, there are several factors that they consider before creating a plan for an athlete. For a football player, not only is position considered but the player's overall goal and lifestyle. 

"It's really finding out how much energy they need. Whats their daily schedule," said Perno.  "Do they have any food allergies or any intolerances and in that way we are able to create a strategy that is better for that individual."

Perno teaches a class three times a week, so that the football players can take control of their nutrition. 

"We provide them with the tools they need and it's their job to pick it up and do it," she said. "We have lean out and weight gain classes...They will come in and we will do a little food demo and some education on the hows and whys. Each week it's a different topic."

"One of the things we really focus on rather than weighing out their food, we try to use really normal things to help educate them," added Wilson.  "We might say a fist of carbs or a palm of protein, those types of verbiage, or a baseball size piece of fruit. Then tell them how many they should be aiming for.

"We will make suggestions around their sport and their training based on if they are on an off day or not or what their long term goals are."

The players have certainly bought in. 

"You're more aware of what you put in your body," said Gators defensive lineman Jordan Sherit. "Definitely learning more about how you can fuel your body and prepare for practice. They do a good job educating us and thats not just something for football. You can take that away for the rest of your life and teach everybody around."

The landscape is also changing for nutritionists around college athletics. In 2014 the NCAA passed a new rule which allows student-athletes unlimited access to food and snacks. Before the rule, athletes received only three meals a day, like a normal student. This change has had a tremendous impact on not just football, but on sports across the board. 

"One of the biggest changes we have seen with all the sports, we are able to give them more enhanced snacks, when it comes to before, during and after practices, that also includes the offseason."

With the new rule, fueling stations had a tremendous face lift. 

"Fueling station is where an athlete can come get what you need and go," she said. "A yoghurt, a sandwich, a wrap, it's having a lot more access to the foods they need on the go. As a result we are able to provide more nutritious quality and the fuel that they need at that exact time. In the past we were pretty limited, and we were only able to provide fruits and bars, some nuts and seeds, but we weren't able to provide things like peanut butter or some lunch meats." 

With better nutrition, players are not only able to concentrate better in the classroom, but they are able to prevent and recover quicker from an injury. 

"One of things we have seen that has been a big benefit of the rule change, we have seen that they are coming back a lot faster [from injuries]," said Wilson. "We have been able to document how much faster that has been able to happen. It's also been better energy on the fields, on the courts, being able to focus a little better in the schools. So those things are what we see as the biggest game changers." 

This also allows Wilson and her group more contact with the student-athlete, which in turn allows for better understanding of what these athletes need. 

"A lot of the athletes want more customization," said Wilson. "Trying to really tailor their goals for gaining or leaning out or recovery and repair or fighting inflammation. They are definitely more receptive, but they also get to see us more because we are providing more fuel." 

With more and more success stories, more student-athletes buy into the system. 

"Each week, I have new guys buying in and texting me what should I order from this restaurant or is this supplement good to take or what recovery should I be getting," said Perno.  "Best part is having a couple of them buy in and then all the other athletes see the result."

There is also a level of caution from the staff. Every year a brand new supplement or fad hits the market, however, Wilson and her staff are very careful before going all in on a new technique or product. 

"There is always something new coming out," said Wilson. "What we really focus on is on products that is based on sports science and that are third party tested. They biggest thing is when an athlete asks about them is we have to do our due diligence. We have to see if there is any research on it and contact experts on the field if we haven't seen any research."

The NCAA changing its stance on snacks and meals was a big step, however, Wilson and company still have plenty of guidelines to follow. 

"NCAA rules really do impact our job as a whole," she said.  "The biggest thing is they impact what nutrients we give to everyone. For example fish oils are something that is a great option for all health, however, that isn't something we can provide to everyone on a daily basis just because.

"But we can provide vitamins and minerals, and even though we are limited in what is permitted, we have come such a far away the last few years, so it is very exciting time for our field." 

She hopes that the changes are just beginning.

"One of the most exciting things that we hope is coming down the pipeline is the opportunity to change that 30 percent rule," said Wilson. "Currently the rule is that we are not permitted to provide products like bars and shakes that have more than 30 percent of calories provided by protein. If that rule were to change it would help alleviate some of the details behind the scenes." 


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