Coaches role in athletes’ nutrition

Sophie Karrow, In-Depth Editor

Crossing the finish line of the Naperville Twilight Invitational cross country race, gasping for air but smiling at the same time, as I try to collect myself. My calves and quads burn and my chest tightens up as I recover from the best race of my life. About a month before the most rewarding moment in my entire cross country career, I was feeling sick after almost every race. I was at constant battle with myself; my mind wanted me to race my hardest, but my body wasn’t capable.

Daniel Karrow, a Roadrunner soccer coach and my father, noticed this trend in my athletic performance and told me that the most probable reason for my post race sickness was my diet. The next month I ate as healthy as I possibly could under my dad’s instruction. I eliminated sugar and white carbs, increased healthy carbs and proteins, fruits, and vegetables. After a month of healthier eating, I was able to pull off the best cross country race of my life. I found myself wondering why I hadn’t been eating healthy all along under the supervision of my coaches.

High school coaches have the choice to provide their athlete with nutritional guidelines. However, something as fundamental as nutrition isn’t as easily instructed by coaches as it may seem. In the article “Can personal trainers and health coaches give nutrition advice?” by Dr. John Berardi, a nutritionist, he explains the challenges coaches face. Berardi says that because they are not registered dietitians, creating a diet or nutrition plan for students makes them liable if something were to happen. They can be held responsible for anything regarding major nutritional changes including: weight gain or loss, fatigue, fainting, mood swings, etc. Berardi also explains that in professional sports they have access to nutritionists who are able to design each nutritional plan according to the athlete’s personal need so that the responsibility doesn’t fall on coaches.

Despite the chance of liability in offering nutritional advice, I would argue that there is a greater liability in not suggesting proper nutrition at all. Nutrition is an important factor in injury prevention and recovery.

The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine explains the importance of certain nutrients, “Carbohydrates are essential for peak athletic performance, as the body uses this nutrient more efficiently than fat or protein. Dietary fat serves several functions. It is an additional source of energy, provides essential fatty acids that the body cannot synthesize on its own, and assists in the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins. The amount of protein depends not only on the level of physical activity, but also on the athlete’s rates of growth or healing.”

Without proper nutrition athletes are at a greater risk of injury. As mentioned above carbs are needed for long term energy and development of an athlete’s body. Vitamins and minerals support bone and tissue health and can help prevent injury. And protein allows torn muscle to heal in a healthy way. Different sports require different body types and muscle to fat ratios. Coaches who are experienced in their sports know at least a general idea of what nutritional guidelines to provide their athletes with. English teacher and wrestling coach Christopher McGrath explains how nutrition impacts the life of a high school wrestler.

“Diet is huge for any sport, but even more so for wrestlers who have to watch their weight or take protein to gain weight. Wrestlers often have to shed useless calories, so sugar and carbohydrate consumption is monitored and proteins are encouraged. We talk about diet daily,” McGrath said.

It can be said that nutrition doesn’t play a role in all sports equally. Sports such as softball, golfing, and bowling have more general body type requirements that don’t need as much nutritional guidance. However, sports like wrestling, cheerleading, cross country, track and field, and swimming require specific body types and nutrition that factor into success. Cross country and track and field athlete Nick Chudzik explains how nutrition has affected his career.

Every day I have to be conscious of what I’m putting into my body since there’s no days off. I would say one of the main differences in a normal person’s diet vs mine is I, along with runners in general, try to take in a lot more iron. One of the most common setbacks runners have is being iron-deficient,” Chudzik said.

It should be said that I’m not advocating for coaches to tell athletes exactly what they should and should not be eating. However, after speaking to several high school coaches and athletes it seemed the general consensus was that coaches should provide an outline or suggestions for the entire team and provide for individuals if necessary or requested. It is then up to the athlete to make the decision to incorporate nutrition into their training.

My cross country coach, Timothy McDonald, provided each of us an outline about what we should be eating. I had forgotten about it during the season, and I wish I had taken it more seriously. I learned the hard way that nutrition really does impact your entire goal as an athlete. Girls’ track and field head coach Matthew Maletich understands that there are boundaries to what you should suggest as a coach.

I think coaches should suggest eating, sleeping, and nutrition habits to their athletes, but I think they must be careful.  A coach can have a lot of impact on a young runners mind and we must be aware of this impact and the negative results it can have if not yielded correctly. Eating disorders are very real in high school athletes and we should always be encouraging our runners to eat plenty and stay healthy,” Maletich said.

Senior and ranked track and field jumper Prevail Bonga furthers Maletich as well as my own belief that coaches should suggest healthy nutritional habits.

“I would not be embarrassed at all if a coach suggested a nutrition change or diet for me. I would love if they suggested nutritional options for me because I want to forward progress. I think eating healthier would help my athletic performance a lot,” Bonga said.