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  • Akshay Patel

Fueled, Focused, and Fresh: Student-Athlete Nutrition

Image Provided by Allyssa Harrington

It’s spring at Cornell, and students have moved out of libraries and onto the slope while final exams are just around the corner. With spring sports in full swing, student-athletes are faced with a unique challenge on campus that starts with a simple question: “What’s for breakfast?”

The challenge isn’t really just breakfast, but instead daily nutrition as a whole. Nutrition for student-athletes means eating the right foods at the right times, getting long-lasting energy to make it through busy days, all the while monitoring long term goals like recovery or muscle-building.

Of course, the average Cornellian has their own routine, needs, and preferences when it comes to eating. With a lot of choices (not all of them healthy) and not a lot of time, navigating any kind of sustainable, healthy diet is difficult for a full-time student. For athletes, practices and games take a disproportionate slice out of the day comparatively. They require a huge time commitment along with a need to fuel physical performance. For those new to college life, it’s a difficult landscape to navigate. However, as I’ve found over the last month, helping students with that navigation is where Cornell shines.

To get a better look at the inner workings of sports nutrition here, I spoke with Cornell’s director of sports nutrition, Allyssa Harrington. I came away with three major takeaways about how nutrition works for Big Red athletes when they aren’t at a game or practice.

The first takeaway was that Cornell’s sports nutrition doesn’t recommend specifics. Recognizing the variability of preference and dietary needs, Harrington spoke about the importance of proper eating goals as opposed to “right vs. wrong.” “Everyone’s preferences are different,” she said. “Even day-to-day preferences are different, so I don’t make a meal plan.”

Instead, Harrington takes a more holistic approach. For example, the staff might work with a vegetarian athlete in a way that gives the student both freedom and confidence to make decisions about what they eat. “We start by discussing what they’re eating in a day… their needs based on their sport, energy demands, and protein demands.”

“If you have a vegetarian athlete who doesn't eat meat, that eliminates a large portion of protein,” she added. What a student might pick out at the dining hall is conceivably a little different than what they might see on a grocery store shelf. As a result, Harrington gives techniques and suggestions for both. The dining halls do a great job offering proteins other than meat, including beans, legumes, and soy-based products.

Second, sports nutritionists at Cornell make sure their advice is in line with the student’s physical goals. This is where there is usually a big difference across sports, demanding dieticians have not only a command on nutrition, but also on the sports themselves.

“Sometimes it’s one-on-one,” Harrington remarked, again emphasizing that nutrition is unique and often personal. But there are also team sessions, where she can speak in broader strokes about the needs for a particular sport. These team nutrition talks are actually a great way for athletes to learn more about successful performance.

Harrington contends that tailoring a diet to a sport “[is] all about macronutrient distribution– the amount of protein, carbs, and fats you consume.” For explosive sports like football or sprinting, she recommends lots of protein. “You want to make sure you have that protein for muscle mass, to generate power.

As a former distance runner, I wanted to know what the distribution looked like for endurance training. The protein requirement is, understandably, a little less than in high-power sports. To my surprise, however, she didn’t denounce energy gels. Instead, she spoke to the importance of sugars. “[Gels aren’t] necessary unless you’re training for hours… but it’s a misconception that athletes shouldn’t be eating sugar. It’s important to get those sugars quickly absorbed for energy.”

My last takeaway was that Cornell Athletics places a specific emphasis on working with a student’s schedule. And this is really what separates a good program from a great one. Making the right decision in a time crunch is much harder than making the right decision in a vacuum. 

“In an ideal world,” Harrington told me, “everyone would be eating three meals, with three snacks between those meals… if we have a small window [before practice], we want to look at bland foods without a lot of fiber.” Things such as rice, carrots, or even chicken are all viable short-notice foods.

While we might get wrapped up in eating the right things, sometimes we forget to eat enough. It’s a simple but overlooked part of making it through the day both productively and comfortably. Sticking with the theme of not suggesting specifics, Harrington helps suggest where students are going to get their meals on campus at a given time. “I also suggest packing a snack, or the green to-go containers if you're short on time,” she says. The challenge is eating enough and finding that time around practice and games to do so.

Still, energy is not the only concern with nutrition. Maybe less considered, but equally as important to performance is recovery. “The process is different for everyone, but important for everyone… you’re always using glucose and carbohydrate stores,” and recovery is about replenishing those stores.

Harrington also spoke at length about Big Red Fueling. A concept developed in 2015 by a previous sports dietician at Cornell, the fueling station in Bartels Hall is a hub for student-athletes to get the nutrition they need.

Image Provided by Allyssa Harrington

“There's so much research out there saying that nutrition is important to performance,” Harrington remarked, “…and Big Red Fueling assists athletes with that.” Since its renovation two years ago, the station has had more food per athlete, hopefully taking off some of the pressure on athletes to find a healthy next snack.

Success in sports is clearly more than going through the motions, more than knowing the rules or even going to every practice. And it isn’t because those don’t matter, it’s because they wouldn’t be possible at all without the right fuel. There is a certain mindfulness student-athletes need to be committed to— well before lacing up and long after cooling down— that helps all those other pieces fall into place.

Cornell’s nutritional staff doesn’t just instruct its athletes on what to do to stay fueled for peak performance. They guide students through the process, giving them the skills to be successful. Everyone’s journey and relationship with eating is different, but they’re important all the same. So, if your schedule is packed this spring, make sure your lunch is too.

Image Provided by Allyssa Harrington


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