Collegiate athletes are often up before dawn, swimming laps, running or lifting weights. Then there are classes, practice and homework. This a demanding daily grind. In season, there are games, matches or meets that bring hours of bus travel. Finding time to eat—and getting enough nutrition to perform at an elite level—is a challenge.
“Fueling stations” or “fuel zones” have changed all that. Usually located near the practice facility, they provide convenient access to unlimited food for athletes, maximizing their energy, performance and recovery. They also help athletes balance time demands.
But it wasn’t always this way. Until 2014, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) allowed what was known as a training table—one meal per day for scholarship athletes that could be served outside of a school meal plan. Other meals needed to be eaten at the dining hall, which proved difficult given the student-athlete’s schedule.
Outside of the training table, NCAA rules allowed college athletes to receive snacks, but these were poor substitutes for meals. Athletes could be given a plain bagel as a snack. Add peanut butter, cream cheese, eggs or meat, and that same bagel became a meal. Those strict rules also meant no yogurt, nuts or other nutrient-rich foods.
Starting in 2014 for Division 1 schools and last fall for Division 2 schools, rules were relaxed to allow athletes access to unlimited meals and snacks outside of the meal program. For some student-athletes, fueling stations mean the difference between eating and not eating.
Yet fueling stations have not caught on everywhere. They can be expensive, with food costs, serving and maintenance expenses and, for some schools, dietitians to guide nutrition. In the first year of fueling stations, Indiana University planned for a $250,000 food budget increase to handle them, according to an Indianapolis Star report. Ohio State University spent $850,000 extra in 2015 on fueling stations, the Columbus Dispatch reported.
Colleges and universities have long recognized the importance of proper food and nutrition needs for athletes. At Saint Leo University near Tampa, Florida, Director of Dining Services Rich Vogel has been finding ways within the student meal plan to feed athletes for more than eight years.
He enlists creativity to make sure athletes get to eat, noting that he and the athletic director work together with coaches for each of Saint Leo’s varsity sports to get the word out about athlete meal availability. Vogel has found ways to serve food before and after games or practices, including travel meals and even the occasional meal for a visiting team.
“Gym time is coveted during basketball and volleyball season and teams use it at all hours,” he says. “Sometimes there are practices before sunrise, so we make sure students don’t miss breakfast.”
He said he has provided bagels, yogurt and granola bars at the gym has even gone so far as to send over egg, bacon and cheese English muffin sandwiches for students to heat in the microwave.
The same treatment goes for late practices. When the dining hall closes at 6 p.m. on Saturday and the lacrosse team is on the field until 8 p.m., he makes sure meals are stored in a refrigerator in the athletic department for students to take back to their rooms and reheat.
On game days, athletes eat pregame and post-game meals. The basketball coach, for example, will bring the team in for a carbohydrate-filled pasta and vegetable dinner two hours before a game. After the game, a protein-heavy meal like baked chicken restores fuel spent during competition.
Ideally, Vogel likes a week’s notice for meal needs. That allows time to make arrangements with staff to open early, stay late or prepare a boxed meal for traveling teams. There are costs, such as staff time and packaging, but Vogel says providing food for athletes has never made a real dent in the dining budget. That’s partly because the school operates an unlimited food program, so students on meal programs who are no-shows—going out of town for the weekend or choosing to order pizza instead of eating in the dining hall—help offset the cost.
“Most of the athletes are on a meal plan, so the food costs are covered,” Vogel says. “For athletes not on a meal plan, we charge them $5 a meal.”
Fueling stations not only make sure athletes are properly fed, the NCAA reports, but they also lead to better education about eating. Some have hired dietitians and nutritionists to help athletes choose the best foods for training. Others post signage and use menu labeling.
At Saint Leo, nutritional information is provided in an online program. Vogel thinks a good next step would be for athletes to hear from a nutrition expert quarterly about food and hydration. For now, he’s convinced the attention paid to feeding student athletes has made a difference.
“Lack of a proper nutrition program can lead to all sorts of problems, like anxiety and even binge eating when they get a chance to eat,” Vogel says. “With all of the things that add stress to young people’s lives, we don’t want hunger to be a concern.”
The right food at the right time maximizes athletic performance.
Maximize glycogen. The body stores carbohydrates as glycogen, which is burned during workouts. Looking for carbohydrates that also provide good sources of fiber, electrolytes, vitamins and minerals. A few smart carb choices include Greek yogurt, whole-grain bagels, fresh fruit and granola bars.
Refuel efficiently. To maximize food’s benefits, refueling should begin 20-30 minutes after a workout. A 4:1 ratio of carbs to protein is most effective at replenishing glycogens.
Always hydrate. Fluid intake prevents cramping and helps maintain body temperature. Foods with high water content (fruits, vegetables) and fluids provide hydration and should be consumed frequently in the days and hours leading up to a workout or event.
To allow fueling stations, the NCAA adopted rules in 2013 that are now in effect for Division I and II colleges and universities. Here are ways athletes can be fed: