Nutrition Vital in Athletes' Conditioning

<p>Players in National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) sports know that exercise comes with the territory, and can determine eligibility. Eligibility can hinge on nutrition, too, though. Can what a player eats violate NCAA rules?

Yes – under certain conditions, outlined in the rules. According to NCAA regulations, a school may provide its student athletes only "non muscle building" dietary supplements. To achieve that, the regulations restrict the percent of total calories from protein. Conditioning and strength coach Tory Stephens knows the special considerations involved in a successful year-round training program. He took time to answer some questions about Texas Tech's conditioning program recently.

"We have a budget for nutrition, and what I buy using the institution's money has to fall under certain things," said Stephens, who serves as Tech's athletic department nutritionist. "The way that's broken out is, for whatever we provide for the athletes from the budget, greater than 30 percent of the calories can't be from protein. If 29 percent of the total calories is protein, that's permissible."

NCAA rules regulate the percentages of protein partly to prevent muscle-building regimens for athletes, but mostly in pursuit of a level playing field for programs with different financial abilities.

While the institution must monitor what it supplies to the athletes very carefully, players may, with their own funds, buy and consume as much protein as they wish, Stephens said.

"You can go in a restaurant and order four or five chicken breasts," Stephens said, "and it's all protein, but that's not illegal."

The NCAA intends the rule to equalize the ability of schools to give their athletes competitive parity regardless of their finances, Stephens said. Stephens said that regulation prevents larger schools from taking unfair advantage of institutions with smaller budgets.

That keeps Tech, for example, from buying something that a smaller school like University of Texas at San Antonio couldn't afford to provide for nutrition, Stephens said.

The Lady Raiders' training regimen varies according to the needs of the players, their positions, their individual physiques, and, in some cases, the state of their injuries. Parts of the program, including the stretches before every practice and every game, and some of the specific work in the weight room, also are designed to help prevent injury, Stephens said. Other considerations include rehabilitation, body strength and mass, overall conditioning, and nutrition.

According to its online Division I handbook, the NCAA bans some substances outright, such as ephedra, which the league outlawed in 1997. That supplement was an ingredient in a variety of products advertised as boosting energy. In December 2003, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration banned ephedra following a series of reported deaths of persons using the substance, including some athletes. Those regulations permit four categories of supplements: carbohydrate/electrolyte drinks, energy bars, carbohydrate boosters, and vitamins and minerals.

Stephens takes his charge as athletic department nutritionist as seriously as he does his role in building strength, increasing power, and helping rehabilitate student athletes at Texas Tech. His work makes not just the Lady Raiders' basketball players, but the baseball, softball and soccer teams' performance better all year long.

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