Nutrition Students Work with Olympic Hopefuls

January 11, 2016

All growing teens need good nutrition, but speed skaters have an additional challenge in making every calorie count to fuel their performance.

They also need to know how to prepare quick, easy meals to fit around school schedules and long hours of practice.

A unique partnership between students in the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Nutritional Sciences program and the Academy of Skating Excellence at the Pettit National Ice Center in Milwaukee teaches young Olympic hopefuls what to eat to maximize their athletic efforts and their time.

The project started when Katherine Reutter, who coaches the skaters’ short track program, approached Susan Kundrat, a clinical associate professor and director of the Nutritional Sciences program in the university's College of Health Sciences. Reutter needed advice on providing sound nutrition information to her trainees. Kundrat has known and consulted with Reutter, a two-time Olympic medalist, for years. She thought her Nutritional Sciences students could help the skaters – and learn more about their own future profession.

“We wanted to get our students involved in a way that could contribute to their skills in educating others about nutrition,” Kundrat said.

The Nutritional Sciences students teach the skaters about nutrition and provide food demos to show the skaters how to prepare healthy meals.

“I’ve really enjoyed learning about food and how it affects you,” skater Jackie Bernico said. In fact, she became so interested in what she was learning that she transferred from Marquette University to UWM to study Nutritional Sciences. Her eventual goal – after the Olympics – is to work with other athletes on nutrition.

“The Nutritional Sciences program is a fairly new major,” Kundrat said, “and this project gives our students some really unique experiences to get involved in the sports nutrition area.”

The young skaters joined the UWM students for several sessions over the summer, then came to a new wellness center and instructional kitchen on the campus for some hands-on cooking.

“The majority of our skaters are still in high school,” Reutter said. “They are 15- and 16-year-olds who have a whole lot of potential in skating, but haven’t learned to cook for themselves. They don’t understand what’s a good carbohydrate or a lean protein.”

Crystal Sciarini, a senior in Nutritional Sciences who helped lead the session, introduced them to a recipe for “mock fried chicken.” The recipe uses boneless, skinless chicken breasts and a nonstick skillet to reduce fat. It is easy to prepare, high in protein, and fits well into an optimal recovery meal for the skaters, according to Kundrat.

“It’s so good. It tastes just like fried chicken without all the fat,” Sciarini said.

The skaters’ nutrition needs can differ from those of other athletes and from each other. For example, short track speed skaters compete in such fast sprints that they don’t need “carbohydrate loading” like runners, Reutter said. But, they may compete in multiple events in one day, resulting in a need for food that keeps them fueled for 10 to 12 hours at a time.

One need the students focused on was “recovery nutrition,” or planning and preparing quick, healthy snacks and meals to help the skaters bounce back after a strenuous workout, Kundrat said.

Like many teens, the skaters are conscious of their body image, but burning thousands of calories a day means they shouldn’t focus too much on weight loss, she added.

“Katherine is very passionate about making sure her athletes know what to do nutrition-wise,” Kundrat said. “She’s really aware of all of the outside factors affecting her skaters, and if athletes want to lose weight, she wants to make sure they do that in a healthy way with the help of a sports dietitian. Our students are also an important resource for teaching healthy eating habits.” 

“Working with Susan and her students has given my athletes the knowledge they need to make a difference in their performance through nutrition,” Reutter added. “We train four to six hours a day, six days a week. These athletes have to know how to fuel their bodies while also staying lean. That's hard for any teenager to know how to do. Having Susan as a resource as well her support from UWM gives our team an opportunity to learn and grow that we wouldn't have otherwise.”

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