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September 10, 2009

An apple a day - Amy Freel talks about her role as the Hokies' sports nutritionist

By: Matt Kovatch

Amy Freel
Those who wish to be successful Division I student-athletes have a lot to concentrate on: weight lifting, conditioning, practicing, team meetings, watching film – not to mention their class schedules and their studies. But something that often gets overlooked, despite being just as important, is what they eat. Luckily, Virginia Tech’s director of sports nutrition, Amy Freel, is there to guide them every step of the way. Here’s what she had to say about her role in an athlete’s success:

People don’t realize how important diet is to performance.

“I am a resource to help student-athletes improve their performance. In addition, I am here to help them develop healthier lifestyles, not only for while they’re competing, but also for later in life. Most people have not thought about nutrition as a way to enhance performance. Our student-athletes work out a lot in the weight room, they’re in the training room as needed, and they do the conditioning for their respective sports. But a lot of times, nutrition and how you feel health-wise is forgotten.”

Some kids have no idea what they’re doing when it comes to food.

“For many student-athletes, coming to college is the first opportunity for many of them to be completely in control of what they eat and when they eat. Usually, there’s been a parent or somebody else who took care of their meals, but now, they’re 100 percent in charge of what they eat. They also have the challenges of unhealthy options at a dining hall, eating on the road, and the time restraints of a class schedule and their daily routine. From time to time, I will accompany them to the grocery store, and for many of them, it’s the first time they’ve ever had to buy food and stay within a budget. Some also have very limited ability to cook or prepare foods, so I also spend time educating them on that and I provide them with some easy recipe ideas.”

I have plenty of opportunities to make an impact.

“Some kids are more receptive than others, but there are always those teachable moments. If there is an athlete who is out with a stress fracture and they are desperately wanting to get back, they want to hear what I have to say because nutrition is a major part of their healing process and a way for them to stay healthy from there on out. Sometimes, their energy level might be suffering or their body composition isn’t where they want it. Their playing time might be taking a hit because of that, and they’re suddenly more willing to refocus on nutrition and to hear what I have to say.”

I consult with each student-athlete on a case-by-case basis.

“Things are different for men and women and different for each sport. I have some student-athletes who are really carb-phobic, and I have a lot who don’t want to consume too many fats. Then I have some who don’t care at all. That’s what makes my job so unique and so much fun. I can have three student-athletes come in and all three will have different needs. My job never gets boring. It’s always something different.”

Which sport you play may determine what you need to be eating.

“Swimmers need the most calories and the most energy – the amount of calories that they burn is amazing. They probably eat the greatest amount of calories in relation to body weight than any other student-athlete from another sport. On the other hand, softball and baseball aren’t really endurance sports, so those student-athletes don’t need as many calories. They might be out there on the field for the same amount of time as a soccer or lacrosse player, but they’re not burning the same amount of calories because they’re not doing the same amount of running. Cross country runners tend to be a lot healthier than others, but there are some vegetarians, so we need to make sure they are consuming the right amount of calories and that they’re getting calcium and iron. It can also vary by position. If you look at the football team, what a lineman needs is going to be very different from what a receiver or a kicker needs.”

There aren’t many people who do what I do, but that’s slowly changing.

“When I started here in 2002, Virginia Tech was the sixth school to hire a full-time registered dietician. Today, there are 17 schools, and probably in the past three years, five of those schools have been added. So do I see it as something that is a growing trend? Most definitely. I think it’s sort of that next craze of where we’re taking things. First of all, we’re in a phase of focusing more on healthy behaviors and habits. But also, we’re trying to get that edge on the competition. If I feed a team a better pregame or postgame meal, and we’re recovering better than another team, we may be at an advantage going into the next game. As a performance tool, my job can be a huge asset to a team, especially those teams that are playing multiple games with very few days of recovery.”