5 Keys to Becoming a More Resilient Student-Athlete
I work with a lot of student-athletes at the collegiate level. Here are five things I've noticed that have the biggest impact on their resiliency on and off the field.
1. A high fat/high protein breakfast. Eating a high fat/high protein breakfast will help you avoid energy crashes throughout the day, keeping you focused, calm, and alert during class and practice hours. Breakfasts higher in protein increase postprandial energy expenditure, reduce hunger, increase satiety, and increase fat oxidation when compared to a carbohydrate-based breakfast. Starting your day with fat and protein supports blood sugar stability and feeds your brain the nutrients it needs to accomplish tasks and avoid energy crashes (crashes that'll have you reaching for that extra coffee or donut to get through the day), making it easier to think clearly for longer and to make decisions that will positively support your academic performance and training performance. Aside from protein being the building block of muscle and vital to tissue maintenance, it is a crucial component of DNA, RNA, insulin, hemoglobin, epinephrine, and serotonin, and is important for enzymes, A/B balance, transportation, antibodies...etc. Fat is ideal cellular fuel, necessary for cell maintenance and growth, brain health, and vital for hormone production. While important for everyone, a breakfast high in both of these is increasingly important for student-athletes who have a higher daily demand load.
2. Hydrate with electrolytes. When you consume loads of water without electrolytes, you risk over-saturating your body with water. This is arguably more dangerous than dehydration. Drinking plain water is not a good hydration strategy because hydration isn't just about water. It's also about fluid balance, and electrolytes are essential to fluid balance. Healthy hydration is water and electrolytes. Electrolytes are minerals (sodium, chloride, potassium, magnesium, calcium, phosphorus, and bicarbonate) that carry electrical charges in your body. This electricity conduction allows your cells to communicate (including your brain cells!). Electrolytes are essential to optimal health. They are also critical to maintaining fluid balance- which keeps your blood flowing, your eyes moist with tears, your sweat glands functional..etc. Sodium and potassium are the main fluid-balancing electrolytes. Sodium helps balance fluids outside the cells and potassium helps balance fluids inside of the cells. The governor of fluid balance is your brain. If your tissues become over-saturated with water, osmoreceptors in your brain are alerted and the hypothalamus stops producing antidiuretic hormone so that you can excrete excess fluid through urine. When you're low on fluids, the opposite happens- antidiuretic horomone goes up and you retain fluids. If you drink too much plain water, your body can't keep up- the balance of fluids to electrolytes shifts and creates a suboptimal state for health, energy, and performance.
Unfortunately the majority of the population is deficient in electrolytes, particularly sodium and magnesium. Add in the increased demands of a collegiate athlete, and you have an increased demand of electrolyte intake. We won't get into all the reasons why sodium has been wrongly vilified here🙃. When you don't get enough sodium, your body starts retaining it by releasing sodium retention hormones (renin, aldosterone, norepinephrine, and angiotensin) that make your kidneys retain sodium. These hormones raise blood pressure and consequently, though it may seem counterintuitive, in healthy individuals sodium restriction is linked to elevated blood pressure. Not getting enough salt can also increase insulin and glucose levels, because insulin helps the kidneys to retain more sodium. Salt is needed to produce stomach acid (stomach acid is made of hydrochloric acid- the chloride from salt); a lack of salt can lead to low stomach acid, bloating, poor digestion, and nutrient deficiencies. Obviously not ideal if you're trying to stay on top of your study and training load. Low sodium intake increases your risk of developing Osteoporosis. Bones are a sodium reservoir. And when salt is limited, your body scavenges them of sodium, calcium, and magnesium. Symptoms of not having enough sodium in the body include muscle cramps, fatigue, headaches, low energy, malaise, weakness, and insomnia. All things that negatively impact the life of a student-athlete. If you are mostly consuming whole and unprocessed foods (and as an athlete hopefully you are!), don't be afraid to salt your food. A lack of salt in the diet can increase sugar cravings because a lack of sodium activates the dopamine reward center, leading us to seek out more salt. This will also cause us to crave and seek out sugar, which in excess can impact cognitive ability and training/recovery adaptations.
Low salt diets can worsen muscle building, training performance, kidney function, energy levels, chronic fatigue/thyroid issues, HDL, insomina, bone health, cognition & brain health, and insulin sensitivity. Low salt diets can increase water loss, peripheral vascular resistance, stress hormones, blood viscosity, potassium, magnesium, & calcium loss, iodine deficiency, sugar cravings, adrenal hypertrophy, insulin resistance. Obviously not ideal for a student-athlete trying to stay on top of their A Game.
Salt allows your body to hold onto water. For training and athletic performance purposes, start hydrating with salt and fluids ninety minutes prior to intense practice/training to allow for blood volume expansion. This may require 800-1200 mg* of sodium per 8-16oz of fluid to ensure hydration and not hyperhydration (unless weightlifting).
Prior to competition, start hydrating 90-120min before with 2,300-4,300mg* of sodium in 21-33.8oz of fluid, and slowly consume over 30-60min.
*sport and intensity dependent
Magnesium is another one that the majority of us are deficient in, but not for the same reasons. Magnesium hasn't been vilified in the mainstream like sodium has. Rather, our diets lack magnesium because our poorer food quality. Magnesium is essential to hundreds of processes within our body and is necessary for managing stress, deep sleep, bone strength, lowering chronic inflammation, brain & muscle health (all things necessary to the student-athlete life). Things that increase your body's need for magnesium are alcohol, diets high in refined sugars, exercise, heavy metals, GI issues, caffeine, chronic health concerns, pesticides/herbicides, and our overall lower magnesium content in food. Due to the typical schedule and stressors of a student-athlete, a few of these factors are typically present. It is estimated that 20-42% of the average college student body is deficient in magnesium. Student-athletes are not average, and may be more likely to be magnesium deficient. Magnesium deficiencies can lead to high blood pressure issues, arrhythmias, kidney stones, heart disease/heart failure in extreme cases, bone disease, muscle cramps and spasms, muscle & bone atrophy. While there are many forms of magnesium (and they all effect the body differently), the best absorbed are Taurate, Orotate, Citrate, Threonate, Malate, and Glycinate. While the worst absorbed are Oxide and Sulfate.
The mix that I recommend to my athletes is LMNT, because it contains enough sodium to be effective and has the correct biochemical ratios of sodium to potassium to magnesium, without added sugar or chemicals. In addition to pre/during/post training and competition hours (depending on exercise intensity and schedule), it can be helpful to consume electrolytes upon waking up, when your cells are the most dehydrated from the previous night. If you're interested in learning more about the relationship between electrolytes and optimal health, I recommend the book The Salt Fix by Dr. James DiNicolantonio.
3. Practice good sleep hygiene to the best of your ability. The importance of sleep cannot be overstated. Between a busy training schedule and hours spent studying, it can be difficult for the student-athlete to get an adequate amount of sleep consistently. To maintain health and performance, seven hours is the minimal amount needed. For the average student-athlete that maintains a social life, seven hours may seem like a total luxury. And the average student-athlete may think that they're able to maintain their performance standards on less than seven hours of sleep per night. Though we may feel our cognitive and physical performance isn't greatly hindered by six hours of shut-eye, the percentage of people who actually can get by on less than seven hours successfully is a very small minority of the population. Scientists have repeatedly demonstrated that humans are very poor judges of self-performance when sleep deprived.
The two sleep cycles are NREM and REM sleep. NREM has four stages (stages 1-2 are characterized by lighter sleep and stages 3-4 are the deepest and most restorative stages). NREM removes unnecessary neural connections and moves short term memories to long term memory sites (pretty important if you're trying to solidify the information you learned in class that day!). The glymphatic system is the brain's sewage system. During sleep, this system clears waste via glial cells. During NREM sleep, there is a 20x increase in waste expulsion. Sleeping more than seven hours a night helps to avoid dangerous toxin build up. Insufficient NREM sleep leaves deposits of amyloid toxin in regions of the brain that are responsible for deep sleep (like the suprachiasmatic nucleus). Amyloid impairs NREM sleep and impaired NREM sleep increases amyloid deposits in the brain, creating a vicious cycle that greatly increases the likelihood of dementia.
The other sleep cycle is REM sleep. During REM, the visuospatial regions, motor complex, hippocampus, and amygdala are activated. REM is when you dream and 25% of our sleep is dedicated to this state. The main functions of REM sleep are a) remembering and integrating existing knowledge while putting in into an autobiographical perspective and b) dissolving painful memories. Thus the main benefits of REM sleep are creativity/problem solving and help processing painful or traumatic experiences. In REM sleep, the brain's stores of information are observed with a broad view that allows distant ideas to be integrated together, creating novel ideas. Versus when you are awake, the brain can only view a narrow set of possibilities. REM mixes old and new memories to create unique and novel ideas, while creating large associative networks that allow you to understand the meaning of any given concept. Research shows that dreaming of a particular problem can help you solve that problem. You can manipulate the timing of your tricky study material and your bedtime to increase the chances of dreaming about said study material, therefore increasing your chances of understanding it better upon waking (it helps to keep a journal near your bedside so that you don't forget your epiphany!). I used this technique in highschool when trying to figure out the perfect wording for an English thesis. I would review my ideas for my thesis before going to bed at 10pm and between 1am and 3am, I would have a well-worded thesis statement (just don't forget to keep that notebook near your bed so that you can write it down). REM sleep is also important for Emotional IQ. Emotional IQ fluctuates with the amount of REM sleep obtained. Poor sleep leads to a decreased ability to recognize and manage socioemotional signals. Every night, the REM cycle recalibrates our brain's ability to recognize facial expressions and emotions. Just one night of poor sleep impedes the brain's ability to detect subtle emotions in others, which will result in a default fear bias.
Of particular importance to the student-athletes out there:
In addition to helping you be more creative and consolidate information learned from your day, sleep allows you to retrieve memories that you could not during the day. If you're learning a new skill, the brain will continue to improve upon this skill during sleep- even on days that you do not practice that skill. With regards to physical performance, sleeping less than eight hours (and especially less than six hours) will result in a 10-30% decreased time to physical exhaustion and consequently a decrease in overall performance. Less sleep results in more lactic acid build up, reduced blood oxygen, and a decreased ability to cool your body through sweating. Sleep accelerates recovery time, promotes muscle repair, and restocks cellular energy. Sleep maintains your immune system, resulting in better academic and athletic performance year-round. Napping after a poor night's sleep will increase basic concentration, but will not improve top learning memory, emotional stability, complex reasoning, and decision-making skills.
Unfortunately one weekend of sleep recovery does not make up for a lack of sleep during the week. Once you have lost sleep, you do not fully recover from it. This means that memories you may have formed will be lost. Sleep is required for memory and learning. As my dad used to say, "well rested, well tested." To this day, I have never pulled an all-nighter. The damages of lost sleep include an increased risk of cancer, damaged DNA, fertility issues, mental illness, intense mood swings, increased likelihood of disease...the list goes on. Make sleep a priority! Here are some great practical tips to improve your sleep hygiene practices, including how to manipulate different factors like caffeine intake timing and sunlight exposure. The book, Why We Sleep by Matthew Walker is another great resource.
4. Limit alcohol consumption. I know, I know. You're in college. But hear me out, alcohol is the only drug where if you don't partake, people assume you have a problem. This is probably most notably the case on a college campus where the social pressure to drink can be overwhelming, not to mention the attractiveness of lowering inhibitions when you're trying to meet new people or if you're at a party and naturally tend to be more introverted. However, research indicates that beyond 1-2 drinks per week, negative health effects become apparent. There is zero research to indicate that drinking a small amount is better than drinking no amount (the opposite is true). Realistically the average student-athlete is likely not going to be having zero drinks per week. Be that the case, it's still important to understand alcohol's deleterious effects on athletic and academic performance. It's also important to note that the age that one starts drinking and genetic background strongly impact whether or not someone will become an alcoholic. Alcohol is one of the few substances that causes changes in the brain and body by its direct poisonous effects on cells, and not just through the indirect release of chemicals. Much of what we associate with the feelings of drinking are actually due to direct cellular damage and stress. Check out this podcast episode about the physiological effects that drinking has on the brain and body at different levels of consumption over time, the biology of hangovers, and science-based strategies to mitigate the severity of a hangover. Alcohol negatively impacts neuronal function, inflammation, stress, neurodegeneration, cancer risk, the gut microbiome, brain thickness, hormone balance, mood and feelings of motivation. Even in low to modest consumption, alcohol disrupts the hypothalamic-adrenal axis and lowers our stress threshold, predisposing us to more stress and making us less resilient overall. Alcohol consumption alters resting cortisol levels and brain-body circuits controlling stress regulation.
5. Stay away from fad diets and prioritize whole foods that give you energy and help you recover. There are a lot of different diets out there, the majority of which have no relevance to your average student-athlete and are likely to decrease academic and athletic performance because they cut out or limit important nutrients/don't provide adequate fuel. Different sports, different seasons, and various training techniques utilize and prioritize different physiological energy systems and predominately rely on different muscle fibers, which can be optimally supported through a tailored intake of nutrients. What you eat or don't eat effects how well you recover from tough workouts, whether you get sick or not during season, how easily you get injured/recover from injury, how focused you remain throughout practice and class, your quality of sleep, your ability to perform under duress...etc. Quality is king, it's not enough to only focus on the amount being consumed, although obviously it's very important to ensure increased energy demands are being met. Nutrition is a vital component to any student-athlete's success on and off the field. A good nutrition strategy takes into account the varying stress loads placed on the body during different times of the season and academic year, while also taking into account the longterm health of an athlete (something which unfortunately tends to overlooked in the pursuit of short-term performance). While it's important to enjoy yourself, the majority of your diet should comprise of whole unadulterated foods that fuel your brain and body for powerhouse performance, while paying attention to the quality and quantity of the macro and micro nutrient makeup of your food. Sometimes this can be difficult depending on your campus's dining options and your meal plan, but there is usually always a better option available.
I specialize in helping athletes dial in their nutrition strategy, given the specificity of their sport's requirements and what they realistically have available to them - I'm always happy to answer questions.
Sources (all linked below):
Why We Sleep: Unlocking the Power of Sleep and Dreams by Matthew Walker, PhD
The Salt Fix: Why the Experts Got It All Wrong--and How Eating More Might Save Your Life by Dr. James DiNicolantonio
Effects of low sodium diet vs sodium diet on blood pressure, renin, aldosterone, catecholamines, cholesterol, and triglyceride, a 2020 meta-analysis systemic review from the Cochrane Collaboration
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